Why Pop Matters: Interview with Sarah Zupko
By Barbara Flaska (May 2002)
It’s a challenge to catch up with Sarah Zupko for an interview. First and foremost, she works in a demanding field. By day, Ms Zupko is an Internet executive at Tribune Media Services, one of the major national and international media syndicates, in Chicago, Illinois. In her spare hours, she devotes much of her time and energy to publishing PopMatters. Described as a “magazine of global culture,”PopMatters is a place on the web where a growing family of savvy readers huddle around their computer screens to thoughtfully engage. PopMatters exists where today’s technology confronts the living drama of popular culture. There is, at least to my knowledge, no other publication quite like PopMatters, on the Internet or anywhere else.
The quick read is that PopMatters offers thoughtful and entertaining cultural criticism from a wide spectrum of international contributors. An ambitious and intelligent project, the magazine has weekly feature stories and regular columns, as well as reviews of books, television, film, comics, and music. It also delves into broader areas: cultural theory; national, ethnic, and gender identities; cyberculture; visual studies; mass media and journalism; sports; high culture vs. popular culture. PopMatters has rightly been described as “cerebral, but not overly so.”
To get some perspective of how extensive this area of inquiry has become over the past forty years, take a peek at PopCultures, Zupko’s other web site. PopCultures features dozens of links to writings by and about the most significant theorists thinking today about culture; their musings amplify and enhance our own understanding of how and why culture works the way it does. There are also links to other media sites in this easy-to-navigate arena. Recognized and appreciated as an important online research tool, PopCultures (a.k.a. Sarah Zupko’s Cultural Studies Center) has been honored by the Scout Report for Social Sciences & Humanities,USA Today, and Britannica, and is a recommended bookmark for anyone with an interest in cultural and social studies or communications theory.
Sarah Zupko studied Musicology, Film, and Drama at the University of Chicago, and media theory at the University of Texas, where she received her M.A. in 1995. Aside from writing novels and plays, she continues active research in the fields of German history, Musicology, and European Cultural and Intellectual History.
As founder, editor and publisher of PopMatters, Zupko keeps the commentaries churning.
Now, before we go any farther, I admit I’m in a unique, some would say conflicting, situation here, because I’ve spent a lot of time with PopMatters–both as a reader and as a contributor. In fact, I’m quite fond of the place.
But one day, I finally decided to write my publisher to find out what it’s really all about.
Barbara: What are you trying to do with PopMatters?
Sarah: Offer smart, edgy cultural criticism to a really broad audience. At PopMatters we also try to break down the divisions between different cultural forms, such as music, film, and TV. Yes, we do lots of reviews, but the real interesting stuff is where cultural forms cross over and bleed into one another.
Barbara: Many people see pop culture as a transient or trivial phenomenon and something not worth intellectualizing about. Others who study pop culture are obsessed and wax poetic or academic. How doesPopMatters find a balance between a lofty academic language and using a language more ‘appropriate’ to the context of pop music, let’s say rock and roll?
Sarah: The intent from the beginning was to offer criticism smart enough for academic journals, but written in an engaging, entertaining manner that pulls in readers from many backgrounds. I have a background in cultural studies, as do many of the writers, but we share the conviction that formal cultural studies writing often has an elitist, alienating effect, something that rather goes against the Marxist formations of cultural studies.
All culture is political–that’s the primary point to take from cultural studies. And, as such, all culture is valid as a subject of study and critique. In this age of hyper media with millions of messages flying at us each day in multiple media, pop culture is a more valid area of analysis than ever before. Pop culture is literally how we tell our human stories now. Combine that philosophical underpinning with engrossing writing and smart writers and you see how we bridge the “gap” between academia and popular media.
Barbara: What made you want to be a publisher?
Sarah: I’ve always wanted to be a publisher. Several years ago the publisher from a major book publishing company told me that he saw that I have publishing in my bones. He said that after talking to me for 10 minutes. Back in high school in Madison, Wisconsin, I put out a music magazine that I Xeroxed and sold in my school. Other folks were doing a lot of that then. That was in the days of new wave and the rockabilly revival.
Barbara: Do you think it’s true that to run a successful magazine nowadays you must fill a particular niche or cater to a specific readership?
Sarah: Absolutely, although that niche can be rather large given the right distribution…and the Internet gets around all of those sticky distribution nightmares that you can have with print publications.
Barbara: Are there differences between writing (or publishing) on the web vs. print?
Sarah: There’s very little difference writing-wise. Publishing-wise, the web is brilliant, isn’t it? We can reach a global audience of very engaged readers without the distribution nightmares and high printing costs of a print magazine. PopMatters has a big European following. I can’t imagine how we’d get a print version of the magazine into all the book shops in Europe as well as the U.S., being an indie publication.
Barbara: Do you think Internet publishing has changed music journalism for better or worse?
Sarah: Definitely for the better. It has opened up the exclusive club doors to more voices and given lots of talented writers the opportunity to get published that may have never had the chance in a purely print world.
Barbara: What sort of people write for PopMatters?
Sarah: There’s not a single sort of writer and that is a good thing. We have a cross-section of professors with PhDs, professional journalists, long-time music experts and fans and college undergraduates getting their first publication experience with us. We like it this way. Lots of different experience levels and varying life experiences make for a more interesting publication. When you’re dealing with something as broad as “popular culture”, I would say that it’s almost a necessity.
Barbara: How many people read PopMatters and who are they?
Sarah: We currently have 250,000 monthly readers–a figure that eclipses many large, print entertainment magazines. The audience is very international and we have a large following in the academic world, within the entertainment industries and among pop-culture heads and smart consumers.
Barbara: What’s the nicest thing you’ve ever heard someone say about PopMatters?
Sarah: A music editor from one of the major U.S. newspapers once said that PopMatters is the model for good music criticism. I was chuffed about that to say the least.
Barbara: How is your job with PopMatters different from your regular work at the Tribune?
Sarah: At Tribune Media Services, I work in the field of interactive marketing. I’m responsible for all of the online and interactive marketing efforts of the company. Tribune Media Services is the syndication arm of Tribune Company. It’s quite different from PopMatters, where I get to do what I’ve always wanted to do: create a compelling publication from the ground up, direct editorial, work with writers, do business development. I’d say that the lessons I’ve learned from running PopMatters have helped my work at Tribune more than the other way around. That said, working at Tribune has given me a thorough education in the realm of media syndication and product management, things that will help PopMattersgrow over the long term.
Barbara: Can you give me some more background information…Where you were born, went to school…
Sarah: I was born in Milwaukee and grew up in Denver and Chicago and have lived in London as well. I did my undergrad work at the University of Chicago, which has a splendid program called General Studies in the Humanities. That allowed me to study music, film, art, and drama. I began life at U of C as a music major, but wasn’t happy being confined to a single cultural form. PopMatters is quite a logical development of my interest in all things cultural and pop cultural. I was studying formally as a musicologist and am just as comfortable writing about classical music and Weimar art as I am about pop music and the like. I’ve also studied history intensively since high school and am a specialist in 19th and 20th century European cultural and intellectual history, particularly British and German. To tie it all together, I received my M.A. in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.
Barbara: Do you have a personal connection with music? Play any instruments, dance, sing?
Sarah: I’ve played guitar since I was seven and have been writing songs and singing since about age 11. I also play mandolin and have had stints playing piano and banjo. In college, I studied music theory and voice and was contemplating a rather frivolous career as a cabaret singer where I could indulge in my massive love for the songs of Noel Coward and Cole Porter.
Barbara: When did you discover rock and roll and which artists were part of that experience?
Sarah: I discovered rock ‘n’ roll at age two when I crawled around my mother’s sewing room and discovered the sleeve of Sgt. Pepper’s on the floor. I was intrigued by all the figures and the cartoonishness of it and I loved “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” That began an affair with the Beatles that has lasted my entire life. At five, I would sing “Rocky Raccoon” and “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da.” By seven I had every Beatles record, then I really started branching out into early rock ‘n’ roll–Elvis, Buddy Holly and the like.
Barbara: Did you know you wanted to be a writer early on in your life?
Sarah: Yes. I started writing songs around 11 and was trying to write novels, plays and opera librettos–I told you I love classical music–in high school.
Barbara: How did you first get into writing about music?
Sarah: In high school I was writing for the magazine that I put out. Then several years ago, I started writing a syndicated music column for college newspapers through Tribune Media Service’s College Press Exchange.
Barbara: 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.)
Sarah: Noel Coward hands down. I think he’s the funniest person who ever lived. I’ve always loved reading plays and Private Lives always has me in stitches. I’m an admirer of his songs, plays, style and way of being. Coward has influenced my style more than anything else, especially in the plays and fiction that I have written. Other favorite writers are W. Somerset Maugham, Hermann Hesse, Anton Checkov, and George Bernard Shaw. I’m also a fan of great historians like Ian Kershaw, who can make history read like a novel, and superb historical fiction writers like Edward Rutherford (London, Sarum, Russka) and James Mitchner.
Barbara: Your favorite music magazines and critics in your formative years? Which critics and writers were your favorites and which ones influenced you?
Sarah: Trouser Press was my favorite magazine in my teenage years. It was the one magazine I could get in the States that kept me up on all the British bands I loved. It was a sad day when they closed shop. More recently, it’s been Q, Mojo, and Uncut that I have followed religiously. Unlike many of the mainstream American publications, these U.K. publications offer really in-depth articles of the quality of a piece in the New Yorker. They treat music seriously, for the most part. I must also admit a guilty love forNME, even with all their eternal trendiness. It’s still a great place to hear about up-and-coming bands. On this side of the pond, I quite like and respect The Big Takeover and Magnet. There’s no one music writer that has influenced me, rather the overall style, tone and smartness of Mojo and Uncut have been an influence. But really, so have the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s.
Barbara: How has the critical landscape changed since you first started writing, or has it?
Sarah: Not really.
Barbara: Was there ever a “Golden Age” of rock criticism?
Sarah: Well, we’re not really in an era of star rock critics, but that doesn’t mean there ever really was a golden age. That’s all in popular perceptions. Just like there is always good and great music to be found, there is always interesting and compelling criticism to be found. Whether that criticism is present in major mass-market publications is another story, but it’s always around in one form or another.
Barbara: What piece of your own writing are you most proud of? Can you summarize what you were trying to get at in that piece?
Sarah: It’s impossible to narrow it to one because it always changes. I’m seldom happy with something that I wrote for very long. I am rather proud of the review I wrote of the Jam tribute album Fire and Skillthat was basically my defense of Paul Weller as a consummate songwriter and a refutation of the perception in the U.S. that The Jam were just a cute mod band. I’m also pleased with my M.A. thesis, which looked at the resurgence of Russian nationalism in the early ’90s and was one of the first serious English language texts on Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Barbara: What specifically keeps you interested in writing about music after so many years?
Sarah: Music and writing have been the two major loves of my life. When I could finally blend them, it made all the sense in the world. I can’t imagine not doing it, frankly. Only trouble is finding time these days what with my day job and handling the editing and publishing duties at PopMatters. My goal over the next year is to start writing a lot more and do writing for more publications.
Barbara: You’re also a syndicated music columnist. Where do you publish now?
Sarah: I’ve stopped writing that column, but am about to begin writing a new column on British popular music for PopMatters that I hope will also get picked up in other venues.
Barbara: What was your last music article about?
Sarah: A review of a Coldplay and JJ72 concert here in Chicago.
Barbara: What’s the most important thing to remember when writing about music?
Sarah: That the article isn’t about you, it’s about the music and the music has a historical and cultural context. It’s important to place music within that context to both treat music with the respect it deserves and hopefully to educate your readers.
Barbara: Do you have a favorite period or genre of music?
Sarah: That varies on my mood. There are so many genres and periods of music that I am passionate about…might as well go in chronological order. Nineteenth century German classical music: Beethoven’s concertos, lieder, and symphonies; Schubert’s and Schumann’s lieder; Wagner’s operas–I’m a major Wagnerian actually. 1920s-1940s: the golden age of American popular song (with the Brit Noel Coward thrown in there): Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin. Mid-’60s: The Beatles, The Small Faces, The Kinks, The Zombies. The late ’70s/early ’80s: The Jam, The Clash, The English Beat. Mid-to-late ’90s British indie: Radiohead, Oasis, Blur, Manic Street Preachers.
Barbara: Any new music that makes you believe in the power of music?
Sarah: Yes, great new British stuff like the Super Furry Animals and their psychedelic masterpiece Rings Around the World, Travis’ stadium-size anthems and a hundred other bands that prove there’s always good music to be found. Plus, the fertility and variety of the electronic music scene that makes for some of the best musical brain food since early 20th century classical music and ’50s jazz.
Barbara: 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?
Sarah: I guide the overall editorial direction of PopMatters as Editor & Publisher, but I also double as Music Editor. On the E&P side, I have to build our industry relationships, handle all the technology issues, manage all the section editors, and do tons of grunt work. On the Music Editor side of things, I make review and feature assignments, serve as the primary contact with the record labels and publicists, manage a crew of editors and associate editors, and also do plenty of copy editing and fact checking…oh, and spend dozens of hours each month making lists of the CDs that come into our mailbox for review.
Being a writer myself is obviously vital in dealing with other writers. I’m respectful of the unique voice each writer has and I’m leery of dictating a particular writing style to the music team as a result. My being a creative writer means I want to foster that creativity in the writing staff.
Barbara: What do you find most difficult about editing?
Sarah: Bad writers with insufferable egos. Good writers always want to get better. Bad ones often think they are singularly brilliant and then resist all attempts at even the faintest amount of editing or critique.
Barbara: What makes a good editor?
Sarah: Someone who knows their subject thoroughly, has excellent people skills, is well-read and knows good writing when they see it, has thick skin, and can foster creativity and inspire writers to constantly improve while seeing that they enjoy their work.
Barbara: A lot of people interviewed for rockcritics 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. How do you feel about that? Should people stick to doing what they’re good at?
Sarah: People should certainly do what they’re good at, but they should also be constantly educating themselves, not remaining static, so that they can become good at new things and develop expertise in new genres and with a wider range of artists. I’m endlessly reading about music in magazines and books to learn more about genres that pique my interest. New artists I like, I research and learn about their influences and that, in turn, leads me to even more artists and more research. It’s something I’ve done since I was a kid and always will. Nothing galls me more than hearing people say “there’s no good music anymore.” There’s always good music and always has been. Dig around, you’ll find it.
Barbara: You must, no doubt, get a pile of submissions and proposals from hopeful writers. What advice would you give to someone trying to break in to this field?
Sarah: Know your stuff, write with some real personality, and keep music writing about the music.
Barbara: Any particular challenges you faced as the result of being a woman with your writing, editing, publishing, work, society, life? (And how did you cope with those obstacles?)
Sarah: Starting your own magazine largely gets around those issues. Being a syndicated columnist for Tribune, I did feel the boy’s club atmosphere of the rock journalism world a bit more, but it’s honestly not an issue for me now. It’s true many music magazines have far more male writers than female. PopMattershas made a conscious effort to recruit a very diverse staff in terms of gender, race and sexual orientation. It’s those different life experiences that give our criticism overall a more interesting edge.
Barbara: What have you been up to lately? Any other projects you can’t wait to get started on?
Sarah: I’m developing a column dealing with British rock and plan to have that rolling on PopMatters(and maybe some other places as well) in a few months. I’ll be looking at syndication opportunities for that. I also plan to write a piece on the state of cultural studies for a new cultural studies print journal. I’m going to do more writing for print magazines too.