Talk about themselves. No one cares that you were 15 minutes early to the interview at Applebees and learned the server’s name and had an epiphany about 1990s hip hop at the same time. Get out of the way. You’re not that interesting.
Play a dismissive game of connect-the-influences. Okay, so what, so Chris Martin of Coldplay wears his influences on his sleeves (U2, Radiohead, possibly the Smiths)? You’re not somehow “cracking” the code on his songwriting. Musicians steal, borrow, siphon off all the time from other musicians. Sounds inevitably tend to be incestuous.
Don’t talk about music. I get it. No one wants 450 words of onomatopoeia as you linguistically imitate the sound of electric guitar distortion. But, honestly, I read reviews all the time that take me at least 3 or 4 thumb scrolls before I even know what the fuck genre/sound the band occupies at the moment.
Focus way too much on biography. So unless you’re Kanye West and there’s a metal wire attached to your mouth from a car accident, or you’re Stevie Wonder writing Songs in the Key of Life in the wake of a near-death experience, the musician’s personal life honestly doesn’t affect the type of synthesizer or why they wrote a pop song about bumblebees or whatever. Lyrics, sounds, beats, etc, are way more random, errant, ambiguous than “I got dumped by my girlfriend” can hope to explain.
Fail to discern between “bad” lyrics and “functional” lyrics. The song “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang does not have bad lyrics. It has functional lyrics. The song’s words roll off the tongue. “Pretty Woman” has incredibly functional (i.e. lucid) lyrics. Legendary lyricist Stephen Sondheim says lyrics should sound “effortless.” This is why I can’t listen to Hold Steady without laughing. Finn’s lyrics are comically bad. They may be “smart.” But they’re musically crippling. Now, Dylan, those are functional lyrics. Plus they’re smart. Hence, his correct public approval.
Read other reviews before their own review. I know this sounds willfully inept from a journalism standpoint, but it’s best not to know what else is out there before you start typing. Now (as with all the comments in this piece), if you’re writing a profile, or a short snappy thing to go with a concert preview, etc, then most of these rules (including this one) don’t apply. But, as a reader of reviews, I’m really interested in hearing your own reflections on the album, not necessarily seeing how well you can calibrate your stuff to (or differentiate from) the general nexus of music criticism out there. You’re probably a talented writer and thoughtful music fan, so what you have to say about this band’s latest album or whatever is probably actually something I want to read. Don’t shortchange yourself.
– Dunstan McGill