Pop Life

Friday, December 05, 2003


Oh yeah, and one more thing in regards to contemporary music journalism - this might be a rather insular comment, only of interest to other writers vs. the reading public, but what's most certainly happened too is that it's harder and harder for journalists and critics to find places to write for that actually encourage critical and thoughtful engagements with culture. This is sort of what I meant by the "Blender-ization" of content (which I ripped off from Jeff Chang) - everything is about zip and polish. Editors at most of the glossies want short, punchy reviews that are easy to read but that doesn't mean the writing actually says anything, only that it goes down easy. There was much hand-wrining over the Voice's decision to kill the long-form essay format in their music section and while some have argued that this has cut down on some of the bloated, convoluted pieces that more indulgent writers at the Voice have churned out, it also means that the opportunity to really get your hooks into something is gone. That same problem is practically everywhere in the current publishing world - from big blossies to alt weeklies, even WWW sites are trying to reduce word counts out of the assumption that readers are too lazy, impatient or stupid to appreciate anything longer than 100-300 words. Don't get me wrong - longer essays can be taxing as hell, especially if the writer is gassed off some self-aggrandizing ego shit (I don't name no names but ya'll know who's violating) but the problem with short pieces is that they make it damn near impossible for writers to ever get into "the big idea". This is something that Harper's covered in their May 2003 issue and while that article was not in reference to music or even cultural criticism per se, I think part of what Cristina Nehring has to say in that piece is wholly relevant to understanding why criticism/journalism has become so problematic. People are scared to speak their minds, scared to put the Big Ideas out there in fear of being criticized or ridiculed. So instead, we have all this diva writing masquerading as criticism on one hand and then snarky, soundbite fluff on the other.

When I get a chance, I'll list some pieces of music journalism from 2003 that I think run against the grain and suggest what is still possible in an sphere on increasingly shrinking opportunities.

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Speaking of writing I LIKE reading - here's Jessica Hopper on why Atmosphere rocks.
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Ok, so Sam Chennault asked this of me on his blog:
"I was a bit distressed to find Oliver Wang recommending this article.

After reading the article, it seems to be your run of the mill nostalgia piece that uses seniority as a crutch and mixs in rockist cheap shots at celebrity/pop culture and a recommendation for the De Capo's Best of White Criticism guide.

Yeah, we all give credit to Lester, Greil, and the other inhabitants of the rock crit cannon...but I really think that now is one of the best times for music criticism. With the advent of file sharing, people's music vocabulary and their thirst for new and dynamic styles has increased ten fold. And the internet has really brought the democratization of music criticism. Sure, a lot of the criticism "published" on the web may be half assed and amateur, but different perspectives never hurt anyone.

With music criticism, I'd personally like to see (off the top of the dome) a new subjectivism; renewed interest in how, where and why people actually engage with music; and a further departure from formalism. There are a lot of critics/ journalist doing it and doing it well.

And Oliver, your piece in the Guardian was great. So why are you gonna let this bitch-ass 40-something (probably) try to demean the new(er) generation of critics?"

To which I can only say to Sam: I wasn't suggesting the Herald article was perfect or that I agreed with every single opinion expressed. Da Capo can get the gas face f'real though I didn't think the Herald article really said that much in support of it. But here's the reals:

I passionately disagree that music journalism is better now than it has been in the past. While I'm heartened by your positive attitude, as far as I'm concerned, much of music journalism, especially hip-hop journalism, is absolute garbage or at the very least, a lot worse than it should be. Let's count the ways:

1) Rap journalism has never been more toothless, irrelevant and in the pocket of industry as it is now. For a far more comprehensive and articulate explanation of why, I'd refer people to Jeff Chang's "Word Power: A Brief, Highly Opinionated History of Hip-Hop Journalism" in Steve Jones's Pop Music and the Press. He makes the excellent point at the end of that essay that after Biggie and Tupac were murdered, the Source's, Vibe's, XXL's, etc. of the nation had the opportunity to really confront their own value system and what they were contributing to hip-hop's community. Rather than step up and really start critiquing from within, most simply capitulated to the predominant values of the industry and most base interests of the culture. Investigative journalism and hard-nosed opinion-making in rap mags is all but dead - when it falls to the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone to research who killed Biggie and 'Pac while rap rags quietly tip-toe around it, afraid of pissing off the wrong people (read: potential advertisers) you've pretty much lit up a big neon sign that says "we just want to party and bullshit" and lost whatever mandate may have existed for them to actually be hip-hop's inside voice - both in terms of responsible reporting as well as serving as a consciousness.

And frankly, no one can convince me that the level of writing in any of these major mags is as good now as it was 5-10 years ago. That's actually across the board - from The Source all the way down to URB. If you just compare the generation of active writers in the early '90s with the current pool of talent, it's thinned out. That's not to say there's not great writers abounding, but it's fewer and far between and what you don't see are the kind of all-star staffs that places like Vibe and XXL used to field. I'm not remotely on some ego shit with this because I was never part of that earlier wave.

2) Meanwhile, over at the mainstream music mags, you have a lot of wanna-be hipsters trying to write on hip-hop without much of the knowledge base to really tackle it responsibly. Their criticism is long on style, short on substance which is pretty much the general problem with music journalism writ large. As the article notes, many publications have been cutting back on word lengths, aiming for sweet, short and snappy but it's come at the expense of writing that builds into something and is willing to get deep. While I appreciate economy as next as the next guy, what we're seeing is a generation of blerb-meisters on the rise while long-form essayism is all but gone. Call me old school but I think it's important to have writers who are capable of doing more than just breeze through 100 words of clever, snarky comments. I love reading Blender for its list festishes and what not but their review section just depresses me and having spoken to several of the folks who write for that section, it depresses them too. Now, everyone has seemingly followed suit, even the Village Voice.

3) The Internet has created far more opportunities for aspiring writers to find a venue for publishing - indeed, my early criticism came in the form of newsgroup postings even though I didn't think of it as "writing" or "journalism" at the time. To that degree, I am grateful that it exists to give many people the opportunity to channel their voice somewhere. However, as you note, much, if not most, of the writing online is "half-assed and amateur." What's lacking online in most cases is any degree of editorial input that would help guide and improve the writing that's out there. So yes, I agree, the Internet has helped to "democratize" the field (insofar as those with access are now being heard, but of course, this doesn't mean doodles for the population that still lacks access, namely the poor and people of color, surprise, surprise.)

4) I was talking with Joan Morgan yesterday b/c I'm trying to recruit her for the EMP conference next spring and she was sharing her observation that while there are more women writing on hip-hop today then when she got started in the late '80s, the amount of critical racial/feminist voices has actually decreased. I think this is immediately apparent when you survey the landscape. Definitely more bylines from women, but what's lacking is an active engagement - not to even mention critique - with the same kind of social issues and concerns that last generation's women writers really brought to the forefront in their writing. This isn't some "boo hoo, no one's talking politics anymore" lament for the good ol' days - I don't expect people to write about hip-hop in 2003 the same way they did in 1993 because times have changed. But is hip-hop (or rock for that matter) any less sexist and misogynistic or irresponsible? Hell no. Yet, with the exception of a few voices - Elizabeth Berry's Jay-Z piece for example - can anyone say there is a cadre of critical voices anymore as there were in the heydey of the Lisa Jones, Lisa Kennedys, Joan Morgans, Danyel Smiths, et. al. of the last generation?

I'm not say there's no good journalism and criticism being written - there are MANY writers that I have tremendous respect and admiration for who are slugging away everyday. But I think it is totally valid - whether you're a 40 year old rockist or a 20 year hip-hop fiend (of which I'm neither) - to say that the state of music journalism right now, sucks. Between the death of smaller publications that once provided some balance in the field (Option and Ego Trip, R.I.P.), to the conglomeration of mass media outlets over the last few years (hello Clear Channel!), to what Chang has called the "Blenderization" of writing styles, I really think we find ourselves in troubling times and I'm glad people are willing to call this shit out. It's not an unmitigated disaster but we - as writers - could be doing a better job of contributing writing that doesn't pander to the status quo (andI included myself as one of the guilty in that regard).
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Thursday, December 04, 2003


Plug! Here's a good review of my book, Classic Material. By good, I mean it's well-written (which is more than I can say about a lot of the reviews I've read of the book. I know, payback's a MFer.
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Wednesday, December 03, 2003


more Bangs for your buck

Ah, the imbroglio that is pop music criticism... This Miami Herald article does a commendable job of breaking down some of the main challenges facing pop critics today. Or another way to put it - the article explains why most modern criticism is a crapola.
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Tuesday, December 02, 2003


after deconstructing the right, Lakoff starts in on his latte

I saw this on Sasha's blog. It's a great interview with UC Berkeley's progressive think-tank professor George Lakoff where he breaks down the rhetoric of America's political Right.
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this plus a housing allowance

This is probably a sign that I've been drinking WAY too much caffeine lately given all the cafe time I've put in to work on my dissertation but I had one of THE strangest dreams last night...

I dreamt that I was offered competing post-doctoral fellowships, one from a school in New York, the other from a school in Los Angeles. The LA college (there was no name) was apparently staffed by pushy but beautiful Asian witches who magically materialized at my house with my fellowship package details. They intimated that I had better take their offer or else bad things could happen - these were, after all, magical fellowship administrators. Then one of them tried to seduce me by wildly thrashing herself against the wall - sort of like a surreal Calvin Kline t.v. ad. Though I resisted her advances (really, I did), I have to admit their offer was attractive (and no, I don't mean it that way). The money was good and they had bonus perks like housing and travel arrangements. That plus I get hang out around hot Asian witches. Like I said, decaf = good thing.
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