Steven Ward’s interview with J.D. Considine first appeared in rockcritics.com in May of 2000; thanks to Considine’s sense of humour throughout, it’s always been one of my favourites. At 7,000+ words it’s a long one, too–though not half as long as a few still ahead.
The two photos of Considine were tacked on to the article much later–in 2007 or 2008, I think, after I had a chance to meet the man in person following his move to Toronto, where (far as I know) he still resides. Oddly enough, of the 80 or so folks interviewed for this site over the past 13 years, Considine remains the the only critic I’ve ever actually met in person (not including a couple people I knew before rockcritics came to fruition, not including another Toronto critic whose hand I once shook in a memorable encounter that lasted about four seconds).
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The not-so-hip J.D. Considine: A music critic who writes about music
By Steven Ward, May 2000
J.D. Considine has been writing about popular music since 1977. During his more than 22-year career in rock criticism, he has polarized as many of his fellow critics as enlightened the readers who follow his work. The reason: Considine has always written about the music he likes. Considine has never worried about following the rock critic pack–only praising the unheard of and left field alternatives so obscure, college radio DJs give you a blank stare at mere mention of the band’s name. That’s not to say Considine only embraces mainstream music. On the contrary, Considine loves PJ Harvey, trance rock, and the Japanese pop music of Namie Amuro and Hikaru Utada. But don’t be surprised when Considine tells you he loves the pop country balladry of Faith Hill, the sultry and introspective R&B of Toni Braxton and (no joke) ‘N Sync. He’s serious and explains in great detail in his reviews why he enjoys the music so much.
Because of Considine’s job as the pop music critic for the Baltimore Sun, he’s forced to examine mainstream music and popular music culture in ways that snobby, trying-to-impress-other-critics writers at The Village Voice and Spin don’t really have to worry about. Considine’s reviews are a revelation. He is one of the very few rock critics out there–Chuck Eddy can do this too, but his writing is not as serious or straightforward–who writes about the music. Considine will be the first to tell you that lyrics–the overwhelming preoccupation with 90 percent of the rock critics out there–is something he hardly pays any attention to. Instead of dissecting lyrics (Considine is not interested in teaching freshman poetry to college students), he has the amazing ability to tell you about the music, what it sounds like and why a consumer might like it or not.
Writing about the music and what it sounds like is Considine’s secret weapon. It’s not easy and he will be the first to tell you about it. (Elvis Costello once put it best: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”) I recently conducted an e-mail interview with Considine where he sounded off on a number of matters: why music magazines today suck, which ones he believes are the best (you may be surprised), his love of his job as the pop music critic for a major daily newspaper, and his strange entrance into the world of music criticism in his high school/college days.
Last but not least, Considine will tell you how unfashionable he is–a trait that he thinks allows him to write about the music he loves.
Steven: Let’s start out with some bio info. How old are you? Where did you grow up, go to college, etc?
J.D.: I’m 43. I was born in Albany, New York, and moved with my family to Baltimore (where both my parents grew up) in 1962. We lived in Towson, MD, a suburb that weirdly enough was home to John Dos Passos, Spiro T. Agnew, and John Waters. All at the same time, for a while there. It’s also the fictional home of Elaine from “Seinfeld,” which seems to impress no one. Including the natives. I went to public school, and then attended the Johns Hopkins University, a school which at the time taught neither music nor journalism. What I studied was called the Humanistic Studies Area major, which was a pretty vague concept for a major (though it did have the advantage of appearing as “Human Stud” on transcripts). Mainly what I learned was structuralism.
Basically, I’ve been in Baltimore most of my life. Not because I love it here–the weather sucks, and apart from a couple specialty shops, we have no decent CD stores–but because I’ve never had to leave. If I were offered a job in New York, I’d go, but so far, all my full-time employment is here in Baltimore. So I stay.
Steven: At what age did you realize you wanted to write for a living and what writers, books, magazines or events shaped that decision?
J.D.: I can’t remember not being interested in music. My parents tell me I was a music critic in utero–they could tell by how I kicked whether I liked the music they were playing. But I don’t think it occurred to me that I could make a living at kicking like that until I was in high school. It’d be nice to tell a story about reading a Jon Landau or Lester Bangs review and tearily realizing that I’d found my destiny, but I have no such story. I didn’t read rock reviews when I was in high school. My musical interests, for the most part, were in jazz and classical music. So I read Downbeat, and even then more for the information than the opinions.
When I was a junior in high school, a new program called “Career Development” was introduced. Basically, it was an attempt at giving seniors real-world experience as interns, working with lawyers, architects, etc. Being a smart-ass, I told the program’s co-ordinator that I wanted to be a music critic, and asked what sort of internship he could set up for me. Amazingly, he managed to get me a chance to audit a class in music criticism that was being taught by Elliott Galkin–who was the critic for the Baltimore Sun and a real big deal in the classical music world–at the Peabody Conservatory in downtown Baltimore.
Not that I could just waltz into the class and start writing criticism. No, I had to audition. Galkin sat me down at the piano and handed me a study score of a Handel concerto grosso. My job was to read and play the thing. I was a crap pianist (still am), but I can read, and read it I did, transposing the parts transposed in my head as I went along. Bingo, I was in.
In for what, though? When I arrived at class the first day, I was terrified to discover that my two–yes, only two–classmates were both Peabody grad students. Talk about sink or swim! Plus, all the reviewing would be of classical concerts in the Baltimore area (most of which Galkin would be covering for the Sun).
Up to that point, I’d written exactly no music reviews. In fact, I made a point of not working on the school paper in high school. Somehow, though, I was able to hold my own with the other students. Galkin believed that a good critic should be a writer and a musician in equal measure, and deftly work-shopped our reviews. He taught me the value of leavening a negative review with humor, and hammered home the importance of avoiding hyperbole and non-sequiturs. By the end of the year, I really felt as if I had found my métier.
Good thing, too, as that turned out to be the only journalism training I ever had.
Steven: When did you discover your love of music? Tell me about your favorite bands, songs and albums from the old days.
J.D.: When I was a kid, from junior high school on, all I ever wanted for Christmas was musical instruments, stereo equipment, or records. I of course had no idea how much the first two cost, so I was always vaguely disappointed only to get records. Although I did get a Longines Stereo for my birthday when I was 13 or so.
Neither of my parents are particularly musical. They like music well enough, especially light classical, broadway shows and big band swing. But neither ever learned to play an instrument, which was odd, because my father’s mother was a trained musician who came from a long line of classical musicians. Still, my sibs and I had piano lessons, and played in the school band. Which was lucky for me, because I would “borrow” their instruments and learn how to play them. By the time I got to college, I could play (with varying degrees of proficiency) trombone, tuba, double bass, saxophone, trumpet, piano and guitar.
When I wasn’t playing, I was listening. I lusted after music. All the time. At first, it was classical that had me in its clutches. Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting Wagner, the Jussi Bjorling/Victoria De Los Angeles “La Boheme,” Dennis Brain playing the Mozart Horn Concertos .$B%`. (those were some of my favorites when I was in junior high school. It’s a wonder I didn’t get beaten up on a regular basis).
By 9th grade, I had discovered both jazz and the public library. Once a week, I’d paw through the bulky, plastic-sleeved LP packages, looking for anything I didn’t know and wanted to learn about. I discovered Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, the Milestone recordings of Monk and Coltrane, the Guild recordings of Dizzy Gillespie with Charlie Parker. Ever curious, I had expanded to world music by high school, and was transfixed by the Nonesuch Explorer recordings of Balinese gamelan and Bulgarian folk songs. It was amazing how much I picked up at that library.
When I bought records, it was almost always stuff I’d never heard. I remember buying Roland Kirk’s Rip, Rig and Panic pretty much at random, because I’d heard so much about the guy’s weird habit of playing two and three saxophones at once, but had no idea what his music sounded like. To me, the whole point was to learn as much about music as possible.
Not that I ignored pop. I just had, well, weird taste for a teen in the early ’70s. I liked the Stones and the Who more than the Beatles (back then, anyway), but I adored Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire (from Head to the Sky on), James Brown, and War. Especially War. The World Is a Ghetto, Deliver the Word, War Live–these were constantly on my turntable through high school. I also mistakenly assumed that jazz/rock was pretty much the same as rock, and was forever bewildered that few of my friends were as taken as I was by Miles Davis’s Live/Evil and On the Corner, Mahavishnu Orchestra’sInnermounting Flame, the first two Weather Report albums, Return to Forever’s Light As a Feather, and Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill.
Perversely enough, I also fell head-over-heels for Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson and Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel. The richness of the melodies and the opulent warmth of the production lit me up like a roman candle. To me, even then, those pop virtues were every bit as valid as the things I liked about more demanding fare like jazz and classical.
When I got to college, I wound up taking a job at a record store to help pay for school–this was when a minimum-wage job actually could make a dent in tuition. I was hired as the jazz & classical guy and spent about four years (1975-79) in the biz. It was a great time to be in retail, actually. Not only did I get to see, first-hand, what it meant to “ship platinum and return gold” (my store alone must’ve returned a hundred copies of Draw the Line), but I got to see the record industry move away from its old status as a field of independent companies and toward its current state of multinational mega-corp domination. Plus, I was there for the initial rise and fall of Kiss; I watched Springsteen go from cultish popularity with The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle to mass popularity with Born to Run; I worked through both the disco craze and Frampton Comes Alive; and I was able to be among the first to pick up the early punk and rap singles. (It was through my record store savvy that I wound up writing one of the first rap record reviews, a piece on “Rapper’s Delight” that ran in The Village Voice in November of 1979.)
But it was the Sex Pistols who truly changed my life. Hearing “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen” (which I’d bought on import at another store) made me totally re-evaluate my aesthetics. Here was music that carried the same emotional intensity as the post-Coltrane jazz I loved, yet spoke a language that was simple and direct–as immediate as a blow to the head. In an instant, my goals had changed. Where once I wanted to write mainly about jazz and classical music, now I seriously wanted to think about pop music. And the work of everybody else I’d been listening to–from EWF and Steely Dan to Graham Parker and Springsteen–suddenly seemed that much deeper and more significant.
Steven: How and when did you discover journalism and when and how did the music and journalism come together for you.
J.D.: I can’t remember when I didn’t read newspapers. Granted, my earliest recollections are of reading the comics (I was the only kid in my sixth grade class who thought “Pogo” was funny), but I know I looked at other things early on. I also started reading Newsweek in seventh grade, which briefly but seriously warped my mind.
The first music journalism I read was Downbeat, mainly because it was easily available in the libraries. But I had no idea, when I was in junior high school, that there was even such a thing as rock criticism. It wasn’t until I got to college and started reading The Village Voice–and, later, Rolling Stone andCreem–that I became indoctrinated. But to be honest, I was already writing reviews before I became influenced by other reviewers.
Steven: Were there certain rock writers that influenced you when you first started reading rock journalism? What about other writing influences, favourite novels etc.
J.D.: Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs were the first rock critics I noticed, mainly because of their passion and the immediacy of their language. I also studied Robert Christgau, whose command of rhetoric made even the slightest observation seem like deep wisdom. But it was with Robert Palmer that I began to see a true personal direction, because he so clearly valued music above all else, and used sound as a means to put subculture into context instead of the other way around.
But I don’t know that I much tried to imitate them. OK, once I cracked the code, I could do a pretty good Christgau. But to be honest, I was just too damned lazy to go to the trouble of learning to sound like anybody else. About the only writer whose style I consciously tried to imitate was James Wolcott, who liked to animate his ideas, making them dance and frolic. I couldn’t really pull it off, but the notion that ideas could be forces unto themselves, engaging the reader on a visceral level, has remained something I try to achieve in my writing.
Steven: When and where was your first piece of professional rock journalism published?
J.D.: Rock journalism? Sometime in the summer of ’77, though I’m not sure I was paid for it. My debut as a money-earning professional was in May, 1977, when I began freelancing for the Baltimore Sun. But that was a jazz writer. Being ridiculously cocky, I had decided that the stringer the Sun had covering jazz was a hack, and that I could write at least as well as he did. So I hauled my 20-year old self down to the paper, found the features editor, and made my pitch. “I could do a better job than this guy,” I told him. Bless his heart, he didn’t throw me out. Instead, he said, “Well, son, why don’t you go to a concert, write it up, and we’ll look at it.”
“Well, I’m going to see Milt Jackson tonight,” I said.
“OK. Write us 450 words, have it here by 10 a.m., and we’ll see,” he told me.
So I went to the show. I wrote my review. I made the deadline. They ran the piece the next day. I was 20 years old, and all of a sudden, I was a pro. Oddly enough, the editor seemed to want me to do rock reviewing as well, but I wasn’t interested just yet. So I think my first “rock” piece for pay was reviewing Renaissance, who opened a concert for Jean-Luc Ponty that summer. But I could be wrong.
Steven: If you can remember, (I know there have been many) how many magazines and newspapers have you been published in?
J.D.: Oh, jeez. You know, the scary thing is, I probably canremember. Newspapers are simple. Lessee, I’ve been on staff at the Baltimore City Paper(1977-1980), the Baltimore News American (1980-81), and the Baltimore Sun (1986-present). Between the News American and Sun gigs, I freelanced for the Sun and for the Washington Post. I also had one story in the Washington Times, but felt too creeped out by the Moonie connection to write any more for them. I also wrote various short pieces for The Village Voice in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
The first rock magazine to publish me was New York Rocker, in ’79. Also that year, I wrote my first review for Rolling Stone, of an album by Trillion. I started writing for Musician in 1981, and wrote for Record for much of its existence. Various pieces went into Spin, Vibe, Fi, Request, Standing Ovation, Model, Guitar for the Practising Musician, Oldie, Playboy, Entertainment Weekly, Baltimore, the Neiman Quarterly, Extreme Guitar, and Guitar World. These days, my main freelance outlets are Guitar World and Revolver.
I’ve been reprinted in a bunch of places, from New Musical Express to Utne Reader. Also, my Sun stories have run (via the Washington Post/L.A. Times wire service) in papers all across America, as well as Australia and Japan. If only I got royalties from that…
Steven: Most rock critics (guys like Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus especially) seem to be concerned with lyrics and the translation of a songwriter’s songs. One of the reasons your writing stands out from most is because you actually write about the music. You have the ability to write about what the music sounds like. Not that you don’t ever write about lyrics, but most of the time your reviews deal with how the music sounds–information most record buyers can actually use. Do you agree with that?
J.D.: Well, I don’t know that I’d call Marsh a lyrics-only guy, as he writes vividly and evocatively about singing (though not necessarily from a technical perspective). But yeah, a lot of music critics write as if music were simply something attached to the “poetry” of the songs. Do I really have to say what horseshit that is? Apart from the fact that rock lyrics rarely count as poetry–most would have a hard time hacking it as doggerel–the music is clearly the main draw. Otherwise, wouldn’t Patti Smith have had greater success in literature than in music?
Writing about music, on the other hand, is hard. With words, you have a narrative, and you can fold that into the argument of your review. But what does the sound of Jimmy Page’s guitar solo in “In the Evening” mean? I have no idea how it might fit into the narrative of Robert Plant’s lyrics, but I can tell you how it works against what the rhythm section is doing. And I can damn sure say how the whole thing makes me feel. Which is what I, as a reviewer, try to do.
Of course, I should add that the other reason I don’t write about lyrics is that they’re the last thing I ever pay attention to. Indeed, some of my favourite records are in languages I only partially understand (like Japanese) or don’t know at all (like Portuguese). Maybe this goes back to my early days listening to classical music, I don’t know. But I’ve always reacted to pure sound first, and have tried to convey what I hear and feel in my writing.
Steven: My favourite record review of yours was a lead review in Rolling Stone about Pearl Jam’s second album, Vs. It was a wonderful album and you said so and why. Your review focused on how the drummer’s approach to the music and the rhythmic influence of the record was the backbone and secret weapon behind the album’s success. I hardly ever read CD reviews like that anymore. Do you feel like there is a lack of good music writing about the actual music?
J.D.: It always amazes me when people remember reviews of mine like that, because I sure don’t. I mean, I remember writing the thing (kinda), but I have no idea what I said in it. So I’ll have to take your word on the bit about the drummer (which, frankly, sounds right). But to get to your actual question, yeah, I’d say there’s a definite dearth of good writing about actual music. Which is one reason I read so little rock record reviewing these days.
To be fair, though, there are a growing number of younger writers who at least recognize that there’s more to record reviewing than reading the lyric sheet or indulging in autobiography. Their prose may not be there, but at least they’re moving in the right direction. And good writing takes time and practice to develop. Lord knows, I’m still working at it.
At the same time, there’s the underlying issue of music comprehension. You don’t need musical training to enjoy music, but I think you should have some technical understanding of music if you intend to write about it. That doesn’t mean instrumental proficiency, necessarily, but a rock reviewer ought to know at least enough about music to be able to identify the instruments he or she is hearing; should know enough about musical structure to know what the difference between a chorus, verse and bridge is, or be able to count how many chord changes there are in a harmonic cycle, or be able to identify specific beats. It would be better if he or she knew enough about performance practices to be able to identify specific techniques, and better still is the reviewer could follow a theme and variations, recognize basic forms of counterpoint, and identify common harmonies. Not because that sort of information belongs in every review. Rather, if the reviewer understands on a structural level what’s going on in the music, it will be that much easier for him or her to explain his or her observations to the reader–provided, of course, that he or she writes well enough to make those ideas comprehensible.
Now, I’m not going to go so far as to say that a stupid music mistake in a review–say, when Neil Strauss mistook one of Tom Morello’s guitar effects for a harmonica solo in his Rolling Stone review of the latest RATM album–invalidates what the reviewer has to say. But I do believe that not knowing what you’re talking about makes your argument less convincing.
Steven: Another Considine “trademark” is writing about music most rock crits won’t touch with a ten-foot pole. I mean if the new P.J. Harvey or Beck is good, you will say so and why. But you have not been afraid to write about the merits of Cinderella’s Heartbreak Station album for example. With the exception of Chuck Eddy, you were one of the first guys to write serious criticism about AOR and hair metal bands. How do you react to that?
J.D.: Um, that I have weird taste?
This is kind of a tricky issue, in part because what we’re dealing with is the notion of a “rock critical canon,” and in part because we’re also dealing with matters of personal taste and identity. I don’t know Chuck Eddy beyond what I’ve seen of his in print, so I don’t know if he embraces AOR and hair metal because that’s the music he likes best, or because he believes it is more important than critical faves like the Mekons or the Feelies, or because he gets off on taking a perversely opposite stance to many of his peers. And I do think the “why” in a situation makes a difference.
How so? Because to embrace something as a reaction against another thing you dislike is not merely disingenuous, it’s missing the forest for the trees. After all, if you were to say that ‘N Sync is better than Beck because it’s honestly catchy and not trying to impress listeners who think they’re too clever to fall for an obvious hook, what you’re offering is a double criticism. You’re reviewing both ‘N Sync and Beck. In other words, you’re acknowledging the other side even as you reject it, because you’re making your dislike seem as important as your like.
I’ve long suspected that those who rail most vehemently against the banalities of mainstream pop do so because they can’t stand the fact that they react to the music. It drives them crazy to hear a snippet of “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and then have the damned hook bouncing around their head for the rest of the afternoon. But rather than face the issue head on, and risk admitting that there’s something appealing about the bald melodicism and sentimentality of such a tune, they instead go into denial, denigrating people who do like the tune, and even urging that the thing be wiped from the face of the earth. To quote the Bard, “Methinks he doth protest too much….”
Me, I don’t pretend to be a cool guy. I’m not hip, I don’t belong to a specific counter culture, and I don’t really have any shame about the stuff that piques my interest. I do happen to like ‘N Sync, and Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” and Limp Bizkit, and Faith Hill. I also adore PJ Harvey, and Radiohead, and Nine Inch Nails, and Randy Newman. Wanna make something of it? More to the point, I try to find something interesting in everything I hear. I don’t immediately turn my nose up at a certain kind of music simply because it’s not my “bag,” as Austin Powers might say. Granted, I’m more likely at this point to want to play a new Astralwerks trance band than a new alt-rock guitar act on Merge, but that’s more because I’ve liked more Astralwerks albums than I have Merge releases, not because I particularly prefer trance to alt-rock.
To an extent, this is the result of a decision I made fairly early in my career. In 1979, when I was just beginning to make some inroads into national music magazines, I was writing for the local alternative weekly in Baltimore, the City Paper. (For what it’s worth, one of the original owners of that paper, Russ Smith, now publishes New York Press). I probably could have stayed there and followed the usual path, working my way to bigger alt-weeklies and then maybe into magazines, but my most immediate opportunity was with the Baltimore News American. Writing for a daily, though, would mean having to cover the broadest range of pop music, which at the time wasn’t what I listened to.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that being forced to think and write about music I otherwise wouldn’t listen to would ultimately make me a better critic. Because not only would it force me to work harder, but because you can’t fully understand a sub-culture unless you have a good handle on the mainstream culture it’s connected to. Once I made that leap, the rest was relatively easy.
Steven: In the same vein of the above question, you are the only critic I have ever read that has ever had anything nice to say about Genesis (one of my guilty pleasures and a band hated by 90 percent of the rock crit population). Besides your summation of their work in the Rolling Stone Album Guideand a wonderful feature you did on their “We Can’t Dance” tour preparations for Musician, Genesis gets trashed. You don’t seem to be afraid of writing about the music you like–fashionable or not.
J.D.: Like I said, I’m not a fashionable guy. So I guess I’ve got less to lose.
Steven: You don’t just write about what the older bands are up to. I remember a great essay you did for Request about how people don’t give new music and new bands a chance today and instead stick to their old, classic rock favorites. It was like you were warning them about the evolution of popular music.
J.D.: [I’m not sure there’s a question in here. I appreciate the compliment, but what do you want me to address in this?]
Steven: How and when did you get the Baltimore Sun pop music critic gig and do you prefer that to the features and freelance reviews you do?
J.D.: Let me put it this way: I like being paid on a regular basis, and I like having job security, both of which the Sun provides. At the same time, it’s nice to be able to write at length about things I don’t really have cause or opportunity to address in the Sun. So it would be hard to say I have any real preference.
I will say that I do an obscene amount of work for the Sun. In the first four months of this year, I filed an average of five stories a week, every week, without a break. That’s a lot of writing (we’re talking 2,000 2,500 words weekly). It’s good discipline, but damn, it’s wearing.
Anyway, apart from the two-and-a half years I spent at the News American, I’ve written for the Sun all my professional life. But I didn’t get put on staff until 1986. (Oddly enough, I am now the senior critic at the paper, as all the other current critics were appointed since ’86.) As to how I got the job, back in ’86 it was decided that there was enough need for regular pop music copy that there would be a union grievance filed if they kept doing it all through freelance. So they interviewed a bunch of people, and decided to offer the job to me. Pretty typical newspaper operation, really.
Steven: You have always been famous (or infamous) for your extremely short but insightful “Short Takes” reviews that used to be in the back part of the now defunct Musician. One of my favorites: “GTR–SHT.” Thank God “Short Takes” has been revived in the new music mag, Revolver. Tell us about how you got involved in that.
J.D.: Basically because I knew Brad Tolinski and Tom Beaujour from Guitar World, and liked working with them. Like a lot of people, Brad had seen what the popularity of Q and Mojo means in terms of American interest in a music magazine that doesn’t cater to the obvious cliques of music fandom–that is, the college rock snobs, the hip-hop purists, the disaffected pop fans who will buy a magazine only their favourite band is on the cover (and then not read any of the other stories). Basically, he saw that there was a need the other music magazines weren’t meeting, and after much consideration and commiseration, came up with the concept that is Revolver. I’m very flattered to have been a part of that process, being as sick as everyone else of the current spate of American music magazines. To be able to write seriously and at length about music that isn’t CMJ hip or “TRL” popular (that’s College Music Journal and MTV’s “Total Request Live” to those at home) is a blessing.
Steven: What do you think of the music mags out today? Now that mags like Creem, Crawdaddy and Musician are gone and Rolling Stone is a shell of its former self, do you feel like the ’90s were an end to an era in rock journalism?
J.D.: Current music magazines pretty much suck. (That ought to get me a lot of work, don’t you think?) Apart from Guitar World (which is often the best music mag the industry ignores), Revolver, and various newspaper critics, I don’t read much of the modern music press. Frankly, I can only endure bits and pieces of Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe and the others. Spin is the smartest of the regular music press, even if the writing doesn’t always live up to the magazine’s concepts, and they frequently run features that make no pretense to objectivity or fairness. (That Limp Bizkit cover story, for instance.) Rolling Stone is generally the most professional, but their inability to decide whether they’re a mainstream mag a la Entertainment Weekly, or a hip music mag like, um, Rolling Stone kinda hamstrings their coverage. I mean, really–either you hate the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, or you love them. You shouldn’t sneer at them and then plunk them on the cover every three months.
Speaking of EW, I probably read more of that magazine than I do the mainstream music press. It helps that the editing is clean and consistent, and that the perspective can be snarky without seeming overly self impressed. But I can’t help but wish Ken Tucker wrote more music reviews.
Steven: Who are your favourite music journalists working today and why do you like their writing?
J.D.: Well, I love Tucker’s stuff, even when it’s not about music. Jon Pareles can be very sharp, especially when he gets his dander up, and Ann Powers is such an entertaining essayist that I’m fascinated even when she really doesn’t have anything to say (personal journalism goes only so far, after all). Dave Marsh, Charles Shaar Murray, Robert Christgau and Nelson George still make me want to think harder, even if I don’t see as much of their work as I once did. Elysa Gardner, Tom Moon, Anthony DeCurtis, Gina Arnold and Barry Walters all manage to keep me humble and trying harder. There are probably other worthwhile reviewers out there, but to be honest, I don’t really read that much music criticism.
What makes me react to a reviewer is a combination of the quality of his/her ideas, and the clarity and power of his/her prose. In some cases, I read because the perspective expressed is so unlike mine (Arnold, for example); in others, because the prose and sense of voice is so vivid and persuasive (as with Marsh, Christgau and Tucker). But I also get a fair amount of satisfaction on the prose end from former-music critics, like James Wolcott and Tom Carson.
There are also those reviewers whose work I read because I enjoy because I can’t help but admire a good cheap shot (Jim Farber is aces at that) or because I enjoy getting pissed off at how wrong-minded their work seems (Jim DeRogatis is a star in this regard, though hardly the only one twinkling in the darkness). But at the risk of sounding like an old snot, I find most rock writing these days to be utterly without interest or merit. Much of what passes for criticism offers more in the way of attitude mongering than insight, and reads as if the joy of music is the last thing these writers would embrace.
Steven: You have published one book–a bio on Van Halen. Any chance of a collection of your features or reviews ever coming out in book form?
J.D.: Actually, what I contributed to The Rolling Stone Album Guide was enough to make a book in its own right (at least twice as much verbiage as Van Halen!). But yeah, I haven’t exactly made book-writing a priority. It’s not that I lack for ideas; time, however, seems to be forever in short supply. Nibbled to death by minnows–that’s the story of my professional life.
As to why I haven’t assembled a collection of my features or reviews, well, nobody ever asked me to. A lame reason, but there you go. Also, I tend to forget what I’ve written. OK, some things I remember, but for the most part, if I filed it a month or more ago, odds are I’ve completely put the story out-of-mind. And the prospect of sorting through my clips–which is to say the many boxes of unsorted stories I have in the basement–fills me with unspeakable dread. Should anyone want to publish a book of my journalism, I’d be happy to sort through those piles of paper. Lord knows, there’d be plenty to choose from.
Steven: What has been your favourite part of the job and does rock music still move you like it did in the old days? If so, what bands today are making you fall in love with pop and rock music all over again?
J.D.: What do I like best about music journalism? Is it the seven-figure salaries? The gorgeous groupies? The social prestige? The obsequious favor of editor’s world-wide? Oh, all of it, of course. All of it.
OK, enough sarcasm. As a job, music criticism is not a particularly good way to make a living. A survey done by the National Writers Union back in the ’80s showed that music writing was the lowest-paid specialty in journalism, and I doubt that has changed. If anything, the number of music-oriented web sites being filled with copy written for next-to nothing (or actual nothing) has probably worsened the situation. Then there’s the prestige. In the general magazine world, music mags are generally seen as niche publications, and on a level well below that of food or sports mags. Not even Rolling Stone‘s attempt to become the new Esquire back in the mid-’80s was able to change this.
Then there’s the world of daily paper journalism. When Virgil Thompson was writing for the New York Herald, he remarked that, as music critic, his prestige in the newsroom was slightly below that of the copyboys. That situation has changed only to the extent that few newspapers have copyboys anymore. To this day, most general journalism awards have no category for criticism. The one major exception, the Pulitzers, has never given the criticism award to a pop music writer. (Only two TV critics and one movie critic–Roger Ebert–have ever won. Most winners tend to be in the fields of literary, art, classical music, and architecture criticism.) The only pop music writer ever to have won a Pulitzer is Chuck Phillips of the L.A. Times–who won for beat reporting.
Why is being able to articulate an opinion on popular music such an ill-appreciated skill? In part because it’s not one that lends itself to credentialling. To write about classical music, for example, many editors will expect the candidate to have extensive training in music, including a conservatory degree. To write about popular music, being able to name all three members of Hanson is usually qualification enough. Nor does it help that most pop music writing is abysmally bad. Not as prose, per se, so much as its utter inability to inform and illuminate. Many of my colleagues seem to believe that their opinion is the word of god, and needs neither support nor examination. So instead of thinking their theories through, they make blanket pronunciations (Limp Bizkit are thugs, ‘N Sync is pap, Beck is a genius) and assume that’s argument enough. There’s no attempt to think deeply about the music, much less to try and understand what makes music we don’t like work, or to look at widely-held assumptions (e.g., “The ’60s was the greatest era of rock and roll”) closely enough to see if there’s really any merit to them. As such, the level of discourse in our field seldom rises above the level of “Is not!” “Is too!” squabbling. Is it any wonder we’re not taken seriously?
So why have I stuck at it for so long? Mainly because thinking seriously about music is something I have always done, and that writing is the best way I know to work my arguments through. Some critics seem to see their job as a form of aesthetic housekeeping, in which the good are kept clean and shiny in their place of prominence, and the bad are tossed out like so much garbage. Me, I’m more concerned with understanding and analyzing the music around me. It helps that I love a vast variety of music, and get as much pleasure from hearing the Takacs String Quartet play Bartok as I do from the latest Aimee Mann or Steely Dan discs. But I also enjoy the play of ideas, the sense of accomplishment I get from seeing a larger pattern in a set of seemingly unrelated details. And writing well is its own reward, though one I don’t achieve often enough.
As to whether or not “rock music” still moves me “like it did in the old days,” the answer depends on how narrowly you define those terms. Do I still get a kick from re-listening to the Sex Pistols? Sure. Do I hear those records the same way? Of course not–I have too much experience, too much history with that music to hear it now as I heard it then. Do I find guitar-based rock to be as thrilling as it was 20 years ago? Of course not–the distance from 1978 to the present is about the same as the distance from 1956 to 1978. And just as Elvis Presley’s early singles didn’t carry the same power and novelty in ’78 that they did when they were the latest thing, it would be foolish to expect the music that seemed edgy and modern in the first year of my career to carry the same impact now. Times change, and so have I.
Finally, you ask what music makes me fall in love with pop and rock all over again. Frankly, the list is too long and ongoing to enumerate. I still hear singles I’m compelled to play over and over, like a teenager; Q-Tip’s “Vivrant Thing” spent almost a full hour on repeat in my CD player after I first played it. Marc Anthony’s “I Need to Know” and Toni Braxton’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough” have also been in heavy rotation in recent weeks. I listen to a lot of classical music, and a fair amount of jazz and world music. Lately, I’ve become enamored of Japanese pop music, anything from Namie Amuro and Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki to Shikao Suga and UA and Dragon Ash. It’s an expensive enthusiasm, Japanese CDs generally being in the $30 range, and I’m more often than not buying blind, since I usually have no idea what an artist sounds like before I pay for the CD. For the most part, though, I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve heard, even if many of my friends think I’m crazy to be amused by stuff as cheesy as Morning Musume’s “Love Machine.”
Granted, the demands of my job often keep me from playing things purely for pleasure–gotta keep up with the new release pile, the better to fill the ravenous maw of the news-hole–but I’m never a total slave to duty. Especially since I often like what I’m reviewing. And isn’t that why I got into this racket in the first place?