I was a sophomore in a media studies class when I first heard the quote. If I had paid more attention to it way back then, my career path may have led me in a much different direction, one that didn’t involve the near-folly and non-stop high-wire act of using one medium to explain another. Like writing about visual creative, let’s say. The professor attributed the quote to Elvis Costello, then in the full throes of his angry young rocker phase. The prof told us that Elvis dropped it on an interviewer after being asked a question he didn’t like. He was said to have said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Only thing is, Elvis wasn’t the first one to say it. And he sure isn’t the only one who gets credit for the line. The website Quote Investigator says the line has been attributed to other artists, including Laurie Anderson, Thelonius Monk, Steve Martin and Frank Zappa. It definitely sounds like something Zappa would have said.
But Quote Investigator gives ultimate credit to the comedian Martin Mull for coming up with the gem that has hung over the heads of scribes like me. It says the first known use of the quote, from Mull, was found in The Detroit Free Press in February 1979. Mull had released a few albums of music, but he’s best known for his work as a sebaceous talk show host on the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman spinoffs Fernwood 2 Night and America 2-Night. (Mull also recorded radio spots for Michelob Dark beer, which came in a distinctive bottle and was the choice of callow college boys seeking to impress dates, but that’s another story). Even earlier references using a similar construction posit that writing about music is as logical as singing about economics.
I have kept these thoughts in mind as I blocked out the foundations for Chops, a column about creative work for MM&M that I’ll be writing every Tuesday. In reality, the best creative work should require no explanation, and no explication—it should stand on its own and speak for itself. But there’s always a backstory, and there’s always the story of the person and teams behind the work. That’s what this column will be all about. I’ll also showcase work that I think is just plain cool.
So that’s what we have to look forward to: a column about creative. About the work. About stuff we like. About the people who make it. And this is my favorite part: about the life of those who choose to make something out of nothing, to use all their talents and skills and data and bring it to bear on a problem and to solve it.
Got an idea for Chops? A story to tell or someone I should know about? Drop me a line at Stephen.Madden@Haymarketmedia.com.