My nightmare dream job

Writer and musician John Burdick

I had never wanted to write about music, as obvious a calling as it might seem to me now, as meet and good as it rather immediately showed itself to be once I began trying, five winters ago. My reasons were fourfold and dubious. First, as a guitarist and songwriter with stubborn-if-not-delusional aspirations, writing about my first and only love seemed to me much like painting sets or managing a box office would seem to an actor. Proximity to a dream is an intimate torture, not a consolation. Of course, that’s a diva attitude: immature and, worse, dismissive of the dignity and indispensability of those critical art-support professions, arts in and of themselves. But it is how I felt.

Second, we don’t know who said it first (Monk? Zappa? Miles? No one? Me?), but “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” There is noting wrong with dancing to skyscrapers – a Mary Tyler Moore swirl – and there is nothing wrong with music criticism. But this wonderfully absurd analogy reminds us of the first fact of music criticism: You are never going to get it right. The prospect of nailing the big target is not even in play. There are no verbal equivalencies for the experience and meaning of music. You’d do a better job describing it with a combination of math and fingerpainting, to be honest. Dance away, but in humility, remembering the basic terms of your work: impossibility and inconsequence. All other benefits and functions – and there may be many – are subordinate to that. This is not a job for people who like to feel necessary.

Third, I just generally don’t like doing things, or expectations. A car company (Ford, I think) recently co-opted the Soup Dragons’ defiant 1991 Rolling Stones cover “I’m Free” in which the singer declared, in high British snot, “I’m free to do what I want any old time.” Jagger wrote the line at the dawn of the counterculture and the antiwar movement, when revolutionary rhetoric usually had more to do with rising up, joining hands, turning on and burning sh*t down if required. Jagger’s casual and snotty declaration of an untroubled autonomy and the prerogative of slack was far more threatening to the status quo and the perpetuation of the social order. Still is, it seems – maybe now more than ever. Ford Motors went ahead and changed the line to “I’m free to do what I want and have a good time.” Hedonism, yes; but heaven forbid that youth should excuse itself from servitude. Thomas Frank would have a field day with that. Well, I’m no Jagger. I work for others all the time, of course; but every time a new job starts, I honestly feel like puking.

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Finally, I know music writers. I know record store owners, cultural curators and completists of all stripes. My life, in fact, is crawling with them. I love and respect them and envy their appetites for experience and the whole story, but I have never been one. My musical purview – as deeply analytical and impassioned as it can be – always seemed to me far too idiosyncratic and unhip to even play along. Given Condition B – that music is essentially indescribable – arguing over it is just noise; the best that the critic can do is to serve and advance the music, maintain an inclusive and accurate canon and make the art available and comprehensible to the people. I am vastly unqualified in all those ways. John Lefsky isn’t. Rick Lange isn’t. David Wills isn’t. Chris Tanis isn’t. But I am.

Five years and hundreds and hundreds of articles and essays later, what do I have to say to those four objections? First, the editor and lifelong friend who finally talked me into giving it a go pitched it from the start as a thing that might serve my music career – not signify capitulation, as I might have feared. I would get to know all the regional venues and their key players; I would network with our deep local talent pool; I would happen upon many chances to get my own music heard in a sympathetic light. Five years later, I have to say that, on balance, she was right. Certainly I have pissed some people off – and burned some bridges, too – but on the whole, my life as a working musician has been inarguably enriched by my music writing.

Describing music is essentially impossible, but I have grown to relish the challenge. The approach that I have developed is multimodal, consisting of some impressionistic and metaphor-rich language, the poetry of sensory experience; some technical language for those who know the lingo; and – my least favorite, but still useful – the comparisons and reference cocktails that seem to dominate most music writing online. The earnestness with which I have accepted that challenge has actually led to a new revenue stream: artist bios and release announcements. They started seeking me out because, apparently, I have a way with it. Good to know!

Regarding my laziness and reflexive problems with authority, the less said the better. I happen to work for an editor and a publisher who have – miraculously – let me be me. I cannot overstate my awe and gratitude over this fact. I always feel like I am doing it wrong. And that’s fun.

Finally, I have not become the encyclopedic completist that (I still believe) the job requires, or at least favors. Five lifetimes wouldn’t be enough for that. Provincial eccentricity is my lot, and I embrace it. In my multiple roles as local player, music fan, former academic, playful theorizer and lifelong mid-Hudson Valley resident, I believe that I have found the four stanchions of a wobbly authority: just stable enough to make me hope for another five years. Happy New Year.