Simon Reynolds is one of the finest writers on contemporary music, having written for most music magazines including Melody Maker, Rolling Stone, Spin, Mojo, Uncut and The Wire, and numerous broadsheets including the Guardian and the New York Times.
He has always been one of the weather vanes of pop music. In his first book Blissed Out he explored the indie music of the ‘80s, highlighting many of the tropes that were to become key aspects of the rave culture that followed. Since then he has written The Sex Revolts (with his partner Joy Press), Energy Flash, the recently re-issued and updated definitive history of dance music, Rip It Up and Start Again, an uncannily timely history of post-punk, and Bring the Noise, a collection of his journalism.
Simon's blog, Blissblog, is probably one of the most read music blogs with its free-form connections of fascinating themes and music. I resisted the urge to ask a plethora of trainspotting questions and instead, this being an interview for a literary site, decided to ask Simon about writing about music.
Rowan Wilson: How did you first get into writing about music? Is it the classic example of thwarted musician seeks solace in the written word and trying to ruin the careers of his contemporaries?
Simon Reynolds: From quite an early age I wanted to be a writer -- both my parents are journalists and from that I got the idea rather early on that nothing could be better than seeing your byline in print. What I wanted to be a writer of varied according to what I was into at different points. So I went from wanting to be a children's book author, to wanting to be a satirist and/or Monty Python-type humorist, to wanting to be a science fiction novelist... Then, when I got into music and shortly after that discovered the weekly music papers, I stayed stuck at wanting to be a music journalist.
My father is very musical (can play piano by ear) but sadly none of that ability transferred to me. I don't have any musical instincts, creatively at least, so I've never seriously entertained ambitions of making music myself, apart from a few idle fantasies as a teenager (always of a very conceptual nature -- what the band would be about, the issues and themes the songs would address -- typical postpunk approach in another words). I did toy with buying a bass for a short while, being a big fan of Jah Wobble. But from very early on it was the writing about music that stimulated my imagination as much as the music itself. An exaggeration, but only a slight one. I quickly determined that my involvement in rock would be as a critic. Looking at the writers I admired in the music papers of the late Seventies/early Eighties it seemed like you could actually make a real contribution that way.
RW: Elvis Costello’s comment that writing about music is like dancing about architecture is now pretty well-worn but how do you go about writing about something that is essentially maths?
SR: For the most part I think music critics tend to write around the subject, the writing swirls around the ineffable core of music's mystery. You can write about music in technical terms, diminished sevenths and B-flats and tonics and all the rest. For some people that is a functional language and certain critics are able to use that lingo in combination with more evocative metaphorical imagery, plus historically and biographically informed criticism, very effectively (e.g. Alex Ross in his book about 20th Century classical music The Rest Is Noise). I don't know that language at all and when I read people who have recourse to it I have to take it completely on trust.
That said, I'm not sure that kind of musicologically-informed criticism really says anything particularly precise about the power of a specific piece of music. I think it's apparent precision is covering over a deeper mystery that remains elusive. In a similar way, most discussions of the technical side of pop music--production, rhythm programming, what goes on in the studio--tend to be quite vague really. For instance when you write about a particular way of making a beat, it's really hard to pinpoint what makes one chopped-up breakbeat different and superior to another more run-of-the-mill example. Things like exceptionality and the artistic signature are very resistant to being captured in language. Personally I use imagistic writing to try and convey a sense of music as a thing (an entity, a machine, etc) or a space (an architecture, a landscape) or some kind of natural phenomenon (metereology and astronomy being particular favourites). That kind of writing has no real truth value in the sense of actually being an exact description but like poetry it can transmit the sensation of truth. That kind of prose-poetical element is the only time I really brush against music in its essence, which is both material and abstract at the same time. The remainder of the verbiage deals with various elements of politics (the internal politics of music culture, the game of hip etc etc; but also politics in the sense of society and what's going on out there in the real world). Or it's dealing with all the other stuff pop musicians do alongside the music -- lyrics, construction of persona, image, conceptualisation, etc.
Of course, I don't think about any of this stuff when I'm actually writing a piece. It's the usual grim uphill struggle to come up with anything interesting to say -- you collate whatever you can come up with and try to find a pleasing way of organising it.
RW: Your first book Blissed Out focusses on the pleasures of excess in music, which you followed up in Energy Flash. It was evident, particularly in your dialogue with Pat Kane, that this wasn’t just an aesthetic interest but also political -- a politics of pleasure against the consciousness-raising of much ‘80s music. However, it could be argued that your writing on music is more measured than this aesthetic. (Lester Bangs would be the obvious example of a music journalist who communicates the delirium of, say, a Stooges record through the form of his writing.) What, for you, is the connection between the separate aesthetics of music and writing?
SR: Music writing that doesn't impart any sense of the music as a sensuous experience -- while it might have lots of insights and wisdom to offer -- will always be lacking a dimension for me. It's not that you have to try to make your prose be "rock'n'roll", or "rave" or "hip hop" -- in fact often that will lead to some excruciatingly over-stylized writing that tries too hard to be "down". But I think the best music writing has an element within it that registers or embodies something of the force of music -- that whole aspect to music that is intoxicating, sensually overpowering. The violence of music, in a way.
I used to go in a lot more for voluptuously over-the-top evocations and mind's eye imagery triggered by the music, this quasi-hallucinatory delirium of "description" (scare quotes because it doesn't really have any descriptive value, but it might have other kinds of effectiveness). In recent years though I've tended to feel that a "little goes a long way" with that kind of thing and the emphasis has shifted to other areas, the things around the music as well as the music itself. Rip It Up and Start Again was quite sparing with the descriptions of pure music in itself.
RW: When you write you bring in the cultural trappings of pop -- image and identity, scene and scenesters, marketing and make-up -- in order to shed more light on the music and its novelty. Do you think it’s possible to write about pop music without this context - would it make sense or even be interesting to write about a new Britney album without this material?
SR: I used to have this stance that music writing should focus on pure sound, a sort of reaction against the over-emphasis on lyrics, biography, etc -- which to me at the time (late Eighties) seemed to be an evasion of the sonic, and linked to lingering hang-ups from the punk and postpunk era that constantly sought to validate music through its relevance, political content, redeeming social value, etc. Being all hopped up on Roland Barthes and the rest of the French theory crew, I was trying to do writing that was purely about jouissance, focusing on that aspect of music to do with ecstasy, convulsive bliss, ego-loss, excess, oblivion, etc. Today I think that stance, while understandable in its context (opposing the middlebrow rock critic fixation on lyrics and meaning, which never seems to go away), was misguided, in so far as pop/rock has never been purely about music alone. It's a hybrid art form, radically impure, with a whole other set of factors being as important as the sound: lyrics, persona, biography, performance, the broader social and cultural context, the discourse at any given time around music (including criticism), the design and packaging of records, the way fans make use of the music and invents its meanings, and quite a few other frames.
For instance, I think it would be great if critics wrote more about the Smiths in purely musical terms (the contributions of the band hardly ever get dealt with), as a sensual sonic experience; but the meaning and power of the Smiths is bound up with a whole lot more than the songs and the recordings. There's the record covers, there's Morrissey's interviews (which you could see as just as important to his artistry as his lyrics), Morrissey's dancing, etc. Or look at the postpunk era: a purely sonic evocation of the recordings would be fine, but it would miss all the other things going on in terms of inputs from other art forms, all the concepts and theories and ideologies flying around and informing what was going on.
That said, as per your Britney idea, I think nowadays we are almost too inundated with knowledge and data and it would be interesting, as an exercise, to try to listen to Britney or a Madonna album as a "pure" sonic experience. Probably impossible, but it might be interesting. And there have been times when I thought it would be cool to review an album how I did in the late Eighties, where often I knew very little about a band, seldom bothered to read the press release, really just responded to it sonically.
RW:In your earlier work you incorporated the thought of cultural theorists such as Gilles Deleuze but it seems that they have become much less a part of your recent writing, with the exception of your recent observations on ‘hauntology’. Are you, too, ‘after theory’ now? Do you feel that these theoretical tools are no longer useful for cultural understanding?
SR: At some point in the second half of the Nineties I started to find myself getting less and less out of theory. I'd read, say, an anthology of cyber-theory, which was hot then, and find it rather dreary and just not productive in terms of sparking ideas in my head. There did seem to be a period when the reigning trends in theory land -- as far as I could tell judging by the shelves in St Mark's Bookstore in New York -- were cybertheory, postcolonialism, a few other things. And I was finding this stuff did not have any applications, or potentiations to use drug lingo, in terms of music. But mostly it was not much fun to read.
The theory that really lit a fire in my brain was by and large written by great prose stylists. It was people like Barthes, Bataille, Nietzche, Foucault, Kristeva, Deleuze & Guattari, Virilio (well he's great at individual sentences, lousy at structuring an argument any longer than a paragraph!). These writers could be impenetrable some of the time, with many bits I don't understand to this day, but there were plenty of moments of dazzling perception expressed with verve and flamboyance. A rush to read. I started to find it more of a dutiful slog to read critical theory at a certain point and pretty much stopped. I keep thinking I should jump back in and check out people like Badiou and Zizek who are highly rated by my younger comrades in the blogosphere, but haven't got round to it yet.
I wouldn't like to say I'm "after theory" but it's also true that at a certain point I felt like I gotten onto a kind of self-sustaining trajectory, coming up with my own theories and trusting my own perceptions without necessarily looking for some authority to back it up. That said, I'd love to think there is going to be new stuff coming out in the future intellectually that would light a fire in my brain. Equally, there's loads of classic thinkers that I've never got to grips with, like Walter Benjamin, to name just one. And to be honest, even with the ones that I've used in the past, I couldn't claim to have anything approaching a thorough grasp of their work. Generally speaking, when it comes to theory applied to pop culture, my forte is making a little go a long way.
RW: Music journalism seems to be in a pretty poor state on the whole, with most writers resorting to biography rather than a serious appreciation of a music and its genesis. Would you agree or am I just looking in the wrong place? And if so, what are you currently reading?
SR: I'm not finding a massive amount of stuff that inspires me and makes me tremble with excitement like certain pieces of rock writing did when I was a youth -- but that's partly because I'm not young and not so impressionable. I can see through critical writing more, see its rhetorical ploys and its evasions and blindspots (I've also worked as an editor at a magazine for a year so that has made me more critical as a reader).
There are good pieces popping up all over the place, but in mainstream magazines and newspapers often they're embedded amid a lot of stuff I'm not interested in simply because the subject matter doesn't appeal. There's also a difference between great music journalism, of which there's a decent amount I think, and great rock criticism, which at its best can be something that changes the way you think about music, and which I'm finding much more thin on the ground. In terms of print magazines where I'm really eager to see the next issue, there's The Wire and there's also Frieze (art magazines have become a good home for provocative and intellectually probing writing about music). I have some hopes for the The Quietus, a recently launched webzine that has got a lot of ex-Melody Maker types writing for it, and which maybe is set to be the UK equivalent to Pitchfork but with more jokes and exuberance.
I'm also excited about Loops, a new bi-yearly journal for music writing that is a collaboration between my publisher Faber and Domino Records.
RW: You are fully immersed in the blogosphere, and your own blog, Blissblog, is essential reading for us music nerds. How has the experience of blogging changed the way you write - and are you potentially doing yourself out of a job?
SR: I'm not sure it's changed the way I write for magazines, because you are aware with any given magazine what the limits are stylistically and in terms of the quotient of pretentiousness you can get away with! Within blogging itself I think I've developed some voices and approaches that I'd never have done in a conventional magazine format. Much more fragmentary, whimsical, far-fetched kind of writing, closer perhaps to how I think -- this off-the-cuff, roaming style that makes connections between stuff and drifts across music history in an anti-chronistic fashion. But not everybody is going to enjoy reading that kind of thing. (That answers your question about doing myself out of job, I think -- most people will continue to seek the more straightforward and responsible pop writing you get in magazines and newspapers).
I think blogging has proved to be a minority taste, in terms of readership. Certainly that's the case with music blogging of the kind I do and the kind I like to read, which is an evolution out of the tradition of the old Eighties/early 90s UK weekly music press and, in America, out of the music sections of the alternative weeklies (Village Voice, etc). There was an initial upsurge of excitement, attention and activity, but that has calmed down a lot -- sometimes to the point of being almost comatose. The golden years were probably 2003 and 2004 -- that was the peak in terms of the number of blogs and the interactivity between them. After that it's gotten a lot quieter; new blogs keep forming but not at a rate to replace the ones that have closed down or gone very irregular and desultory.
I'm talking about quite a specific corner of the music blogosphere, I imagine. The area I plunged into in 2002 with Blissblog -- a network of blogs high powered in terms of ideas but written with an informality of style that would banish it from most "proper" magazines either offline or online -- has gotten discernibly quieter, fragmented, and downbeat. But you'll still see amazing things on a fairly regular basis, writing that would never have had a chance to reach a readership before the invention of blogging, and that does things that don't seem to be possible within mainstream music journalism (e.g. making connections across music history and across culture). So I'm going to stick around as a reader and a blogger.
RW: Thanks Simon.
Check out Simon’s blogs here:
Blissblog - Simon's main blog
ReynoldsRetro -- archive of Simon's old writing