The Swarm

October 05, 2012

A Rational Conversation: NY Times Critic Jon Caramanica On What Gets Covered (And Why) In 2012's Music Journalism...

Eric Ducker

A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.

Jon Caramanica is one of the key pop-music critics for The New York Times. He’s also been on the forefront of journalists covering music that usually proves underrepresented in mainstream criticism, and often experienced in ways outside of normal album cycles. He and Ducker discussed the changing parameters of what gets covered in music journalism and how it gets covered.

Eric Ducker: For over a decade now, music writers and editors have had to be open to more channels and ways to learn about, and subsequently cover, music. Do you think the music journalism industry adapted quickly enough?

Jon Caramanica: That’s a pretty emphatic “no.” You think about the institutions that are devoted to covering pop music – the magazines, especially – and they’re glacial by nature. That’s not to say there aren’t forward-thinking writers or editors at those places; it’s more that new institutions had to be built to address the changing landscape. Doing it well also requires a distaste for complacency, and a willingness to abandon your youthful/teenage/college-age biases. That’s harder than it sounds.

ED: Who do you think suffered from that inability to adapt? If publications were doing something wrong – i.e., not adapting to the changing ways people were learning about music, and in turn not covering artists that people wanted to learn more about – there had to be consequences. Do you think because some publications didn’t adapt, those publications came to be seen as irrelevant? Did writers who didn’t adapt lose track of the plot and stop getting work? Did writers who did adapt too quickly seem too ahead of the curve and couldn’t land paying stories or get jobs? Did artists who people were talking about – but who weren’t putting out music in a way that matched with the traditional press cycles – get unfairly ignored?

JC: It should of course be said first that all of these publications, I’ve written for them, in times good and bad: Rolling Stone, XXL, Spin, and so on. I had many happy years as a freelancer, even if I couldn’t always cover the exact obscure thing I was into at the length that was satisfying to me. The side benefit of that was it forced me to think harder about a wider swath of music. I became more of a generalist because I had a lot to say, and some publications were interested only in parts of it. That helped me build my chops, and my range.

That said, you see a clear generational shift with, say, Rolling Stone, the magazine, which almost never puts rappers on its cover. But that’s because Rolling Stone‘s core audience isn’t a core pop audience – it skews older, and likely whiter, and probably wealthier. They want to be reminded of how it used to be, not how it is.

In the same way, for a couple of generations of writers – the ones steeped in 1960s and/or 1970s rock, and the ones steeped in late-1980s-into-1990s indie rock – the current landscape is maybe less hospitable to that way of thinking, at least if you’re interested in what’s newest. Spin has always been flexible, and remains so, even under challenging circumstances. They sent me to Houston to do a Houston rap story in the “Still Tippin’” glory moment, and that mattered a lot. XXL has been flexible in a different way, initially resisting Internet-driven trends, but now maybe even erring a little too far in that direction.

I don’t think artists got ignored in the shakeup, per se, but they had to look elsewhere for validation. And slowly, those new forms of validation became equally as important as the old ones, sometimes more so.

ED: Let’s get into your own approach. When did you realize that you had to pay as much attention to mixtape artists and people competing on singing competitions as you did to the stuff that publicists were sending you in the mail?

JC: I don’t know that it was a realization as much as the honest reflection of my tastes and proclivities. I’m lucky to be at a place that encourages me to chase my ears wherever they lead; often those places are just as worthy as whatever some P.R. company sends me. Probably more so. Any writer who just writes about what they’re sent in the mail is doing it wrong. One should have a healthy skepticism about what’s in your mailbox, and why it’s there. Pop isn’t one playing field, it’s a multitude, and I try to get on as many of them as is reasonable. I know what’s being over-covered, and I know even more what’s being under-covered.

ED: It’s overstated and obvious that the music industry is changing, but what I’m curious about is how long it’s going to be in flux, or if it will ever be out of flux. Part of me thinks it’s weird that everyone did their coverage of Kreayshawn before she really had anything commercially available or was ready for the amount of coverage she got, but part of me thinks that’s probably when she was most interesting to cover and that it’s for the best that her official major-label release is basically getting ignored right now (except for this new wave of people writing about how little it sold). Everyone is still trying to figure out how to learn about new music and when to tell people about new music.

JC: “Commercially available” just isn’t a relevant metric anymore, not in the era of YouTube, DatPiff, SendSpace, and so on. The only thing that matters is: can you hear/see it? And yes, Kreayshawn was interesting. (I thought less so than many others, but certainly a bit.) So people who were astute enough to notice that should have been all over that, and many of them were. That’s good criticism. Does it matter that her album’s middling? I dunno. Does it matter if, say, The System put out a bad album after “Don’t Disturb This Groove”? I don’t think it’s any different.

ED: Do reality-show competitors ever release albums after their season is over that are as compelling as when they were competing on reality shows?

JC: You’re really hung up on the reality-show thing!

ED: I’m really not. I think it’s interesting to consider them as analogous to when an Internet-hyped artist actually puts out an album. I hadn’t really thought about that before.

JC: Oh, well that’s a different thing. On TV shows, they’re characters, not singers. You buy into the narrative, you root for their plot to twist in positive ways. Their talent is part of that, but only part. Making an album is a different thing altogether. For example, I detested Haley Reinhart on “Idol.” I thought she was awkward to watch, deeply unself-confident (and not in a sympathy-endearing way), and also had trouble standing upright. But her album ended up being a smart distillation of her 1970s soul and rock predilections – it happens.

ED: You don’t think that musicians don’t become characters? Don’t you think people have bought into the narrative of Riff Raff, an ex-reality show competitor?

JC: Of course they do, now more than ever, because what is Riff Raff doing each and every day other than filming his own reality show through videos and video blogs and Twitter posts and pics with Cat Marnell? He’s certainly not telling you real things about his inner self, if it’s still there. Also, Riff Raff is way more of a character now than he ever was on “From G’s To Gents.” Peace to Fonzworth Bentley.

ED: What channels or methods to find out new music do you think writers or editors are unjustly ignoring right now?

JC: It’s less channels of access than genres or styles. Everyone knows they’re supposed to look on the Internet now. They understand mixtapes are often as relevant as albums. But they don’t want to learn about K-pop, or merengue, or dance music. (I’m not using “EDM” because, really, what is that?) BUT! If we’re going to talk about channels of access, have you heard of the radio? Not satellite radio, which I’m sure is fine for AOR deep cuts and bluegrass or whatever. I mean terrestrial radio. Switch the dials past the stations you’re comfortable with and you’ll be shocked by how much good stuff is out there. I mean, do you live in a town with a Christian pop/rock station? Get in on it. Part of why I love travel is because of rental car radio. I find all sorts of stuff there.

ED: It’s tough with the genre stuff. I’m not sure how much people “don’t want to learn” about different genres, so much as it’s a matter of limited listening time. Yes, I think it’s a music writer’s job in 2012 to be well versed in a broad range of genres and to listen a ton of music, but GOD DAMN THERE IS SO MUCH MUSIC OUT THERE. I’d rather have a writer be deeply knowledgeable about a subject than skim the surface of many. What I do think is the that music editors need to be more open minded and curious about the type of stuff they cover in their publications. And that they should cover the subjects – whether it’s pop country or merengue – with integrity.

JC: Sure, fine, dig deep. I think the answer is to dig deep on a lot of things, but yes, that takes an inordinate amount of time, and I certainly don’t always live up to my own bar. But you have to try. I think to be a true pop critic, you should listen widely, and with curiosity, and with dedication. That’s not saying I don’t appreciate someone who’s extremely knowledgeable about one thing and not others; it’s just that I don’t think that’s what this job is about.

ED: I agree.

JC: The same goes for editors, of course, but the writers are on the frontlines. The direction has to come from them. Oh, you know what else is under-covered? Major label rock. Even if most of it is terrible.

ED: That’s another issue. Covering/acknowledging the terrible. I know with the Internet space is infinite, publications are no longer limited by page counts, but how much time or energy or bandwidth should be dedicated to the terrible, or even worse, the middling?

JC: I think it’s more the presumption of terribleness in that particular case that’s the problem.

ED: Do you mean that writers and editors presume a lot of stuff is terrible without ever actually listening to it, and only acknowledge its existence as a negative counterpoint to the stuff they are into?

JC: Oh god, yes. Don’t you? It’s hard not to. How do you get excited for the umpteenth Shinedown album? It ain’t easy. A lot of writers/editors/publications have an idea of themselves and what their angle is, and if something doesn’t immediately fit in, out the window it goes. The goal is to stay forever curious, forever skeptical of your own comfort zones.

ED: When we were emailing to set this up, you said you wanted to talk discuss “what is criticism in this increasingly striated space.” That sounds interesting, but I don’t know what you mean. Please elaborate.

JC: Look at my job: I do album reviews, live show reviews, some notebooks/essays, and the occasional profile or reported criticism piece. And that’s what people think of when they think of criticism; those are the categories. But I see criticism in all sorts of places these days: in Twitter hashtags and Tumblr posts, in well-edited slideshows. Most of us grew up with the classical criticism model, be it from literary criticism or just growing up reading Christgau, but there are some people I follow on THE INTERNET who are extremely astute and they won’t ever write a record review. And bless them.

ED: Do you think they consider what they are doing criticism? Or do you think they’re just giving their opinion? And is there a difference?

JC: There’s not a difference, or at least, there shouldn’t be. I get paid to be a critic, but I still felt like I was a critic of sorts long before I caught a check for doing it.

ED: Do you want to diversify the formats in which you officially do your job? I’ve seen Twitter profiles of full-time employed critics that say something like, “The views expressed here are my own,” but isn’t that kind of true for what they write in printed pieces or on a publication’s official website. Do you think what you say on your Twitter account should be taken as just as valid criticism as what you’ve written in the newspaper that gets delivered to my house on Sunday morning?

JC: I do. I don’t just throw stuff up there lightly. I assume someone might take it seriously, so I do too. I’m more spare on Twitter for that reason, and also because the Internet is an overwhelming, overbearing blob that will seep into all your crevasses and explode you from the inside out. At the same time, I’d love to try out other types of criticism within the framework of the paper. I loved, loved, loved our Popcast, the weekly podcast the critics used to do. Hopefully we’ll be bringing that back soon. I’d like to find creative uses of video, and also social media. It’s a matter of time, as are all things.

ED: If you found a particularly insightful music critic whose dominant medium was Twitter, would you advocate the Times to hire him or her just to be an awesome Twitter user about music.

JC: That’s not the job either, at least not now. But if someone had a defined aesthetic in that medium that somehow was portable into the holes that the paper needs filled, then why not?

ED: I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet. I guess people don’t have the money. But I like the idea of an Official Twitter Writer. It’s kind of like an Extreme Sports Editor in the 1990s.

JC: Isn’t that what Spin is doing, in a way, following the Weingarten model? Wait, I just checked. Did they stop that? A victim of the editorial changes?

ED: The last one I see is from August 2. Chris Martins gives an 8 to Ice Choir.

JC: That Ice Choir record is fire.

ED: Anywho, do you think the audience or the publications need to broaden their minds on what “official criticism” is and what form it can take?

JC: I think younger readers/thinkers are already in that place. Publications can choose to play along or choose to perhaps be decreasingly relevant. Your brand should be an umbrella that can sustain all sorts of experiments.

ED: So we’re back to risks, which I am a fan of.

JC: Right, but those are often organizational risks, not aesthetic ones. Even if, in reality, it’s the exigencies of capitalism that makes risks of any sort a turn-off.

ED: Do you think most editors are receptive to diversifying how criticism is expressed in their publication? Are they excited about it? Or do they think it’s one more headache to deal with?

JC: A thing I used to love doing was a weekly “Idol” recap done over IM with Sean Fennessey when we were at Vibe. It was way sharper than just some 400-word recap. When you’re talking about publications, you’re talking about way more than editors. You’re talking about graphic designers and photo editors. You’re talking about advertising sales people and marketing managers. You’re talking about moving a very big ship. So to get all those people on board all at once, that’s tough.

ED: You’re getting at the point that critics, and publications in general, should be versatile in how they express opinions, even if it’s only for their own survival.

JC: If I had the time, I’d be throwing out one-liners on Twitter or taking questions on Tumblr or Formspring all day. No good critic I know suffers from a lack of opinions, only a lack of outlet options.

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