Critiquing the rock critics: rock cliches

24 02 2013

Before I blast away, I’ll concede a few things.  First, there are only so many adjectives that the average writer and reader know and understand.  There are only so many words for good and bad.  I struggle with finding new ways to express similar ideas repeatedly.  Second, if you write a lot, it’s easy to fall into a style.  Words and phrases that work are tempting to repeat.  So, cliches are hard to avoid.

Understanding that, I still find it tiresome reading the same little cliches and catch phrases in the music and entertainment press, especially in concert and album reviews.  Here are some of the most over-used words and turns of phrase and what they really mean:

  • “Masterpiece” – In my oh-so-humble opinion, this word should reserved for the best of the best of the best.  I won’t say “cream of the crop” because that’s another awful cliche.
  • “_____ is even better than ______” – Where this type of comparison really gets me is when the comparison is a particularly weak one.  I just read a review of The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street is “even better than the White Album.” Um, no it’s not.  That’s somewhat beside the point.  Why the this-is-better-than-that statement in album reviews is cliche, besides its frequency of use, is that it’s a cop out.  If you don’t know what to say, just say that it’s better than something really good.
  • “Genius” – I’m guilty of this.  It’s incredibly tempting to call a talented musician, singer or songwriter a “genius.”  It’s hard to find ways to express something that seems great to one’s ears.  But not everybody that puts together a great album or two can really be called a “genius.”  There has to be another way of describing apparent greatness than to elevate its creator to the top of the human heap.  The problem: having too many geniuses zaps the word of its punch.
  • “Toe tapper” – It works but it’s just too cute to use all the time.
  • “Mesmerizing” – Like “genius,” very little output is so good as to deserve this descriptor.  How many songs or albums can there really be that take the listener out of him or herself?  Oh, the best music does that, but only the “cream of the crop.”
  • “An instant classic” – This is an oxymoron.  No, “it doesn’t have to be old to be a classic,” but any fair sense of the word “classic” suggests staying power.  How many mega-hits sound almost silly 10 years past their peak?  (Conversely, there is all kinds of material that, like some wines and cheeses, gets better with age.  Some albums sound better after they’ve had time to marinate and work their way through the culture.)  How about just telling us the song or album is a must-listen — and why it is so –and leave it to time to tell is whether it’s a “classic.”
  • “______ is channeling _______.”  – At worst, an artist “channeling” another is simply plagiarizing.  At best, that artist is “pseudo_______” or “______-esque”. . . to the critics ears.  This can be the critic’s crutch for saying something is familiar in the sound.  The problem: the critic doesn’t have to think about what is unique in the music when what is familiar, usually the most obvious thing to the average listener, need not be described.  You already know the familiar.
  • “The next Beatles” – There will never be another Beatles.  A few bands over the years have made a lot of noise, but Beatlemania and the combination of depth, quality and quantity of great pop music simply can’t be reproduced or matched, let alone topped.
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