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It used to be central to my life, but as I get older, it becomes less important. It doesn’t surprise me anymore, doesn’t thrill me, doesn’t open any new doors. No, I’m not talking about music. I’m talking about music writing.
Actually, rock music and rock journalism have developed in similar ways. Both have split between the crowd-pleasing and the arcane, and both are mostly working variations on precedents established in the ’60s and ’70s. The call for middle-aged writers to abandon writing about rockissued, for example, by middle-aged rock writer John Strausbaugh’s recent book Rock Til You Dropwould be more compelling if there were a new generation of rock writers whose work were in some way unprecedented. (The same is true, of course, of middle-aged rockers.)
Both rock and rock writing have been assimilated into mainstream culture in ways that were unimaginable in the early ’70s, when magazines such as Rolling Stone, Creem, and Fusion hit their stride. When Lester Bangs was first lauding the Stooges, there was no chance he’d get a call from the New Yorker (although the estimable Ellen Willis sometimes wrote about rock and rock culture for the magazine in the late ’60s). Now rock writing has been institutionalized at that arty high-society magazinedoubly institutionalized, in fact, as the New Yorker not only writes about pop music regularly but even publishes aexcuse me, themusic issue. The latest one demonstrates the advantages of being the New Yorker but proves that they ultimately don’t count for much.
For anyone who’s profiled a musician or band in the past decade, the “Music Issue” will engender a little jealousy. It features four medium-length profiles of established actsJay-Z, Ralph Stanley, PJ Harvey, and Radioheadthat employ a formula that’s conventional yet beyond the reach of most feature writers: Following the performer(s), the correspondent observes him, her, or them (1) on the road, (2) at some exotic locale (for Radiohead, it’s Bilbao; for Harvey, Anaheim; for Stanley, Manhattan), and (3) at home (Oxford, Dorset, and southwestern Virginia, respectively). The exception is Jay-Z, who stopped speaking to the reporter partway through the storywhich is great drama if you can get it.
This kind of globe-trotter scene-setting is routine for the New Yorker but rarely possible for music magazines (except sometimes Rolling Stone) or newspapers. That’s partially because of costs, but it’s also a matter of access: More than an hour to interview a musician or band is rare, and it’s usuallyif not on the phonein a sterile hotel or conference room. When the Smashing Pumpkins heroin-overdose incident occurred, it was shortly after I had interviewed the Pumpkins (well, two of them) in Detroit. A writer working on a news story called me, hoping for details about Pumpkinly misbehavior offstage, as if I’d been at the after-concert party or on the tour bus. But writers just don’t get to go on the bus anymore. Unless, perhaps, they work for upscale, prestigious magazines such as the New Yorker.
So the Music Issue’s writers made rare extended forays inside music’s inner sanctums, and what did they find? Well, nothing you wouldn’t expect. The stories are well-researched, well-edited, and generally well-written, although marred by the occasional overliterary image. (Did Harvey’s tour bus really park near palm trees “as long and thin as the fingers of God’s left hand”?) Yet both the premises and the conclusions are commonplace. Three of the four profiles accept the notion that sales are pop music’s vital sign, although the writers are bohemian enough to generally prefer performers whose records sell despite being in some way offbeat. Shorter pieces pick up the same theme: Robert Christgau approvingly reviews a legend-building bio of Kurt Cobain, whose Nirvana sold lots of records while being abrasive and sullen, and Nick Hornby listens to the Top 10 albums listed in the July 28 Billboard and counts himself brave. (Hey, Nick, some people listen to pop best sellers every weeknot just once every couple of decades.)
The Jay-Z piece is unabashedly listed under the rubric “The Music Industry”as opposed to “The World of Business,” the designation for a story about a top Steinway piano saleswoman that actually turns out to be a human-interest piece more penetrating than any of the celebrity profiles. (No surprise there; it’s easier to get something new from an unknown story than one that’s already been on the cover of all the music magsalthough the issue’s article about a wedding-reception band could have been clipped from the feature section of any newspaper that allows stories to run to more than 800 words.) Commercial success comes to the fore quickly in all the profiles save Harvey’s. She’s exempted, author Hilton Als explains, because she “broke free” of the two possible female rock role models who existed before her: Carole King and Debbie Harry.
This is nonsense, of course: Women singers who swagger, make rude noises, and are candid about sex are endlessly fascinatingand not just to feature writersbut Harvey didn’t invent the type. What about Lesley Gore, the Shangri-Las, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, and Grace Slick, to mention only a few examples that predate the punk and riot-grrrl eras? What’s more interesting about Harvey is that she maintains her aboveground status with only underground-level record sales, but Als sidesteps that issue in favor of invoking some Grammy nominations, as if those validated her.
Admittedly, big sales are intriguing in the case of Radiohead, whose recent music seems cussedly uncommercial. But the Radiohead piece is simply another example of the sort of mainstream-journalism rock profile we’ve been reading since Revolver: the astonishing tale of rock musicians who are actually smart and know stuff. Look, they read books and go to museums, and one of them really likes Messiaen! (Amusingly, author Alex Ross knows more about the band’s classical and jazz influences than its rock ones.)
The Stanley piece recalls the hundreds of dispatches that college-educated types have written about backwoods musicians since the folk and blues reawakening of the early ’60s: It marvels at the sensitivity of a primitive. But then, so does the Radiohead article. The New Yorker just can’t bring itself to take mere rock musicians as seriously as the conservatory-trained heroine of the “World of Business” story. Credentials are essential to the magazinewhich is why it makes a fuss over Messiaen and Grammy nominations. Rock’s very lack of credentials should be a strength, but you can hardly blame most rock writers for consenting to the assumptions of upmarket journalism. After all, it was the New Yorker, not Punk Planet, that such prickly, rule-breaking performers as Radiohead and PJ Harvey invited to dog them around the world. Mark Jenkins
Find a complete collection of What Goes On columns on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.