glenn mcdonald’s War Against Rock Criticism
By Steven Ward (June 2001)
glenn mcdonald is one of the most important rock critics working in the field today, though maybe “working” is not a good word; he does not get paid a cent for his insightful and very personal journalism.
If I could only chose the writing of one rock critic to bring with me to a desert island, glenn would be my first choice. (You see, I would have access to all the CDs I want on my desert island and glenn could help me pick and choose.)
Even though some publications have invited glenn to contribute, he won’t do it. A Boston-area software designer, mcdonald prefers to slave away at his computer every Wednesday night and create his fiercely independent, weekly on-line music column, The War Against Silence. No editors, no advertising and no compromises. This may be unheard of in today’s state of music journalism, but it is being practised week in and week out by mcdonald.
You know the pure joy and emotion you can feel after listening to a piece of music? Remember how you used to feel the same way after reading a piece of rock criticism? The kind of writing that made you want to go out and buy a record? Not because it was cool but because the writer made you feel like the record in question was just perfect for you. Something you would just love.
The writing of glenn mcdonald will make you want to go out and browse the aisles of your favorite record store. He still gets a jolt from the thrill of discovery when buying CDs. glenn’s writing will make you want to rediscover that jolt as well.
During the following e-mail interview, mcdonald talks about his column and music writing in general. His take on rock criticism may be the freshest slant that’s ever been published at rockcritics.com. But don’t take my word for it — read on…
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steven: For those that don’t know, you write a very personal online music column each week about CDs you have recently got hold of. Although your columns are very autobiographical in nature, you never let that aspect grab hold of describing the music and what it sounds like. That’s one of your strengths in my opinion, always writing about what the music sounds like as well as what it means to you. Do you agree with that assessment and is it that way by design?
glenn: Well, I do believe that music reviewing is, at its core, a service industry, or at least it has been historically, or at least it should have been historically. We ought, I think, to have been trying to help readers find music they might enjoy, and to do that we needed to find a way to tell them enough about a record, in terms they could understand and use, that they could make an informed guess about whether buying it was a good risk. We often failed, of course, because reactions to music are intensely subjective and it’s impossible to anticipate when, for example, some particular twitch in a singer’s voice is going to completely alienate a listener who would otherwise seem to be the band’s ideal audience, but in the old world we didn’t have any workable alternatives, so we did what we could. The thing that threatens to render this whole field of endeavor obsolete, however, is that if you’re on the Net you now don’t really need to have music described for you. Bands put sample songs up on their web sites, the online CD stores often let you listen to snippets of every song on the album, and once the major labels get their post-Napster services running we’ll be pretty close, at least within the major-label domain (which is all most people know of popular music, anyway), to radio-on-demand. At that point, detailed written descriptions of music are superfluous and anachronistic. A couple of “if you like Oasis, you might like Travis” links and some clips, and the listener can just make up their own mind.
steven: Do you consider yourself a music critic–or a rock critic?
glenn: Sort of. I think the sad truth is that most people writing about music didn’t agree with me about the first purpose of doing so, even in what are now becoming the old days. Far too much criticism tries to be an arbiter of value, in addition to, or even instead of, describing the music and letting the reader/listener supply their own response. Witness the grades and star-ratings nearly everybody puts on their reviews. There’s no such thing as “a B+ album” or a three-and-a-half-star album or whatever. Value is not an internal property of a work of art, so to me grading a record is not just inane and offensive, it demonstrates a profound misunderstanding about how people react to art. An album could be an A+ to one person, on one particular day, because it delivers a completely perfect encapsulation of everything they’re currently asking for from music, but to somebody else, with different needs and prejudices, the same album could be absolutely awful. To the same person who loves it today, it could be merely mediocre three years from now. Real responses to art are complicated and mutable, with all kinds of dependencies and ambivalences and reservations. If you think your job, as a listener or as a critic, is to stamp a C on something, or an A for that matter, all you’ve succeeded in doing is impoverishing your own experience of the music, or if you’re unlucky enough to be influential about it, impoverishing some other people’s experiences of it, as well.
Of course, there’s still the other traditional role of the “critic” (as opposed to the “reviewer”), which is to try to place the work in some sort of larger context, and/or analyze it in a deeper way than a casual, under-informed listener is prepared or willing to, and thus get at some notion of artistic merit, which at least in theory is separate from the question of how valuable it is or isn’t to any particular audience. This can be done with music, but a) almost no popular music criticism actually amounts to this, and b) I don’t even think it would be very interesting if it did. It’s probably possible, for example, for a group of reasonable, knowledgeable people to agree that The Joshua Tree is a work of high artistic merit. It’s a technically proficient implementation of a distinctive and influential aesthetic with a complex and intriguing heritage. But so what? It still may be too slow for you, or too pretentious, or not sexy enough, or any of a hundred other things that mean when you listen to it, your skin crawls, or your attention wanders.
So what’s left? Why write about music at all? I think the worthwhile thing you can still do, and on a good week this is what I’m intending to do in my column, whether I succeed or not, is write about how music moves you, about the ways you find to connect with it, and how you contrive to allow it to affect your understanding of the world, or yourself, or break-ups or gender-politics or the Civil War or something. You can be an object lesson in how to have a more rewarding relationship with music.
steven: You are not on any record company mailing lists. You buy everything you write about. Why is that? It seems to be some sort of statement of purpose or intent.
glenn: To be totally precise, I do occasionally get given CDs. I turn down all submission requests, and there’s no mailing address on my web site, but I’m not opposed to gifts from friends, and there are a few people who I’ve become friends with as a result of writing about their music. But in that case it’s a personal matter. Getting boxes of free crap in the mail from strangers, which I thought sounded like paradise when I imagined it as a kid, in the end doesn’t appeal to me at all. I like buying music. It’s my favorite thing to do with money. I like pacing up and down the aisles of record stores, I like coming home and unwrapping the week’s pile of new CDs, I like knowing that my money is part of the reward system for the people who make these records. I might feel differently if I couldn’t afford it, but I’ve got a decent software job and at this point my music-buying is gated by listening time, not money. Which is, in turn, an even more important reason not to get crap in the mail: I barely have time to listen to all the music I purchase for my own reasons. The last way I want to spend that time is putting on albums I didn’t ask for or anticipate and probably, statistically speaking, won’t enjoy. Plus, if somebody sends me something I feel obliged to at least respond, and I really hate writing notes of the form “Sorry, I know you poured two years of your life and soul into this work of art, but I turned it off after three songs because it seemed totally mundane and I don’t think you’re actually a very creative person.”
steven: What kind of feedback do you get from readers and who do you think your audience is exactly?
glenn: I get some very intense, emotional feedback, I think for a couple of reasons. One, I write about a lot of fairly obscure bands that don’t get much other coverage, and that certainly don’t otherwise get the kind of detailed attention I give them, so there are quite a few bands for whom my reviews are kind of the definitive treatments by default. If you’re used to being ignored, either as somebody in one of these bands or someone who follows them, it can be pretty cathartic to discover that some stranger in Boston has actually sat down, listened seriously to this record you’d started to think nobody else had even heard, and tried to explain why it’s special. The bigger reason, though, and the source of the most harrowing, confessional feedback I get, is that I do write about myself, and my own fears and hopes and epiphanies, in the course of writing about the music. Some weeks I’m much more of a diarist than a reviewer or a critic, and I think for people who want their lives and their music to mean something, my struggles sometimes resonate.
steven: Where did the title of your column come from–“The War Against Silence”?
glenn: It doesn’t have an exact meaning, but I think it’s some kind of a combination of my war against the absence of what seems to me to be the essential personal element from most other music criticism, and music’s war against the inertia of quiet, and perhaps an oblique acknowledgement that at times both of these may be misguided fights. But that makes it sound like I devised the name for the column, and in fact it basically happened the other way around: the phrase occurred to me, and I immediately realized I had to start writing a weekly music review column so that that could be its title. I’m being only slightly facetious. I’d written a lot of reviews before starting the column, all in the form of a book that was meant to be my answer to the Trouser Press and Rolling Stone and Christgau guides, but in its first draft, at least, which is as far as I got in the first year and a half, it wasn’t really comprehensive enough to be a reference work, nor personal enough to be anything else. I wrote it in 1993 and part of 1994, and at the beginning of 1995 I was planning to start on the second draft, incorporating reviews of all the new music I’d found since the first one. When I sat down with it again, though, I realized both that interpolating several hundred new records into the existing organizational structure (it was ordered associatively, not alphabetically) was going to be a logistical nightmare, and that doing so was almost certainly not going to change an unpublishable book into a publishable one. A weekly column was a way out, a way of reducing the problem to something I could fight one small battle at a time.
steven: Does the writing ever become a chore and does it ever take away the joy from listening to music for pleasure?
glenn: Not so far, in the first 330 weeks. It’s a physical ordeal at times, since the block of time I have for writing the column is Wednesday nights, which usually means I start writing around 8pm and finish far into the morning, trying to proofread while my vision is blurring from exhaustion. On a good week I go back to work Thursday morning with four hours of sleep. On a bad week, one or two. But the writing itself is necessary to me. It’s part of my process of listening, and I’d do it even if nobody were reading. I started writing that book because I went to my shelves one day to get an old Hunters and Collectors record to listen to, and realized that there were three of them and I couldn’t remember how they were different. The thought of all this music entering my life, affecting me, and then vanishing again, without leaving some kind of trace, terrified me. If my memory were better, maybe I wouldn’t need to do this, but it isn’t, and I don’t know of any better way to store these experiences.
steven: Tell me about your music writing influences–favorite rock critics and magazines you read in your formative years and what music critics, writers and magazines do you like to read today?
glenn: I didn’t read about music in my formative years. Up until I started working for a living, I never had enough money to buy more than a small fraction of the records I knew about from radio and friends, so reading about other bands I didn’t have any good way of hearing wasn’t useful. And spending valuable record-money on magazines would have been the height of Pyrrhic ridiculousness. I vividly remember the first time I bought a record because of something I read about it, but it was Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, and I bought it because of an article in some audio-gear magazine about the mechanics of her tape-bow violin. I subscribed to Q for many years, later, but I never liked their smug writing style and basically skimmed it for UK new-release info, and cancelled my subscription once I realized that I could get all the UK info I needed from the net. The only music magazine I subscribe to now is ICE, which obviously isn’t criticism. Most music criticism just makes me angry. Magazines too often try to homogenize their writers, either by restrictions and editing or just by rolling so many of them together that it’s nearly impossible to make sense of individual personalities. I’d rather read about music on mailing lists and discussion boards and random web sites, where people aren’t afraid to care about what they’re saying, and have the luxury of being themselves.
steven: Have any famous or professional rock critics ever gotten in touch with you about your writing or opinions about music?
glenn: Yes, a few have. Most prominently, Christgau once mentioned my positive review of Paula Cole’s This Fire in the course of writing her off as worthless. I voted in the Pazz & Jop for the first time this year, and did this Critical Alignment Ratings analysis of the poll, afterwards, that you’ve got a link to on your site, after which I heard from a lot of other voters. I’ve had offers to write reviews for four or five real outlets, depending on your definition of “real”, but I’m pretty attached to my independence, and the prospect of writing a few one-off reviews for the Village Voice or the like is not very appealing. I’m not going to do that instead of writing my own column, and there are too many other things I want to do with my time for me to do it in addition.
steven: I know you love Marillion, Big Country and Tori Amos? Tell me what it is about these musicians that move you and what other bands or artists move you?
glenn: The other two from my long-standing top-five are Game Theory/The Loud Family and Kate Bush. Kate hasn’t figured into my column very much, since she hasn’t made any new records since I began writing it, but in the other four cases I’ve spent a lot of words trying to say what it is that moves me about each of them. They’re very different cases to me. In general, I think I respond most strongly to thoughtfulness and vivid personal presence. I like to feel that an artist is trying to understand something, and maybe even trying to represent some sort of approach to understanding, not just selling units of entertainment. I react very badly to anything I perceive as insincerity. If I have to choose between melody and rhythm, I’ll take melody. I hate the blues. I hate joke songs. I don’t drink or do any drugs, so I’m not very big on music that’s meant as accompaniment to intoxication.
The next band on my personal chart, after those five, is probably Low, and as live performers Ida, Mecca Normal and Emm Gryner are close behind. I’m an ardent Roxette fan. I love ABBA, the Alarm, American Music Club, Aube, Black Sabbath, Billy Bragg, the Chameleons, Beth Nielsen Chapman, the Comsat Angels, Crowded House, Del Amitri, Emmylou Harris, the Icicle Works, IQ, the Jam, Cyndi Lauper, the Magnetic Fields, Magnum, Manic Street Preachers, New Model Army, Pop Art and Smart Brown Handbag, Runrig, Rush, Richard Shindell, Jane Siberry, Talk Talk, Yes and probably a hundred others nearly as much. I think Alanis is great. I still believe Jewel has some brilliant records in her, although she’s trying very hard to convince me otherwise. I’ve offered to marry Juliana Hatfield, and to write lyrics for Lita Ford. I don’t have any trouble finding things to be moved by.
steven: Would you or have you ever considered freelancing for a living or trying to get a conventional job in music journalism?
glenn: No. I have a horror of screwing up one of the things I love most in the world by trying to make it into a source of income, especially since music-journalism seems particularly ill-suited for that. Software design is a good profession for me, because I’m good at it and I care that it’s done well and I think it matters, but it’s not self-expression to me, so if business contingencies or customer pressures force us to go against my design instincts it bothers me, but I can accept it without feeling like my personal identity is at stake.
steven: What’s your opinion of the current state of rock criticism?
glenn: Beats me, I hate most rock criticism too violently to have a very good perspective on the field. It feels to me, from my own limited and subjective experience, like the bulk of mainstream writing about music is just journalism, at this point, and most of the rest of it amounts to a contest to see who can piss on things with the most elegant arc. It seems like everything polarizes into sycophancy or superciliousness. I think it’s incredibly important that there be a intellectual and aesthetic dialog about popular music, but I rarely read anything that seems to be trying to be a part of it. Fortunately, popular music carries on its own conversation about itself, so virtually any insight a critic might have stated, some other record will come along and demonstrate.
steven: Tell me your favorite five records of all time and an album that you would take with you to a desert island if you could only take one (no box sets please)?
glenn: As you know if you’ve waded through much of my column, reduction isn’t really my forte. When I did a Desert Island Disk list for my 100th issue, I allowed myself 100 albums and 100 more stray songs. The shortest list I can give you has eight: Tori’s from the choirgirl hotel, Big Country’s Steeltown, Kate’s Hounds of Love, Game Theory’sLolita Nation and Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood, to have one album for each of them, and then Roxette’s Don’t Bore Us–Get to the Chorus!, Runrig’s Amazing Thingsand Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden. If I had to call one of these the “best”, it would probably be Spirit of Eden, but that’s an album about quiet and empty spaces, and if I were stranded on a desert island neither of those would be in short supply. Amazing Things is the most life-affirming work of art I know of, but if I were fighting for my daily survival, I don’t think ennui and cynicism would be the issue. If I’m going to be there alone, Misplaced Childhood is too romantic, and Lolita Nation is too similar to what already goes on inside my own head. from the choirgirl hotel, on the other hand, is too alien, and Hounds of Love is too detached. And Steeltown I long ago memorized, so bringing it seems a little superfluous. It’s Roxette, then, by elimination. Which means that when you finally arrive to rescue me, depending on my mood, you’ll either be greeted with an insanely cheerful “Hello!, you fool!, I love you!”, or else a sardonic shrug and “She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”