I’ve never advanced beyond the idea I first had when I was twelve, that being a music journalist would be the coolest job in the universe.
Even then, back when Rolling Stone was still on newsprint, I recognized the essential paradox of music reviewing: It is impossible to describe in words what a song sounds like. You can fling around your adjectives, you can label a genre, you can list the recording and production details. But you cannot tell a reader whether they will like a song or not.
I’m so glad, after all these years, to be able to point to a music column I love: “The Number Ones” by Tom Breihan at Stereogum.com. Mr. Breihan is writing brilliant reviews about every single #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 from its inception in 1955.
Accumulated years have provided music journalism something today that it didn’t have when I was twelve: history, context, memories. Writing about songs everybody knows brings music journalism into the realm of archival research, perfect for an old librarian like me. A number of music magazines/sites today are focused on recycling old information, re-reporting quotes from the past with new headlines.
“The Number Ones” transcends that. Mr. Breihan’s writing is incomparable. Online publication makes possible something print magazines could never offer: the chance for the reader listen to the song, and watch the video, at the same time they’re reading the article. This allows the writer to stop trying to explain music, and instead to delight in a role of accompanying it.
It turns out that there’s something magical about writing in chronology, and it’s this: The readers know what’s coming next and can plan their comments in advance. Stereogum has attracted an audience of readers who know their music. The comments section of “The Number Ones” is packed with would-be music journalists themselves, who take the column about the song at hand and explode it into something extraordinary that encompasses the whole universe.
When I was unemployed for a few months in 1986, I started to write a novel about a planet that only used music for religious purposes, and what happened when a scientist on that planet picked up radio waves from Earth from 1955. Now I have a column that reminds me of that experience. “The Number Ones” gives me the gift of discovering old music for the first time.