Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life — Steve Almond

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, Steve Almond’s new memoir-via-music-journalism, is far fresher, funnier, and insightful than its dopey name or silly cover will attest. Not that Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is a wholly terrible name (even presented in cruciform arrangement), or that the unironic waving of lighters in the air is an awfully hokey image–but both seem counter-intuitive to the playful, self-deprecating spirit of Almond’s book. I suppose that the publisher wants to highlight a rock-as-religion motif that kinda sorta exists in the book (further compounded by the pull-quote from Aimee Mann: “Required reading for all us fans and musicians who belong to the Church of Rock and Roll”). Almond’s book is, I suppose, about being religious about music–that is, about being fanatical, crazy, bonkers about music. He calls these people–he is Exhibit #1, of course–Drooling Fanatics, or DFs for short. Drooling Fanatics are

. . . wannabes, geeks, professional worshippers, the sort of guys and dolls who walk around with songs ringing in our ears at all hours, who acquire albums compulsively, who fall in love with one record per week minimum and cannot resist telling other people–people frankly not interested–what they should be listening to and why and forcing homemade compilations into their hands and then calling them to see what they thought of these compilations, in particular the syncopated handclaps on track fourteen.

You might know some Drooling Fanatics; I know many of them. In fact, I have some DF-tendencies myself that I manage to keep in check. It’s this keen sense of self-awareness–geek-awareness–that makes Almond’s memoir so charming and engaging, particularly when he’s recounting interviews and experiences with obscure also-rans like Nil Lara, Bob Schneider, and Joe Henry. Almond’s devotion to these lesser-known artists permeates his text. His Drooling Fanaticism makes a great case for their music and even as he rants that they didn’t gain the fame and superstardom they surely deserve, he also admits that part of the Drooling Fanatic’s love for his or her artist is the special love of knowing something the rest of the world doesn’t know. Not that Almond doesn’t have various run-ins with famous people. An interview with Dave Grohl leads to Almond’s epiphany near the end of the book that being a good father and husband, doing your job to the best of your ability, and engaging fully in your own life is more important than the illusion of fame or “artistic integrity.”

Yes, “epiphany” is right–Almond’s memoir manages to avoid most pitfalls of that genre, but it still follows a recognizable arc, right up to a moment of insight and maturation. Almond punctuates this loosely-chronological framework with lists that claim to take the piss out of rock critics (who notoriously love to make lists) but, are, of course, lists. They don’t add anything to the book and they will certainly date it, and Almond’s entire chapter of lists of rock star kid names is mildly amusing but ultimately distracting. Far more successful are the “Reluctant Exegesis” sections of the book, where Almond interprets the lyrics of swill like Toto’s “Africa” and Air Supply’s “All out of Love” (he finds shades of Heidegger in the latter). These tongue-in-cheek exercises show Almond’s humorous tone as well as his skill as a critic; they also fit neatly into his memoir, contributing to the narrative proper.

Almond’s book is refreshing, both as a memoir and as a form of rock criticism. Music critics and memoirists alike are far-too often self-serious, even solemn about their work. Almond’s memoir reveals that the coolness meant to exude from many modern music critics is really an overt symptom of Drooling Fanaticism, a pose meant to close (or at least reconcile) the gap between artist and reviewer. Almond fills that gap with heartfelt joy, and, best of all, he achieves the real job of any music critic–he makes you want to listen to the stuff he’s writing about for yourself. Recommended.

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is available April 13 from Random House.

How to Write a Review for Pitchfork

1. Brainstorm: Good writing always starts by brainstorming. You need to figure out the Official Editorial Position Pitchfork will be taking on the artist being reviewed: are they an old favorite trying something new? Are they an old favorite that are not doing something new? Were they once-loved but now no one’s sure how to feel about them? Figure out how your audience should feel about the album ahead of time, as this will make it easier to review the album when you actually listen to it. Remember, millions of kids are reading the site everyday; they need to know who to think is cool and who to think is washed-up and who to never give a chance to at all (it might be worth pointing out that the Official Editorial Position should be neatly summed up in the album’s 0.0-10 “score,” making it easier for the semi-literate to quickly figure out how they should feel about the album).

2. Research: Okay, you can go ahead and listen to the album now that you know how to feel about it. While you’re killing time, troll the internet for any juicy or salacious info on the artist in question that might come in handy: is there a gimmick or an angle to the artist? Are they fat? Black? Brother-sister team? Crazy? People nowadays want more from their indie music than just good tunes. Figure it out (conversely, maybe the fact that the artist is “trad” indie–four-on-the-floor white guys–could be your angle. Just sayin’).

3. Outline: If you don’t outline your writing, you’ll end up with an amorphous blob of a review. You probably have less than 800 words, and you don’t want to waste them on peripheral and superfluous info, like a description of the music or the lyrics. If you need help developing your outline, refer to the steps below.

4. Introduction: Normally when one writes, it’s a good idea to introduce the subject with a thesis right away, so that the reader knows what’s going on. However, Pitchfork’s Editorial Staff clearly sees itself as continuing the tradition of the Lester Bangs school of music criticism; therefore, it’s a good idea to start off your review with a tedious personal anecdote or seemingly unnecessary condensation of the band’s history up until now. You can even wax pseudo-intellectual on some of that deconstruction shit you learned in college, especially if you’re reviewing superior music that no one can understand because it’s so superior and odd and seemingly unmusical to those who just don’t get it (noise music, f’r’instance). You need to contextualize the Official Editorial Position right away. This is where that research will come in handy. It’s also good to be cryptic and vague about your position on the actual music–that’s what the album’s score is for, after all.

5. Body: Again, normally when one writes, the body of the essay should contain specific evidence that supports the thesis proposed in the introduction. However, if you’ve written your introduction properly, you shouldn’t have a clear thesis and therefore you don’t have to worry about supporting it. This frees you up to riff on whatever you feel like–social trends that are bugging you, a movie you recently saw, girl trouble, politics–whatever. It’s important to come off as cool and hip and authoritative here. If you get around to it, you can talk about a song or two, and even some of the lyrics or music. Just be careful not to go overboard describing the way the music sounds (which shouldn’t be too difficult, because describing music in words is actually not so easy).

6. Conclusion: Is it even possible to write a real conclusion in this post-modern world? Challenge your readers by finally giving them a thesis of some kind. This will insure that they’ll have to go back through the review to figure out what you were trying to say (as if that Official Editorial Position album score wasn’t enough). Or, better yet, leave them hanging–give them a question to chew on, or a quote or something. That’s some deep shit, man.

7. Diction: Remember, you’re writing for a hip internet site and your vocabulary needs to reflect that. Whenever possible use verbs that “pop”–don’t worry about how inappropriate or unfitting they may seem, if they invoke a strange action, especially one that doesn’t seem to go with listening to music, go with it. Also, don’t waste your time describing the musicality of the album when Pitchfork has already created its own lexicon to help you. Using vague adjectives like “sun-kissed” and “art-damaged” will lend authenticity to your review and make your readers nod their heads knowingly.

8. Score: As I mentioned, Pitchfork reviews score the album on a 0.0-10 scale. Although no one really understands this sliding scale, it’s important to note that most people won’t really read your review: they’ll look at the score and skim it (hence the need for all that diction that “pops”). Still, it seems like any score below a 7.0 is not passing; 8.5 or higher is reserved for the cream of the crop. Special cases may call for a 0.0, like the review of the Flaming Lips’ album Zaireeka, an album that must be played on four CD players at once (of course this album warranted a 0.0; who could possibly take the time to find three friends with CD players, share the communal experience of quadrophonic sound the Lips intended–actually listen to the album–and write a review in time for a deadline? Not possible). Save 0.0s for Big Editorial Statements (I’m reminded of the “we don’t love you anymore” message sent to Sonic Youth after NYC Ghosts & Flowers). Similarly, really high scores should be reserved for Grand Artistic Statements by new bands that no one will care about next year.

9. Parting Thoughts: Remember, have fun with it, but not too much fun–after all you’re writing for the hippest music site there is, one that even has it’s own weekend festival dealie now. So just remain calm, cool, and collected–you have the weight of the Official Editorial Position behind you, so you’re allowed to let a nasty, hipper-than-thou attitude seep into your criticism. Finally, as was elaborated repeatedly above, whatever you do, don’t focus too much on the music at hand. Got it? Now you too can earn the fame, fortune, and crazy free sex that every aspiring Pitchfork writer deserves.