interview from 2010 with an Latin American journalist
¿Do you think that having any kind of experience as a musician (play an instrument,have a band, record an album) provides better tools to analyze music, or it’s more like an obstacle?
It certainly can't hurt. But many of the greatest music critics have no musical training or experience being in a band.
¿Do you notice a generational gap among rock critics between those “old” critics whomake almost a ritual of listening to records and those “young” who fly through the
pages of rock history in just one click? In which group would you include yourself?
I'm always amazed by how much music young fans and younger critics and bloggers have heard. They seem to have gone through music history in this really intensive way, starting much younger than I did, but also just rampaging through it methodically. Because of the internet and illegal downloading, there are no restrictions on learning about music. When I got into rock, which was around 1978, you were limited by what you could afford. The radio was much more limited in terms of the hours in which left-field music was played, and by the small number of stations that existed. TV had very little pop music coverage and in those days hardly any documentaries were being made about rock history. So in terms of information, you were limited to the small number of books that had been written (relative to the huge number of rock books now in existence, histories and biographies) and to a handful of rock encyclopaedias. Old music magazines were very hard to access, they were often considered too unimportant to be kept in public libraries, and if they were kept, you had to have institutional privileges to access them, or look at them on microfilm. It was so different from the web where all this information is at your fingertips. So a good long way into my career as a music journalist, which began in 1986, I was ignorant of quite large stretches of rock history -- I just hadn't heard a lot of the records that would be considered basic knowledge today. I guess I had also been so heavily focused on the present day music, with postpunk and all the great black pop and club music of the Eighties, that I just didn't have so much time to delve into history. I mean, compared to an ordinary person at that time I had a good sense of rock history's shape and had listened widely. But compared to hipsters and music fiends and bloggers today, I was an ignoramus!
I think one problem with all this access to music, though, is that people have listened to a hell of a lot, but thinly. They've skimmed through it, they've listened fast because they've got a lot of ground to cover. They have more decades to listen to, as well, than I did in the late Seventies and early Eighties -- because rock is a lot older. There is a huge accumulation of music to process, not just the canonical rock and soul and reggae greats, but all kinds of underground stuff that has a bigger reputation nowadays than it did at the time. And all the genres of non-Anglophone popular music that are being retroactively discovered, the West African and Ethiopian funk and guitar pop, Latin American psychedelia, etc etc. This stuff wasn't even available in my day, in Britain. It is now considered part of the basic curriculum for your discerning music fan!
I think another problem is the distortions that affect history, partly through the way the web is structured, but also through fashion and trends in hipster taste. So for instance, you can find out a hell of a lot about a particular band, follow their trajectory right through rock history. But it's much harder to recreate their context -- what was going on around them at any given month or year. That's why I find in my research that old copies of music magazines are really incredibly useful and essential, because you see a group embedded in its context, which includes other bands and other genres that coexisted, the political climate, what the graphic design of record covers and record company advertisements was like. It's impossible to really understand glam rock, for instance, without a sense of just how drab and lacking style most of the other groups were at the time, how grey and dreary music papers looked in those pre-design days. And likewise the starkness and angularity and minimalism of postpunk --the look of the groups, the geometric record covers -- derived its edge by being in this context where you had a lot of long-haired Old Wave groups still around and just scruffy pub rock and punk outfits.
Another distortion is the way that there is an industry of rediscovering obscure artists that means that for a lot of hipsters, they know about some fantastically obscure folk singer like Vashti Bunyan, but they don't know about major figures in British folk like June Tabor or Maddy Prior (of Steeleye Span), figures who were much more rated and successful at the time. Or they will know about the obscure soul and R&B and funk figures dug up by a label like Numero Uno or Soul Jazz, but be completely unacquainted with the work of Stevie Wonder or Earth Wind and Fire -- these major figures in Seventies black music, who not only sold vastly more than the ultra-obscure rediscovered artists, but were simply more creative, innovative, better on every level.
¿Do you agree with the idea that a new kind of critic has irrupted: knowledge and
information are not their main value… It’s seems as if almost anyone can be a good
rock critic as long as he has a lucid, original sight. Do you agree?
I haven't noticed this, I must say. In the areas I follow -- more left-field music magazines and blogs and webzines -- it would actually seem the opposite: that there is an excess of expertise, in the sense of knowledge accumulation and being into esoteric artists, but a lack of a sense of the Big Picture, of how music connects to wider current in society and culture. Or equally there's a lack of a really individual and personal vision about music. There's quite a lot of dense, informationally-rich, scholarly writing being done but often I find myself wondering where the angle is, the polemical edge.
¿When you were a kid, did you used to listen to music in your room and to sing in front of the mirror? There was any specific rock star you remember you tried to imitate?
I would sing and dance along to records, I don't remember having much to do with the mirror. I used to want to be a bassist, because during postpunk days there was a lot of emphasis on the role of the bass. I can't remember if I used to play "air bass" but if I did any kind of "air" playing it would have been miming to Jah Wobble or Tina Weymouth, much more than a guitarist like Andy Gill.
Music that is physically involving seems to invite a mimetic response, it engages your whole body.
¿What future do you forecast for music press, especially the printed one?
Printed magazines will surely fade away. I think this is a loss for lots of reasons, not just for writers. On the web, it is impossible to go back and reconstruct a daily newspaper, because it never existed in a stable form, new stories were added to it all day long. And when you use online archives you can't really revisit a specific issue of a magazine or newspaper, not in the way you can with a printed copy of the periodical. You can access specific pieces. So something of the integrity of the magazine (and probably in time, the book too) has been undermined. It is not a solid unit in the way it was. Unbundling is what they call it, but the bundles were important, i think. Part of looking at a magazine is skimming through it, chancing on stories you were never looking for or might never otherwise (on the web) learn about. The advertisements are also part of the magazine in important ways. A bound issue of a magazine is a little cultural capsule of immense historical value. Also I think words on a printed page seem to penetrate deeper into your brain than when they are on a screen. I will be sorry to see all that go. I daresay there will be small-scale, highly designed specialist magazines for a long time to come, but not the big mass audience titles. That will all be online.
¿Do you agree with the idea that that in traditional media there’s every day less space for analysis? Do you believe that internet offers a new space for that kind of critical speech?
I don't know if there's less space but certainly people seem to have less time to read. I have less time to read. I have thousands of things I've saved off the web with a view to coming back and reading it properly at some later date, which never comes. I'm amazed that people still manage to read books. I have dozens that I've started and not finished. I'm really flattered that so many people actually read Rip It Up all the way through. Quite a few even re-read it. Admittedly I am a parent so my time is badly crunched, perhaps if I was a teenager or a student I'd have more time to read. But I am also like everybody else distracted by online media and all these instant-buzz things.
But in terms of the online media, there is tremendous pressure towards brevity -- being short and punchy and having a provocative argument that is easily capsulized and can pull web traffic in. Complex arguments get simplified by headlines designed to get blog links and "dig it" recommendations and tweets and so forth. People in the comments boxes of articles respond to the headline and the deck (the little bit of editor's text at the top of the piece) rather than to what you actually wrote. Then that gets tweeted.
Luckily any controversy created by this argument you never actually argued fades really quickly because Twitterculture is amnesiac, nobody remembers what happened a few days ago. I can remember blog pieces from 2002, but can anyone remember a tweet from a week ago?
Twitter is destroying people's ability to read anything longer than a paragraph. We're all skimming frantically, trying to assimilate as much data and opinion as we can. Whereas one of the things that attracted to me to the blog format originally was that you could write these enormously long, extended, meandering arguments. There's no limit to how long you could go. Equally you could do something incredibly short, just a sentence, a single insight or joke. But the brevity aspect of the web -- the thought that can be apprehended in a single glance -- is what has taken over.
There is that term "tl dr" -- too long, didn't read. That horrified me as a writer when I first encountered it. But equally there's loads of stuff on the web that practically speaking is too long for me to actually read. That's why I save it for later.
I noticed that people on message boards would say "tl dr" but then immediately go on to offer an opinion on the piece or story or issue in question. Not having read the piece--or even read other people's responses to the piece--did not deter them from expressing an opinion. Sometimes that is what the web is like: everybody talking, nobody listening. Everybody talking past each other.