#074: Quebecois Street Punks

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 with freelance writer Jesse Bernard; Dr. B. Brian Foster, author of the book I Don't Like the Blues: Race, Place, and the Backbeat of Black Life; Muzak enthusiast Joseph Lanza; drum & bass expert Julia Toppin; and Lost and Sound podcaster Paul Hanford. Plus! Year-end list stuff, some karaoke things, and much more! But first…

Who Hasn’t?

Reading List

  • Andre Gee breaks down the new social media app Clubhouse

  • Audra Heinrichs explains how Megan Thee Stallion helped her through trauma

  • Justin Joffe takes a look at the phenomenon of music journalists starting newsletters [thanks for the shout-out Steve Smith!]

  • Ntone Edjabe speaks about his book on FESTAC 77, “the most important cultural event in the Black world in the 20th century”

  • Kevin Maimann tracks down the Service Canada hold song that’s been heard countless times by Canadians left jobless by COVID-19 [h/t MusicREDEF]

  • Robert Christgau on the incoming United States Secretary of State’s rock criticism

  • Larry Fitzmaurice wonders how much music will even be released in 2021

  • Marcus Barnes looks at how dance music can reshape its festival culture post-pandemic

  • Stephanie Williams on how the UK fails Black indie musicians

  • Regina Kim explores trot, a genre of music increasingly popular in Korea

Q&A: Jesse Bernard

Jesse Bernard is a writer, archivist and youth worker. His writing has appeared in places like The GuardianVICE, and TRENCH (where he is a contributing editor), and he’s currently working on a book about Black Britain through the lens of the second and third generations. In this excerpt from our interview, he discusses taking on the word “archivist” to describe his work.

It’s a term I stumbled across because I felt like ‘journalist’ was and is too limiting for the work I do outside of that. I call myself an archivist because I use personal and collective memory to tell the stories I do, which is what’s led me to write the book I’m currently working on. The premise of my book comes from a documentary idea I had from as far back as 2014. This approach pretty much occurred all because my parents had given me their combined record collections which went into the deep hundreds around the time. It contains about at least forty years of Black music from all over the world, mostly the US and UK. 

Becoming an archivist was the most natural job title I’ve probably acquired because essentially it’s not just a family legacy but also an entire canon of Black music which has largely been forgotten about. Essentially all I’m doing is combining personal, family, collective and cultural memory but to tell the story of the past thirty years, the book format felt most appropriate. I have all of these stories and experiences from my own life, family members, friends I grew up with, from my communities and others around me just sitting inside my head. Until those stories are told or presented to the world, they’re literally just sitting in your head. At the point I extract them, that’s when my role transitions to that of a historian. 

Read the full interview with Jesse.

Lists! Lists! Lists!

Love or hate them, people click on them. Here are a few year-end-list-related things that I found interesting or useful so far.

  • In case you missed it last week, MusicREDEF has links to tons of lists and Rob Mitchum is collating a lot of best-of lists from around the world in a single spreadsheet

  • VAN has a very sensible list

  • Bandcamp Daily will not rank their albums this year

  • Kirkus and Rolling Stone teamed up for a list of the best music books of the year

  • Longreads has a list of the best music writing of 2020

  • Tone Glow asked its contributors to talk about their favorite non-2020 discoveries

  • Stereogum ran down the 30 most memorable music tweets of the year

Q&A: Dr. B. Brian Foster

Dr. B. Brian Foster is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. He’s the author of the new book I Don't Like the Blues: Race, Place, and the Backbeat of Black Life, which traces the growth of blues tourism in Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta since the early 1980s. In this excerpt from our interview, he explains what the book is all about.

In the face of mounting structural challenges (the decline of agribusiness and manufacturing jobs, declining public infrastructure, existential threats to social institutions like schools and healthcare facilities, persistent poverty, pronounced de-population), elected officials and stakeholders in Clarksdale, the Delta, and across the state looked to hospitality and tourism as an economic salve, a promising new revenue stream.

Beyond those two points of emphasis—blues music and blues development—the book is really about what geographer Clyde Woods calls the "blues epistemology," which is the idea that blues was and is, for its progenitors (black folks in the Mississippi Delta) and their descendants, a method of survival and sense-making. It was a space for them to critique plantation power relations and to draw attention to the challenges that were hampering and razing their daily lives. I spend the most time in the book tracing the discursive (i.e., language-based) and embodied ways that this blues epistemology continues to define how black southerners see, make sense of, and navigate the world. 

Read the full interview with Dr. B. Brian Foster.

A Cause Worth Supporting

From Dr. B. Brian Foster:

Spring Initiative, Inc. is a nonprofit doing what I think is really important work in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It's a youth enrichment program that "empowers young people in the Mississippi Delta to beat the odds, access the opportunities they deserve, and build successful, happy and hopeful lives for themselves." I got to know [co-founders] Bianca and Anja well during my time working on I Don't Like the Blues. I volunteered with Spring and got to know many of the kids.

Check out all of the causes highlighted by the folks I’ve interviewed.

Leor Vs. Transcribing, Pt. 158

Five Things I Learned From Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life

Brian Rafterty’s Don't Stop Believin': How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life is a lovely little book that switches effortlessly between cultural and personal history. Here are five things I learned while reading it:

  • The Eagles’ Don Henley forbids karaoke companies from rerecording songs in his catalog

  • A SPIN factchecker jokingly attributed the lyrics from Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice” to Kurt Cobain… and the note accidentally made it to print

  • Daisuke Inoue, the inventor of the karaoke machine, didn’t bother to patent it because he thought it would cost too much to do so

  • To save money, one early karaoke video director forewent renting lights and used car headlights instead

  • Future (Dixie) Chick Martie Maguire starred in a karaoke video for the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water”

Stuff You Gotta Watch

Stuff You Gotta Watch celebrates music journalism in video form. This week’s column is by freelance writer Jesse Locke.

Another State of Mind is a vivid glimpse into the gnarly North American punk scene of the early 1980s. The film follows Youth Brigade, Social Distortion, and their various teenage crew members as they hop on a school bus to play all-ages gigs in 31 cities. If you have any memories of shows like these, watching this is a nostalgia bomb.

The talking heads in this grainy DIY masterpiece are random punk kids sharing their impassioned opinions on what it means to be different, juxtaposed with footage of the bands playing in grimy rooms packed with circle pits that you can almost smell through the screen. Even if “Mommy’s Little Monster” isn’t your kind of punk, you have to appreciate Mike Ness’s commitment to his makeup. The triumphant footage of Minor Threat performing without microphones should be shown in a museum. 

Another State of Mind differs from other tour docs of the period in the amount of time it spends in Canada, offering screen time to Quebecois street punks and a chili dinner at a Calgary party house. Life on the road may occasionally appear drab and desperate, but it also feels like living the dream.

Q&A: Joseph Lanza

Joseph Lanza is the author of Easy-Listening Acid Trip: An Elevator Ride Through ‘60s Psychedelic Pop. The book is a cousin to Joseph’s 1994 classic Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy-Listening, and Other Moodsong, which went a long way in transforming the public’s understanding and appreciation of various ignored music genres. One of the things about Elevator Music that always intrigued me was a blurb from J.G. Ballard. In this excerpt from our interview, Joseph explains how it came to be.

I was corresponding with him by letter since the early '80s, and his style and insights about modern life made a great impression on me. I got to meet with him face-to-face in the late '80s, when he gave a reading in New York City.  He was genuinely impressed with my work, particularly an essay I wrote for Re/Search's J.G. Ballard volume. I refer to Ballard again in Easy-Listening Acid Trip. Ballard had a dark vision of the present and future, but he presented it with humor. I can appreciate that, but I also feel the need to contrast his vision of the industrial and post-industrial world falling apart with elevator music's efforts to keep the world together.

Read the full interview with Joseph.

Bits, Bobs

  • Dean Brown and Damien Kenny have founded a new metal publication, Cursed Zine

  • Piotr Orlov has launched Dada Strain

  • Jazz historian Michael Brooks has passed away

  • A new issue of Soap Ear, a journal of music and sound, has been published

  • Here’s a great map / directory of nearly 300 U.S media outlets that primarily serve Black communities across the diaspora

  • Brittany Robinson shares the advice that’s stuck with her since starting her newsletter about freelancing

  • Portia K. Maultsby, Fredara Hadley, and Lynnée Denise will discuss Aretha Franklin tomorrow night at 6:30 EST

Q&A: Julia Toppin

Julia Toppin is a teacher, label manager, and writer. She works as Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader, BA Music Industry Management, University of Hertfordshire. On the music business side, she’s devoted herself primarily to drum & bass, taking on the role of label manager for Digital 101 Recordings. Julia’s writing, meanwhile focuses on jungle, drum & bass, women, and Black culture. Her MA thesis—“‘They’re Not In It Like The Man Dem’: Race, Gender and Digitalisation in the Drum and Bass Music Industries"—is an important read. In this excerpt from our interview, Julia talks about the importance of mentors.

I feel like I collect mentors. I am always looking for people who are doing things I want to do. Or doing things better than anyone else. Or doing things that I really admire. So, I have academic mentors who I monitor very closely, some of whom I am friends with. From them I learn how to be an academic, how to learn and engage with critical race theory, how to navigate higher education as an institution. 

I have two main mentors I look to for advice and counsel. One that I have known for just over a decade. The other I have known for a few years. Both have made a significant impact on my life in the last few years. They have guided me from one profession into another. They have counselled me when my decision making was rash or when I made mistakes. They have been powerful advocates. They have helped me when I needed help. When I was teaching in secondary school, one of my line managers became a mentor. He was an amazing teacher. When I was in television I worked with a fantastic producer from New Zealand. She was great. My best friend is also a mentor. I have known her for 19 years. It's funny, I used to be her mentor and now she is mine. Mentors help you to learn and grow, see opportunities, rationalise irrational thoughts, they offer guidance and assistance.  

Read the full interview with Julia.

A Cause Worth Supporting

From Julia Toppin:

The Free Black University are rethinking the model for Higher Education and that is so cool. They are daring to think of radical solutions to the real-world problems that structural racism causes in universities. Like me, they believe that education is at the heart of transforming society as we know it.

Check out all of the causes highlighted by the folks I’ve interviewed.

Academic Stuff

For Those Who Know

Q&A: Paul Hanford

Paul Hanford is a writer and podcaster based in Berlin. In addition to freelance writing for places like DJ Mag, his current project is Lost and Sound, a podcast inspired by Anthony Bourdain’s travel food show No Reservations. In this excerpt from our interview, Paul explains how the podcast came about.

The biggest inspiration for me is Anthony Bourdain, they way he’d use food, without snobbery, as a way of understanding how people live. He could be eating fried food on the street and, through that, understand more about the town he was visiting than by living it up in the nearest Michelin place. This was a real starting point for the podcast, except it’s music instead of food. I love podcasting because its closest comparison is portrait photography: you’re trying to capture an essence of a person on that day in their lives. Also, there’s an immersive thing I try to capture: bits of field recording, music, layers of narration, keeping accidents in sometimes. 

I’m in season 3 now, the focus now is on creators anywhere, but it began as a research project into Berlin’s music culture. A couple of years back, I felt really alienated after Brexit was announced, like a lot of you I was just totally unaware people didn’t see things the same way as me. I’d also been developing a love affair with Berlin for several years... I applied for an Arts Council grant to research Berlin’s music history, was totally amazed to get it, gave all my books and records to the local charity shop and came here. The podcast came out of a few months of research and interviews, meeting people who’ve shaped culture and music in Berlin over the last 40 years. 

Read the full interview with Paul.


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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 music.journalism.insider@gmail.com. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…