#015: The Public Enemy Swimsuit Issue

Welcome to 2020!

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.

Welcome to the first edition of Music Journalism Insider in 2020. As you might’ve read, I’m sending out two newsletters each week this year. The free newsletter will typically come your way on Tuesdays, while the paid one will usually arrive on Thursdays. If you like what you’re seeing, you can support me by subscribing to the paid edition (see below). Or you can do a one-time donation via this page.

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Today, we’ve got five interviews: “America’s only music writer” Dan Ozzi, political music expert Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, freelance writer Kiana Fitzgerald, vaunted music book editor Ben Schafer, and New Orleans music fan Bryan Wagner. Plus: A bunch of silly memes! Some links to great writing! And more!

Longest Funeral Ever

Q&A: Dan Ozzi

Dan Ozzi bills himself as “America's Only Music Writer.” Thankfully for this newsletter, that isn’t true. But it gets at Dan’s sense of humor, which is one of many threads that you’ll see in his excellent writing. Another thread? His undying love of punk, hardcore, and other assorted guitar-centric genres that more “tasteful publications” rarely take seriously. In 2019, Dan started a newsletter called REPLY ALT, and it’s quickly become one of my favorites. I sent Dan a bunch of questions recently, many of them focused around REPLY ALT. You can read his answers in full here, but in this excerpt below he explains why he started a newsletter in the first place.

I’ve been working on this gigantic book. That’s my primary focus right now. I’ve been doing dozens of interviews—I’ll probably have talked to 200 people by the time it’s done. Plus I’ve been collecting all these photos for it and digging up old zines and stuff. So I’m sitting on this trove of cool material, the majority of which probably won’t even make it in because the book is supposed to be 130,000 words and I’ll have compiled much, much more than that. I talked to my editor, Kate, and told her I was thinking of starting an email newsletter as a means of getting that cutting room floor material into the world once the book is published. She wisely advised me to start it now so that I can build a subscriber base and won’t be starting from zero on pub date.

Also, I worked for a music website for almost six years. I quit that job this April and man, I was burned out on the internet. I was like, “I’m done with this shit. I’m gonna be a serious author and not deal with whatever the online argument du jour is. I’ll come down from my mountain in a year with a beard down to my chest and a giant stack of finished pages. Adios, suckers.” But then, after a few months, I kind of felt myself missing it, which is truly sadistic. So the newsletter is my way of reentering the internet on my own terms, while also fulfilling my need to shamelessly self-promote.

Read the full interview with Dan here.

Some Stuff Published Over The Holiday Season Worth Reading

  • Jes Skolnik writing about their relationship with the music of David Berman is raw and incredible.

  • This Twitter thread by Dan Barker on how the voice assistant Alexa is likely responsible for the #1 single in the UK is fascinating.

  • This essay by Jazz Monroe about what Depeche Mode’s “seduction of Eastern Europe can teach us about late capitalism” is really good.

  • Harry Allen tells the story of that time SPIN Magazine asked Public Enemy to be in their swimsuit issue. (Side question: Uhhhh… SPIN Magazine had a swimsuit issue?!)

  • National Sawdust sits down for what will likely be one of the last interviews with public musicologist Linda Shaver-Gleason.

I Mean…

Q&A: Dana Gorzelany-Mostak

I’m fascinated by politics and, as you might expect by this newsletter, I also have a thing for music. So, that’s why I had to talk to someone behind the genius Trax on the Trail project. Trax is an interactive website where you can “learn about American presidential campaign music and gain insight into how sound participates in forming candidate identity.” Dana Gorzelany-Mostak is one of the many folks working on the project, and I sent her a bunch of questions late last month as the project gears up for yet another presidential campaign season. Dana had a lot to say, so be sure to read the full interview here. In this excerpt, I asked her why campaigns keep using songs that result in strongly worded letters from pop stars.

Most candidates discontinue using a song if the artist protests, as no one wants bad publicity. Well, almost no one. 

Donald Trump frequently uses the music of artists whose political views are antithetical to his own (and who have protested his use of their music). With his persistent usage of artists’ music despite their objections, he conveys a sense of de facto ownership and authority over their work, which he appropriates to meet his own political end. He selects music that fires him up and refuses to pander to what crowds want to hear. As his will is imparted on the people, so are his own music tastes, his own sonic identity, so to speak. Like Clinton in 2016, he fails to strike the balance between revealing his “authentic” self and representing the targeted constituency. But that is the point. It is all about him. The message here comes not only from the music itself, but from the way the music is used. I would argue that the “chorus” of objections from artists is a part of the Trump soundtrack.

Read my full interview with Dana here.

Job Listings

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This Checks Out

Q&A: Kiana Fitzgerald

Kiana Fitzgerald is a freelance writer with plenty of bylines to her name: NPR Music, Complex, Vibe, Rolling Stone, and more. In addition to her excellent work in the realm of music, Kiana has also written extensively, and bravely, about her struggles with mental health. This excerpt from her interview highlights her journey in the music writing world, which has already had plenty of twists and turns. It’s a wonderful reminder that there’s no straightforward path in this industry.

I applied for an internship with NPR in the spring/early summer of 2013. By August, I was chosen as the digital media intern for NPR Music. I packed up and moved from Texas to D.C., initially for three months. But those three months turned into two years. During my time at NPR, I never wrote about music full-time for the company. I always had to make it a side hustle while I did something else: working as a researcher for the Ombudsman; working as a digital strategist for member stations; working as a social media manager for podcasts. 

I eventually felt as though I couldn't work non-music related full-time jobs anymore, so I quit NPR and became a freelancer in NYC. Less than three months later, I had my first manic episode and had to move back to Texas. After figuring out next steps, I moved back to D.C. for a diversity and inclusion fellowship, which I did for six months. After that, I moved on to Complex in NYC, where I worked for just under two years. It was my first full-time job as a music staff writer and it taught me how to write in my own voice. I learned how to write fast, funny, and focused. After Complex, which I left in March, I became a full-time freelancer again, and have been writing in that capacity ever since. In the past four months, I've landed my first cover story (with Megan Thee Stallion), gotten a piece printed in Rolling Stone, and written for Vibe Magazine, a publication I've long aspired to write for.

Read the full interview with Kiana here.

Misc News

  • After nearly two decades of publishing, Tiny Mix Tapes is taking “a much-needed” hiatus.

  • Chris Richards has a new edition of his zine, Debussy Ringtone, out now.

  • Bas Grasmayer has launched a website / database called MUSIC x GREEN that aims to “create more visibility for organizations and initiatives that make the music industry greener, less impactful on the climate and ecology, and more sustainable overall.”

  • Wax Poetics has a new issue out.

  • Al Shipley was the genius behind the fake Netflix Films account that popped up over the weekend.

  • Here’s a bunch of newsletters about journalism, courtesy of Lenfest.

It’s Strictly By Faith That We’ve Made It This Far

Q&A: Ben Schafer

With this newsletter, I’m trying to open up the idea of what music journalism is and where it happens. That means there will be plenty of behind-the-scenes interviews in 2020, including this one. Ben Schafer is a book editor at Hachette Books, but is probably best known for his previous role as Executive Editor at Da Capo Press (a title he held for 17 years). Quite simply, he’s one of the most important people in book publishing when it comes to books about music. Here, he describes his typical day-to-day.

An endless torrent of emails. Being the main contact for Authors to guide them through the publishing process. Conference calls with my colleagues in Marketing and Publicity. Receiving and reading proposals. Making the case for proposals I am interested in. Moving books through the production process with the guidance of our incredible Production Editors (I think of them as “the real editors”). Nailing down covers for the books that make everyone happy: the Designer, the Author, the Agent, the Author’s manager (if applicable),  the Sales department. Developing projects with authors and agents. Trying to carve out time to edit the books we have signed up. It’s like having homework for the rest of your life. There is always much to do. A typical day is 10-12 hours, often on weekends too. When it comes to reading and writing, there are no shortcuts. I’ve probably left out at least a dozen things.

Read my full interview with Ben here.

Has Someone Interviewed This Scoreboard Operator?

Q&A: Bryan Wagner

Bryan Wagner is the author of a recently published 33 1/3 book about The Wild Tchoupitoulas, a 1976 album by the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tribe of the same name. His day job is Associate Professor in the English Department and Affiliate Faculty in American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, but his heart clearly remains in New Orleans. In this excerpt from my full interview with Bryan, he explains how he came to the subject of this book—and outlines how it’s all arranged.

I grew up in New Orleans in the 1980s in a music scene that was in many ways shaped by The Wild Tchoupitoulas. You heard the album everywhere. On jukeboxes, and on the radio during Carnival season. This was the first time that the Neville Brothers recorded together. The Wild Tchoupitoulas was also one of the albums that established the pattern for how to arrange the city’s processional call-and-response repertoire as funky electric rhythm-and-blues. Albums like The Wild Tchoupitoulas are also how I first experienced the powerful tradition of the Black Masking Indians in New Orleans. They remain the central driving force of the city’s culture.

The book has an introduction and four chapters. The first chapter covers the Neville family story, including Big Chief Jolly’s biography and Art, Charles, Aaron, and Cyril’s early music careers. The second chapter explains how songs on the album like “Hey Pocky A-Way” and “Indian Red” were traditionally performed by Black Masking Indians in ritual processions and during weekly practices. The third chapter describes how this traditional music was transformed in the studio, and the last chapter discusses the commercialization of city’s vernacular traditions through the record industry and tourist trade, moving from desegregation to the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  

Read my full interview with Bryan here.

Insider Resources

The writers, editors, and scholars I’ve interviewed for Music Journalism Insider have had plenty of fascinating takeaways. For paying subscribers, I’ve created a bunch of resource pages where you can quickly find great tips, recommendations, and links.

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Interviews - Links to all of the interviews that appear in the newsletter.

Writing Tips - Tips on how to be a better writer, editor, and more.

How To Pitch - Tips from editors about how to pitch their publications.

Reading Recommendations - Recommendations for great pieces of music journalism, sourced from great music journalists. 

Finally

Yes, finally! If you like what you read here, please tell a friend. This newsletter—as you can hopefully tell—takes a good deal of work. I’d love to keep it going, but can only do so with your support. Feel free to reach out via email at music.journalism.insider@gmail.com. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…