Interview with Devon Powers, Author of “Writing the Record”

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The story of how literary genres are born and gain legitimacy fascinates those of us with an interest in cultural matters. How does something like rock criticism come to be seen as a mainstream form of intellectual discourse instead of a fringe one? Who wrote and read this new genre? What was the impact of these new critics and journalists on rock and on the wider culture? These are the questions examined by Devon Powers in her book, Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism. I wrote to ask her for an interview, and this is the result.

First of all, Devon, let’s start with the origins of your book. It grew out of your doctoral dissertation. One of the commonest lines in reviews of scholarly books is something like, “It still reads like a dissertation.” But your book is quite lively and readable. How did you manage to avoid sounding stodgy?

I’m very happy to hear you think the book was readable. Given my own background as well as the subject matter, I really wanted to write a book that respected the complexities of rock critical ideas yet remained something that people who were working journalists or critics might read and get something from. This is no easy task, given the differences that exist between the two styles of writing — in journalistic circles, the use of academic lingo is often chastised; among academics, “readable” is sometimes code for “not rigorous enough.” I’m sure there are readers that wish that I was more one or the other, but I believe I’ve stayed true to the kind of book I wanted to produce, which is very much a reflection of my own background as an academic who worked as a journalist for a period of time.

Beyond this, there are a lot of things that dissertations have to do that books do not have to do. As the end product for one’s doctoral degree, dissertations need to serve many competing interests and defend themselves at nearly every point. Books don’t have to do as much of that kind of work. So as I revised it and felt more at ease with what the book was, I excised a lot of the material that was in there not to further the argument, but simply to prove myself, if that makes sense.

I was kind of confused when you say that Richard Goldstein, Robert Christgau and Ellen Willis were “the first generation of popular music critics in the United States.” You seem to equate rock music with all popular music. Could you tell us how Goldstein and Christgau “forever changed how all of us think, listen, and write about popular music?” How did they differ from critics who wrote about jazz? You mention Nat Hentoff’s writings on jazz, for example. Was he less groundbreaking than Goldstein and Christgau?

“Popular music” is a term we apply in hindsight to the music that had wide appeal, and often (though not always) the music preferred by young people. In this sense, not just jazz but also forms of classical music or opera were also the “popular” music of their day. Rock certainly was not the first popular music, nor was it the first to inspire critical writing.

But I think some key differences about rock critics make them more akin to the kind of criticism about popular music we still see being produced today. First, the term “pop” was actually applied to rock music by the people who were writing about it. Prior to this, it was more common to describe widely consumed culture as “mass culture.” So the transition from “mass” to “popular” — and all that entails ideologically in terms of critical acceptance and appreciation rather than derision — was taking place during this era.

Second, most rock critics were not able to read music or talk about it in a musicological fashion. The things that interested them about the music, in a sense, were extra-musical: how it reflected politics, culture, ideas, psyches, and personas. This strong emphasis on what surrounded the music, rather than the music itself, differentiated it from much of what critics were doing before with previous forms of music.

That being said, rock critics certainly took a page from their predecessors in jazz, in the same way jazz criticism was not wholly distinct from classical music criticism. Race certainly became a major element of jazz criticism as it matured, both among white critics like Nat Hentoff and black critics such as Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka. But I think rock critics saw themselves as peers of the people they were writing about, culturally and politically, but also in terms of (usually) race, background, and age. This meant they were writing within what they envisioned as a new cultural moment, led by members of their own generation.

In your discussion of folk rock criticism at The Village Voice, you write of a “…shift toward writing about music using individual observation, taste, and advocacy, rather than standards of proficiency and musical execution.” Was that necessarily a good thing?

To me, the ability to talk about music in a vernacular way — a way that does not require the ability to read music or understand its musical structure — is a key step in democratizing music writing. I think that this is a good thing, because it reflected the way that listeners were connecting to music during that period and supported new standards of what good music could be. Of course, the other way to look at this — and some people did — is that it sets off a depreciation of expertise that ultimately serves to devalue criticism. This is a perennial discussion in the arts; indeed, it’s one we’re still having as once again criticism and music are changing.

Continuing on the theme of public intellectualism, you write “I contend that the best way to unfurl the knotty problems of public intellectualism is not to avoid the term, but to see it for what it is: the most recent iteration of intellectuals’ ongoing crises of identity, but one which I reclaim as acutely important given the challenges that face journalism, academia, and other knowledge-centric professions.” Do you think rock criticism has any hope of being accorded the same status in the realm of public intellectualism as economics, political theory and policy and ethics currently are?

I think it’s a matter of perspective. In many ways, critics in popular music or the arts are afforded the same kind of status as those other kinds of intellectuals. They may not have the ear of political leaders or shape policy, but they certainly shape public conversations about music and celebrity, which matter a lot to many people. But I think there’s disconnect between how much we all love to dissect the world of popular music and how we award or respect the folks whose job it is to think deeply about and question this world. Popular music critics tend to be seen as more disposable in spite of the insight they provide all of us during heated or celebrated moments in American musical life. A lot would need to be done to completely reverse this, but I hope my book participates in some small way in that shift.

One of the things I found fascinating about your book is its linking of the past and the present. You write, for example, “In empowering music fans and aspiring tastemakers alike to act as boosters and distributors of music, music blogs surmounted print music criticism’s most persistent obstacle: the disconnect between reading a review and sampling the music it discussed.” You go on to say, “…the transition online disrupted what had become standard critical practice and left its established practitioners grasping for alternative ways to do their jobs.” Is there a future for professional non higher-ed-based critics in this new world? Will they be able to make a living simply by writing about rock? You say that in the early 1970s a young person could imagine growing up to become a rock critic. Do you think a person of 15 or so in 2013 can feel the same?

I regularly meet high school and college students who want to be music writers. So yes, it still holds appeal, and it’s still a very glamorous and attractive career for many. Another truth, though, is that there have never been a huge number of people who have been able to make a lifelong living doing music writing exclusively, and it’s always been a rather modest career monetarily. Those issues are not enough to deter people from wanting to do something, though. I mean, people grow up dreaming of being Latin professors, concert pianists, professional basketball players or world-famous pop stars. There are all kinds of jobs that are relatively scarce that people still want.

At the same time, digital convergence has changed music and its criticism tremendously. It is hard to say exactly what will come out of it, and certainly the initial years of this shift made a lot of people lose their jobs or have to diversify their sources of income. I also think, though, that business models are starting to emerge and people are adjusting to the new normal. While long-form writing of all kinds has become less prevalent, there are still people who want to read it and still people who want to write it.

Another aspect I found fascinating in your book is that it although its primary focus is on rock criticism, you also discuss the future of long-form journalism and who the audience for cultural criticism will be in an era when print magazines are struggling to survive and when much writing about music appears online and is written by people who make their livings in ways other than professional writing gigs. Could you please tell us about the academization of music criticism in general and rock criticism in particular? Is that a sign that rock music itself is scleroticizing?

I am a college professor, so I believe very strongly in the academy and in the importance of academic life to all of us. The university remains the one place where we should not have to apologize for intellectual endeavor, where it’s OK to think and criticize, and where values like meaning, joy, and self-discovery have a chance against those of money, instrumentalism, and power. Of course, the university faces all kinds of struggles, and I’m not naïve about those things. But because it’s OK to be romantic about knowledge in a university setting, I don’t think academization is necessarily a bad thing. At the same time, universities are no longer ivory towers in the way they are often caricatured — there’s a lot more diversity in terms of people and perspectives (though there could always be more). The academy can and does transact with the wider communities in which it is a part. So this means that rock criticism can be both an element of the academy and still a dynamic, real-world practice.

Related to the academization of music criticism is the concern of some critics that the humanities are becoming trivialized and that studies of genres like rock criticism are evidence of the move away from the “serious.” How would you respond to that?

The humanities exist to help humans make sense of human culture — the objects and texts we create, through which we make meaning. Unfortunately, we live in a country that tends to devalue the humanities, and I think sometimes the desire to preserve them for “serious” subjects stems from a sincere desire to defend them against attack. I am sympathetic to that impulse. However, the process of making meaning involves evaluation, on a number of different levels, and evaluation tends to originate in difference, and can sometimes be used to express power. Worries about seriousness, as sincere as they may be, are often expressions of power dynamics that can be corrosive on the project of the humanities as a whole.

That said, I do believe in the power of beautiful things, of artful stories, of fantastic music. Anyone who knows me will tell you I have very strong taste, so the notion of wanting to argue that certain things belong in those categories of excellence and other things don’t is one that I very much enact in my everyday life. But I am the last person to say that this or that thing is not worthy of thinking about in an analytical, critical, or humanistic fashion. To me, the tools and techniques of the humanities can be useful in understanding most anything, if applied in articulate ways.

I was quite surprised to read your characterization of The Village Voice as “a surprisingly understudied newspaper.” Why is that?

That is a great question, and I’m not sure I have a perfect answer. I think some of it comes from that histories of journalism have tended by and large to focus on “hard” news, to the neglect of “soft” journalism (like cultural criticism) and “alternative” journalism, like the underground press. When people have written about the alternative press (such as Abe Peck’s Uncovering the Sixties or John McMillian’s Smoking Typewriters), there are just so many papers, and so many of them were so much more oriented toward the New Left than the Voice was, that well, the Voice just slips through the cracks a bit. It gets a mention but not a strong focus. And I think many people think the best days of the Voice were the 70s and 80s, times that don’t yet feel historical, but will soon.

I learned a lot from your book, such as the fact that Richard Goldstein was the first pop critic in the U.S. with a regular column devoted to rock. When and where did that first appear and did it elicit much scorn or surprise at the time? Are there many such columns in print publications these days or have they been superseded by blogs and online-only publications? I had never heard of Jane Scott. Who was she?

Jane Scott is an interesting character. She was middle-aged woman living in Cleveland and writing for the Plain Dealer. In 1964, she began writing about rock music in for the paper’s culture pages. She sort of became a “grandmother” to the scene, at a time when rock music really divided youth from older people. So she’s technically the first rock critic to be writing for a newspaper. But Jane Scott was not a critic so much as she was someone saying, “Hey, this is what kids these days are looking, isn’t it great?” She was very positive and nurturing. The critics that came up after her were much more concerned with thinking about rock music as art.

Richard Goldstein, when he started writing, was the first to write at a paper who was of the generation. He really set the mold for how that would look. He was a critic, not a reporter, not a booster.

There has been much debate in the past year or so along the lines of “Who is a journalist?” and the question of advocacy versus journalism (centering on such figures as Glenn Greenwald). Does your book help us understand the distinction between advocacy and journalism or are such distinctions a waste of time?

I think we’re entering a new journalistic moment, for many reasons. It is a moment that politically and economically is driven much more by a partisan sensibility (the cultural adjunct of which is related to the rise of snark). I think there are good reasons that people are alarmed by this turn, but in the end, journalism passes through phases, and this is the phase we are moving toward. There was a partisan age before, and we’re at the very early stages of another one. It won’t look exactly like the first, but nor will it resemble the stoic objectivity that has been the norm and ideal for the last century.

You chronicle how rock critics began to be recognized as important players on the music scene, saying, “One measure of critics’ growing importance to labels was the increasing ease at which critics obtained the materials and access they needed to do their jobs.” Does the same hold true of academia-based rock critics now and for bloggers? How have ethical standards changed, if at all, over the years in these matters?

I think ethics of these things are always in flux. In broad strokes, there has long been a relationship between business and journalism (whether music criticism or something else) but what has changed is how openly that relationship is acknowledged and embraced. I believe we are in a period now where the relationship between business interests and journalism is more porous and open than ever. That was not the case forty or fifty years ago. This is not across the board true, but that’s the general trend.

The discussion in your book of Richard Goldstein’s stance as a critic (such as the publication venues in which he chose to discuss the album) towards the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band illustrates several aspects of his role in the development of rock music criticism and of the history of rock in general. Could you us tell a bit about that episode?

The Beatles released Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967. At the time, and ever since, that album has been hailed as a watershed moment for rock music. Richard Goldstein was among the few prominent critics who did not fawn over the album. He wrote a tepid review in the New York Times (famously likening it to an “over-attended” child that was “spoiled”) and, due to the backlash he received from it, later wrote a defense of his negative review in the Voice. That he was able to write about it in the Times at all (which at the time especially was still pretty stodgy), and that his review ruffled so many feathers that he felt compelled to respond to it to me is a signature of how rock criticism reaching a new level of respect and seriousness. It was also an example of how criticism is always contextualized by its moment — how individual listening is always understood by the prism of how other people are hearing the same thing.

I gather from your book that you regard Robert Christgau as an exemplar of postmodern criticism. Could you tell us a bit about what that sensibility is and how it is reflected in his criticism?

I do think that Christgau is postmodern (though he might disagree with me). I think he anticipated postmodernism before the word gained clout and popularity. I say this because he was very much an advocate of a critic locating him or herself and not attempting to speak to or for everyone. He saw the fracturing of society along various lines — race and class and gender and politics and taste — and he tried to find a way to navigate this splintering. In that sense, he saw the critic as a kind of subjectivity. And to write about rock music as he did — a truly postmodern form — also located firmly as one of its early public intellectuals.

Whom do you see as the primary audience for your book?

I’d like my book to be for anyone who is interested in music, in criticism, and in the way in which we think about culture. I think it’s important to know where this came from, and I think that’s a crucial weapon in the arsenal that we must use to determine where we are going. Things are changing very rapidly right now, and we owe it to ourselves to make mindful changes wherever we can.

Thank you for your time.