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The Dictionary Of Awful Music Writer Clichés

with 8 comments

First of all, I know this is just a list and not a dictionary. At best, it’s a glossary. Let’s just pretend I’m being ironic and move on. It also grants me immunity against Muphry’s Law.

This isn’t strictly related to Irish music – and Irish critics are generally more accomplished writers than their British and American equivalents – but this has been building up for a while, as some of the people who talk to me on The Twitter Machine will know. So I’ve decided to try and compile a definitive list of awful words and phrases that are often used in music reviews and really need to die a hellish, gruesome, preferably televised death soon.

This is a list in progress, and there are probably hundreds, so feel free to make any necessary additions in the comments or on de twitters. I’m particularly interested in anything between the letters I and P. S seems to be wholly over-represented.

[You can find a few of these in the embarrassment to journalism Barry Egan tried to pass off as a Prince review in this week’s Sunday Independent.]

Adverbs: Otherwise known as “-ly” words (though this isn’t always the case). You use too many of them. Trust me. They break up the flow of sentences, so only use them when they’re necessary to get your point across.

Aging Rockers: Often seen in front of “the Rolling Stones.” You’re allowed to just say “old,” you know. Or actually just state their ages. Or take the radical approach of not mentioning irrelevant and (usually) glaringly obvious details like age to begin with.

If you do insist on mentioning age like it’s some sort of inglorious affliction, please,  please try to use a euphemism that actually means what it’s intended to. You know, since  “aging” is a characteristic of being alive, not of being old.

Chanteuse: See also: songbird, cherub, anything else that makes a female singer sound like a statuesque siren on a rock in the ocean. “Sexist shite on a stick,” according to @DarraghMc. Recently heard on a quiz show with the question: “what is the occupation of a chanteuse?” I don’t think my answer of “faceless, brainless female unit” would have got me the points.

Copious: You probably use this is a synonym for “a lot,” which sells a rich and descriptive word short. Also it looks too much like “coitus” for my liking.

Dictionary: Do not, under any circumstances, begin a review with the words “Webster’s Dictionary defines…” or any variation thereof. It’s the ultimate example of “I don’t know how to write an engaging opening line.” Unless you’re quoting from Dr. Johnson’s original dictionary, don’t bother. Either put it into your own words or try something else.

Enigmatic: It’s OK to use the word “mysterious” every once in a while. Just because somebody is slightly unusual, or you find him difficult to figure out, that doesn’t mean he’s an enigma. It just means he’s a bit weird. Prince is actually an enigma. Bon Iver is not, despite what 3.86 million people would have us believe.

Enter [Artist/band]: Are you a playwright? No? Glad we agree.

Ethereal: I don’t have a massive problem with ethereal in itself. It is descriptive and has a place in writing, but it’s used to often in place of words like “light” or “airy” when you should really just use the simpler word first and leave ethereal for repeats. (Hat-tip to DarraghMc).

Gambit: I’ve used this one myself and I regret it very, very much. I’ve even seen “double gambit,” which isn’t even scientifically possible. But mainly just don’t say gambit.

Italics: Don’t use italics for emphasis, or at least don’t use them as a substitute for finding a more fitting word or phrase.

Nihilism: Just because a band is a bit bleak or pissed off, that doesn’t mean their music is nihilistic. Often used in reference to punk bands, which is even more stupid because they’re the diametric opposite of nihilists.

Plethora: Save the medical jargon for the emergency room, doctor.

Sophomore: Sophomore refers to a person’s second year of college. This is a cliché so laboured that even Kanye West – the man who named his first four albums after the stages of his college career – side-stepped it.

Sophomore slump: See: sophomore. Also see: clichés.

Songsmith: Very few musicians these days craft their songs by banging metal with a mallet, Shugo Tokumaru notwithstanding.

Soundscape: This is a particularly sinister one. Often preceded by the word “lush.” I once had a band email me to politely request that I change a line in my review of their record to read “soundscape guitars,” which makes about as little sense as saying “landscape hills.”

Troubadour: There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this: it’s nice to resurrect words of yore, but it’s just become one of those default words. Interestingly, a female troubadour was a “trobairitz” – that would be an impressive one to use. (Hat-tip to Eoghan).

Uniqueness: I’ve done this myself. Unique is unique: there are no degrees of uniqueness, so the phrase “one of the most unique” or “more unique” is meaningless. “Close to unique” is a more elegant way of putting it, or just plain “more distinct.”

Up and coming: This can be a useful phrase when reviewing porn, but not so much for music. With the possible exception of pornogrind.

X-not-X (Recent example: “disco-not-disco.”) Could you be a bit more indecisive, please? Perhaps bang a “maybe” on the end?

Let’s just do the maths on this one real quick. Say we assign a value of 1 to “disco” and a negative value to “not disco.” 1+(-1)=0. Congratulations, you’ve said precisely nothing. QED.

X “delighted the crowd”: Yeah, X tends to do that. Crowds also have this tendency of being delighted by musicians they like enough to fork over their hard-earned money to see. It’s only worth pointing out if they’re disappointed or indifferent.

X (new band) = Y (old band) on Z (illegal drug): Self-explanatory. Plus in almost all cases both X and Y have experimented with Z. (Hat-tip to Adebisi Shank).

You: Unless you’re addressing me directly, don’t say “you.” When I’m write about a song, I’m describing how it makes me feel. When I’m writing about an album, I’m talking about how it affected me. Don’t be afraid to own your own opinions. (Hat-tip to Ripfork. See: detachment syndrome).


Written by Dave

August 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Let me see – the following adjectives are all over the place now: gauzy, hazy, blissed out, nostalgic, ethereal. In fact, adjectives in general are a problem. I have used many of the above, to my shame.

    Whenever someone describes synth music, why is it always “stabs” of synth?

    pint-sized – I fucking hate the term pint-sized. Kylie and Prince are apparently ‘pint sized’. Why not just small, hah?

    When people who know absolutely F.A. about hip hop say something like ‘killer flow’ when it is excruciatingly obvious that they haven’t got a clue what they are talking about. The same goes for like-minded reviewers who wax idiotically about ‘wobble’ when talking about Dubstep, when the only thing that is really wobbling is their floundering prose as it drowns in a trench way out of its depth.

    survivors/ troopers/ etc for any band who have released more than three albums.

    Songbird for a woman. See also chanteuse, warbler, fucking lesser spotted tree pippit. Sexist shite on a stick.

    And many many more…


    August 2, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    • Oh God, now I’m starting to feel self-conscious. I hate using “ethereal” but always end up doing it anyway – at least it is somewhat descriptive.

      I was gonna put in “diminutive” over “pint-sized” but I guess that’s more of a stuffy Guardian type thing.

      I could probably just put in “dubstep” and say “not everything electronic is dubstep, dickheads.”

      And, yeah, so much sexist stuff going on. I saw “popette” recently in a Hot Press item, raged about it, then later realised I know the person who wrote it. Bit awkward.


      August 2, 2011 at 6:18 pm

  2. But Darragh, if you take away adjectives, what are we supposed to do?
    Troubador is a word I have tried to avoid in the past few months. Many other people haven’t avoided using it.


    August 2, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    • It’s always a folk troubadour too. Or at a pinch a punk troubadour. Just once I’d like to see a grindcore troubadour, or a National Socialist Black Metal minstrel.


      August 2, 2011 at 6:33 pm

  3. called Paddy Kelleher a troubador not long since! Adjectives are a tricky tightrope. They have to be used, naturally, but pop one, or two, in front of every word and you’re wading quickly into cliché swamp


    August 2, 2011 at 7:38 pm

  4. I love this Dave. I’d almost go off and make my own, but that would be painfully unoriginal. Also, guilty on one or two counts, though hopefully not the really awful ones. It is hard when you write a lot of pieces to avoid them all, sadly. I hate ‘take to the stage’, way overused.

    James Hendicott

    August 2, 2011 at 8:09 pm

  5. “Opening their live account with” HOT PRESS I’m looking at you!
    “dulcet tones” not sure if this is a cliche but I suspect it is.

    Big Monster Love

    August 2, 2011 at 8:14 pm

  6. Hahahah “disco-not-disco”!

    Um, I don’t mind cliches as long as there’s only one per article. That’s forgivable. I read a dreadful review of Dirty Epics recently that almost brought tears to my eyes tho.

    Anyway I’m probably the worst offender of all.


    August 5, 2011 at 8:23 am

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