Existing Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, with Jonathan Bogart (a rockcritics.com Interview)
Posted by s woods on June 21, 2011
Despite his confession below that “I may appear to be more prolific than I actually am,” Arizonan music blogger, Jonathan Bogart, writes — well, a lot. Even for a frantic online skimmer like myself it is difficult to keep tabs on his various blogs and Tumblrs and assorted other writing projects. These include (but are not limited to): Exist Yesterday, his mainstay, regularly-updated Tumblr (“Bogart Central,” I call it); Bilbo’s Laptop, in which he dissects every #1 song on Billboard‘s Latin Chart, from 1986 onwards; and “Just One Song More,” a “journey through the history of twentieth-century music,” starting in — you guessed it — 1900. Bogart is also a regular contributor to The Singles Jukebox, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is essential reading for all lingering and future fans of pop. This juggling of projects, while in itself fairly impressive, would mean very little were it not for the quality of the writing itself, and I’ve been struck on several occasions by Bogart’s generous, inquisitive, approach-the-subject-from-all-angles-at-once mode. Take, for instance, this wonderfully descriptive and informative passage about Ke$ha (one of his current pop faves), from November 2010:
“TiK ToK,” along with the rest of Ke$ha’s debut album, Animal, is electro-hedonism gone feral, the vocal-processing software AutoTune used not towards the distancing, robot-the-pain away ends of Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreaks, nor for the future-party of the Black-Eyed Peas’ The E.N.D., nor to create an effortless glide as in Cher’s “Believe” and Chris Brown’s “Forever,” but in the goofy, jackal-scavenging fashion of Lil Wayne, not to correct but to emphasize mistakes, make strange little runs, and clown around. Her persona is equal parts reckless party-girl and gleeful antisocial force of destruction, her set expression in countless publicity photos neither the dead-eyed come-hither gaze or the welcoming smile which are both traditional in pop, but an off-putting smartass smirk. She doesn’t lure; she baits. She could even be said to troll, and very successfully; parents, teachers, school administrators, older siblings, and people who think of themselves as having good taste all hate her.
Bogart was equally generous and descriptive with his responses to a number of questions I e-mailed him recently. My aim, simply, was to find out more about who he is, what he does, and how he does it.
What do you do, Jonathan, besides write a whole lot of words online about pop music and books and comics and all sorts of other stuff? Do you ever not write??
I work for a public library in Arizona. And sure, I spend all kinds of time not writing; I’ve spent more time in the past few days playing Angry Birds, re-watching A Bit of Fry and Laurie, listening to comedy, and catching up on my Tumblr, Twitter, and RSS feeds than I have writing. When I do write, I tend to write quickly without doing much editing, so I may appear to be more prolific than I actually am. And, of course, not relying on any income for most of my writing means that I don’t have any financial incentive to not write if I think I have something to say worth sharing. (Or even not worth sharing. It is the Internet.)
What got you started writing about music?
Since 1997, I’d been off and on a regular poster at a popular comic-book message board forum — when I got into music in a big way just after the turn of the millennium, fueled by access tools like Napster and informational tools like Allmusic, I stopped writing on any of the other boards on the site and stuck pretty closely to the music forum. Arguing with other comics nerds about whether rap was music, whether metal was inherently “angry,” whether anything good had happened in music since 1977, and so on was my basic training in thinking critically about music, and then being able to both generalize accurately about music and listen closely in order to support my arguments. In between the arguments, we mostly stuck to talking about classic rock, since that was the thing most of the posters there had in common; and so when Pitchfork ran their 200 Songs of the 1960s in the summer of 2006, I felt like I was knowledgeable enough and had enough people interested that I could do my own alternate 200 songs. So I wrote one up, and enough of my fellow comics nerds said nice things about it that I kept writing up Top-100 lists for every decade of the twentieth century. I finished that collection in late 2009, and it’s been pretty much the seed of all my music writing since.
Prior to your own writing about music, had you read many other music critics? If yes, who? And how did you discover them?
It depends on what you mean by many. (Or by critics!) My first searches (I think this was pre-Google) about music online brought me to the website of George Starostin, a Russian linguist who has an extensive site about classic rock. Through him I started reading people like Mark Prindle, who kind of eased me into punk, and then I spent a lot of time reading people on Allmusic — I think my favorite Allmusic writers ended up being Scott Yanow, Thom Jurek, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, although once I started getting into off-the-beaten-path stuff, Joe Viglione was the guy I trusted.
And then I was reading Gilbert Seldes on early jazz, and Greil Marcus’s The Old, Weird America and Nick Tosches’s Where Dead Voices Gather, and David Wondrich’s Stomp and Swerve. The last of which I came to through the A.V. Club (Andy Battaglia wrote it up in a year-end thing), so I was reading them too, especially Noel Murray’s Popless series. This was all before, or early on in, the time that I started genuinely talking about music in earnest online. Oh, and I was reading the New Yorker, so Alex Ross was huge. Nick Hornby, a bit.
And then I’d read a lot of Pitchfork from around 2002 to 2005, and their kind of know-it-all, slang-dropping style had a big impact on me, especially early on. But I wasn’t really noticing bylines, and I only really remember paying attention to Dominique Leone because I though he was a woman at first. And then I think the last one I came to that really stuck was Tom Ewing. I remember reading about New York Paris London Munich in Pitchfork, and thinking it sounded awesome, but never really bothering to look him up until 2006, 2007, maybe? When I just kind of immersed myself in his site, Freaky Trigger, reading through much of the archives, and realizing I think for the first time that this was a writer I actually wanted to model myself on, not just parrot his ideas or seek out his recommendations, but learn to see the world with the kind of patient, generalist, thoughtfully explained taste that he had developed. And so I started commenting on his Popular series for a while, and that’s how people like Frank Kogan and Mark Sinker and Alex Macpherson got on my radar. But this was all during my first efforts at writing about music on my own, as it were, not as a part of some message-board discussion.
Since then I’ve discovered so many more great writers, this whole community I was basically unaware of, many of whom have been very friendly and encouraging to me, and if you asked me who my favorite music writers were today, I would probably only say Tom Ewing and Alex Ross out of all of the above.
A lot of people, I take it, discovered you through your great writing on Ke$ha. Last I checked, you had nearly 30 pieces on her. What is it about her you are so drawn to? (I realize the answer to this question is, “read the articles.” But perhaps you could try to summarize?)
Well, I’ve really only written two extended pieces on her (here and here); the rest are all little squibs or one-liners, which I collected all in one place just as a kind of vanity project. I haven’t written about her at all since 2010, because I think I’ve kind of run out of things to say.
But I think the basic thing that drew me to her in the first place was just that she was so immediately, immensely popular in the beginning of 2010, but I could barely find anyone saying anything good about her. Everyone hated her, even the people I thought I could depend on to go against the sort of anti-pop, anti-teenage-fun, mainstream critical stance were dismissive and there was often a kind of misogynistic undertone to their dismissals, something I tried to get at by analyzing the word “skank.”
I shouldn’t say, actually, that everyone was against her. Kogan, and Erika Villani, and David Moore — probably because of their backgrounds in writing about teenpop — were saying interesting things. And Chuck Eddy. But I was reacting more to the general comment-section dismissal, the places online where people just howl obscenities because that’s the only way to get your voice noticed in the din.
But Ke$ha was also kind of a tipping point for me. I started out my interest in music with what you might call “the classics” — classic rock, classic jazz, classic American songwriting. I’d listened to the radio before, of course, but only in a kind of desultory way: “oh here’s a song I like, oh here’s a song people I respect hate, so I guess I should hate it too,” but when I started digging into music, that meant for me digging into the history of music. So for many years, from about 2000 to 2008, I’d basically lost touch with modern pop. I had no idea what was going on there. I mean, I heard some things, of course, some things were just inescapable, and because I was reading Pitchfork and so on I was introduced to some modern artists, but by and large I was entirely ignorant of, and consequently hugely dismissive of, modern pop. But something that Tom Ewing had said at some point in his Popular column, that he believed that pop music had gotten better with every succeeding decade, was rattling around in my head. When I first read that, I couldn’t believe it — better than the Beatles? better than Motown? impossible! — but it was something that kept nagging at me.
So in the summer of 2008, my iPod failed, and suddenly I had no way to listen to music or podcasts, and I had just started a new job — my current job — where I had a forty-five-minute commute either way. So in a sort of desperation, I turned on the radio. Summer in Arizona is brutal, and you kind of hate yourself and want to do some kind of penance, or just try to be very ascetic, and so I made a conscious decision that I would not listen to my usual classic rock and NPR stations where I would hear stuff I was familiar with and be comfortable. I wanted to be as uncomfortable as possible. So I programmed in the modern pop stations, the R&B stations, and listened to those.
And it was something of a revelation. That was the summer that Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” and Chris Brown’s “Forever” and Rihanna’s “Disturbia” were exploding, and there was still a lot of Akon and T-Pain kind of hanging around the playlist, and so it was like being dunked into this big pool of AutoTune for the first time and trying to figure out what to make of it. And I decided pretty early on, I think, that I liked it. Or at least that I didn’t hate it, that it was a tool that could be used to imaginative ends, and I got really super-excited when I heard Lil Wayne’s voice get chopped and screwed in “Got Money,” because it struck me as genuinely a new kind of sound. Sure, you would have been able to do that in the late 80s, Cabaret Voltaire could have cut up and sped up tape or whatever, but here it was on pop radio, this kind of digital noise, machines being used in ways they weren’t intended to be used, and it made me think of the history of rock & roll subversion, you know, Ike Turner playing with a busted amp on “Rocket 88″ and inventing fuzz guitar, or punks taking cheap guitars and making them sound as loud and horrible as they could, because that’s not what they were designed for, they were designed to play Les Paul or Chet Atkins. And AutoTune was designed to make sure Shania Twain and Céline Dion weren’t pitchy, it wasn’t designed to have all these black kids make jokes out of their own voices. So all of that had in a sense prepared me for Ke$ha, but I was still feeling at a remove; I was listening to this music, and thinking these thoughts, but I wasn’t loving it, I was thinking about the Ideal Pop Listener in my head and not identifying with her, because especially in Phoenix I imagined her as a teenage Latina, someone who was so poorly educated that she could mistake, say, “Take a Bow” for eternal romantic poetry. I mean, I’d read Donne and T. S. Eliot. I wasn’t going to fall for this.
But I kept listening to pop radio, just kind of letting it wash over me, figuring out the narratives, who was amazing, who wasn’t, what the uses of this music were. And kind of beginning to see through my own snobbery. It was just another genre. I’d plowed through so many genres in the past, this one was going to conquer me?
So when “TiK ToK” started turning up on the radio around Christmas of 2009, I was primed. I was ready to hear one thing on the radio that I could incontrovertibly fall in love with, that could define me not just as someone who listened to modern pop, but could be called a fan of this particular instance of modern pop. And it was just great — it’s a classic pop song in so many ways, from the structure, with a bridge that ends on a heart-stopping moment, to the way it introduced new slang into the culture. I mean, nobody was talking about brushing their teeth with a bottle of Jack before her, but now you can say that and everyone knows what you mean. And the little ruffles of AutoTune, the way they destabilize her voice, so that she’s immediately an unreliable narrator, but so much fun to be around anyway. It’s this total statement of purpose that, because I’m always thinking historically, seems to me to be descended from badass statements of purpose like “I’m a Man” or “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” as filtered, of course, through the hip-hop tradition of boasting about your sexual or murderous or economic prowess. Only she’s talking about partying, she’s a partying superhero, which is both ridiculous and has this kind of purity to it — everything’s in service of the party, and in the end the party is about the music, the DJ is the only person who’s addressed directly.
And probably because I’m this music-nerd fetishist, I love songs that are about how awesome music is: the “DJ Saved My Life Tonight” tradition, where, however shitty life is, there’s always music to make it better, to heal the wounds, to make you feel invulnerable and bigger than life. And even though I’d been listening to music for thirty years and writing about it for five, I hadn’t ever really experienced that until “TiK ToK.” My knowledge of music is still mostly theoretical in that sense — I don’t go clubbing, I don’t have any soundtracks to epic romances or anything, I don’t use music in the way it’s meant to be used, as an escape route or as an inspiration, I just listen to it and and read about it and think about it and write about it. But Ke$ha helped me find a way into using music as an emotional release, as well as getting over the last aesthetic hurdle to truly loving modern pop, and so I’m really grateful to her for that.
Is it fair to say Ke$ha is your favourite artist? Who are some other musicians, past or present, you’ve been similarly obsessed with?
I don’t know about fair — I’d say inaccurate. I don’t think I’d even call her my favorite modern pop artist, she was just someone I was able to find a road into saying things about. But I think Britney Spears and Beyoncé and Pink, for example, are much better than she is, and I like listening to them just as much. Of course they have deeper back catalogs, and so in the sense that she’s the most exciting new artist, I think that’s fair to say, but I also try not to think in terms of favorites. I have a hard time listening to a single artist for any stretch of time — a week is about my limit, and that’s only if I’m writing intensively about them; usually I can only do it for the space of an album.
But in terms of having to hear everything they’ve ever done, there are really very few artists I’ve done that with. Ke$ha, because she’s so new and it’s so easy. But the only other two I can think of are Radiohead, who I got into around 2002, 2003, and listened to everything and haven’t really listened to since, and the Faces, Rod Stewart’s old band with Ron Wood and Ronnie Lane. I did a One Week One Band on them, which I think is definitely my best writing of 2011. I’d call them my favorite rock & roll band, but I tend to get obsessed about genres, or about periods, rather than about specific artists — I’m a listen-wide rather than a listen-deep kind of music fan. A generalist, which is probably supposed to be a bad thing, but there’s so much music out there that I’d rather sample as many different kinds as possible than plumb the depths of a handful. Also I think the formats in which I’ve written have encouraged that — when I did my decade lists, I limited it to one song per artist, so as a writer I’ve always focused much more on songs than I have on artists or albums.
Can you make any generalizations about your own taste in pop music? I.e., what sorts of things compel you most?
I’m so solipsistic that probably the most compelling thing for me is whether I can think of something interesting to say about it. If I can, then I’ll listen to it over and over again.
But the sorts of things that will always grab my attention are strong, uptempo beats, swing or syncopated rhythms, distinctive or unusual voices, particularly female voices, pianos — in fact any traditionally classical or jazz instrumentation used in a pop context makes me perk up my ears — and the nebulous concept of the “hook.”
I believe you are juggling eight writing sites — do I have that right? Can you provide a high level summary of each writing project you’re currently involved with?
Let’s see; there’s my main personal blog, Exist Yesterday, which is where I screw around the way Tumblr encourages you to do, and occasionally post long pieces that don’t get very many notes but tend to get more attention outside Tumblr.
There’s Just One Song More, where I’m going back through the music of the twentieth century with a finer-toothed comb than I had previously done. I’m currently at seven songs for 1907, and I’m already starting to dread 1927, which is going to be truly painful to cull down to 27 songs.
There’s Bilbo’s Laptop, which I called that because it was a mondegreen for Billboard Latin Pop, where I’m doing what Tom Ewing does to the British charts on Popular, and what Sally O’Rourke is doing to the U.S. Pop chart on No Hard Chords, which is to go through the Billboard Latin chart and write about every #1 song. I’m done with the first decade, 1986 to 1996, and I’m taking a break for the summer to recharge the batteries.
There’s my old site Don’t Stay Up Too Late, where I still occasionally post about a vinyl album from 1972 — I have hundreds of them, it was an obsession that never really went away — and where my old decades lists still reside.
There’s the Singles Jukebox, where I’m a contributor and now one of a rotating series of editors, since William B. Swygart, the site’s original brilliant editor and animating spirit, decided that he had to cut back.
I think that’s all of the places I regularly write about music. I’ve done a week for One Week One Band, as I noted — the editor Hendrik Jasnoch, based in Germany, is the nicest man in pop criticism — and I’ve written for the Irish magazine One More Robot (Dean Van Nguyen may be the second nicest). I did a bunch of the artist bios for the pop website Popdust, which made me really respect people who write about music for pay. I don’t know how I could do it if I couldn’t make it all about me all the time.
In terms of non-music writing that occasionally turns into music writing, I do a website called Famous Americans, where I post a drawing from a 1925 book of caricatures by Miguel Covarrubias and write about the celebrity in question. Folks like Charlie Chaplin, H. L. Mencken, Eddie Cantor. That one’s also on hiatus for the summer, as are a couple of other Tumblrs I curate: an image blog and a blog that posts public-domain short fiction from the early twentieth century.
How do you choose which of your blogs to write for? Do you just do it based on what you feel like writing about, or do you try to actually spread your writing out amongst them?
At various times I’ve drawn up schedules to stick to, but I’ve never been very good at following self-imposed deadlines. I try to have one substantial post a week, just so that I feel I can call myself a writer, and I try not to go for more than three weeks without doing a Just One Song More post, but I have to listen to a lot of music and do a lot of historical research for that, so it can take a while.
Regarding Just One Song More: how did you get so fully into old music? (By which I mean, in many cases, music more than a century old?)
Honestly, it was all those “best of the century” lists that came out around the turn of the millennium. That, and actually being able to find so much of that music through Napster, kind of dismantled any notions I may have had of only being able to be interested in a narrow range of music. And I was always kind of annoyed by the arbitrary starting-points people use to decide when it’s okay to start talking about music, and everything before that can be safely ignored. If we’re celebrating the century, let’s celebrate the century, the earliest part just as much as the latest.
But I’ve always been interested in history, ever since I was a small child, and I grew up watching old Hollywood musicals so there was a lot of that music just kind of kicking around in the back of my head, much more than there was any of the Sixties pop or classic rock which I mostly discovered for the first time as a young adult because my parents only listened to Christian music.
More particularly, I’ve had a longstanding fascination with the period 1890-1940, both in terms of American history and in terms of cultural production from all over. It was the birth of movies, the birth of recorded music, the birth of mass media and this explosion in print culture, both highbrow and lowbrow, modernism and comic strips, free verse and detective stories. Listening to the music of the era just seemed like a natural extension of my interest in it. Really, it’s honestly hard for me to understand why everyone — or at least everyone with a cultivated taste and a sense of historical flow — doesn’t get into this music. We’ve all read Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain; why not listen to (the closest approximation we have of) what they were listening to? I don’t understand a curious, questing intellect that just puts some things automatically out of bounds.
I mean, I know what people’s objections to it are. It’s hard to listen to sometimes, just because of all the surface noise on very old recordings. And there are some really horrible racist attitudes that crop up, because minstrelsy was such an intrinsic part of popular culture for so many years. And so many people just don’t understand the context, they can’t hear it as music in the same way as the music that’s on the radio now, or was on the radio when they were teenagers. But I grew up in that generation gap, where people raised on the music of the ’60s were calling rap music just noise, and so when people call this just noise, it makes me want to go, well, no, you just don’t hear the codes and the patterns in it. I mean, I really do enjoy it, I sing along, and get into it, and everything — but I also listen to it so that I can interpret it to people, so that I can unpack the context, which you get just by listening to it, and researching it, and reading what people who love it have to say about it. Which is the same way I’ve gotten into all the music I love.
Clearly, you listen to an enormous amount of music. Where do you hear most of the stuff you listen to, and using which technologies?
I probably listen to less than you think. For one thing, I can’t listen to music while doing anything else — except purely physical activities like driving or cleaning — because if I have to think at all about anything besides the music I just automatically turn it off. I spend so much time thinking about music that to be listening to music and not paying attention to it feels disrespectful. Or I’m just bad at multitasking.
Most of the stuff I listen to is on my iPod. I have several hundred GB worth of music in a digital library, and I usually spend either the morning or the night before loading whatever I’m planning on writing about onto my iPod before heading out. I also listen to the radio, of course, and when I come across a link or a streaming file online I’ll sometimes play it there, but more often I’ll make a note of it and download it when I get home. I’m usually browsing the web now on my iPad, and if there’s a way to download music onto it directly without going through the Apple Store I haven’t figured it out.
I also have a turntable, and I’ve been listening recently to a growing collection of 10″ 33s (a format that was popular from 1948 to 1956) on that. But even my vinyl records I usually rip to mp3 and put on my iPod before listening to them. And very occasionally I’ll throw on a CD, but usually they just go straight into the laptop and onto the external hard drives.
What do you enjoy about writing for the Singles Jukebox?
The interaction with other music critics and fans, definitely. I also like being introduced to new music, but it’s unusual for me that I like something right away that I’ve heard for the first time on the Jukebox. Usually if I like it, it’s because I’ve already explored it in-depth elsewhere. Which speaks more to my own bad habits — that I listen to Jukebox music only in the context of writing about it for the Jukebox — than to anything intrinsic to the format.
But I love seeing the range of reactions to a piece of music, especially if it’s something I have a strong opinion on one way or the other. And with the rebooted Jukebox, where we have a bunch of new writers on that I know personally, or outside of the Jukebox context, I’m always fascinated to see how they react to something. Unlike a lot of music writers, I didn’t grow up talking or arguing about music with friends; it’s really only been within the past couple of years, through Tumblr and the Jukebox, that I’ve been able to have the kinds of music-geek conversations most people my age associate with high school and college.
Do you want to write about music for a living? Do you think such a thing is realistic, given the current climate for music writers?
I’d love to write for a living, period; I happen to have struck on music writing, but I’m interested in lots of other subjects, and my earliest dream was always to write fiction. As a writer, I’ve always found myself emulating whatever it was I was loving reading at the time, and it was only really through a series of chances that it was my music writing that ended up being put online and well-received by a (relatively small) number of people.
But no, I don’t think it’s particularly realistic. I’m keenly aware of my limitations and lack of experience, as well as my erratic — to say the least — writing habits, and I feel like I’m still working on having anything worth saying.
Your main blog, Exist Yesterday, is on Tumblr. What are the pros and cons of that format?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I like Tumblr because of its social aspect. I’ve met people through Tumblr that I never would have otherwise, made friendships and connections that would never have happened if I had stuck to my old WordPress blog, cranking out writing to a void — even if people read and liked it, I wouldn’t necessarily know about it. But now I also get to read what other smart, engaged people think about any number of topics. The Tumblr dashboard is a really unique innovation in terms of both presentation and conversation, combining the best parts of message boards and authorial blogs in one very addictive format.
The obvious cons are that it is so addictive, that sometimes you can feel like going off Tumblr is too much effort, so that it can become very insular very quickly. I haven’t really tried to get into a lot of other conversational spaces, whether institutions like ILX or even just expanding my blogroll particularly, because Tumblr can feel like it presents enough of the world to you that you’re not missing much. And of course, for anyone who’s just reading my blog “from the outside” as it were, rather than on the Tumblr dash, it can be tricky to understand what I’m talking about or who I’m responding to if they haven’t been seeing these other conversations going on. There’s also a certain amount of social pressure not to monopolize people’s dashboards too much, so if I wanted to do a whole series of posts on a topic, I would have to space them out using the queue function, or schedule time to write them throughout the week, say. And Tumblr’s metrics reporting can be pretty bad for the self-esteem when you realize that people are actively unfollowing you for saying something you thought was at least intelligently expressed. On a regular blog, when someone stopped reading you would never even know.
Can you recommend me and the readers of rockcritics.com two or three other people whose music writing you enjoy (and who you think I may not be familiar with)?
Hmmm. It’s hard for me to get a sense of who you might or might not know about already, but I’ll recommend Britt Julious, who mostly writes about dance music and modern indie (as well as modern art) and is really insightful and fresh. Katherine St. Asaph at Popdust is doing great work keeping the celebrity pop-culture machine honest. Sally O’Rourke, who I mentioned before, is a fantastic writer on classic pop and rock, and I’m itching for her to get into the modern era on No Hard Chords.