Revisiting Simon Reynolds’ Masterclass
“What was your beef with Simon Reynolds again?” The first time I met Annabel was when it began and then last week, almost four years later, we were recapping the saga on Rathdowne Street. 2013: I went to a masterclass on music journalism on FasterLouder’s dime hosted by Simon Reynolds, critic nonpareil and chronicler of rave and retromania. Like all good pitches, it started with a Twitter rant. The class was a hundred and forty bucks (set by the Melbourne Writers Festival, not Reynolds) at a time when local discourse about accessibility in writing was peaking. It seemed like an absurd expense — reinforcement that abundant privilege was a prerequisite for artistic expression.
Insofar as there was “beef”, the meat of it was I savaged the class. Later, I was asked to teach a writing workshop for some high school kids in the same building and I told Instagram they gave me a bigger room than Reynolds. He found it and tweeted back, “Too bad you didn’t fill it.” I thought that was pretty funny. And that was it.
But I started thinking about all that again today when I gave a lecture to a classroom full of journo hopefuls. Their assignment: show they know what’s what by reporting on an event. Include the key components: your lede, your nut graf, key quote etc etc. Ostensibly I was there to give a lecture on some real world examples as a real world journalist, but all I wanted to talk about was how to write in a way that will guarantee your eternal struggling in an editorial environment that looks familiar to the one we talked about at that masterclass, for better or worse.
There were two core complaints in my story. Mainly, that Reynolds’ advice ignored the reality of editorial guidelines among the Big Dogs.
Reynolds made frequent reference to the colourful prose of Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus, as well as a handful of Melody Maker writers, which I found surprising given the comparative dryness of his own writing. Reynolds himself is closer in style and tone to critics like Nitsuh Abebe, a paragon of the moderate voice which has come to define Pitchfork (partially due to Abebe’s numerous contributions.) When I brought this up with Reynolds, he agreed that the general tone of music criticism had quietened down, comparing the current dominant voice to be like people speaking with their inside voices while in the apparent halcyon days of music journalism it was more like impassioned, messianic ranting. But if all the most successful music critics in the world are speaking with their inside voices, shouldn’t that be weighed against the advice that we should start our careers as music journalists by ranting too?
Inaccuracies in that criticism aside, hypocrisy is what was playing in my head while I was screaming at a classroom of enterprising youngs that EVERY SENTENCE IS A FIGHT FOR A READER’S ATTENTION! THE WORST THING YOU CAN DO IS BE BORING! And then going on to case study pieces I wrote that are so far beyond what would get accepted at major publications they read like parodies of music journalism. I showcased stories that didn’t have ledes or nut grafs, sometimes deliberately didn’t have quotes at all, were written by multiple people (shout outs to Teague) and veered between lucid criticism and vague notes we’d put in our phones.
But I did it anyway ‘cos, like Reynolds, I reckon, I‘ve been fortunate enough to carve out something resembling a career operating partially in the blind spots of prevailing attitudes, paid for with budgets that had enough stretch to risk an L on pageviews, and hoped the same could be true for the people in front of me. As if to say: in spite of what looked like a conservative paradigm, I got paid to write this stuff anyway. Maybe you can too. Besides, those folks were learning the essentials on any other day; I just wanted ’em to write something I might wanna read. Hell is homogeneity. Let’s get loud.
Only not much has changed since 2013, except the inside voices got bought out by bigger banks and too many sites I wrote for died, and anyone looking for the #majorkey in that lecture might be inclined to feel the same frustration I did, misguided as it was. Be real: the fattest cheque I ever picked up was doing punchy rewrites of celebrity gossip for the Sydney Morning Herald. Who am I to tell kids to write beautiful nonsense? Maybe I could pass the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but rent’s another thing. Wanna measure your irrelevance? Ask yourself where the bulk of your work is hosted. If your answer is the Wayback Machine, find a new career.
But so, in hindsight I sympathise with what Reynolds was putting down. But so, also I was a young gun taking shots at the old guard. Holstered by time, I know Reynolds is probably the most proficient statesman of music criticism enjoying his level of work. Maybe my first instinct is to freak to the beat of Neil Kulkarni — who I namedropped, snobbishly, in Reynolds’ session, teaching my own masterclass on how to turn insecurity into fuckheadedness — before I go to Reynolds, but the latter cuts hits like a Compass Point. Which is to say, I wish I was more kind. You spend a whole while wanting it to be one way, then you’re obsessively reading the backpages of some blogspot and you realise too late: it’s the other way.
Probably, Reynolds’ career is the best case study in how to walk that line. In this lecture today, before the mind-blowing spectacle of reading a review of Eddy Current Suppression Ring at Golden Plains to a class who’d never heard of Eddy Current Suppression Ring or Golden Plains, I talked about boundaries. The most exciting shit can happen between strict parameters — ECSR is the perfect example — and the most wretched garbage is often wandering in search of any boundary at all, finally resolving in so many cases to the boundary of the writer’s attention span. Okay, Reynolds benefited from the Last Days of Print but that doesn’t credit him with the success of then putting in the work online. Instead, Reynolds found the space to slamdance his stylistic flourishes and prance academic when it’s called for. That flexibility is the take-home lesson. And while so many of his imitators cop the Retromania flow and come out sounding execrably stuffy, he bears no more responsibility for that sin than legions of Thompson shippers waxing Learycally about seeing the War On Drugs…On Drugs!
Naturally, I didn’t know any of that shit when I wrote the piece. Some things do change.
What advice would you even give to a young writer today? Scry this on for size: native advertising continues to run the world, but smaller publications with dedicated subscribers thrive, doing lesser numbers but appealing to more niche concerns. It’s Spotify against record sales — indies might not make bank off the streams, but a few people throwing down ten bucks at a time can go a lot further. That opens up the pit for weirder writing. Like, I don’t figure I’ll be making a landlord happy off the back of Sui Zhen and anime angles any time soon, but ZEAL is the real future.
And that addresses the second thing in that Reynolds takedown. I put it to the dude that we gotta do something about the lack of diversity in music journalism and he didn’t have a succinct solution. Well, it was a class, not a discussion panel, and anyway time was short. But far as accessibility in writing, getting a small editorial budget together and paying minority voices to write about the culture seems more possible than it used to. Doing it on Bandcamp was a hack. We shoulda done it on Patreon.
That’s about where my optimism lies at the moment, ‘cos I love those pieces I showed the class, so much that I quit my job when I didn’t have time to write ’em any more. Writing from the artists’ perspectives about Golden Plains — where so many local acts have been a part of the crowd for so long before they ever got a slot — was a good idea. Tying a Smith Street Band show, with its almost aggressive lust for community, to conservatives winning the election and signalling a fracturing of the country an hour before was a good idea. Indulge this fleeting moment of self-satisfaction: nobody else wrote those pieces. And in an arena where the point of difference sometimes comes down to how galling you can make the headline, that’s something.
The downside is, there were scoops in some of those pieces that went unnoticed. Which, if you’re just here to drop linguistic bombs, is fine, but if you’re tryna get the word out, is an incontrovertible failure. You wanna be Bieber or Dienel? Maybe it changes week to week. Maybe I wanna tell kids today, just be generous, because that takedown was a bad idea. Maybe I wanna tell kids today, more than stupid sentences, you’ll regret all the time you didn’t spend being nicer to people, all the time you spent being jealous. Maybe I wanna tell kids today, you literally can write however you want, some ways are more commercially viable than others, but you can always start a zine. And you can get that Kardashian click-through money on the side.
I don’t know what to tell kids today. But the fact they don’t know about Eddy Current is fucked.