A Rational Conversation: Amy Wallace Explores How D'Angelo and Frank Ocean Transcend Soul Stereotypes...
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Two of the most important music stories of 2012 proved the return of D’Angelo and the rise of Frank Ocean, who put out the great Channel Orange album days after revealing on his Tumblr that his first love had been a man. Writer Amy Wallace wrote extensive pieces on both the artists for GQ, where she currently serves as a correspondent; she’s also an editor-at-large for Los Angeles Magazine, and over her career has contributed to prestigious publications spanning The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Wired.
For her D’Angelo feature – one of the year’s most insightful, illuminating, in-depth pieces of music journalism, if not this decade’s – Wallace enjoyed unprecedented access, spending considerable time with the enigmatic soul legend and even travelling to Europe with him on his first tour in over ten years. In her recently published Frank Ocean story, she spent a day with the headline-grabbing singer in New York and spoke to him about his momentous year, creating a revealing portrait that proved far more dimensional than any mere celebrity profile. Ducker and Wallace discussed the similarities between D’Angelo and Frank Ocean, and issues of masculinity in R&B (sort of, more on that soon).
Eric Ducker: Do you listen to a lot of R&B?
Amy Wallace: I do – old and new. I grew up in a small town in Ohio that was kind of the cradle of R&B of that time. The Ohio Players, Earth, Wind & Fire, The O’Jays, the Isley Brothers – the list of musicians who formed me could go on and on. Plus, I have a 15-year-old son who is hip-hop-obsessed: Miguel is on in the car a lot.
ED: Not a bad car soundtrack.
AW: Indeed. You said at the outset that you wanted to discuss masculinity in R&B. I have a caveat to that, if you will permit me. I feel I should say that the two male R&B singers I’ve had the good fortune to interview lately, D’Angelo and Frank Ocean, aren’t comfortable with the label of R&B. Neither one of them is particularly fond of labels in general, but this one in particular rankles. D’Angelo, who’s long been labeled the King of Neo-Soul as well, said he didn’t want to be put in the R&B or the neo-soul box. He told me, “I hate the term R&B, because that acronym robs us” – by “us,” he meant black musicians – “of our proprietorship of rock & roll. Because that’s our shit.” For his part, Frank Ocean spent a fair bit of time with me refusing to be labeled, either musically or in terms of sexual orientation. But of R&B specifically, he said, “It’s really racially charged and kind of archaic.” “Demeaning?” I asked. “I don’t know about ‘demeaning.’ I think ‘inaccurate,’” he said. “So what do you call your music?” I asked. “Music,” he responded. “I call it post-modern, and people look at me like I’m being an asshole.” I say all this not to derail your interview, but because I think the issues are related. Part of what is going on in black popular music – in its forms and in the topics it continues to tackle – is a resistance to being labeled one thing or another.
ED: That’s really helpful, actually. I think we can bring this conversation into broader issues of masculinity in music, and the hows and whys people make (or don’t make) music. We can look at it from the perspective of these two African-American men, but we don’t have to dwell on the issue of race, especially since neither of us are African-American men – though I think it probably does have an impact on how what D’Angelo and Frank Ocean do is perceived.
AW: Yes. And I think to leave it out is impossible for a couple of reasons: 1. In Frank Ocean’s case, he has taken extra flak (and gotten extra praise) because hip-hop is so notoriously homophobic. 2. D’Angelo definitely paid the price for being a sexy black man, even as he rode that image to superstardom. Race plays a role in both. But yes, let’s not dwell.
ED: So, how do you think issues of masculinity motivate or hinder the creative work of Frank Ocean and D’Angelo?
AW: That’s a big question. Leaving gender preference utterly out of it, I think Frank Ocean is poetic in his ability to capture the difficulties of being a man. In “Pyramids,” there’s that moment when the song’s narrator, a man, is watching his woman get dressed to go to work at the strip club. He wants to have her to himself, but also appreciates that she’s got a job that pays the bills. She makes him feel like a man simply in “the way you say my name,” as he sings. “But I’m still unemployed.” In that little stanza, there’s so much about male-female power dynamics and the need to feel masculine, and how elusive that can be. Ocean is cinematic in his songwriting, and I’m not the first to say it. He’s a big Kubrick fan. He captures moments, as if with a camera, that really shed light on the state of the modern American man like almost no one else does. D’Angelo, meanwhile, I could write a book about. He’s made no secret that he is a huge Marvin Gaye fan, and that he’s haunted by dreams of Gaye. Before I interviewed him, I read David Ritz’s fantastic biography of Gaye, Divided Soul, because I’d heard that D loved the book. Gaye struggled with both his own masculinity and with the demands of his female public, and D has wrestled with the same. That said, in his music, D’Angelo can write about heartbreak like no other – by which I mean he is willing to be vulnerable. “The Root” is a song about being utterly wrecked by a woman. In that, he stands apart from much of hip-hop, or any music you hear on the radio, in how he’s willing to admit just how much power carnal love – and thus, women – have over him: “She left a stain, a dirty stain in my heart.” There’s also a feeling in D’s music that he sees connecting to a woman to be the highest calling, the greatest communication. That’s a lot for a manly man to confess. No wonder women love him so.
ED: You alluded to it in your D’Angelo piece, this idea that his masculinity is somehow diminished if women look at him too much as a sexualized object, or if he does anything to consciously promote that perception, such as maintaining the body he had turning the Voodoo era. I found that really interesting, that if his sexuality is too much out there, even if it’s clearly hetero, it makes him less of a man.
AW: For D’Angelo, this all proves very complicated because, at heart, he’s a music nerd. He knows every Prince concert’s playlist. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of James Brown and Otis Redding and Al Green. He doesn’t just want to be famous and successful; he wants to be respected as an artist. I know that sounds hokey, sort of, but it truly is his driving desire. Getting cut down to sinew helped drive his popularity, but when it began to dominate his experience – when women started to scream for him to take it all off – he felt not just cheapened as a man, but dissed as an artist. After my D’Angelo profile came out, more than one blogger noted the irony of what one called What Happens When Men Get Treated Like Women. The gist was, essentially, men can’t handle it.
ED: How D’Angelo and Frank Ocean deal with these two concurrent and sometimes conflicting ideas of “How do I present myself as a man?” and “How do I present myself as an artist?” is what makes them so interesting.
AW: Yes. Frank Ocean would say his gender orientation makes no difference, or shouldn’t make any difference, to those listening to his music. He argues that we relate to the feelings he describes – love, lust, yearning – and that they are the same no matter who is experiencing them. But his masculinity remains a key element; I’m fascinated when I read on Twitter how many women still proclaim their romantic love for him. In that sense, maybe he’s right: he is post-modern. I told Frank during our interview about being struck by my son and his male friends’ reaction to Frank’s Tumblr post about his first love. What interested them most was that he’d opened up this idea to them that people can sometimes love men and sometimes love women depending on who they happen to fall in love with. Once they took that in, they moved on, and went back to playing the music. I think that’s a shift, for young men to be so unfazed and unthreatened by that choice.
ED: Were you surprised by his response when you asked him, basically point blank, if he was bisexual? He kind of dismissed the whole idea, and said he wanted to move on.
AW: That exchange was prefaced by my mentioning a very high-profile music blogger, who had posted on her Tumblr page that she had asked Frank if he was comfortable with the label “bisexual,” and that he had told her he was. I raised that, and he balked. He said he’d never spoken to that blogger, didn’t know her, and in fact thought from her handle that she was a man. I mention all this only to say, my first surprise was that someone had claimed to have vetted this with him and had somehow not done so. From there I had to back up, as in, “Okay, so do you want to define yourself?” But by that point, it was clear the answer was “no.” It offends him that people think it matters in terms of his music. And yet, he knows that it does matter in terms of the progress he may be helping to make in the culture. He’s aware that his going public with his experience will potentially help other young people, and he’s happy about that. In that way, interestingly, Frank and D are similar. It offends Frank that people think his sexual preference shapes his music; it offends D that people think his body defines his artistry.
ED: From reading both of your articles back to back, some interesting parallels came up. In the D’Angelo piece, Chris Rock talks about the idea of black exceptionalism ,where if you’re a star, you have to be the best at what you do – the “Tom Hanks is an amazing actor and Denzel Washington is a god to his people” line. You said Frank Ocean doesn’t necessarily think in terms of race, but you get the sense that not only does he think he has to be the best artist because he is a black man, but he has to be a particularly exceptional artist because he is a black man who doesn’t outwardly identify himself as heterosexual.
AW: Absolutely. One important difference between them is that so much of D’Angelo’s upbringing was shaped by the Pentecostal church, many of whose traditions were forged as a way of enduring and surviving the cruelties of slavery. It occurred to me after talking to Frank Ocean that church hadn’t come up once; I didn’t ask him about it, but organically, in telling me about the roots of his career, it didn’t figure prominently. D is 38 and Frank is 25, and there are differences that stem from that as well. But what you say about Frank feeling the pressure to be exceptional – or “better than all you pieces of shit,” as he says in the piece – especially because of his unwillingness to pretend to merely be heterosexual is right on. I was struck that, even as he stepped outside of the accepted norms in hip-hop by revealing having loved a man, he at the same time kind of used the braggadocio of hip-hop in the way that he discussed it with me. His assertion that Channel Orange was good because “I worked my ass off,” that he didn’t have to “affect all this humility,” that he’d made “one of the most brilliant pieces of art that has come out in my generation” – all that was big talk that fell squarely in the boastful hip-hop tradition. His rhetoric came up over the top of his critics – dominating them, or at least attempting to – even as he was talking about doing something that some would label less than masculine. I loved that he was resisting it and using it at the same time.
ED: Did you get any sense of how Frank Ocean regards D’Angelo’s music? And conversely, do you get the sense that D’Angelo pays any attention to what’s happening in the world that I’ll obliquely refer to as “youngish black men making music”?
AW: Frank and I talked briefly about D’Angelo. He was lamenting having missed a concert of D’s that I went to at the House of Blues in L.A. He’s a fan, even though he was only 13 when Voodoo came out. D’Angelo’s muses are the established greats: Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, J Dilla and, of course, Prince, Bowie and George Clinton. But there is evidence that he listens to younger, more modern people. He covered a Soundgarden song that made it to the Internet at one point.
ED: It’s funny that you pointed to Soundgarden as modern, considering that even they pre-date D’Angelo’s recorded output.
AW: I caught myself as I typed that. I guess what I meant was, he looks outside of the genres most people would assume he’s steeped in. He’s a broadly curious music fan. He is no fan, however, of much mass-produced popular music – what he’d call “whatever the fucking gatekeepers have us doing because they think that that’s the formula to make money.”
ED: It’s tough to hypothesize on this, but do you think Frank Ocean seems psychologically capable of handling the pressures of what he’s currently going through? I don’t think Channel Orange is his Voodoo, but everything is even more accelerated in culture now. Or do you think Ocean’s personality and generational differences from D’Angelo will enable him to keep putting out music at a more regular pace and not have to physically or mentally retreat?
AW: I think they are very different. In a very real sense, I would worry more about Frank Ocean if he hadn’t made his revelation public. As much as it will complicate things at times for him, I got the clear feeling that it has vanquished, not strengthened, his demons. So at the start of his stardom, he’s shedding baggage. For D, his fame introduced new pressures he’d never before imagined. He wasn’t always a sex symbol, remember; that came with the Voodoo tour and album. Of course, I’m no psychologist: while I’m grateful for the access I got, I’ve spent very limited time with either man. But Frank seems pretty solid within himself to me.
ED: Cool, we’ve covered what I wanted to cover. Anything else you want to talk about?
AW: Only that I’m hopeful that Frank Ocean signals that things are, if not completely shifting, then expanding. Yes, there are still misogynist and homophobic lyrics in hip-hop and rap (and rock, for that matter). Even Odd Future, the rap collective that counts Frank Ocean as a member, has lyrics that rely all too heavily on the use of “faggot” and its variants. There’s still machismo to spare. But there’s also Ne-Yo singing, “Let me love you Until you learn to love yourself.” Or expressing his romantic interest in a woman, in “Miss Independent,” based on her ability to pay her own bills. I’ve never met Ne-Yo, and his voice is in the upper registers, but if you ask me, he’s got masculinity to burn.
ED: Oh wait, I have one more question: Do you think D’Angelo will release a follow-up to Voodoo in the next year? The next three? This decade?
AW: I don’t know, but I can’t wait for it, whenever it drops. The tracks I’ve heard are unbelievable.
ED: Now you’re just trying to make me and the rest of the world jealous.
AW: Yes. Yes, I am.
Wow, we had no idea it was this bad. Yeah, we thought we’d be clever-ish and tie in a story about 2012’s musical turkeys with Thanksgiving (admittedly an original idea). Alas, there were so many more than we remember, it got depressingly unfunny: this might turn out to be one of the worst years ever in recent memory when it comes to the quality of popular music being released. Maybe the album is dead, indeed: 2012 unleashed so many turds in the format, maybe it deserves to die, after all! The year’s sonic stiffs run the gamut, from superstars like Madonna to indie also-rans (POP ETC, anyone?), and beyond… Really, it’s staggering the amount of crass crap we were forced to endure. So, in no particular order, we’ve compiled what in our opinion makes for the worst music of 2012 – well, okay, we put Kreayshawn first on purpose…
Kreayshawn, Somethin ‘Bout Kreay
Hard to imagine an album dropping with a more sickening thud than this. Kreayshawn’s first proper album turned out to be a cautionary tale for rappers who find fame online. Between the pushed-back release date, the 11 month wait for a second single and the exclusive distribution deal with Hot Topic, Somethin ‘Bout Kreay was mishandled at every turn. Sold 3,900 copies in first week. You go, girl!
Silversun Pickups, Neck of the Woods
Blah, uninspired, unmemorable. Makes guitar rock seem even more uncool than it is.
This band makes their homies Coldplay sound like Pig Destroyer. Utter U.K. middle-of-the-road garbage.
Martin Solveig, Smash
EDM does not age well. So why would they release this old-ass album after it’s been out forever worldwide?
Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man
Natasha Khan used to be so good, but this new effort is oddly whatever and uneccentric. Telling that the best song, “Laura,” was co-written by one of Lana Del Rey’s studio surgeons.
Chris Brown duet. Chris Brown duet. Chris Brown duet. Beneath contempt.
Chris Brown, Fortune
The only thing worse than a Chris Brown duet is an entire album from the infamous woman beater.
Trey Songz, Chapter V
The only thing worse than a Chris Brown album is a Trey Songz album, or vice versa. At least he doesn’t beat up his girlfriends.
The Offspring, Days Go By
Who cares? As bland as its title – an achievement for a band that once covered The Didjits.
The Darkness, Hot Cakes
This whole reunion thing is getting pretty fucking baroque at this point. Not so hot.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, Last of a Dying Breed
Appropriate title – these crackers actually supported Romney!
Kid Rock, Rebel Soul
Another proud Romney supporter from the world of ersatz Southern rock. FYI, Confederate flags are never cool.
Phillip Phillips, World From the Side of the Moon
American Idol contestant who idolizes Dave Matthews with bizarrely redundant name. All you need to know, keep it moving.
Pitbull, Global Warming
Not cool. But inescapable in your spin class, regardless.
Aerosmith, Music From Another Dimension!
Notable only for inappropriate use of exclamation point.
Cee Lo Green, Cee Lo’s Magic Moment
When a once great singer and idiosyncratic talent is better known for hosting a TV show than his music, maybe it’s a wrap.
Calvin Harris, 18 Months
A leader in the quest to make dance music boring.
Paul Banks, Banks
Better be banking on a new Interpol album, homey.
Gary Clark Jr., Blak and Blu
Amazing guitarist. Incredible live show. Unique talent. Absolutely yawn-inducing, major-label-music-making-by-committee sounding album.
Swedish House Mafia, Until Now
Thank the almighty these motherfuckers are breaking up.
One Direction, Take Me Home
Incredibly, people go crazy for this junk. Critics have even begun doing the whole “taking One Direction seriously as a pop-cultural force” thing. Fuck that noise.
Trey Anastasio, Traveler
“Phish leader’s new solo album” just rolls off the tongue, don’t it?
Muse, The 2nd Law
Despite overblown ambition, can’t remember one goddamn chorus from this thing.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Pretty cool album from enigmatic indie legends – but it still sounds like Dream Theater at times.
Jessie Ware, Devotion
“Dubstep Adele.” Sounds great at your major-label boardroom meeting, right? Inspired blind critical devotion regardless.
Matt & Kim, Lightning
That cute act only goes so far. Karmin for Brooklynites?
Smashing Pumpkins, Oceania
This whole reunion fever thing does indeed seem to be over – especially when it’s, like, not a reunion at all, exactly. Related: James Iha released a solo album in 2012. OMG…
Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan
Weirdo band tries to write more conventional pop songs. Mmmm-hmmm.
Usher, Looking 4 Myself
R&B star tries to remake his career by copping EDM beats. This shit just writes itself sometimes.
The Hood Internet, Feat
Mash-up dudes try to make non-mash-up album. Fail.
The xx, Coexist
Sounds just like their last album, but not as good.
David Byrne & St. Vincent, Love This Giant
Two annoyingly precious musicians from different eras team up to make even more annoyingly precious music together.
Dave Matthews Band, Away from the World
“Critic proof” is about the highest compliment one can give this shit.
Mumford & Sons, Babel
Used to know a guy who said something to the effect of “If it sells, it probably smells.” Naw mean? This guy does, for sure.
Exponentially grating. Remember when these people were critical darlings? Oy.
Deadmau5, >Album Title Goes Here<
It seems the more tickets an EDM DJ sells, the worse their albums are.
Band of Horses, Mirage Rock
Mirages aren’t real.
The Killers, Battle Born
Break up already, please. Of course, that would inevitably mean more Brandon Flowers solo albums, but we’ll take our chances.
Grizzly Bear, Shields
Shit is mad boring.
Carly Rae Jepsen, Kiss
Better to have one hit than none at all, probably.
Ben Folds Five, The Sound of the Life of the Mind
If this is the sound of the life of the mind, then the mind is dead. Seriously, who’s screaming for a Ben Folds Five reunion right now?
Nope, there’s not a song on here as good as “Gimme Sympathy.” Oh, well.
Marina and the Diamonds, Electra Heart
It’s tough when someone tries to cross over so hardcore and no one cares. One Florence Welch is enough, thank you.
Uno! Dos! Tres! – or however many Green Day albums were released this year…
That whole Use Your Illusion shtick only worked once. Stick to writing musicals.
Norah Jones, Little Broken Hearts
Danger Mouse producing your record does not equal “edgy.”
Electric Guest, Mondo
Danger Mouse producing your record does not equal “edgy.”
Rick Ross, God Forgives, I Don’t
Rare misstep from one of hip-hop’s more dependable entertainers. Frankly, we’re not going to say anything nastier than that because we’re afraid the Teflon Don might send someone to kill us.
Animal Collective, Centipede Hz
This formless mess “hurts” our ears. Liked these cats better when they were ripping off Pet Sounds.
Paul Weller, Sonik Kicks
What becomes a legend most? Not releasing self-indulgent double albums that feature no good songs.
You’re not missing out on anything except reheated trip-hop space jams.
POP ETC, POP ETC
Indie band turns into weird faux auto-tune R&B crap. Why?
One would need some “molly” to get through this whole album.
Matchbox Twenty, North
Their first album together as a group in over a decade. At least it stemmed the tide of Rob Thomas solo albums.
Yeasayer, Fragrant World
“Fragrant” is a nice way of saying something smells. Brooklyn, you’re past your sell-by date.
Owl City, The Midsummer Station
If you can’t say anything nice… Okay, then, how about “Makes Gotye sound like Throbbing Gristle in comparison”?
Ry Cooder, Election Special
Admittedly excellent guitarist releases “topical” album. As bad as that sounds, and instantly dated. Obama won, by the way.
Bloc Party, Four
Once cool post-punk revivalists get in touch with their nu-metal roots. We can’t make this shit up, people.
The Hives, Lex Hives
Don’t call it a comeback. Call it junk.
Joe Walsh, Analog Man
Admit it, you were jonesing for a new Joe Walsh solo album.
Homey, don’t call your album that. Truth in advertising. Bet Coachella will give you da big bucks for a Postal Service reunion, tho…
Scissor Sisters, Magic Hour
Dim light, indeed.
Garbage, Not Your Kind Of People
Not our kind of warmed-over ‘90s mallternative. Then again, nothing is, really, so…
Gossip, A Joyful Noise
Eh. Not so much.
John Mayer, Born And Raised
Santana, Shape Shifter
Into the shitter.
Macy Gray, Covered
Macy Gray covers a bunch of songs. What an awesome idea!
A relapse would be an improvement on these tame industrial-metal clichés.
Marilyn Manson, Born Villain
Jason Mraz, Love Is A Four Letter Word
So is “Mraz,” motherfucker.
Brendan Benson, What Kind of World
In what kind of world would Brendan Benson release an album on the same day as his more talented and famous bandmate in The Raconteurs, Mr. Jack White? Oh, our shitty one.
Rufus Wainwright, Out of the Game
Snow Patrol, Fallen Empires
Sometimes the mighty fall the hardest. And sometimes, it’s just middle-of-the-road major-label “modern rock” crap that does.
Lee Ranaldo, Between The Time And The Tides
Sonic Youth broke up so dude could make tepid college-rock jangle with a dude from Medeski, Martin, and Wood?
The Ting Tings, Sounds From Nowheresville
Albums like this get titles like this to preclude critics from saying “this just blows.” Sophomore slump from a band no one cared about anyway. Unlistenable.
Meat Loaf, Hell In A Handbasket
As bad as you’d expect, and then some.
The Big Pink, Future This
The big hype, like, three years ago. Today, not so much.
Steve Aoki, Wonderland
The death of EDM, even before the plug is pulled. LMFAO cameos aren’t exactly the expressway to credibility, but nobody appeared to buy this shit, either. (The appearance of a Die Kreuzen member here did send us for a loop, however.)
The Internet, Purple Naked Ladies
Hmmm, is this Odd Future shit over?
Jamie Woon, Mirrorwriting
Easy listening singer-songwriter dubstep. Yeah, sounds like a drag to us, too.
Die Antwoord, Ten$ion
Overhyped Internet crap turned overhyped major-label crap turns into just crap seemingly as overnight as Die Antwoord’s initial success.
Van Halen, A Different Kind of Truth
Classic lineup make not-so-classic album. Ho-hum.
The Phenomenal Handclap Band, Form & Control
Might bring back the “disco sucks” movement.
Dubstep is really big with the kids – except when it’s not. Like this album.
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Self-important nonsense. As an album, it makes a great campaign theme, but not much else. Old shit was better. Duh.
Kaiser Chiefs, Start The Revolution Without Me
Dudes, the revolution long passed you by.
The Cranberries, Roses
Sometimes you realize that band you liked in high school was never any good, anyway.
Katy Perry, Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection
You re-released an eighteen-month-old album. That’s the dumbest idea we’ve ever heard. Even if it was an album we liked the first time around, we’d still object out of principle. Go sit in the corner, Katy.
The Mars Volta, Noctourniquet
Mad unlistenable, yo. And jeez, stupid album title.
Oberhofer, Time Capsules II
Sometimes indie bands get signed before they have anything to say. Voila!
Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded
It’s increasingly hard to remember that, underneath all the packaging, Nicki Minaj is actually a really good rapper. Pink Friday, which had a few solid hip-hop tunes buried under layers of generic vomit-y dance pop, didn’t help matters any.
A Rational Conversation: Julianne Escobedo Shepherd Zaps Gwen Stefani and No Doubt's Cultural-Appropriation Fails...
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Recently No Doubt released its big comeback video for the song “Looking Hot”: in it, lead singer Gwen Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal dress like Native American stereotypes straight out of a half century-old Western while their other bandmates appear as cowboys. There are headdresses, there are teepees, there are smoke signals. Yuck. Not surprisingly, members of the Native American community, as well as a lot of similarly reasonable people, complained about the video’s depictions and imagery. Subsequently, the band and its label, Interscope, took it down, while No Doubt offered an apology saying that they were sorry, but that it had been given a pass by “Native American friends and Native American studies experts at the University of California.” This is not the first time allegations of racial insensitivity have been directed at Stefani and her band, however. Ducker discussed No Doubt’s history of cultural misfires with writer Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, who has contributed to publications including SPIN, VIBE, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and AlterNet.
Eric Ducker: I wasn’t surprised by the recent negative response to the “Looking Hot” video. What I was surprised about was that, after all the times Stefani and No Doubt have had similar criticism leveled at them in the past, that they would do something so blatantly racially insensitive and offensive.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: Right? I totally agree. And every time this happens with them or anyone else, I wonder about all the people who had to go through the process of making that video and whether any of them thought, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this ” But at the same time, it’s possible the band has just been completely shielded to the fact that people have ever called them out – no one on the scale of Sherman Alexie has ever complained before. Also, the last time No Doubt dropped a video – or even when Gwen Stefani dropped her solo album, Love, Angel, Music, Baby – there was no Twitter or other instantaneous-feedback outlet to call them out.
ED: You don’t think any of them have Google Alerts set up for “No Doubt” or their own names?
JES: I have no idea. I definitely wouldn’t want a Google alert on my name if I were that famous. Maybe they’re just in their own bubble with “yes people” all around them. But then, maybe they just don’t care. They’ve done this so much! I mean, since the 1990s. I keep thinking about Tony Kanal, an Indian-American who has made beats for Das Racist, and I’m like, “Really dude?”
ED: Do you think they thought it was funny? Maybe there’s an element of humor that didn’t come across, like, “People take issue with our lead-singer co-opting aspects of Indian culture, so we’re going to do a real over-the-top video where we co-opt ‘not really Indian’ Indian culture.”
JES: Honestly, I think they were thinking of it as a very high-fashion photo shoot, the same way models in blackface end up in women’s magazines time and again with no sense of self-awareness. I don’t see how there could be any humor at all in it, and if they thought so, they have very bizarre and heretofore unknown senses of humor. But equally indictable is the director, who had to write the treatment to be approved. She imagined this weird, offensive, and completely without context “cowboys and Indians” scenario, wrote it out, and a bunch of people said, “Hell yeah! Here’s a shit-ton of money to do that!”
ED: Who was the director?
JES: Melina Matsoukas, who got popular with Snoop’s “Sensual Seduction” and even did that amazing new Solange video shot in South Africa with the Sapeurs! I don’t know what the hell she was thinking. The thing that really got me is that in the first ten seconds, Gwen is dressed as some kind of “squaw,” pulled off her horse, and then tied up by her hands by two “cowboys” in facemasks. Has anyone ever heard of genocidal rape around here? C’mon! And actually that’s what the UCLA Center for American Indian studies was most upset about in their open letter to No Doubt’s apology that basically said, “Our Native American friends didn’t tell us this wasn’t okay!” The UCLA Center’s official response notes, “Most importantly the video is rife with imagery that glorifies aggression against Indian people, and, most disturbingly, denigrates and objectifies Native women through scenes of sexualized violence As lead singer Gwen Stefani writhes, partially dressed (as an Indian) and shackled in ropes while overseen by domineering white men brandishing pistols, today real Native American women in the United States are in a state of crisis.” Also UCLA denies that anyone was consulted by No Doubt’s camp. But the thing is, I get it with La Gwen: she is completely obsessed with “other” cultures, appropriates them constantly, and doesn’t think it’s wrong because she is “down” or whatever. Again, though, I have no idea how she justifies it in her mind. It’s insane white privilege at its most unflappable. But at the same time, like I wrote on my Tumblr, I have a real love/SMDH relationship with her and No Doubt.
ED: It’s totally conjecture, but I don’t know if she does think she gets a pass because she considers herself “down.” I think it’s entirely possibly she’s clueless that people might be offended by her using aspects of their culture as an element of her personal style. It does seem tied to a fashion-magazine mentality where everything is fair game to be reinterpreted or co-opted for the sake of presenting something that looks interesting or potentially cool.
JES: I don’t disagree with you that it’s possible she has no clue, and it very much is tied to a fashion magazine mentality of “looks” rather than actual “culture.” We’re seeing the resurgence of what I like to call the “fashion bindi” on artists like Grimes, and we can’t forget that Gwen is the first person who popularized wearing bindis outside of their cultural and religious context in the 1990s. There are also photos of her styling bindis and rhinestones in the fashion of Brahmins over her eyebrows, which kicked off Madonna’s own India exploitation fest. In the “Luxurious” video, Gwen went full white-blonde chola: she grew up in Anaheim, which is deeply Latino, and went to a majority-Latino school, so certainly she was around it, but like, everybody knows you can’t cut an image of La Virgen on a half t-shirt just to show of your blazin’ hot bikini bod.
Even if you’re not religious, in Mexican culture, La Virgen is so important it’d be like a Canadian (Avril?) coming to the U.S. and pissing on like, a statue of Beyoncé. That’s a convoluted analogy, but it was really disrespectful. Gwen couldn’t just go, “Oh hey, they have really cool style in the Harajuku section of Tokyo”: she had to get some mute Japanese back-up dancers as accessories to go along with that look, which I think was the first time she was seriously criticized on a more mainstream level.
ED: Was the fashion bindi the first instance where people started noting her ill-advised decisions?
JES: I think so. She wore a bindi in the “Just a Girl” and “Don’t Speak” videos, but it wasn’t super obvious because it was just a pretty normal bindi, the kind Indian women buy in a pack. They’re basically little stickers. I would bet that she was somehow influenced by Tony Kanal with that. But then as No Doubt got more popular and she became better known as a style icon, she started going more buck with it, lik e in this one insane photo that’s so over the top – so ‘90s. Rave style was coming into mainstream culture by the time of that photo, and everyone was super influenced by dropping ecstasy in Goa, so the bindi fashion was part of that, too.
ED: There’s another aspect to this that doesn’t really get mentioned, probably because it’s a bit passé as a larger subject and isn’t exactly how No Doubt are perceived in 2012, but No Doubt is a ska band composed of three white people and one Indian-American. Personally I don’t have an issue with people from outside of the race who originated a form of music doing their own interpretation of it; I often think the resulting such mutations are interesting, but maybe that does say something about how they relate to other cultures. Predominantly white ska bands were around before No Doubt existed, but they are probably the most successful, non-black ska band in the world – the most successful ska band in the world, period. We must acknowledge, however, that the members of No Doubt’s longtime touring horn section, Gabe McNair and Stephen Bradley, are both African-American, but they usually get about seven seconds of collective screen time in each video.
JES: That’s a really important point you make, and one that I think is brought up most frequently with Rock Steady, which was also their most straight-up reggae record. They had Bounty Killer and Sly & Robbie on there, but the most popular song was “Hella Good,” with the Neptunes. I’m betting they didn’t really open up the masses to Jamaican/dancehall sounds on a broad scale, but maybe I’m cynical. Relatedly, around that time, Gwen was wearing a lot of Jamaican flag colors and vague touches of “dancehall queen” style. It’s also interesting that they collaborated with Diplo this time around “Push And Shove”: he gets the criticism that mostly has lied beneath the surface in relation to No Doubt, presumably because he’s more attached and connected to the underground global subcultures he’s working with/utilizing/appropriating/whatever your view. But then you get into the issue of cultural permission, which is a somewhat dated argument, as you said. There’s a thin line between appreciation and appropriation, though. Maybe this new video is the first time they’ve so blatantly stepped over the line.
ED: That is the thing with this video. It’s so far over the line that they probably thought that it didn’t have anything to actually do with actual Native American culture and history. It seems like they thought they were doing kitsch, not even appreciation or appropriation, and that was a misinformed decision to make.
JES: It breaks my heart, because even despite it all, I really want to root for them, even after dumbass move after dumbass move. But yeah, you might be right: they just thought it was so divorced from an actual depiction of Native American culture they went ahead. It makes me (1) worried for the Anaheim school system and (2) think they need to get on the Internet more. If you even follow three social-justice oriented, politically-minded people on Tumblr, you’ll see posts about Native American issues at least once a week. At the very least, haven’t they seen any photo galleries mocking white girls in headdresses at Coachella? But regardless of the reason, there’s no excuse. Somebody, anybody on the set of that video should have said something. There was a costume designer, a lighting technician, a horse trainer, a manager, and so one – kinda everyone’s indictable. At the very least, maybe we can get a good new A Tribe Called Red song out of it. Actually, No Doubt should enlist A Tribe Called Red for an official remix and pay them, like, $230,000, then they should be forced to take 35 hours of Native American history classes at UCLA as restitution. If I were Judge Judy, that would be my decision.
ED: Do you think this is the final straw? After this will there be no more desecrated La Virgen shirts or mute Japanese women? Will No Doubt and their handlers screen harder for potential racial insensitivity from now on?
JES: Hell, no! It’s part of their identity! Honestly, they’ve done it for twenty years, so I can’t imagine that they’d stop now. They’ll maybe stay away from Harajuku girls, but I think there’s just something about the way they operate where La Gwen can be depended upon to stumble upon something new.
ED: In that case, I look forward to (meaning: I totally do not look forward to) the next No Doubt video set in a Polish ghetto, or Gwen Stefani wearing the facepaint that a group of African tribes people only wear during sacred rituals.
JES: I don’t think it will go that far, but I do think she’s gonna keep borrowing ideas from other cultures.
ED: My wife was saying she can totally see Gwen Stefani wearing a hijab in a video.
JES: Ugh, me too.
ED: DON‘T DO IT GWEN!
JES: ALSO, M.I.A. ALREADY DID THAT!!!
Sonic Satori: Hearing The Youthful Evolution of Personal Audio Loud and Clear at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest...
I often refer to the annual Rocky Mountain Audio Fest as the Grateful Dead parking-lot party of audio conventions. Of course, there are no veggie burritos for sale, but the vibe is far more laid back than industry shows like CES or CEDIA. The people making the pilgrimage to Denver for RMAF are mostly driven by their love of great sound, and the event was well-attended by the expected audiophiles, as usual. However, CanJam, Head-Fi’s event at RMAF aimed at headphone listening devotees, proved remarkable. While Jude Mansilla, founder of Head-Fi, has been hosting CanJam at RMAF for three years now, this year the personal-audio trend – which spans headphones, headphone amplifiers, DACs, and hybrid products – has exploded onto the audio scene at an unimaginable pace. Finally, as we’ve been saying editorially for years at The Daily Swarm, the price of entry for high-quality audio has been blown to shreds by products that are specifically manufactured for users who grew up listening to headphones! They listen to their favorite cans while using PC’s, gaming consoles, iDevices, and Android-based phones. This means these consumers are already familiar with the most important component in any sound system they will ever own: the source of their music! Now we have affordable audio components that use these devices as the main source, and they’re not as big as your microwave.
Big room, oversized and overly-priced audiophile systems abounded at RMAF as well; component systems could be found that cost twice as much as your Beemer or Patek Phillipe. A few even played something resembling music, but most were spewing the usual yawn-inspiring, audiophile-favorite demonstration CDs. I’m not being objective here; I’m tired of preaching to the already-converted about the new frontier of high-end personal audio. Many companies have embraced this phenomenon, and those who don’t will continue to carve out a meager existence based on overpriced stereo equipment that needs its own honeymoon suite to live in. The greatest things about RMAF remain the variety of gear and the people in attendance. It’s not the same ol’ crowd I’ve been seeing at every audio show I’ve attended over the last fifteen years. Okay, many of them were there, but there were also new faces and, most importantly, new tunes! Fortunately, for those of us riding the personal audio wave, many of the companies at CanJam utilize music written and recorded in this century. It’s refreshingly new sonic territory for this scene, believe me. You can have polite, wine-and-cheese music at RMAF, or you can go listen to some Black Keys, James Blake or Burial at CanJam.
(Photo courtesy of Positive Feedback)
Unfortunately, I heard that an editor from one of the audiophile sites wrote a whole article about the fact that RMAF doesn’t attract young people. Those who’ve been critical acknowledge the need to usher in a younger demographic to hi-fi shows, which has been a concern for years. Luckily in 2012, via friends at Beatport, we managed to get the word out on CanJam at RMAF. Since established brands like Sennheiser, Monster, and Koss exhibited this year – and Sennheiser dominates a portion of the DJ headphone market, and certainly DJ cartridges – more young people attended this year than ever before, and the youth weren’t there to jam multi-thousand-dollar room occupying systems. Most, in fact, came to see and hear new things at CanJam – where, not coincidentally, there was also a ton of new music being played. This will prove crucial to attracting a younger, hipper audience and grow them into the audiophiles of tomorrow (or even today). I saw artwork for James Blake’s first LP on one of Alpha Design Labs’ iPads (a brand we’ve reviewed here) and other forward music like Amon Tobin, Radiohead, and Bat for Lashes in a few manufactures hard drives and playlists there. The people complaining about RMAF being unable to attract new blood were, unfortunately, obviously in the wrong place during the show. They’re upstairs, where the old guard still preaches to the already happily-converted audiophiles. That world is shrinking, as the whole world is shrinking – think living space in Tokyo – which is one of many reasons all the action was at CanJam.
The truth is, if you weren’t there, then you would’ve experienced most of the other rooms playing the same ol’ sleepy-ass audiophile bullshit. I’m referring to music by Diana Krall (it’s a shame – she’s actually talented, but hi-fi shows killed her voice for me long ago), Patricia Barber, and songs like “Keith Don’t Go” and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Tin Pan Alley”: Another great tune murdered by repetition at audio conventions! I’ve heard these same tracks since my first high-end audio show at CES in 1996! If you want to attract the young, you have to go where the young’s ears are, even if you don’t understand their world at first. At least RMAF managed to grow the numbers of younger attendees this year – still, while I don’t have exact numbers, the margins surely won’t be huge. It’s strong, incremental organic growth, however, all done through word-of-mouth marketing.
We’ve laid the groundwork by setting up a solid social-media structure for RMAF. As soon as the audio fest began, numerous manufacturers and audio press began blowing up social media, retweeting information from events like wild; the #RMAF hashtag even started trending! I’ve never seen social-media activity at this scale from an audiophile convention. Old-school manufactures like Cary Audio and Nordost, Jude Mansilla (the founder of Head-fi.org) and a few of us starting working together to get the word out to the headphone generation in Denver. It was a community effort, which is what personal audio has today, and the high-end stereo world used to have.
Once high-end audio became an elitist’s hobby over a lifestyle product in the ‘80s, it began to lose touch with everyday consumers. Normally, that signifies the end; luckily, there are dedicated, good people working in the high-end audio community today. Companies like VPI Industries, who’ve been building turntables in the United States for close to forty years, and Wilson Audio, which was founded in 1974 and currently crafts state-of-the-art loudspeakers by hand in Utah, are part of the foundation that keeps high-end audio alive. Still, they all have to wake up to the personal audio evolution. This is not a fad: an entire generation was raised listening to music through little white earbuds! Many audiophile companies made the mistake of initially thumbing their noses at iPods and iTunes; those same companies now tout Airplay as a top-selling feature, and most have iDevice-friendly components. Just as the record industry feared Napster, digital downloading and file-sharing, now streaming/download services with deals with the major labels like MOG run the show. During that early time period, certain people understood there was something bigger happening than thoughts of immediate monetization. They saw a revolution in the sharing of information, be it music or videos: those visionaries saw the bigger picture, and they continue to innovate personal audio today.
There’s an energy there that’s palpable. Now the users are educating themselves on the technological aspects of equipment associated with their collective passion for better-quality portable and desktop audio! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ve learned more about headphones, headphone amplifiers, and everything personal audio-related from fellow users on Head-fi.org than any other audio site or magazine. Luckily, many are catching up, but the new wave is a user-generated, interactive world where manufacturers and their customers work together to build the best products.
Many large audio corporations just don’t see it, or don’t need to – yet: they can sell LED-backlit LCD televisions at CostCo all day. It’s incredible that the opportunities on view at RMAF don’t open their eyes: it remains a fantastic event where you get to interact with designers, manufacturers, and brand-reps, with the press covering it all and the consumers buying the products! It’s a win-win situation: the more consumers who find out they can have far better sound for their music collections by simply adding small components to products they already interact with and love everyday is a giant leap forward for high performance audio, period. RMAF brings all the audio wackos together, and we learn from each other, exchanging ideas and dreams about a bigger future for our hobby.
There are so many options and price-points, I have no doubt there is something out there for everyone personal audio, and RMAF 2012 proved it! We can have our audible cake, and eat it too. I’m psyched to be a part of audio today – so much is happening, my head is spinning – and RMAF in Denver proves year after year to be the best place to soak it all up, and watch the industry grow and evolve. Play on…
A Rational Conversation Election Special: Kelefa Sanneh and Alex Wagner On Transitioning From Music to Political Journalism...
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
In 2008 Alex Wagner and Kelefa Sanneh left their jobs in music journalism to get more involved in the political world. Wagner was the Editor-in-Chief of The Fader before she became the Executive Director of the non-profit Not On Our Watch; next, she began covering The White House for AOL‘s Politics Daily website, and now she hosts the political roundtable NOW with Alex Wagner on MSNBC every weekday. Sanneh, meanwhile, was a pop-music critic at The New York Times from 2002 to 2008, when he left to join the staff as a writer for The New Yorker. There, Sanneh has explored a variety of subjects; this year, however, he’s notably written several major features about Republican candidates and the senate race in Arizona, as well as discussing the campaign on the magazine’s website. As the presidential election is looming next week (vote, please), and is the first one that these two journalists have covered extensively in their work, Ducker met with Wagner and Sanneh to talk about their transitions from covering music to politics.
Eric Ducker: When you got into journalism, was covering politics always something you aspired to?
Kelefa Sanneh: After I graduated college I was doing both [political and music journalism] at once. During the day I was editing for this race and culture academic journal, then at night I was freelancing music articles. Then the music thing, to my surprise, became an actual job, so I switched over to that since that was what I was fully obsessed with. It was fun to be able to spend six years doing it insanely full-time – going to three or five shows a week, listening to CDs all day, every day. Then it became fun for me to do stories where, as part of the research, you would need to read some books or do something different. I don’t think I necessarily had a plan; it was more that, in 2002, I was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to spend all my time doing music, and in 2008, it was exciting to still cover some music, but to also do other stuff.
Alex Wagner: I’ve always been interested in politics, and growing up in D.C. that was a huge part of my high-school experience – whether it was protesting on the Mall or just being engaged with the issues, all while feeling at odds with what politics would entail if I chose it as a career. In college, I had an internship with the San Francisco Bay Guardian that was definitely not involving music journalism, but more about current events and news. That was interesting to me, but ultimately, when I’d just gotten out of college, I felt that culture was what I was much more interested in. First I was at Ray Gun and Bikini, then Tokion, and that set me on a path to do the cultural stuff. Inbetween stints at Tokion and The Fader, I worked for the Center for American Progress because there was always this push and pull within myself. I always felt somewhat conflicted about not devoting a part of my life to the issues. It was after I left The Fader and started working for Not On Our Watch that I felt that the two worlds were coming together: there was the Hollywood cultural side, and the human rights and foreign policy side. I started contributing to Politics Daily, and that got me into more, proper political journalism. The biggest surprise was that I always felt like it would be hard to write interesting stuff if you were writing about politics, but it turns out that it’s not hard at all. Maybe it’s a function of growing older and the insane times in which we live, but I find it really exciting.
ED: When you left The Fader and went to Not On Our Watch, did you assume you were done with journalism?
AW: No, because I knew I wasn’t going to be running a non-profit for the rest of my life. It takes a very specific skill set to do that, and I’m not denigrating people who run non-profits at all, but I knew that at some point I wanted to get back into journalism. Knowing how far I could go with being at an independent magazine, I had to figure out how to find a different path, and Not On Our Watch was a great bridge to finding that path.
ED: Kelefa, when you when you were growing up, were you similarly politically engaged?
KS: In a certain sense. That stuff was always bound up for me with culture. My father is a professor of the history of religion, and both of my parents come from Africa, so I guess that stuff was always in the air. In high school, when I got into punk and punk was all I cared about, my interest in politics was always filtered through subculture and punk politics. There’s a tension that I thought was interesting then that I still think is interesting now, which is the idea that people in a subculture listen to weird music partly because it’s weird, and partly because it’s out of step with the rest of the country, and they also often have political views that are out of step with the rest of the country. The difference between politics and music, in theory, is that with politics you want the rest of country to come around to how you feel, and you don’t necessarily want that with music. There’s an interesting tension whenever you have politics being filtered or mediated through some subcultural group, because you’re saying, “I’m not like you, I’m different from you, I believe different things than you, but I know what’s best for you.” The tension that results when culture and politics collide is always interesting, and that’s made me simultaneously interested and skeptical in the kinds of politics you find in musical subcultures. Certainly writing a lot about rap, you have to be skeptical of the role of politics in music, because you get used to writing about rappers that you love without thinking that they have the cure for what ails us; you get used to a level of cognitive dissonance. So for me, a lot of the appeal of political journalism was less from a point of advocacy and more from a point of view of, “Here is a group of people disagreeing with each other.” The interesting part to me is trying to figure out what the issues are, why they are disagreeing, and how are they coming to these viewpoints. I think if there’s a similarity [between music journalism and political journalism], it was that. When I write about music, I’m always trying to figure out the same things: Who likes this stuff? Why do they like it? Why does it resonate? And if I’m talking about politics, those are the same questions I want answered. For this issue or this candidate, who supports them, and why are they resonating?
ED: So when you came to The New Yorker, were you hired to write about culture or for politics?
KS: They were, and are, extraordinarily patient in letting me write about what I think was interesting. Before I was hired at The New Yorker, I had done a profile of Creflo Dollar, the megachurch pastor. That obviously wasn’t music, but it was culture and religion. And the first piece I wrote [for The New Yorker after I got hired was about Trinity, Obama’s old church in Chicago. I went to services there over the weekend and wrote about what was going on, and there was a little bit about black liberation theology and the history of that. It was a never cut and dry, “We want you to write about this and not about that.” It has always been a follow my nose sort of thing, and when I get obsessed with something, they tend to let me write about it. When I found myself reading political blogs all day long, that naturally led to writing about Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich or the senate race in Arizona.
ED: How hard was it to break into political journalism?
AW: [At Politics Daily] I was asked to come and cover the White House having had no experience doing proper political coverage or experience with the White House, which is by no means a traditional path.
KS: And I still haven’t broken in.
ED: Have you had issues being taken seriously by other political reporters?
AW: I always have issues being taken seriously.
KS: Writing about music, doing it everyday for six years, in theory you’re an expert. In practice, every new band or new article, you’re not starting from zero, but you don’t know as much as the band and their biggest fans. So part of what you realize is that you’ll never really be the expert the way the true experts are.
ED: But in some sense you’ve seen these stories before. You have some idea of the framework towards figuring out.
KS: But you also get a better and better sense of what you don’t know, and how big the musical world is, and how much people who really are experts really do know. I might think I’m an expert in this little thing or that little thing, but even there I don’t even really know the half of it. The flipside is that all that really means is that you have an obligation to do enough work and reading and research to write something where you don’t embarrass yourself. You don’t have any excuse whether it is your field or isn’t your field. There’s no excuse for not doing a good job. Which is just to say that for me, as someone who is not a full-time political journalist, but is someone who sometimes writes about politics, it’s just as scary as writing about that as anything else. You’ve got to do the research and hope you don’t screw it up.
AW: Institutional memory counts for a lot in politics, but at the same time, part of the reason people like the show that I do or have liked things that I’ve written is because the “weakness” can sometimes be the strength, because I’m looking at things with fresh eyes. That doesn’t mean I don’t talk to the experts, I don’t read up, and I don’t get the facts straight – but at the same time, a new perspective is important, especially in politics where you can really get fatigued and not see things to be as outrageous or perhaps compelling as they might be. If you look at the election, politics has changed a lot in the past eight years, and really in the last four years.
ED: In what ways?
AW: The media cycle is way shorter. Social media didn’t exist in 2000. Obama is not a boomer, he’s something else. I’m not sure what generation he officially belongs in, but he has a lot more in common with music journalists and people who were involved in culture in some way than seasoned White House vets. He’s not a creature of Washington, and I think he’s made a point of that; he’s been attacked for his lack of interest in the sausage making that goes on there. That administration and this election cycle and this media cycle are good for newcomers. It’s much more accessible, and it moves a lot faster.
KS: Also for me as a reader, I like reading people where you get the sense that they’re figuring something out. That can be a challenge, but it can also be an opportunity to write about whatever subject, and learn about it as you write it; hopefully the readers feel like they’re learning something, too. It can be helpful, and that’s one reason why a lot of the writers I like at The New Yorker seem to write exclusively about things that they are not necessarily experts in. If I’m reading something by Burkhard Bilger and he’s writing about some weird world he’s entering, you can figure it out with him.
ED: When it comes to readers and viewers, who are more brutal: people who disagree with your opinion about music or people who disagree with your opinion about politics?
AW: Twitter didn’t exist when I was at The Fader, but it’s real easy to find out when people disagree with you these days. The audience is also much bigger.
KS: For me, it’s a little bit of the opposite. When I wrote about music, I was issuing judgments, and for me part of the fun was this idea that you were passing severe judgments. And I say “fun” because in the world of music, unlike other worlds, nobody is taking a critic’s word as gospel, necessarily. You acknowledge that you’re not making or breaking someone’s career, but you’re issuing strong opinions. When I write about politics, I don’t tend to do that. It’s not like a concert review where you’re like, “This band is terrible” or “This band is the greatest.” I’m not going out and spending some time with a candidate to then say, “He’s awful, he’s the worst, don’t vote for him.” Not that there aren’t strong responses either way, but it’s a different kind of writing I’m doing now than what I did then. It’s funny, Alex might have a stronger point of view in politics than in music, and for me it’s kind of the opposite.
AW: Definitely. We have a conversation on the show, and there certainly are people who disagree, but my point of view is out there and upfront, which I think lends itself to more feedback.
KS: Whereas The Fader was not in the business of destroying, criticizing, or ripping apart bands.
AW: We only put stuff in there that we liked.
KS: So in that sense, our trajectories are kind of the opposite.
ED: Where do you think people are more open to having their opinions changed, politics or music?
KS: It’s pretty tribal either way. It’s one thing if you’re a metal fan and there’s this review about this weird new metal album and you decide to pick it up. At The Times, I always assumed I was writing mainly, if not overwhelmingly, for an audience that was willing to read the article, but was maybe never going to hear the music. It wasn’t a question of trying to get them into this band or trying to get people to stop listening to this band, it was more like hoping to let people know there is this corner of the musical world that exists. I never thought I was trying to change opinions.
ED: But to take two entirely hypothetical situations, let’s say a band puts out its fourth album, and its second and third had been garbage, but the new one is an interesting departure and you write an article saying, “People should pay attention to this,” or you do a story on a candidate and you want to tell people, “You might think this candidate is about this one thing, but this is actually where he is coming from.”
AW: I feel like that situation is more relevant to me. I won’t say there’s advocacy, but there’s definitely a point of view on our show and there is an argument constantly being made, whereas Kelefa isn’t really trying to persuade people one way or another.
ED: I’m not even saying “persuade,” I’m saying “educate.”
KS: If anything I’m more trying to get people to understand what the debate is and why people hold these opinions, especially because so much writing about politics operates from the assumption that people who disagree with you are stupid or evil. If anything, I’d be more likely to write something that nudges people towards, “No, there’s actually interesting and complicated reasons why people disagree.” To me, in both music and politics, it’s about trying to give people interesting ways to think about things, as opposed to actually changing their mind.
AW: I would agree with Kelefa’s initial response that both music and politics are incredibly tribal. Republicans I’ve talked to about the Democratic perspective and friends of mine who don’t like Animal Collective, they’ve both said, “It’s not for me.” That said, if you give people enough exposure to something and they think about it enough, you can always change people’s minds.
ED: Do you see any similarities between music’s hype cycle and the hype cycle of news?
AW: Herman Cain is the closest you can get to a band that everyone likes and then everyone realizes, “Maybe this is the worst band in the world.” But I think generally speaking, this is an exceptional year for that kind of stuff. It’s an election year, which is inherently more volatile.
KS: Alex, going back to what you were saying earlier about growing up in D.C. and going to marches, I get the feeling that for you, getting into political journalism maybe partly comes out of those convictions. Is that how you think about it?
KS: In a “change the world” kind of framework?
AW: No. First and foremost, it’s about education, information, and telling the story.
KS: But with a purpose.
AW: Yeah, but today [on the show] we talked about Obama and drones, and there has been a lot of discussion about whether the left has been critical enough about the President’s counter-terrorism policy. And if it was just about pushing forward a liberal agenda
KS: I don’t mean an agenda. I mean pushing forward issues that you think are important.
AW: Yeah, but that’s the same thing as writing a story about things you’re interested in. There has to be some sort of editorial choice at some point.
ED: You should have some sort of connection to your material, is what you’re saying.
AW: Or you should have some reason you think people should watch it, or listen to it, or read about it.
KS: That makes sense.
ED: Kelefa, you had a little bit experience on the last election, but this is the first one you’ve covered throughout its full course, right?
KS: Yeah, and I went to the Republican National Convention this year. But I hasten to add that The New Yorker has professional, serious, hardcore political journalists, and they kind of let me do some things here and there.
ED: Well, the presidential race is the biggest show in professional journalism. Seeing it up-close, firsthand, was it still eye opening and enlightening?
AW: It’s enthralling. In my humble opinion, the Republican Party has atrophied to the point where they started running clownish candidates. I don’t think Mitt Romney is a clown, but Herman Cain isn’t a serious politician; I don’t think Michele Bachmann is a substantive person, although she is a serious politician. What that meant when covering the race as a story was the characters were incredible. It’s exciting because there is a big choice about where we want to go as a country, and it’s going to be close. So there’s a built-in cliffhanger aspect to it.
KS: It’s funny how widely and quickly politics goes from being super unglamorous to super glamorous. In other words, you’re watching candidates, and it was not that long ago that they were in the backroom of a general store speaking to some local club. It seems like the furthest thing in the world from the centers of power. It’s amazing how, as the campaign goes on and things get whittled down, all of sudden, the candidates are a huge deal and some of the biggest people on the planet. That’s interesting to watch, the relationship between the mediagenic, glamorous parts of politics and the nerdy, totally unglamorous parts of politics. I have a different interpretation than Alex of the ideologies, so watching the Republican coalition shift slightly and figure out what its identity is has been extremely interesting to me. To be honest, in some ways as a story, that’s been more where my attention is than the President. I probably spend more time reading conservative blogs than liberal blogs, just because that’s where the interesting ideas and battles have been happening.
ED: If you stay in journalism, is politics what you want to stay covering?
AW: Kelefa has many areas he covers. Have you liked doing the political stuff?
KS: Yeah. Doing music for so long, I don’t think I ever used a business card. If you weren’t on the list at a club and you gave them your business card, they might throw it back in your face. I’ve never gotten into a music show with a business card. But with politics, people love business cards, it’s crazy. It’s amazing.
AW: It’s super-transactional in politics.
KS: [Politics] seems like something I’ll stay obsessed with, especially because I feel like I’ve just started to try to figure it out. I’m trying to learn these histories and issues to have the background you need to talk intelligently about this stuff.
ED: Do you feel that you’re as obsessed with politics as you were when you were most obsessed with music?
AW: I definitely am – more so, I think. I was always more interested in culture at large than specifically just music, and I don’t think I made a secret of that when I was at The Fader. As I said, politics has been something that’s been part of my life since I was little, and I feel like I’ve finally figured out a way to be involved with it and talk about it in a way that feels authentic, and that I’m really passionate about.
KS: It’s always fun to write about something that people care about. One of the difficulties in music is that throughout the aughts, as you saw a certain amount of splintering, it was not always clear that even super popular music was something people cared about enough to fight over. Part of the appeal of politics as a subject for many, many writers is that it’s something people care to fight over: fights are fun to write about, interesting to write about, and challenging to write about. There are things I’m obsessed with that I don’t feel the need to write about. I’m obsessed with coffee and boxing and hip-hop, and I’ve written about those things, but I don’t feel the need to write about them every year. Because of the way politics keeps changing and because so many people are paying attention to it, you can write about it year-in and year-out. Again, I’m not a political journalist, and politics is just a fraction of what I do, but as long as they let me, I’ll be happy to have some of that in the mix.
ED: Do you still listen to music at the level you once did?
ED: At an even average level?
AW: I’m sub-average at this point.
KS: I listen to it like a maniac. I maniacally listen to music.
AW: I just downloaded Roy Orbison.
KS: Where are they from?
AW: They’re a three-piece all-girl band.
KS: They’re named after Joy Orbison, of course.
ED: It’s a clever play on words.
KS: There are certain genres I listen to at different places depending on whether I’m at work or at home, but yes, I listen to music all day long, obsessively, like I always did.
AW: I don’t. I don’t have time to, in a certain way. I feel like I’m so far behind the curve, I have to go way back to the 1960s and ‘70s.