Ten bits of advice from someone without a clue – the Neil Kulkarni guide to being a record-reviewer...
Words: Neil Kulkarni
1. Love language. To the point where you wonder where it stops and you begin.
2. Realise where you stand. Not in relation to the record but in relation to the record business. You’re something less than the shit crapped out by the maggot that feasts on the shit crapped out by the rabid dog that is the music biz – if at any point you start thinking that what you are doing ‘matters’ in a bizness sense you’re fucked, if at any point you reckon you’re anything more than a piddling-peon in place to rubber-stamp or reject product, then think again. The biz will use you if you say what they want, if you don’t they won’t – be mentally clear about your own utter irrelevance before you even start or be ready for a steady diet of disappointment your whole working life. Might seem such pre-emptive knee-chopping action on your ambition might wither the writing down to meekness – quite the reverse: only by first accepting your inability to change pop, your lonely impotence amid the cogs and gears, do you realise that your words shouldn’t be measured, considered, or anything approaching reasonable. The self-abasing degrading shame of being a critic doesn’t paralyse, it frees you up to write what the fuck you want rather than what you feel the ‘job’ demands, disconnects you from anything approaching favours, but keeps your overarching pomposity (for if you don’t have this what the fuck are you doing being a writer anyhoo?) in check. You have no favours to grant, no friends to keep, no partner to find, absolutely nothing to lose except your own idea of yourself, your own relationship with your style, taste and ego. This has nothing to do with whatever PR has sent you the record, whatever ‘readership’ your publisher is aiming for or any ‘help’ you can give to a band or artist you deem worthy of your reverse-Midas messing. This is between you and the plastic and the mirror you have to look at yourself in and nothing else. There is no career ladder. Only a downward spiral from the first thrill of seeing your name in print.
3. Be honest about your own dishonesty. Don’t lie, or at least make damn sure your lies are real. Delusions of grandeur aren’t gonna fly unless they’re not delusions, unless you can make the words vibrate with enough energy to create yourself the illusion of godliness. Tricky thang to create – conviction, the feeling reading that no matter how purple the prose it is still ineluctably connected with the life and soul of the writer. But record reviews are not really places to ‘affect’ anything – make sure your affectations are life-sized and real before you start unpacking them across the page. If you’re going to be a primping self-obsessed prima donna in print then make damn sure that self-image is intact and whole and the drama you’re throwing out and around yourself is rock solid, is firmly based in the time and space you find yourself right fkn now. If you’re going to shame yourself do it shamelessly. If you don’t regret what you’ve written after you’ve written it, or find in revisiting past work an occasional INTENSE embarassment (and equally intense pride) you’re probably not doing your job properly. But if ALL you feel is a faint embarrassment (and equally faint pride) then you’ve been writing needily, you’ve been writing to get friends you’re never going to meet, and you’re the next editor of the NME. Congratulations.
4. Teenagers. Read. By which I mean devour. Listen. By which I mean hollow yourself out until you only exist in the spaces between the pop you love. Then, try and find yourself again, or at least create something tangible in the gaps. Find the unique thing you have to say, the unique way you have of saying it, and hone the fucker until you can hear yourself talking on the page, until you can recognise yourself a line in. Your voice is easier found with a chip on your shoulder and a pain in your heart. Think about those writers who you feel weren’t just writing for you but who come to live in your life, a constant over-the-shoulder presence yaying or naying the choices you make. If you don’t want to be that important to your readers get out the game.
5. Getting song titles and lyrics right can be less important than nailing your feelings, your real feelings that occur before your mind has a chance to process them, the feelings a record puts in your brain and body before you feel the need to justify or back-up those instant instincts. If you can’t think of anything to say about a record you’re in the wrong place. Ditch this bitch of a non-job and get yourself a plumbing degree, s’where the money and the happiness is.
6. Stop dithering. You should be able to lash down a 600 word record review in an hour. Read it, change it, read it again, change it again – keep going until it’s inarguable. Be the most brutal editor you know – knocking shit down from EVERYTHING YOU THINK to a HINT of what you think will give you only the choicest shit, the toughest sense, the most committed nonsense. When writing always think Ed Gein – cut out the fanny.
7. Listen only to those colleagues whose writing you respect. Ignore pips on shoulders or being overawed by another’s ‘position’. Be willing to write anything for anyone but always try and pleas(ur)e yourself. In this day and age you have less and less to lose.
8. Be poetic be prosaic but if you’re gonna crack wise, be funny – remember what Fitzgerald said about exclamation marks being ‘like laughing at your own joke’ – if you’re gonna wank-off be concise. Get to the heart of your dreams and delusions quickly and convincingly – don’t waste time apologising or stage-setting. And if at any point you look on a paragraph and think ‘Mark Beaumont could’ve written this’ stab yourself in the eyes cut off your hands and drown yourself in the bath for the sake of Our Lord Jesu Christus himself. For the children dammit.
9. A difficult one this but NEVER Google yourself. Ignore compliments, avoid slaps on the back. Suck up criticism, it’s probably half-right. Be unfailingly polite and well-mannered in all your communications with PRs and labels (nothing’s quite so repulsive as a rude-cunt hack), watch what bridges you’re burning and keep on keeping on.
10. Accept that everything you say will be forgotten and ignored but write as if you and your words are immortal. Don’t just describe but justify – make sure the reader knows WHY the record exists whether the reasons are righteous or rascally. And always remember you’re not here to give consumer advice or help with people’s filing. You’re here to set people’s heads on fire.