#037: A Kind Of Collective Choreography

I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. I highlight some of the best stuff I hear, read, and watch every week; publish news about the industry; and interview writers, scholars, and editors about their work. My goal is to share knowledge, celebrate great work, and expand the idea of what music journalism is—and where it happens. Questions, comments, concerns? You can reach me anytime at music.journalism.insider@gmail.com.

Today in the newsletter: Interviews, of course. Longtime music writer and new documentary producer Miles Marshall Lewis; viral dance craze academic Wayne Marshall; Dominican-American storyteller Jennifer Mota; the author of a new book about Mark Fisher, Matt Colquhoun; Indian music journalist Lalitha Suhasini; and European jazz expert Kristin McGee. Plus: Reading recommendations, a new Twitter list, and much more! But first…

Leor Tries To Trick People Into Transcribing For Him, Pt. 1

Q&A: Miles Marshall Lewis

Miles Marshall Lewis has always been a critic, in one way or another. When he was in the sixth grade, he got his first byline: a published letter in a Captain America comic. Miles went on to work and freelance at just about every music magazine of consequence in the ‘90s: Vibe, The Source, XXL, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice. In 2004, Miles moved to Paris, publishing two books and two volumes of a literary journal over the course of his seven-year stay. But music was never far off. While he was there, Miles started filming a documentary about French hip-hop and is currently running a Kickstarter to finish raising money for the film. In this excerpt from our interview, he talks about what makes French hip-hop so special to him.

Hip-hop in general has always been a running soundtrack in my life. Like lots of people, obviously, but I grew up in the northeast Bronx with two sets of grandparents living in the South Bronx. So I knew the culture forever, even before “Rapper’s Delight” dropped. Moving to Paris, of course I cocked my ears to what rap music sounded like over there. I found out about MC Solaar from Guru’s Jazzmatazz album and the Stolen Moments compilation album. But I’d never heard his debut record, Qui Sème le Vent Récolte le Tempo, or even understood French until I lived in France a few years. When I discovered classic groups like Suprême NTM and IAM, I only liked the flow and the music production. It made me realize that this is probably how the non-English-speaking world relates to American hip-hop they don’t understand the words to.

Listening to the worldviews of MCs of color whose parents come from French-colonized African countries is what makes French rap special to me personally. Hip-hop is everywhere. There are rappers in Ireland and Poland, I’m sure. But the African immigrant experience in France told through the black American musical expression of hip-hop deserves attention. There’s a story there.

Read the full interview with Miles here.

The Battles

Just wanted to say how cool I think these recent beat/songwriter battles on Instagram have been. I can’t imagine a more entertaining way of showcasing the range and depth of incredible songwriters like Johntá Austin. Those who know music probably know Johntá’s work, but I’m guessing that there were plenty of folks just realizing on Sunday night how many hits he’s written. Here’s hoping publications take this as an opportunity to shine a further light on the work of these essential behind-the-scenes characters now and in the future.

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Q&A: Wayne Marshall

On Wayne Marshall’s website, it says “Wayne Marshall is an ethnomusicologist by training, a technomusicologist by calling, and an erstwhile blogger/DJ.” That seems to do as quick a job as any in describing the many hats that Wayne has worn over the years. For this interview, I wanted to talk to the academic Wayne, specifically the one that penned an article last year entitled “Social Dance in the Age of (Anti-)Social Media: Fortnite, Online Video, and the Jook at a Virtual Crossroads.” In this excerpt from the interview, he briefly explains what it’s all about.

The article attempts to place our present social media "dance craze" into historical perspective, comparing it to previous historical moments when vast numbers of Americans found themselves caught up in a kind of collective choreography. There are strong parallels between the spread of moves like the Milly Rock (or the Swipe, in Fortnite's rebranding) to the rise of such dances as the Twist in the 1960s via shows like American Bandstand, or the ragtime-era animal dances that scandalized society balls in the 1910s (until tamed into the likes of the Foxtrot). But while these previous crazes have often been represented as transgressing established codes around race, gender, and class, I argue that the TikTok / Fortnite-era craze seems less easily celebrated: not only is there intense corporate enclosure and exploitation, including classic questions of racial injustice, the dances themselves, despite being drawn from vibrant social dance scenes, seem often to be put to anti-social uses on the internet and even IRL. 

Read the full interview with Wayne here.


Leor Tries To Trick People Into Transcribing For Him, Pt. 2

Q&A: Jennifer Mota

Jennifer Mota is a Dominican-American multimedia journalist. I first came across her work in Remezcla, specifically her monthly column Si Tu Quiere Dembow. The column focuses on untold stories, which has become a signature element of Jennifer’s important work. (One of her biggest pieces so far is a history of Dominican Dembow, which she spent months researching because no one had bothered to tell it before.) In this excerpt from our interview, she describes a key moment from her childhood that led her to pursue journalism.

I've always had a knack for storytelling, both visually and written—but if you would have asked me at 11 what I aspired to be when I grew up I would have brightly said: “a star” with a smile from ear to ear. Growing up in a musically diverse household, I experienced the music and movements that spawned from the sounds almost at a spiritual level. As a Dominican-American, the homegrown genres of bachata and classic merengue were a priority at parties; while everything from classic rock, new wave, punk, and hip-hop played at home—ultimately inspiring my taste and style. 

My dreams of stardom were shattered once reading a casting call description that read “Caucasian girl age 9-12," this was for a "Back to School" commercial. I asked myself “don’t they know all kinds of girls attend school?” In an attempt to comfort and motivate me, my dad, who is also a journalist, would tell me in Spanish: “Words are weapons and writing is revolutionary.” He opened up a new discussion, one that involved communication studies and developing a socio-critical view on the ways media can affect certain groups. I never forgot that moment. 

Read the full interview with Jennifer here.

Reading List

A Cause Worth Supporting

This week, I wanted to highlight the COVID-19 Relief Fund from The Recording Academy and its charitable foundation MusiCares. If you have the means to give—and support their mission—please consider donating something to help support musicians in this time of need.

In Lighter News…

Q&A: Matt Colquhoun

Matt Colquhoun has a wonderful new book out about one of the best music writers of the past twenty years, Mark Fisher. Mark was a music writer, but he was also much more; some have called him a cultural critic, cult academic, or philosopher. Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher addresses all of these roles. It’s a deeply personal book. Matt had just started taking classes at Goldsmiths, where Mark taught, less than a year before Mark took his own life in 2017. In this excerpt from our interview, Matt describes how he came to write the book.

I initially started out wanting to be a photographer. After almost ten years of trying to make it in the photography industry, finding little enjoyment in the "my lens is bigger than your lens" attitude in the pit at shows, and discovering the music press had little interest in someone who wanted to take a more experimental approach to image making anyway, I was getting more and more into writing and wanted to get better at it. So, I spent a few years saving up money and building up confidence before moving to London to 2016 to go back to school to do a Master's degree. I was terrified of London and would have preferred to go anywhere else, but Mark Fisher and Kodwo Eshun—two of my heroes who I'd been reading since my initial university days—were teaching a course at Goldsmiths, University of London, and no other course could possibly compete with that, as far as I was concerned.

Much to my surprise, I felt like I'd finally found my people when I got there. Despite having no formal training in philosophy and only a half-formed political consciousness, it was liberating to be encouraged to engage with ideas and ways of working that no one on the outside world seemed interested in supporting. I soon fell into a rabbit hole, looking at philosophies of "community", of being-together, in our present moment; what Mark Fisher would called our "mandatory individualism". I'd always been more of a team player growing up and lacked any real competitive drive and this hadn't got me anywhere in life. I became fascinated with much of the thought that came along with that, from Jewish ethicists like Emmanuel Levinas to the more transgressive writings of Georges Bataille. I started writing about these philosophies in the context of my favourite Hull band, Throbbing Gristle, and their prior incarnation, COUM Transmissions.

Then Mark Fisher died and, once again, everything changed. The book is basically an account of everything that happened next.

Read the full interview with Matt here.

Academic Stuff

  • I Care If You Listen has a great article about pivoting your classroom to video

  • Intellect and the Urban Music Studies Scholars Network are launching a new book series called Urban Music Studies

  • The new issue of Music & Politics is up; aside from the journal articles, they also have published a list of recent books that have been published on the topic

  • Gillian Gower is looking for guests for her new podcast, which will be focused on amplifying the voices of marginalized scholars

Twitter Lists

If you’ve been subscribing to the newsletter for a while now, you may remember that I created a few Twitter lists last year. For those who missed it, the idea is to create a list of accounts driving the conversation around a certain topic, in the hopes that you could follow and get a feel for what’s happening in that scene at any given moment. Given the ongoing pandemic, I felt like it might make sense to create one devoted to:

Music Biz Reporters, Publications and Orgs

More Twitter Lists

Jazz / Punk & Hardcore & Emo / Classical Music / Metal & Heavy Music / Latin Music / Music Academia / Country Music / Electronic Music

These lists aren’t comprehensive. There’s no way they ever could be, I suspect. So if you see someone or something that you think would be worthwhile to add to these lists or have a suggestion for another list you’d like to see, let me know at music.journalism.insider@gmail.com!

Leor Tries To Trick People Into Transcribing For Him, Pt. 3

Q&A: Lalitha Suhasini

Lalitha Suhasini is the former editor of Rolling Stone India. She currently works as an independent journalist, freelancing at various Indian publications, drawing on her twenty years of experience as a music journalist. Among other things, I wanted to know what Lalitha had to say about how music writing has developed in the country. In this excerpt from our interview, she gives a short history of the field.

When I started my career in the year 2000, there were probably four music journalists in Mumbai. Now there must be at least 20, if I had to give you a conservative estimate. Every newspaper has a music journalist and there are a few more blogs now dedicated to music. The music scene in India picked up in 2007, a year ahead of the launch of the Indian edition of Rolling Stone magazine. 

The music festival scene picked up in 2010 with the launch of NH7 Weekender, an annual music festival, which at one point had editions in Pune, Shillong, Bengaluru, and Delhi. Last year, the festival was held in Pune and Shillong. With the number of festivals and gigs increasing in the country, there's obviously been more scope for music journalists. However, venues—clubs and bars—dedicated to music continue to struggle to survive. The shutting down of Blue Frog in Mumbai, B-Flat and The Humming Tree in Bengaluru meant that there were fewer gigs in the city to write about. Still, there are a few music journalists whose quality of work has remained consistent. Some of the music journalists whose work I admire are: Amit Gurbaxani, founder of The Daily Pao; Anurag Tagat, my former colleague from Rolling Stone India; and Mae Mariyam Thomas, who runs a podcast called Maed In India

Read the full interview with Lalitha here.

Bits, Bobs

Q&A: Kristin McGee

Kristin McGee is Associate Professor of Popular Music at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. She’s also the author of the new book, Remixing European Jazz Culture, in which she looks at how jazz musicians across the continent have been incorporating more electronic and digital performance over time. When I asked Kristin about what sort of mentors she’s had over the years, she reached back to earlier years spent in Chicago and Portland, to folks in academia and the music world.

My mentors have been my saxophone teachers—Rita Kneusel who was/is a fantastic teacher and Jerry Leaders in Portland, Oregon and, later, Fred Hemke. Then I had the most wonderful professors at the University of Chicago—Phil Bohlman, Jackie Stewart, Ron Radano (who was teaching a guest course there one semester), and Martin Stokes

I loved pop music and especially those women who also broke new artistic ground—Bjork, Joni Mitchell, Sheila E., Chaka Khan and so many more from when I was growing up. When I played in bands in Chicago—a sexist and aggressive music world at times—I would often get the comment after gigs: “Hey, you reminded me of Lisa Simpson!” And this comment always hit home just how masculine the live music scene was. There were so few female images that people had of female instrumentalists. Thankfully, this seems to be somewhat better today but not all that much. Women have always been present, but their contributions were often not mediated on the same level as their male peers. 

Read the full interview with Kristin here.

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Get In Touch

Feel free to reach out via email at music.journalism.insider@gmail.com. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…