#075: Fictive Personas And Narrative Trickery
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 email@example.com.
Today in the newsletter: Interviews with Rock’s Backpages editorial director Barney Hoskyns; Kimberly Mack, author of Fictional Blues: Narrative Self-Invention from Bessie Smith to Jack White; Stephen Johnson, author of a new book on Mahler; and Elliott H. Powell, author of Sounds from the Other Side: Afro-South Asian Collaborations in Black Popular Music. Plus! Reading recommendations, year-end things, and much more! But first…
Hope You Can Consider For Coverage!
A profile of Enrique Abeyta, a former hedge-funder who owns The Hard Times and Revolver, by Alex Norcia [h/t MusicREDEF]
Tina Edwards says jazz artists shouldn’t be shy about selling out
Sanjana Varghese on the British Library Sound Archive
Ayanna Costley considers the difficulty of women aging in hip-hop
Elias Leight writes that the future of music journalism is on TikTok
Joshua Barone has an in-depth feature on the pandemic-era increase in filmed and livestreamed performances of classical music
DeMicia Inman says that hip-hop has an anti-vaccine problem
Nia Tucker explains how the literal expense of fandom can reveal economic inequalities
@JoeyVee12 breaks down various Black American religious music styles
Ben Cardew explores dance music’s obsession with hardness
Q&A: Barney Hoskyns
Barney Hoskyns is editorial director of the online music journalism archive Rock’s Backpages and a veteran British music critic. Barney’s work with Rock’s Backpages is essential archiving. Over the past 20 years, the site has amassed more than 40,000 articles by over 750 writers spanning the last 60 years, in addition to nearly 700 audio interviews. In this excerpt from our interview, Barney explains the site's genesis.
Rock’s Backpages was born one afternoon after I'd returned to London from almost four years as MOJO's main man in the USA. It was right in the middle of the so-called dotcom boom, and everyone I knew was trying to think of clever concepts that might work online. I had a sudden vision of long lists of articles about any given artist, and that became the notion of a library of content about artists, genres, and other subjects… It's the only resource of its kind online. We've stuck to a subscription model for almost all of those 20 years, and while this is never going to make me or anyone else rich, it has been better than pegging the value of our content to advertising rates. We've been able to keep the database going with a small staff, and we remain modestly profitable.
Walk me through a typical day-to-day for you right now.
We tend to work in two-week cycles, in one of which we do the Rock's Backpages podcast—a way of pointing listeners towards the site but also something of a "bus man's holiday", a reward for the more mundane aspects of the aggregating work we do. As editorial director, I keep a number of plates spinning at any given moment: there are lots of emails to answer, small licencing deals to oversee, the weekly homepage to plan and construct, and lots of other tasks and responsibilities.
A Cause Worth Supporting
From Barney Hoskyns:
I make a very modest monthly donation to UNICEF, just because nothing moves or hurts me more than the suffering of innocent children in this beastly world we've made out of our beautiful planet.
Check out all of the causes highlighted by the folks I’ve interviewed.
The excellent Louder Than a Riot just wrapped up
Jim Beaugez chats with the folks behind Twenty Thousand Hertz about their production process
Cat Zhang was a recent guest on Money 4 Nothing, chatting about Tik Tok
Michelle Lhooq talks about rave utopias (and dystopias) on Rave to the Grave
Extra Extra Radio is a strange and wonderful scripted show on NTS Radio
Muses talked with writer and documentarian Aidan Prewett
Someone Should Really Be Tracking This Potential Juror Down
Q&A: Kimberly Mack
Kimberly Mack is an Assistant Professor of African American literature and culture at the University of Toledo. She has a new book out called Fictional Blues: Narrative Self-Invention from Bessie Smith to Jack White, which “explores autobiographical fictions in contemporary American blues literature and popular music.” In this excerpt from our interview, Kimberly explains how she came to be interested in the subject.
My project came out of three areas of interest I've had for quite a long time. My PhD is in English, and I’m particularly focused on 20th- and 21st-century American literature. I’m also fascinated with American popular music, and I have an MFA in creative writing. The focus of my own creative work is on autobiographical narrative and memoir. I grew up mostly with rock and rock and roll in my house. There was no blues. I was very interested in the musical characters I would read about in rock music magazines like Rolling Stone and Creem, and sometimes they would talk about their blues influences, but I didn’t know much about that music. I grew up and discovered the true origins of rock music, and eventually went backwards to learn about the blues. I found that many of the fictive personas and narrative trickery permeating rock existed well before that in the blues, so I wanted to write about that.
Lists! Lists! Lists! (And Some Other Year-End Stuff)
Here are some year-end-related things that I found interesting or useful.
Uproxx published its annual music critics poll
Pitchfork rounded up the best music books of the year
Bob Allen breaks down the stark numbers of the live music business in 2020
Stuff You Gotta Watch
The passing this month of pianist and composer “Blue” Gene Tyranny added to a list of musical casualties from an unbelievably tragic year. The timing feels especially sad coming mere months after the release of Just For The Record, a documentary on the undersung avant-garde artist with a casual, conversational lightness that matches his work’s “otherworldly consonance.”
David Bernabo’s feature-length film follows Tyranny (born Robert Sheff) from his birth in Texas to his formative years in Michigan, a fertile period at Oakland’s Mills College, and the remainder of his life in New York City. Blind since 2009, the sunglasses-clad Tyranny appears endlessly cheerful while speaking on camera, providing detailed insights into his solo projects and work with Robert Ashley. It would have been great to hear from Iggy Pop about their time together in The Prime Movers, but nearly every other era is discussed in depth.
The main takeaway from this film? How gleefully Tyranny broke down perceived differences between the avant-garde and the mainstream. At one point, Tyranny’s longtime collaborator Peter Gordon draws a connection between their minimalism and the funk of James Brown. When Gordon and Tyranny used the title Trust In Rock for their celebrated late ’70s live recording, it was meant to pay tribute to the lessons both musicians had learned from performing in traditional settings and even bar mitzvahs. Tyranny’s avant-pop offers a radically accessible invitation to follow your bliss into the blue distance.
The Wire recently made its 2003 feature on “Blue” Gene Tyranny free to read. Check it out here.
Q&A: Stephen Johnson
Stephen Johnson is a writer, broadcaster, and composer of classical music. His latest book is The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910, which attempts to describe the impact that Mahler had on composers, conductors, and writers in the time period he was working. It follows a book on how music can help us deal with trauma and mental illness, in which Stephen talks about how Shostakovich has had an enormous influence on his life. In this excerpt from our interview, Stephen describes why he chose to write about Mahler’s work in his latest book.
The Austro-German musical, literary and philosophical traditions have fascinated me since my teens. I seem—strangely—to have learned German almost by osmosis, to the point where I was able to do most of the translation for myself. I realise that, for all its oft-noted negative qualities, I love German, and find it surprisingly easy to express myself in it.
My later absorption in psychoanalysis deepened my feeling for German (striking how many of the pioneers were German-speakers), and since the age of 30 I’ve made many trips to Vienna, and lived there for a short time. It’s a city with a very complex, at times dark history, and there are times when I feel (like quite a few of the eminent people I mention in the book) more love-hate for it than love, yet my involvement in it has been deeply formative.
I realise too how much I, as a very young man, owed to the huge influx of Central European Jewish artists and intellectuals in Britain after World War Two—especially to Viennese Jews. In a sense the book is also about a period when, for just one lifetime, Vienna was a kind of Athens, in which the coming together for newly-emancipated Jewry and the German artistic-intellectual inheritance, was astonishingly fertile, producing so many ideas that have been influential in the modern world.
Here’s a beautiful website cataloguing cassette tape types
Rissi Palmer and Kelly McCartney have launched the Color Me Country Artist Fund
Penske Media Corp. is planning to merge the back-end functions of Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Variety
Social media managers will hopefully get something out of this list of 107 new and useful things
The hardcover edition of Dan Charnas’ The Big Payback was reportedly banned in a North Carolina prison because it was too heavy
What A Strange Year
Q&A: Elliott H. Powell
Elliott H. Powell is Beverly and Richard Fink Professor in Liberal Arts and Associate Professor of American Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Published this year, his first book, Sounds from the Other Side: Afro-South Asian Collaborations in Black Popular Music, brings together an interesting array of artists, including Miles Davis, Timbaland, Beyoncé, and many more. In this excerpt from our interview, Elliott explains what the book is all about.
Sounds from the Other Side: Afro-South Asian Collaborations in Black Popular Music traces the rich and robust history of African American musical engagements with South Asian music and culture during the 20th and 21st centuries. A central argument that I make in the book is that these engagements were and are not simply cross-cultural practices, but also highly political endeavors as well.
For example, I show how Miles Davis turned to collaborating with South Asian musicians and incorporating South Asian instrumentation in his work just as he was also attempting to speak more to the world of Black Power politics. I also show how Rick James relied on South Asian instrumentation to craft his anti-Reagan, anti-Gorbachev, and anti-U.S./Soviet imperialism concept album The Flag. In the end, then, the book is about illustrating what the political stakes are in Black popular music when creating music between and across marginalized communities.
A Cause Worth Supporting
From Elliott H. Powell:
I’d encourage folks to donate to the Black Alliance for Just Immigration’s (BAJI) COVID-19 Mutual Aid Relief Fund. To quote their website: “BAJI is a Black-led racial justice and immigrant rights organization that educates, advocates and organizes on behalf of Black immigrants as well as building power with African Americans for racial, economic and social justice.” The COVID-19 Mutual Aid Relief Fund addresses the ways in which COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black immigrants in the U.S. as they are, among other things, “concentrated in the service industry as health care workers; domestic workers; grocery store workers; airport workers; delivery and ride share and restaurant workers.” You can find more about BAJI here.
Check out all of the causes highlighted by the folks I’ve interviewed.
Call for Papers: The Society for Music Analysis is preparing a study day on “Teaching Music Theory in the Digital Age”
Call for Papers: The Radio Journal is putting together an issue on podcasting and popular music
Call for Papers: The upcoming anthology Reggae Innovation and Sound System Culture is soliciting submissions
The Royal Musical Association is looking for a Reviews Editor
Call for Submissions: Towards 2040: Creating Classical Music Futures is hosting a symposium in April 2021
When You Find Out This Is The Last Newsletter of 2020
This is indeed the last newsletter of 2020. That absolutely miserable looking creature in the photo above is my kid, dressed up (very much against his will) as Elmo for Halloween. It’s been a long year. Thanks for spending some of it with me. He doesn’t have a choice, but you do! So I truly appreciate it, and I’ll be back in January.
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The Closing Credits
Thanks for reading! Full disclosure: My day job is at uDiscover Music, a branded content online magazine owned by Universal Music. This newsletter is not affiliated or sponsored in any way by Universal, and any links that relate to the work of my department will be clearly marked. Feel free to reach out to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…