Gina Arnold in the present tense
E-mail Interview by Steven Ward (April 2001)
Love her or hate her, rock critic Gina Arnold writes from her own point of view. For Arnold, when writing about music, objectivity is thrown out of the window. Arnold has written and published two superb books about the history of alternative music–Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana and Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense. An unabashed fan of alternative music and culture, Arnold chronicles her own story alongside a music history that tells readers how we got from Johnny Rotten to Kurt Cobain and beyond.
Today, Arnold still writes about music–as a columnist for the San Jose Metro–though not nearly as often as she was in the ’90s. In the following interview, Arnold talks about her favorite rock writers, why music doesn’t mean as much to her today, and what it was like for a woman to break into a field filled with nerdy white guys.
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Steven: You just left the East Bay Express where you wrote your “Fools Rush In” column. You wrote about music as well as all kind of things. Did you enjoy the freedom to go beyond the music format in the column and why did you leave the paper?
Gina: I left the East Bay Express last month because I was offered a much better salary to put my column in the San Jose Metro. It was sad to leave the Express, which certainly did give me a lot of freedom in the eleven years I worked for them, but it was also time for a change. I always felt readers of my column (“Fools Rush In”) didn’t understand that it wasn’t just a local music column; I got a lot of flak for writing about other things. I am hoping that the readers of the Metro will understand that I’m not just a music writer anymore.
Steven: Are you still writing full time about music? I hardly ever see your byline anymore in music mags?
Gina: Gee, that’s depressing. I took a year off last year–I had an NAJP fellowship at Columbia University–so that’s one reason I’ve faded out a little. But I still write full time, mostly for the Metro now, but also in other places. I have never had a lot of success writing for the regular music magazines (Rolling Stone, Spin, etc.). I think my point of view irks them, it’s a little too radical. Also that game is all about who you know, and the editors are all a lot younger than me now. Admittedly, I don’t actually read those magazines, so it’s not like I probably should write for them.
Steven: One of the reasons I love your first book, Route 666, is because you are telling the history of 90s alternative music through autobiography. Your perspective on your subject is both detailed and historical but from a fan’s point of view, not some kind of academic approach. Do you agree with this assessment and is that the way you planned to write the book or did the personal, fan-based approach just happen as you were writing?
Gina: No, it was all very planned out–the book was pitched as a first person account. I have always felt that one of the flaws in a lot of rock criticism (besides the boring prose style) was that it tried to be objective–which is impossible, with something like music. The best you can hope to be is descriptive: you know: this is who I am, this is what happened to me, this is why it means something to me, if you agree you might like it too. And if you don’t, well then, ignore it. That first book is kind of a good snapshot of who I was and what I thought at the time. But it’s weird to read it now, it reads so young and innocent.
Steven: Tell me about your background–where you grew up, went to college, etc.
Gina: I grew up in Palo Alto and went to UC Berkeley. I had a very vanilla upbringing–like a lot of punk rockers I think.
Steven: What music mags did you read growing up and who were your favorite rock critics and writers–both influences on you and others you just admired?
Gina: When I was in high school, Creem was on it’s last legs and I really liked it. I read Rolling Stone of course. I liked Dave Marsh’s writing a lot–and Greil Marcus, and a writer named Bob Duncan, who was at Creem, and of course Lester Bangs (although I don’t find he holds up so well). I loved Nik Cohn’s books. But the truth is I only read rock criticism for a brief period before I started doing it myself and then I started to find it thoroughly inadequate: for one thing, there were no women writers, no one with my perspective on music, and it was full of a lot of cliches and bad writing and what I call “stancy” stuff–you know, where the writer takes a perverse stance just to be hip or something. It seemed so insincere. Now I don’t read much of it at all. I just read other things, novels and whatnot. A writer who’s done some accidentally good work in rock is John Seabrook at the New Yorker. Steve Erickson at the L.A. Weekly (he’s really a novelist) is good. I like Nick Hornby’s books, but not his criticism so much. The writer that most influence my style, I think, is Joan Didion.
Steven: Where did you first get published and how did you first get into the rockwrite game?
Gina: For my first year of college, I went to UCLA (I was recruited to the swim team, if you can believe it. I was a big jock. Still am.) I just walked into the paper one day and said, “can I review records?” and they said yes. Then when I transferred to Berkeley I continued at the Daily Cal. When I graduated, I got a job stringing for the Palo Alto Times Tribune, a daily paper in my home town, and then at theSan Jose Mercury, and finally the L.A. Times. But daily papers weren’t too kind to me and I went down to the alternative world pretty fast. I don’t know. I don’t really consider myself to have had a very successful writing career, so I wouldn’t take my advice on any of this. I’ve had a lot of good luck though–and met a lot of great people.
Steven: Did you find it hard in the beginning of your career to break into the field because you were a woman and most rock crits were guys?
Gina: Oh god, no, it was the exact opposite! Being the only woman rock critic in the ’80s was a total advantage! First of all, it got me lots of attention–and there were a few wonderful people who actually were concerned about the subject at the time, like Bill Flanagan at Musician, and my editor at theSan Jose Merc and even at the L.A. Times, who were determined to hire women. I know for a fact John Pareles at the N.Y. Times hired Ann Powers and Danyel Smith because he wanted to equalize the gender situation. But these days I don’t think it’s a topic anyone pays attention to. If anything, things are more sexist now, not less so.
However, being a girl has always only been an advantage to me, I can’t think of any negative aspect to it, except of course that it got me a lot of flak. You know–99% of the hate mail I receive is from men–and it’s all about me, not about my opinion or what I said in the article. A woman will write me, “I disagree with your opinion about Sonic Youth because…” A guy will write, “you are a horrible person who is probably a big fat ugly cow!” And I know they wouldn’t write that to a man. For some reason, my opinions are read as threatening–and I don’t know if that’s because they are uttered by a girl, or because they actually are threatening (although if it’s the latter, people sure are easily cowed). But I sometimes wish I had used a non-gender specific byline. But then, maybe I wouldn’t be as well known as I am–and for doing as little.
Steven: What do you think about the whole gonzo school of rock crit, i.e., Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer?
Gina: Can’t read it. Bangs wrote a few good lines–I liked it when he said that Elvis Presley gave him “an erection of the heart”–but I was more impressed with it when I was younger. Gonzo is kind of dated now, isn’t it?
Steven: Your second book, Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense was a sequel to Route 666. It continues the story of ’90s alternative music. Do you think there will be a third book and do you see any bands out there now that might have the impact of Nirvana?
Gina: No. No third book. I think that era is over. Or if it’s not, someone else can write it. I went to a rave the other day in Miami Beach–it was really fun, but it was definitely somebody else’s story, not mine.
Steven: What bands or singers do enjoy listening to nowadays? Do any of those bands make you feel like Jane’s Addiction or The Pixies once made you feel, or do you think that kind of experience is tied up to being young–or a certain age?
Gina: Some people manage to retain that feeling, regardless of age, but I don’t seem to be one of them. As for new bands I like? I like this band Idlewild, from Scotland. I liked Dido’s record a lot. Uh….some of my old favorites are still putting out good things–I like the new Nick Cave, I like PJ Harvey. I like a lot of rap I hear on the radio but I don’t know the names of the artists (‘cos I’m not really paying attention.) And no, indeed they don’t make me feel like I used to. But that’s just me, not everybody. The truth is, Kurt’s death really kind of killed a lot of my enthusiasm (though it took a long time for me to acknowledge that.) Also, I began teaching around then (95? 96?) and as my life got broader in its spectrum of whom I knew–I wasn’t just living in a bubble of alterna-rockers, junkies, industry types and so on–I stopped being quite so adamant about everything. I mean, it was a fun youth, but at a certain point it’s more fun to branch out.
Steven: You wrote a great essay about the state rock criticism–about how no one goes out on a writing limb anymore the way Bangs and Nick Kent used to. Do you still feel that way today and do you ever find edgy rockwriting in fanzines or the Internet? Also, what is the state of rock crit in 2001?
Gina: I don’t remember that essay, what was it in? And no, I don’t see edgy rock writing but then I’m not looking for it, it could be out there. To find that kind of writing stimulating I suppose you have to care about the genre, and at the moment I’m in a lull. I hope the lull ends, but it doesn’t really matter to me if it doesn’t. It’s a wide world out there with many, many different subjects to write about. Rock was a great topic for me, but to write about it forever seems a little limiting. And unfair to the younger writers who are probably a lot more into it than I am right now.
Steven: What’s next for Gina Arnold? Any books? Where can your fans find your byline?
Gina: What’s next for me is, I’m having a baby in June, and after that I don’t really know. I’d say, no books for a while–the experience of book writing is not really all that wonderful. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t know when it will happen again.
Steven: What advice would you give younger writers who want to write about pop/rock music for a living today?
Gina: Oh, that’s a tough one. “Write what you know?” That’s a big cliche, but it’s true. I guess I’d just encourage them to do it. I remember when I was 16 or so, I read somewhere that according to the IRS, only 5% of writers made a full-time living at it, and instead of thinking, ‘uh-oh, that’s bad,” I thought the opposite: “Five percent! Oh goodie, well, I’ll be one of them.” And I am. I think if you really want to do something, and you know exactly what it is, you have to think positive like that. And then everything falls into place.