A Rational Conversation Between Two Adults: Maura Johnston of The Village Voice On Music-Writing Qualifications...
A Rational Conversation Between Two Adults is a new column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he will get on iChat and discuss a subject that has been on his mind with a special guest.
Inspired by a recent series of wrongheaded articles in mainstream magazines from writers who don’t currently specialize in music coverage – along with a seemingly endless epidemic of ill-informed, troll-baiting online pieces – here Ducker speaks with Maura Johnston, Music Editor of The Village Voice. Together, they examine what qualifications – if any – a writer needs to cover music.
Eric Ducker: Do you think there are any prerequisites – and you can interpret that word as you please – to write about music?
Maura Johnston: This is going to sound so cheesy and hippieish, but I feel like the only prerequisite for writing about music is an open mind. Okay, and a willingness to research. What do you think?
ED: That’s fair. Another key for me is at least an attempt by the writer to understand the culture they are writing about, or that the subject is part of. I think that ties into research.
MJ: These all fall into the same things, though: curiosity, and a willingness to go beyond one’s comfort zone.
ED: Are there any qualifications required to professionally write about music when you’re actually getting paid for it, or if your writing is appearing in a publication that you do not control – i.e., not a blog or zine?
MJ: I feel like the demand for all those things we’ve previously mentioned is more important, because of two things: the likelihood that you’ll be edited by someone who is green on the topic, especially if you’re writing for a non-music-specific magazine, and the institutional gravity implied by a “professional” outlet.
ED: Do you think most people who are writing about music these days put in enough work in terms of curiosity and research?
MJ: There’s always room for more. I also think that the nature of the machine these days almost requires the quick-and-dirty approach: output is paramount, quality is not – unless you’re talking about a headline’s SEO quality.
ED: Yeah. I mean, we all probably could do more research, and if we had the time and resources I’d like to think we probably would. We get outraged when someone publishes something that is flagrantly misinformed, but are you surprised how often that happens?
MJ: I am, but probably less and less so these days, especially if it’s online. (I don’t think this is a good thing at all, mind you.) I mean, setting yourself up in front of the Internet firing squad is great for numbers if you do it the right way.
ED: So there’s potentially something purposeful in these caustic posts. Are these people playing dumb?
MJ: I honestly can’t tell. Part of me wants to think that they are because of every Internet writer’s innate knowledge of traffic being a “good” thing. But then so many of them are just so poorly executed and tossed-off. It’s like the worst parodies of blogging put forth for people to consume.
ED: Are they done for the writer’s own notoriety, or to help the institution that’s presumably paying them be successful?
MJ: Probably more the latter.
ED: For the writer, is there a future in that approach? I just can’t imagine trying to sustain or develop a career by being known for willing to be an idiot or a prick. It doesn’t sound very fun or rewarding.
MJ: Well, then you get into the whole idea of whether there’s a future in this whole thing at all; if we were talking in person right now, I’d sweep my arm in a grand gesture. To borrow a line from a Helium record’s liner notes, it does feel very “party like the apocalypse.” And no, it’s not sustainable at all. But what is sustainable nowadays? What new entrants in the game have loyalty that isn’t just engendered by constantly flooding the zone? If you work in this industry, you hear gloom-and-doom stories every day, Buzzfeed hiring binges notwithstanding. Depending on how you feel about that particular site, those binges might be part of the problem!
ED: My feeling on the subject is that you just have to be willing to adjust and explore what is expected of you and what you may be capable of doing.
MJ: Yeah, definitely. The way of writing about music has just fundamentally shifted over the past ten years, and exponentially so over the past 18 months. Aggregation is crucial; content doesn’t have to be insightful to “perform,” or even factually accurate. Getting retweeted by BreakingNews or someone with hundreds of thousands of followers is a sign that you’re doing a good job. It almost doesn’t matter what is in your story.
ED: When you start working with a new writer, what are you looking for in their background?
MJ: Knowledge of the topic. A command of the English language. A willingness to describe music in a way that isn’t just straight-up “like [band x] and [artist y].” Pitches are important too. If your pitch is vague and not thrilling, it’s a sign that the story that comes out of it probably won’t be either.
ED: Is a proven ability to create traffic a consideration? Do you look to see how many Twitter followers they have? Do you research how many Facebook “Likes” the stories they’ve done for other publications got?
MJ: No. Although if they do have those things, it’s a nice bonus.
ED: Do you think you should look into those factors?
MJ: I don’t know. Maybe? I think it’s a deeply cynical thing to do, in a way. Plus, if I get into follower counts, then I should get into follower “quality.” I doubt pornbots will want to read an interview with, say, Wussy – and that’s just way too much time consumption.
ED: The Village Voice hosts the annual Pazz & Jop Critic’s Poll, which is probably the best method we have to gauge both the cultural consensus and a random sampling of music journalists’ opinions. I remember around the time that the most recent Pazz & Jop was wrapping up, your friend and Voice contributor Chris Weingarten tweeted that you should have listened to over 500 albums in the past year to qualify to vote. Are there any requirements for voting? And if not, have you thought about creating some?
MJ: No. Given the way the poll falls (we had 700 voters last year), the multiplicity of experiences is key. Plus, if we started making requirements, that would get into a bunch of knotty ideas about what albums everyone “should” hear in order to vote. I think it’s the texture of the individual listeners’ habits over the course of the year that makes Pazz & Jop such a great wide-lens view. It also makes the ballots super clicky!
ED: Can you explain how you decide who gets to vote?
MJ: We have a database of writers, and we add to it every year. Sometimes people just bow out or don’t vote. Anyone who hasn’t voted in the past and thinks they deserve a 2013 ballot should email me at email@example.com .
ED: When people request ballots from you, do you check their credentials?
MJ: Usually they supply URLs. If not, I just ask where they’ve written lately.
ED: Do you turn people down, or just ignore some?
MJ: Not really, no. If someone reading this does feel like they got ignored, they probably got caught in our super-zealous spam filter.
ED: Let’s bring this conversation to why this subject has really been on my mind: there have been a few recent high-profile articles written about musicians by writers who don’t usually cover music, or haven’t been currently, and it shows. I’m talking about the Lana Del Rey pieces in T Magazine and Esquire], Nicki Minaj in New York, Kreayshawn in GQ. I know you had some issues with all those articles and you wrote a great piece on some of them. What is your issue with those stories?
MJ: They all came from a place where certain suppositions were made about music and culture and their relationship. There was no process of fact checking, it seemed, beyond “Oh, I heard this at a cocktail party once.” The GQ piece had a bit about the Cooking Dance being created “for white people,” which I guess was supposed to be a joke but which was disheartening to anyone who knows about Lil B. The treatments of the subjects – all women! – were pretty superficial. Tom Junod’s Lana Del Rey piece for Esquire was just vile, sexist shit that didn’t belong on a followed-by-zero-people Tumblr, let alone in an Ellie-winning magazine. That whole tangent about pop stars’ “porn names” was gross, and even more idiotic when you realized that the names he was citing were all given to the artists in question at birth. I feel like he engaged in some Limbaugh-level slander there! I don’t understand why it got a pass. Is it because the women in question sometimes wear revealing outfits while peddling their wares (to outlets like, surprise, Esquire)? Or because they’re “pop” and sexualized and not “real” like Feist?
ED: Any article in magazines at that level involves collaboration between at least two people, and likely more. Do you feel like most of the blame in those pieces lay in bad writing, or bad editing?
MJ: Bad editing, for sure. The writer isn’t pushed to be insightful, which is the mark of a bad editor.
ED: In the two articles that were written for fashion-oriented issues – Nicki Minaj in New York and Lana Del Rey in T Magazine – do you think it was it a case of the editor thinking that they had to make things more palatable to a readership that wasn’t used to music writing, and probably weren’t coming at it with a certain level of cultural understanding?
MJ: I do, but I think you can show more faith in the reader than what the editors in question exhibited.
ED: I agree.
MJ: The Lana Del Rey piece especially was just so awful with its “Look at all this terrible pop music! YOU are much smarter than that” posturing. Why even bring those artists into it? Although I guess that means that Interscope’s strategy to market her to the Glasslands crowd first worked on at least one level. High five!
ED: Not personally knowing the writers or editors on any of those pieces (to my knowledge), I think the Kreayshawn piece definitely reeked of unfortunate editing. I have to imagine that at this point Tom Junod gets a lot of leeway at Esquire, which puts the blame on the editors in a different way, but it’s sad that he felt as a writer he could just toss a lot of that shit out there. Are you familiar with his piece about The Flaming Lips for Esquire from 2003?
MJ: I am not.
ED: You should check it out. It came out when Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots was really cresting, and he spent a few days with them while they were on tour backing Beck. There’s some good stuff in there, but the “sexy” part is when Wayne Coyne starts slagging off Beck: Junod really goes with it to illustrate this point that the Flaming Lips are the true weirdoes/heroes while Beck has become the caricature of a rock star who is putting on an act. It’s a well-written piece, but after the Lana Del Rey article came out, it kind of made me reconsider it. I’ve never been into defining music by what it isn’t instead of by what it is. If that Flaming Lips piece came out in 2012, I don’t know if it would be considered troll bait, or an insightful piece of music journalism.
MJ: I don’t like defining things by what they aren’t, truthfully. I think it shortchanges the artist being discussed, and the reader, too.
ED: So how can this problem be fixed? What can writers and editors realistically do?
MJ: I think my approaches will be unpopular, although they seem to be working for Salon. More insightful stuff might not be at the pace of your bigger aggregators, but articles that say something different and new, or that expose an under-heralded act, need to come back into fashion. It might not get the slew of readers that a hit piece or a quickie obit does, but it’ll help elevate the discourse. I feel like I sound like an old fogey by saying this, but then again, the current pace just seems way unsustainable for both publications and writers. How do you build a career? “Attention must be paid” is a good motto. It’s also important for writers to realize that even in the Big Agriculture Era of Content Farming, what they say and how they say it matters in the grand scheme of things. I know Pitchfork gets shit on a lot, and it is by no means perfect, but I really think that they and the new Spin are doing it right: getting smart people to be excited about music. Because being excited about music is still an infectious, wonderful thing! Ha, are we starting and ending this chat with me sounding like a hippie? I guess so.
ED: Hippies didn’t totally fuck up music, and being a hippie won’t totally fuck up music journalism either, I suppose.
MJ: Well, I may be a hippie, but I’m also an editor, so I guess I’d put a cap on noodling solos.