In his new book, Rock Critic Law: 101 Unbreakable Rules for Writing Badly About Music, Michael Azerrad takes on the clichés that pervade rock writing. His mode is tongue-in-cheek, with the book written as a sort of satirical “Strunk & White” manual for album reviewers, to be followed at the writer’s peril. If you’ve written about music, you’ll find yourself nodding along in recognition at many of the words and phrases he includes: universally loathed, criminally underrated, twin lead guitars, stunning debut.
Using jargon “can make a writer feel authoritative—and it can also fool some readers into thinking the writer is authoritative,” Azerrad explains in the book’s introduction. “That impulse is hardly unique to Rock Criticism—it’s in writing about sports, food, wine, philosophy, visual art, technology, politics, and any other subject in which wielding expertise is a blood sport. But only Rock Criticism abuses the word ‘seminal.’ ”
It’s a pleasure to see Azerrad, the esteemed music journalist, break the fourth wall on his craft. But at no point does he mention whether he himself has “obeyed” these laws. So, using the Kindle search function, I recently combed through his two previous books—Come as You Are, which was published in 1993 and tells the story of Nirvana, and Our Band Could Be Your Life, a comprehensive look at the indie underground of the 1980s and early ’90s, released in 2001—to see for myself. It turns out he has!
By my count, Azerrad obeys (or sort of obeys) about 18 of the laws. Some of them, in fact, Azerrad seems to have aimed directly at himself, unintentionally or not—where is Freud when you need him?—including one particularly uncanny law regarding the Replacements, whom he profiled in Our Band.
Below, I’ve outlined the laws Azerrad adheres to and provided examples of the occasions on which he has heeded them. Of course, Azerrad wrote these books before some of the language he now lampoons ossified, so he may deserve extra credit for popularizing some of these phrases. You might even say his music journalism was … seminal?
“Please do call a musician an ‘act,’ because they really are just like a trained seal or a plate-spinner.” Azerrad does this once in Our Band to refer to the singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins. The 1980s’ soundtrack king does bear a special resemblance to a trained seal, but Azerrad also follows this law faithfully when referring to several full bands, which he describes in both of his books as “acts.”
“You MUST use the word ‘plangent.’ ” I’m not so opposed to this word, if used sparingly, and neither, apparently, is Azerrad: He uses it once in Our Band to refer to a “Stravinsky masterpiece.” That would be “The Rite of Spring.”
“All fan bases are either ‘devoted,’ ‘dedicated,’ or ‘loyal.’ ” In Azerrad’s books, fans are only “loyal,” never “dedicated,” although some “followings” are occasionally “devoted.”
“When writing about the Replacements, it is required that you use the word ‘shambolic.’ ” Indeed it is. Azerrad refers approvingly to the Replacements’ “shambolic performances” in Our Band. But he is somewhat indiscriminate with the word—he also uses it to describe Nirvana and the Butthole Surfers.
“Do NOT look up the words ‘coruscating’ or ‘galvanic.’ It’s better if you don’t know what they mean.” In Our Band, Azerrad goes in for galvanic in his chapter on Fugazi, but it appears that he has looked up the word, because he uses it correctly.
“If a performer moves across a stage, they are ‘prowling.’ ” Performers—including Henry Rollins and Steve Albini—can be found prowling stages in Our Band.
“Undistorted guitars in a major key MUST be ‘chiming,’ ‘ringing,’ or ‘jangling.’ Especially if it’s a Rickenbacker guitar.” This is one of those rules that is so specific—like the Replacements law—that Azerrad seems to be targeting himself. In Our Band, he describes the Rickenbacker as a “chiming guitar made famous by the Byrds.”
“Bass players are the only musicians who can be ‘nimble.’ ” That’s the case, at least, in Our Band: “Lally’s nimble lines could induce vertigo,” Azerrad writes, describing Joe Lally, the bassist in Fugazi.
“Whenever citing post-punk, you MUST describe it with at least one of the following: ‘spiky,’ ‘angular,’ or ‘arty.’ ” In Azerrad’s aesthetic universe, post-punk is occasionally “angular” and “arty” but never “spiky.” The Minutemen’s music, for instance, is “all angular stops and starts.” Though, come to think of it, were the Minutemen—the lyrics from whose song, “History Lesson—Part II,” lend themselves to the title of Azerrad’s Our Band— post-punk? I’ve never entirely understood what that term means.
“A band never leaves a label; it ‘parts ways.’ ” In Our Band, Sonic Youth “parted ways with a crestfallen Smith after the Enigma debacle and began shopping for a major label deal.” On point.
“If a band pioneered something, you MUST say they are ‘seminal.’ That is the Seminal Law of Rock Criticism.” Azerrad uses it six times throughout his books, but never to describe a band, mostly just albums, as in the Melvins’ “seminal Gluey Porch Treatments,” in Come as You Are.
“By all means use the word ‘prolific’ as a generic compliment even though it only means the musician has done a lot of work, not whether it’s any good” AND “By all means refer to what musicians put their heart, mind, and soul into as ‘output.’ ” I’ve combined these two laws because, while both books include either prolific or output, there is one sentence in Our Band, a double whammy, that combines the two: “Despite his prolific Sebadoh output, Barlow wrote no songs for Bug,” Azerrad writes in his chapter on Dinosaur Jr.
“Fans may be ‘rabid,’ ‘hardcore,’ or ‘diehard.’ There are no other kinds of fans.” In Azerrad’s books, fans are “rabid,” never “hardcore” or “diehard.”
“You can try describing them in other ways, but you can never go wrong by calling a double album ‘sprawling.’ ” Azerrad doesn’t obey this law to the letter, but he does sometimes obey the spirit of it. In Come as You Are, it’s worth pointing out, he mentions “the Clash’s sprawling, eclectic three-album set, Sandinista.”
“No musician is simply ‘from’ a place. They MUST ‘hail’ from there.” In Our Band, the drummer Roberto Valverde “hailed from Colombia,” while the drummer Emmett Jefferson “Patrick” Murphy III, or Murph, “hailed from the well-to-do New York suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut.”
“Why say someone ‘wrote’ a song when you can say they ‘penned’ it?” Why, indeed? The word appears five times throughout Our Band and Come as You Are combined, as in, “The song also proves that Kurt wasn’t above penning a few lyrical clinkers.”
“You MUST use the word ‘frontman/frontwoman/frontperson’ even though you would never say that word out loud.” True to form, Azerrad litters frontmen throughout his pages.
“If an artist uses a notable collaborator, they have ‘enlisted’ them, not ‘invited’ them. Because playing music is like joining the army.” One final double whammy: At one beautiful moment in Our Band, a “frontman” is “enlisted.”