Interview with Spin’s Alan Light
By Steven Ward and Scott Woods (January 2002)
This site tips its hat all over the place to people who write about pop music but perhaps not enough has been said about the editors who help shape those words, and (for better or worse) define the territory itself. Alan Light has spent a fair amount of time on both sides of the fence: as a writer for Rolling Stone from 1990 to 1993, followed by editor-ships (with occasional forays into writing) at Vibe (’93-’97) and Spin (’97-the present). (Not a bad resumé for a Cincinnati kid with “no other marketable skills.”)
In regards to his current editorship, “defining the territory” must in itself pose some major challenges, especially given that Spin‘s once-core (alternative) audience has more or less splintered off in a dozen different directions (hey, punk, where you going with that house 12″ in your hand?). Still, despite a few experiments in the direction of its coverage, Light insists that Spin is, above all else, “a rock & roll magazine.” Not America’s only, mind you, but it’s a little too late for that now.
rockcritics.com: What made you want to be a rock critic?
Alan Light: I never really wanted to be anything else, or even really thought about being anything else. I grew up around a newspaper, my mother was a dance critic in Cincinnati, so going to a performance and then discussing it, forming ideas and opinions, and writing about it were just part of daily life. My dad is a big jazz fan, so I listened to a lot of bebop and swing at home. And then I discovered my mom’s Beatles records and pop music on the radio and that was the end of that. I remember writing a report or a piece or something about Elton John after reading some paperback bio of him (also my first concert–“Philadelphia Freedom” tour, Riverfront Coliseum, age 10). Then kept writing through high school and college and on and on. I do of course worry that if I ever really get sick of writing about music, I have no other marketable skills.
rockcritics.com: If forced to choose: who is your all-time favorite writer? Would you say this person exerts a bigger influence on your style or on your ideas? (Feel free to discuss others who’ve influenced you as well.)
Alan Light: I’ll assume we’re talking about favorite music writer, and the answer to that would be the late Robert Palmer. We got the New York Times at home when I was growing up (my mom was/is an expat New Yorker), and I read his stuff voraciously as a teenager. I was so knocked out by his staggering range of knowledge and taste, and the clarity and elegance of his writing. Then I went back to all his liner notes, his magazine writing, Deep Blues, and it was all just so consistently good. Palmer always seemed to really serve the music, to offer ways into thinking about different artists, connections and contexts you wouldn’t easily come up with but all perfectly logical and brilliantly argued. I know there was talk after he passed away of collecting some of his newspaper and magazine writing and I really, really hope that can happen someday.
rockcritics.com: What is your favorite book about music, and why?
Alan Light: I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t read Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train in high school. What he accomplished in terms of merging rock criticism with cultural studies and American history and literature absolutely turned my head inside out. And across such a range of music! The Sly Stone chapter and the Elvis chapter and the Robert Johnson chapter are all equally riveting. So that absolutely had the biggest impact.
A short list of other favorite music books would include The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth; all of Peter Guralnick’s books but especially the first volume of the Elvis biographies; Deep Blues by Robert Palmer; The Death of Rhythm and Blues by Nelson George; Nowhere to Run by Gerri Hirshey; Bill Graham Presents by Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield; Stomping the Blues by Albert Murray; England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage; Crosstown Traffic by Charles Shaar Murray; the Lester Bangs anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung; Divided Soul by David Ritz; and anthologies of jazz writing by Gary Giddins, Martin Williams, Nat Hentoff, and so many others. I’m sure that I forgot something I’ll regret later.
rockcritics.com: Was Rolling Stone magazine the first major publication you wrote for? What was your first assignment and how did you land it?
Alan Light: I had written for my high school and college papers, and had started freelancing after college when I came to New York and got a job fact-checking (first at a weekly the publishers of the Village Voice tried for a few years called 7 Days, and then at Rolling Stone, where I had previously interned while still in school). I was writing for a community paper in Brooklyn and did some other little things–a piece for Down Beat, something for DanceMagazine. But yes, the first major outlet I had wasRolling Stone.
My break there came not from an assignment but from a performance I kind of stumbled into. In 1990, Bob Dylan announced a show at the club Toad’s Place in New Haven. As an obsessive Dylan fan, I offered to go cover it as a “Random Note”: “Dylan Plays Club Date.” The day of the show, he cancelled all press for the performance. Since Toad’s was a block away from my old residence in New Haven, I managed to scam my way in, plus smuggle a photographer inside, and Dylan proceeded to play this unbelievable show. He did four sets, played fifty songs–things he’d never played on stage, requests, covers–it turned into some kind of open rehearsal for an upcoming tour. I was the only journalist in the room, and when I got back to the office, Music Editor David Wild said, “That’s not a ‘Random Note,’ that’s a story.” It wound up being the news section opener, and Jann Wenner liked it a lot and, much to my amazement, told the music department to start assigning me more stuff.
rockcritics.com: You covered a lot of rap music in Rolling Stone (and you edited Vibe‘s history of rap)–is hip-hop something you prefer writing about more than rock music?
Alan Light: When I was first writing, it was an incredible time for hip-hop. The late ’80s/early ’90s were so incredibly explosive that it was without question the most interesting and vital thing going on in music. I had been a big hip-hop listener since junior high school, and I was lucky enough to be just the right age to catch the opportunity of a certain moment. I wanted to write about hip-hop and Rolling Stone knew they needed to cover more hip-hop and didn’t really have anyone on staff who was deep into it. So I got to write about Public Enemy and L.L. Cool J and De la Soul and N.W.A and Eric B. and Rakim and all that amazing stuff. When Vibe was first launching in 1993, I had no real reason to leave Rolling Stone–everyone was really supportive of me and my work there–but it seemed like such an amazing opportunity. So I went to be the music editor and then served as the editor-in-chief from 1994 to 1997.
There was a joke I made when I stopped editing Vibe that the day I realized Puff Daddy should be on the cover of the magazine was the day I knew somebody else should be the editor. But that kind of turned out to be true–it’s always hard to know the cause-and-effect, but when I stopped editing the magazine, I really stopped being excited about much new hip-hop. Other than the occasional great record, the last few years hip-hop hasn’t kept me interested. Or maybe I just got too old.
But the thing I did miss at Vibe was the balance I had been able to have at Rolling Stone. Though I concentrated on hip-hop, in my time there I also wrote cover stories on U2 and Neil Young, even some country music writing (a Wynonna Judd story was particularly memorable), and it was really fun and a real luxury to be able to go back and forth. Just using different language for stories in different genres was always really refreshing. So by the time I came to Spin in 1999, I was excited to get back to a wider range of music, though of course my chances to write are few and far between.
rockcritics.com: Is it true that you wrote your senior thesis at Yale on the Beastie Boys? Could you elaborate on what that was all about?
Alan Light: A big shout-out here to the American Studies department at Yale. Yes, my senior thesis was titled “Rhymin’ and Stealin: The Beastie Boys Phenomenon 1987.” I was an American Studies major concentrating in American popular music, which I cobbled together between various jazz, black sacred music, musical theater, and ethnomusicology classes. Just as my senior year rolled around, Licensed to Ill was beginning to blow up, and I was just fascinated by these three middle class white kids (almost exactly my age) who had put out this massive hip-hop album. Initially, like many others, I think, my first thought was how easily that could have been me and two of my friends if we were only bigger knuckleheads. But the more I thought about the Beasties, the more questions were raised about race and crossover and sampling/postmodernism and meanings of rock & roll. And I was able to persuade the department that this was a valid way to spend nine months of study. There wasn’t really anyone all that appropriate to serve as my advisor, so I ended up with a somewhat radical feminist Marxist media studies professor who was mighty skeptical about these three idiots with girls dancing in cages onstage–but that was actually really good for me and made me push much harder to try to get at some of this stuff.
rockcritics.com: Describe your experience at Vibe–i.e., was it a lot different than writing for Rolling Stone?
Alan Light: Well, first of all it was very different because at RS, I was purely a writer. Especially because I was doing so much hip-hop, I often felt like I was sort of an island unto myself–which was great. If I said I thought we should do something on Gang Starr or Main Source or whoever, my editors were really good about saying, “OK, go do it.” When I left RS to help launchVibe as the founding music editor in 1993, it meant assuming a whole bunch of new responsibilities: planning stories, finding and developing writers, dealing with money and stuff–it was a lot of work and great fun to launch a new magazine and really try to create a new kind of platform for writing about urban music, and it of course came with all the thrills and chills of planning hip-hop coverage, which doesn’t exactly run by a conventional clock. (It was also where I met my beloved wife Suzanne so I will always owe Vibe more than I can repay.)
Taking over as editor-in-chief was of course even more of a change: managing and administrating became the bulk of my day and while I believed in the magazine so intensely that it was well worth it, it certainly got me even further from dealing hands-on with the music. It started me asking questions I still ask myself on days when all I do is look at numbers: “Was this why I got into this line of work?” But, y’know, somebody’s got to do it!
The other thing that was different was working with such a young and inexperienced staff. The nature of Vibe meant really growing young talent–it’s not like we could go poach editors from Business Week–and while that could be incredibly gratifying, it could also be exhausting at times. I was very, very proud of our staff when I was there and very pleased with all that we accomplished, but it really was a 24 hour a day gig that often involved a lot of explaining and hand-holding and getting people working their first jobs used to being in an office.
rockcritics.com: Talk a little bit about editors and editing. First off: who was the best editor you’ve worked for, and why?
Alan Light: Anthony DeCurtis was the person at Rolling Stone who really noticed me and took me under his wing when I was first starting out. I learned more from working with him than I can ever express. And that was more than just how he edited my copy, though that was great, too; it was also letting me work closely with him when he was editing the “’80s issue” when we did the “Four Decades of Rock” series. The way I could watch him think about how to put an issue together, how to think about which writer was right for which story, what mix of things added up to the best package–those are things I draw on every day still. But I guess more than anything it was his range of musical interests, his openness to new writers and new voices, his emphasis on clarity and precision in writing, that made-and makes–Anthony so important to me.
rockcritics.com: What do you enjoy doing more, editing or writing? (And why?)
Alan Light: At this point, so much of my average day is tied up in management, budgets, media, etc., that the chance to actually edit copy is always something of a relief. Editing can be extremely gratifying, but I miss writing every single day. The rare chance that I get to still to do some (like the current Spin cover story on U2 that I wrote) is a luxury and a joy.
rockcritics.com: A lot of people interviewed on this web site have suggested that writers need to expand their musical horizons more, that many writers nowadays are too comfortable in their little corner of the world. And yet, in most publications, you often see the same writers covering the same territory. As an editor, do you tend (for whatever reasons) to “narrowcast” your writers–i.e., peg certain writers for certain assignments related to their field of interest?
Alan Light: Well, certainly I was the beneficiary of having a particular single field of interest: I wanted to write about hip-hop at a moment when Rolling Stone realized they weren’t doing enough with that universe. And I think specialization is kind of inevitable; you’re allowed to have tastes and preferences and choose to get deeper into certain sounds and styles rather than others. But I do think that the more you know about all music, the better–and that it will show in your work. I guess that’s just common sense, but the more history and the wider range of information you have to draw on, the more dots you can connect, the more ideas you’ll have, the more brainwaves it will spark. I think the very, very best music writers are the ones who keep trying to expand their musical horizons. No question that when I was editing Vibe, the best stories we ran were by writers who knew about more than just hip-hop; that was clearly true of Danyel Smith, Greg Tate, Michael Gonzales, Kevin Powell–those writers were all interested in different musics and grasping at ways to keep learning about stuff that they could then refract through the new lens that hip-hop offered with which to view the world.
It’s also what made that piece by Nick Hornby in the New Yorker‘s music issue so repellent. I don’t care that his conclusion was that all the records in the Top Ten sucked–most of them did, in fact. But it was his proud admission that unless given this assignment, he would never have been caught dead listening to these records–that they were so beneath contempt that they weren’t worth his time. This isn’t, by the way, some random hot novelist they called up with this idea–it’s the so-called pop music critic at the country’s leading magazine of ideas! Would they for a second have tolerated a piece by their theater critic saying, “I couldn’t be bothered to see Cats or The Producers: why should I care about those things just because they’re popular?” The close-mindedness that represents the exact opposite of thoughtful criticism is why Hornby’s piece was offensive and insulting.
Hope this isn’t too much of a tangent, but I just want to get this in somewhere. My favorite line about criticism comes from the great Albert Murray, from Stomping the Blues, in which he wrote: “The most elementary obligation of (criticism) is to increase the accessibility of aesthetic presentation.” Give people a way to think about a performance or a recording, present an approach or an idea for them to consider and debate. That’s the job.
rockcritics.com: Do you think it’s true that to run a successful music magazine nowadays you must fill a particular niche or cater to a specific readership? Is so, what is Spin‘s niche?
Alan Light: I do think that focus, perspective, and point of view is more important now than ever. The music business has gotten so big–everybody talks about the fragmentation of the pop music audience, but the real point is that those are mighty big fragments! And they’re big enough that they don’t have to talk to each other. I don’t think that Blender is a bad magazine, for instance, but I am still not convinced by their premise that you can cover all kinds of music for all kinds of people; I’ve just never seen any evidence to support that that’s the way people listen to music or, more to the point, the way they want a magazine to present music to them.
I think Spin is a rock & roll magazine. And I think Moby, Jay-Z, and Gorillaz all belong in a rock & roll magazine. It’s been important for us to stay clear of the bubblegum explosion the last few years and hold down the fort for music with more substance and teeth.
rockcritics.com: Under you editorship at Spin, what piece are you proudest to have been a part of?
Alan Light: I think our coverage of Woodstock ’99 will stand as the definitive account of that event. The festival happened very late in our production cycle, and we had to make a decision about whether to just blow it off or try to dive in very deeply very quickly. It soon became clear that this was a really central story for our readers and for this whole generation, so we sent two reporters back up to the site, put two more on the phones, another on-line, and had to take in everything they filed and turn that into a story in about five days. We ended up running about 11,000 words, beautifully written by two of our editors, Dave Moodie (who spent much of that week sleeping on the couch in my office) and Maureen Callahan. We really didn’t want the piece to come off moralizing or lecturing the readers–many of whom were exactly the kids who were at Woodstock–but just tell the story straight and let people decide for themselves what they thought about it all.
What was really gratifying about the piece was that we knew we would come out late with our lead time, the story wouldn’t be out until almost two months after the event. That’s why we though if we were going to do it at all, we really needed to swing for the fences. And as easy as it is to feel like everyone nowadays wants quick, short, instant information, we got a huge response to that story. It was a reminder of all of the strengths of a monthly magazine: we might not be in readers’s hands minutes after an event, but we can go deeper and fuller and offer context and analysis in ways no other medium can.
rockcritics.com: Who are some of your favorite practising music critics at the moment?
Alan Light: I guess first I’ll take care of our staff: Several of Spin‘s editors–Sia Michel, Will Hermes, Charles Aaron, and Jon Dolan especially–are really great writers who I feel guilty sometimes for having put into jobs where they don’t get to write enough. Chris Norris has really developed into a very strong, thoughtful, and consistent profile writer. Kate Sullivan has started writing some nice stories on the kind of rock bands that can be hard to write about. I think Sacha Jenkins (who’s on an academic sabbatical at the moment) is a tremendous talent who I think will only get more significant as time goes on–he’s someone who truly comes out of both hip-hop and rock, and that is quite a set of knowledge and emotions to draw on.
Sacha also comes out of the always-interesting ego trip camp. Chairman Mao, Gabe Alvarez, et al., really contribute something special to hip-hop coverage–the insightful humor that comes from genuine love for the music. Of course the Jon Pareles/Ann Powers/Neil Strauss/Ben Ratliff team at the New York Times sets the standard for daily coverage. Jon is just unbelievable for his range and his energy and clarity (anyone looking at this now who hasn’t read the interview with Jon on this site should click over to that now). I’m always interested in work by Tom Moon in Philadelphia and Greg Kot in Chicago. My friend Elysa Gardner does some wonderful things at USA Today, writing for a certain kind of super-mass audience. At Rolling Stone, everything Anthony DeCurtis and Mikal Gilmore and David Fricke do is worth reading, I enjoy Jason Fine’s writing when he gets the time to do any, and Rob Sheffield can be really, really good. And I miss Danyel Smith, whose music writing is on the back burner while she finishes a novel but I think did some extraordinary things over the years.
rockcritics.com: What are the main functions of your job as an Editor? Was it necessary to be a writer in order to do these jobs well?
Alan Light: It’s so hard to anticipate what might be waiting for me from day-to-day, but editing a magazine is much more about managing/coaching/directing than anything else. Which means everything from haggling with labels for cover subjects to overseeing putting each issue line-up together to dealing with budgets (far more of a job this year than anytime I’ve ever seen before) to managing staff to being the public face of the magazine in the rest of the media. None of this, you’ll notice, has a whole lot to do with writing. It is of course one of those great professional ironies that probably applies to every career–as you move further up the ladder, you move farther away from the things that got you into that line of work. My experience writing obviously helps inform all the decisions I have to deal with–hopefully, still knowing what a good story is and what it will take to get it–but being a negotiator and a diplomat and a talking head takes up much more of my time than being an active journalist. And I have to stop here and praise Spin‘s staff for being so good and so passionate and so clear-headed, because it means I can do all the rest of that stuff and not worry about the magazine continuing to run smoothly.
rockcritics.com: Do you still personally do line-editing at Spin? Talk about your thought processes in regards to this (i.e., what do you look for in copy, do you ever have to make drastic changes to copy, what are the most common problems you encounter in this, etc.).
Alan Light: I do still top-top-edit pretty much everything in the magazine. It’s still my favorite actual part of the job–working with the words is almost therapeutic after staring at budget sheets or blathering into TV cameras. By the time copy reaches me, it shouldn’t need drastic changes–it will already have been through an editor and a top editor (usually Sia Michel, our spectacular Executive Editor). My edits almost always come down to one thing–clarity. I’m always the one trying to push for making copy as lucid and clear and comprehensible as possible, trying not to destroy any sense of a writer’s voice. It’s sometimes a tough balance at Spin, because I think it’s important that we are a place that provides some more latitude for writers to have individual styles and not impose a strict, universal tone throughout the magazine, but I still want things not to get excessively opaque. So that’s usually what my line-editing comes down to. I have never ever demanded that a writer change an opinion; I think as soon as you do that, either more favorable or less, there’s no going back. That’s a line I just won’t cross–for my own survival if nothing else. This way I can always blame the writers for bad reviews with an entirely clear conscience.
rockcritics.com: How does Spin handle a situation where major changes need to be made to a writer’s copy? Is there an official “policy” about this?
Alan Light: No official policy–I think anything like that has to be case by case. I think writers should expect that they will be edited. We’re a national magazine, not a ‘zine, and the simple experience of going through the edit process is not inherently an oppressive or burdensome thing. If there’s really a problem with a story, we’ll deal with it as necessary–give the writer another shot at it, kill it, whatever. But we don’t just change copy without the writer’s participation; the piece ultimately does have her/his name on it. If it’s so problematic that the writer and editor reach a stalemate, I’d rather not run the piece and just move on.
rockcritics.com: You must, no doubt, get a pile of submissions, resumes, and proposals from younger hopeful writers. What advice would you give to someone trying to break in to this field?
Alan Light: Find places to write and get published, no matter how small or cheap or unglamorous. There is no way to learn as much as you learn looking at your own work in print. And there’s no way to show an editor that you can do more than just talk a good game that’s better than having a bunch of clips to show. I just don’t know any other way to do it. Every single person I know who does this for a living, and not just music journalists but all journalists, has their variation on exactly the same story.