Reading About Writing

Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of the Music Press
By Paul Gorman
(Thames & Hudson)

By Steve Erickson

Paul Gorman’s history of the music press begins before rock and roll, when English songwriter Lawrence Wright founded Melody Maker in 1927. Totally Wired examines both American and British publications, but Gorman, an Irishman based in London, addresses the latter with far more authority and effort. Some of the best-known American rock critics, like Greil Marcus, get only cursory mention. Nick Kent, whose New Journalism-inspired prose, taste for proto-punk artists like the Stooges and Lou Reed and appetite for drugs made him a British counterpart to Lester Bangs, receives much more attention.

In 2001, Gorman published In Their Own Write, an oral history of music journalism. Totally Wired comes at the same subject in more detailed narrative form but again focuses attention on the second half of the 20th century, so the cataclysmic changes to media in the Internet age are outside the book’s scope. Gorman’s pessimism about music criticism in the present is apparent both in his decision not to write about it and his remark that music itself “outside of niche interests has become the soundtrack for the selling of things.”

Part of Gorman’s mission is to detail the marginalization, achievements and experiences of female, LGBTQ and Black journalists. For pioneers, he goes back to 16 Magazine, which hired Gloria Stavers as editor in 1958, and Lilian Roxon and Lisa Robinson’s work in the early ‘70s. But Melody Maker staffer Caroline Coon relates a harrowing tale of attempted sexual assault by Barry Manilow’s publicist; it’s not the only story of explicit misogyny she relates.

From its start, the British press found itself looking overseas to cover African-American and Afro-Caribbean music, but did so with white writers. Alan Lewis admits that, “There was a weird illogicality that I was editing a magazine called Black Music” but claims “if we could find more young black writers, we’d be using more of them. But in London at the time there were virtually none.”

Perhaps influenced by Hunter S. Thompson, a lot of ’70s rock criticism sought to capture the energy and danger of the music being written about. Some visions of rebellion from that time thought they were speaking truth to power when they were just being jerks. In a juvenile but harmless example, Mick Farren speaks about trying to use both “Fuck Bryan Ferry” and “Screw Bryan Ferry” as NME headlines. To pick something appalling that goes unmentioned in Totally Wired, Rick Johnson wrote in Creem, “These bitches suck…girls are just sissies after all” about the Runaways in 1977. To be fair, there were female writers in the late ’70s British press who used a similarly vitriolic voice. Julie Burchill was able to turn her punk rant The Boy Who Looked at Johnny into a thriving career in right-wing punditry, but the lesbian teenager Jane Suck, who wrote for Sounds, faded after a few amphetamine-filled years. Judging from the quotes in Totally Wired, she could outdo the guys in edginess, complaining that she couldn’t masturbate to the cover of Roxy Music’s Greatest Hits and writing that her mom threw her out for playing Lust for Life too loud and doing as many drugs as Iggy himself.

In Totally Wired’s version of the history of popular music, new styles emerge, get celebrated by the music press and die out in a few years. Each of them called for a different kind of writing. Nick Kent may have been suited to proto-punk, but the theory-driven, more cerebral writing of Paul Morley and Ian Penman, laden with references to Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, suited the grayer field of post-punk. They took their cues from the bands; Scritti Politti named a song after Derrida, while Joy Division’s lyrics are full of literary allusions.

Gorman seems most enthusiastic depicting Smash Hits, which launched in 1978 and was hugely successful in the ’80s. As he describes it, the colorful pop bi-weekly practiced poptimism avant la lettre, celebrating British chart success with a fizzy exuberance and wit. Unlike the macho world of the weeklies, it was open to women and gay men, both as performers and writers. Future Pet Shop Boys singer Neil Tennant was an editor. It published a two-page gay rights manifesto submitted by Bronski Beat.

As it gets into the ’80s, Totally Wired documents the music press’s struggles to cover a splintering scene. By 1983, it had become as disillusioned and aimless as it was just before punk. In some respects, this seems like a strictly British phenomenon, born of some critics’ apathy towards the Smiths-inspired indie rock scene, distance from the innovations of hip-hop, go-go and Afrobeat and the inability to get superstars like Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna to speak with the press on a regular basis. The notion that one magazine could encapsulate the entire music scene of the present seems increasingly dubious, although Britain’s three big weeklies – Melody Maker, Sounds, NME – tried. The closer the book gets to the present, the more this mood of fragmentation increases. Riot grrrl zines, the heavy metal mag Kerrang! and the early days of the hip-hop press had nothing to do with each other, but Gorman dutifully describes their rise and (sometimes) fall. American fanzines are mostly relegated to the sixteenth chapter, with important ones like Chemical Imbalance and Conflict overlooked. The relationship of the ‘60s underground press to music does get analyzed, but Totally Wired ignores alt-weeklies, which gave vital press to local music scenes around the U.S.

By ending in 1999, Totally Wired exempts itself from the changes to music writing in the last 20 years. However, there has also been a degree of continuity. Phonograph Record Magazine was funded by United Artist Records, while Neil Fountain speculates that Island Records secretly did the same for Street Life. Tower Records published and distributed the monthly Pulse! for many years; Musicland similarly had Request. Now, Bandcamp runs daily articles on artists whose music it sells, many of whom are unlikely to get press anywhere. (Where else can you get the scoop on the L.A. electronic music label Peak Oil?) The practice of including singles with magazines (or the NME’s practice of issuing cassettes, including the legendary indie compilation C86) was transformed into the music blogs of the 2000s, which offered MP3s of new artists before the streaming era arrived.

Toxic positivity and consensus have taken over from the days when Charles Shaar Murray of the NME could get away with advising the Clash to kill themselves.

Totally Wired barely mentions music criticism this century. Its praise for Pitchfork and The Quietus seems rather perfunctory. In a review published in The Quietus itself, Alan Burrows points out that the fragmentation Gorman describes isn’t necessarily negative, and that even a print magazine as niche as Prog has survived since 2005. Mojo, which began in 1999, aims at a middle-aged (or older) audience that still has some curiosity about new music. Heavy metal specialist magazines still exist. But the adventurous early days of the blogosphere couldn’t be sustained. The website Tiny Mixtapes, which specialized in unusual writing about experimental music (including publishing short stories, poems and images as “reviews”), went under in 2019. The Singles Jukebox, which offered blurbs on pop music from around the world by a shifting group of writers, started as an offshoot of Stylus magazine but stopped publishing earlier in 2022. TSJ suggested what poptimism could be without commercial pressures. Rather than obligatory praise for the latest superstar releases, it dived into individual songs, treating pop as a genre that overlapped with the American mainstream but wasn’t restricted to it.

And music journalism has migrated to other forms. Along with Pitchfork, YouTuber Anthony Fantano is likely its most influential present-day voice, but while he’s hugely popular, he’s working without corporate backing. Still, toxic positivity and consensus have taken over from the days when Charles Shaar Murray of the NME could get away with advising the Clash to kill themselves with carbon monoxide. And the dominance of the popular gets reinforced by direct harassment of critics. Few people think it’s worth risking doxing and death threats to write a negative review that might get paid a few hundred dollars at best. The reliance on music industry advertising has also contributed to timidity: the December 2022 issue of Mojo reviews well over 100 albums, including reissues, but only one (a collection of early Tinariwen demos) received a grade lower than three (out of five) stars.

Still, I’m not sure “fall of the music press” is the best way to sum this up. Longer-form media like video essays and podcasts offer possibilities that haven’t existed in print for years. While the algorithm limits the possibilities of YouTube, leading to endless videos about Kanye West and Drake, the channel Bandsplaining, which has posted videos on the underground music scenes of Ukraine, China, Zambia and Peru, has 169,000 subscribers. The future of the press, music and otherwise, likely lies in video rather than the written word. Perhaps Gorman isn’t the best person to write it, but this book warrants a follow-up, examining the changing dynamics of music criticism and journalism in the 21st century.

Leave a Reply