In his essay “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell (1946) argues that modern English usage is prone to laziness and incompetence; by listing characteristics of bad writing that have become commonly accepted.
This essay will show that many contemporary music journalists do exemplify these bad habits of writing that Orwell described, but some of today’s music criticism can be shown to embody the kind of correct writing for which Orwell advocates.
Orwell (1946) notes that especially in art criticism “it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.”Hewett’s (2018) review of the Britten Sinfonia in The Telegraph, in which he refrains from writing about the instruments, melodies or anything concrete, falls under this category. Phrases describing the emotional quality of the music, like “fragile pathos”, “deliberately naive”, “pure energy” and “pure surprise”, are what Orwell would call meaningless.
Their ambiguity allows them to be considered as a personal opinion that cannot be disproved, as the words are not pointing at anything specific that the reader could find in the art.
While Cormick’s (2018) Pink Floyd review in The Telegraph contains actual reporting about the musicians and their work, it is still sprinkled with adjectives that Orwell would deem unnecessary. Sentences such as “The sound was immense, electrifying, galvanising, mesmerising and still deeply strange,” have words that each elicit a feeling, but strung together; their effect is reduced and the statement fails to provide the reader with any useful information.
Orwell (1946) is in favour of cutting out any word that is not absolutely essential. On top of being abstract, electrifying and galvanising when used to describe sound are so similar in meaning that the message of the sentence can hardly be improved by including both. While some words are unnecessary, some are unnecessarily complex.
According to Orwell (1946), “pretentious diction is used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements”. The use of jargon and pretentious language in music journalism makes the writing sound pleasant and masks the actual, often vague and feeble, the base of the argument.
Lukowski(2013) writes, in an album review for the BBC, about a record that used a “cerebral palette of sound to evoke the immensity of prehistory”. Stripped away of the pretentious, euphonious words, the sentence is revealed to be somewhat futile: “the retroflex sound brings to mind how long the prehistoric time was”.
Hewett (2018) uses jargon and references in his classical music review in The Telegraph that make the text inaccessible: “A complete Beethovenian, he delivered the short scherzo with idiomatic momentum.” Even if the reader is familiar with Beethoven and his scherzos, idiomatic momentum of someone’s delivery is still lacking in clear meaning.
Similarly, Hewett’s (2018) writing about the quintet that “offered a sequence of Gershwin arrangements that were full of wit, brilliant virtuosity and surprising harmonic turns,” is clouding an elementary observation in professional jargon.
The only redeemable message, which seems to be that the musician is simply talented, is hidden behind a list of abstract praises that need to be decoded. Sometimes, instead of pretentious words, it is mixed imagery that confuses the message. Longley (2013) writes about production techniques in his BBC album review in a manner that jumbles readers mind with unrelated illustrations: “ The dominant force of these songs is one of detailed sonic transgression, caught in a presumably intentional boxy, hard-edged production. Stripped and brutal, the dense repetitions are full of vocal stutter-snippets”, even though he only means to say the songs in the album were loud full of repetitive sounds effects.
The use of words and phrases that have completely different connotations and images, like “boxy”, “sonic transgression”, “vocal stutter-snippets” and “stripped and brutal”, makes the review almost meaningless.Orwell(1946) contend that lack of precision and the weakness to not choose words for their meaning cause this type of writing. Hence, mesh ready-made phrases together.
On the other hand, there is some music criticism that obeys Orwell’s dicta. For example, Kettle’s’(2019) review in The Guardian of Sondra Radvanovsky and Roberto Alagna’s performance in Andrea Chénier’s opera set is free of jargon and pretension, uses fresh, understandable metaphors and describes concrete features that the reader can find in the opera, like mood and character.
The review of Arctic Monkeys by O’Connor (2018) for The Independent is likewise written in a simple, accessible, yet descriptive language: “Lyrics on each song are rambling, stream-of-consciousness style; more like diary entries by one of the hotel occupants.”
This essay has shown that while some music criticism exemplifies what Orwell calls the habits of bad writing, like pretentious diction, using abstract words with no meaning and unintentional mixing of imagery, other music journalism is what Orwell would regard as good writing – it favours short words to long ones, concrete to abstract and uses fresh metaphors in an accessible way.
- Hewett, I.,2018. The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage in Oxford, plus the best of May’s classical concerts, The Telegraph(online). Available at:
- https://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/what-to-listen-to/top-best-classical-concerts-britain-uk-ma rch-2018/ (Accessed 28 May, 2019)
- Longley, M., 2007. Pere Ubu Lady from Shanghai Review, BBC ( online). Available at:
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/gdfd/ ( Accessed 25 May, 2019)
- Lukowski, A., 2013. The Knife Shaking the Habitual Review, BBC(online). Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/cvnv/ (Accessed 20 May, 2019)
- McCormick, N.,2018. Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets review, Dingwalls: thrilling return to weirdness of Sixties Pink Floyd, The Telegraph(online). Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/what-to-listen-to/nick-masons-saucerful-secrets-review-di ngwalls-thrilling-return/ (Accessed 25 May, 2019)
- O’Connor, R., 2018. Arctic Monkeys, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino album review: One giant leap, The Independent(online). Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/reviews/arctic-monkeys-tranquility-b ase-hotel-and-casino-review-album-alex-turner-lyrics-a8345146.html (Accessed 20 May, 2018)
- Orwell, G., 1946. Politics and the English Language, Orwell Library(online). Available at: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit Snapes, L., 2018.
- Shawn Mendes: Shawn Mendes review – lip-trembling pop is a turn-off, The Guardian(online). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/may/25/shawn-mendes-shawn-mendes-review-liptrembling-pop-is-a-turn-off (Accessed 26 May, 2019)
- Kettle, M.,2019. Andre Chenier review – a singers’ evening that won’t start a revolution, The Guardian ( online), 21 May. Available at:
- https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/may/21/andrea-chenier-review-royal-opera-house-london-alagna-radvanovsky ( Accessed 23.05.2019).
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