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. And if you’re not already subscribed to the newsletter, you can do so at musicjournalisminsider.com.
Today in the newsletter: Interviews with psychedelic expert Jesse Jarnow; PhD student Ambre Dromgoole; and ’80s pop music chronicler Dave Rimmer. Plus! Reading recommendations, Juggalos, and more! But first…
Perhaps a product of touring entertainers, dating back to the earliest circuses and medicine shows, the entourage is a fleet of jugglers passing contraband and music of the spheres back and forth beneath a cloak or low flung carnival tent, it’s one of the organizing principles of the entertainment industry today, and specifically of men in that industry whose character and deeds would not withstand the vulnerability of solitude, of eyes and scrutiny on them alone. - Harmony Holiday
Jesse Jarnow is the co-host/co-producer of the Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast. Before that, he was a prolific freelance journalist and writer of books such as Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, and Wasn’t That A Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America. He’s also a DJ on the venerated freeform radio station, WFMU. In this excerpt from our interview, Jesse explains where he sees music journalism headed.
Further fragmentation, devaluation beyond all predictable realms, and increasingly radical definitions of “writing” and “journalism.” The music business and the music journalism business both seem locked in entangled irreversible spirals towards the shared abyss, but that’s pretty obviously not true about music itself, which is just going to keep finding new containers. In the same way, the conversation about music seems just as vital as ever, even if it’s less and less profitable. I have to imagine it’ll keep sliding into new containers, too. I see music journalism headed towards a form incomprehensible to me as a 20th century-born reader unless I learn to speak emoji or use TikTok before it’s too late.
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
Live music coverage, in the most inclusive definition of live music. Instant album streams have taken so much of the fun out of reading and writing record reviews. With so much recorded music mushed together on giant platforms, live music still feels like its own special and magical existence separate from the digital morass, give or take corporate venue consolidation. It’s such a bummer to see what a nightmare touring has become, which makes it even more vital for writers and publications to support live music scenes, local and otherwise, but especially local. Fan-to-fan writing is delicious, but I love reading really deep insider coverage of a scene that’s framed for outsiders and more general readers.
Selfishly, I’d also love more podcast transcripts, both as a way to consume them, but also to fix them as searchable historical pieces of writing.
From Jesse Jarnow:
Abortion Access Front, for obvious reasons.
Ambre Dromgoole is a PhD student at Yale in the Departments of African American Studies and Religious Studies, a vocalist, and a Senior Research Consultant for Sound Diplomacy. It’s all connected. As she puts it, “as a full-time doctoral student, I’ve continued to build a career in music consulting and curating and kept up my artistic practice as a vocalist (though I am not as consistent as I’d like.) Most recently, I’ve added culture writing to my bag of tricks, and am having an amazing time discovering all the different ways I can be involved in music and the arts.” In this excerpt from our interview, I asked her to talk about her research interests.
My research interests actually haven’t changed much since undergrad, but my vision is definitely clearer and I am a lot more sophisticated in my approach. Put differently, I have gained more tools along the way which allow me to explore Black women musicians from various vantage points.
I can explain this better with an example. One of the main characters in my dissertation is a little known mid-20th century gospel songwriter named Roxie Ann Moore. For me, looking at her life provides a unique perspective into Black music cultures at that time. However, as a musical studies major at Oberlin, I was taught to lean into a particular type of music analysis, one that privileges Western classical theories and methods.
If led by that outlook alone, my research would be a lot different—more focused on rhythmic and chordal aspects of the music that Roxie produced. But over the years, I’ve learned to take more things into consideration, such as the reception surrounding the music and the listening cultures that are created in response. I’m guided by scholars who look for the Black feminist implications in not only the music itself, but the music writing and engagement that follows. This perspective comes from scholars like Daphne Brooks and Farah Jasmine Griffin, who I’ve long admired and am honored to have in my orbit. Ultimately, I like the messiness of discovering that attention to music cultures and listening practices can fracture long held ideological and cultural distinctions and positions.
From Ambre Dromgoole:
Margaret Campbelle Holman is one of my most cherished mentors. She is the founder and artistic director of Choral Arts Link, an organization that has had an immeasurable impact on my life. Choral Arts Link works to ensure that public school students in the Metro Nashville Davidson County area have access to choral music education. They are certainly a cause worth supporting and donating to.
There are few more maligned and misunderstood American musical subcultures than Juggalos. Despite recent re-evaluation and attempts at image rehab from some engaged critics, the community of fans around the mythmaking Detroit rap duo Insane Clown Posse tend to be skewered and vilified in all kinds of bad-faith ways. They’re still perceived by much of the dismissive mainstream as either insidious presence or punchline, and those extremes are what make director Sean Dunne’s American Juggalo and American Juggalo 2 stand out, with an observant approach that gives Juggalos a chance to speak for themselves.
American Juggalo takes place at the Gathering of the Juggalos, the long-running ICP festival at Cave-In-Rock, Illinois. Dunne gets a lot of mileage from the question “What does being a Juggalo mean to you?” eliciting a wide range of illuminating perspectives. Most interviewees emphasize family over debauchery, with professions of devotion to and love for their community alongside, say, a love for explosives. Some dissonance remains, though there’s little judgment.
There are touching moments, such as one woman celebrating a fellow Juggalo doing more for her than her own family, or a man describing his sense of life’s meaning as he sits on the waiting list for a kidney donation. It’s the balance that counts, as Dunne shows the motivations and nuances of these make-up wearing, Faygo-spraying, “Whoop Whoop!”-ing attendees in a way that feels far more fair than usual.
The sequel is an even more contemplative character study, this time focusing on Alexander “Less Legs” Perkins, a Juggalo who lost his legs in a train accident and finds place and meaning in the community. Centering Less Legs’ own raps, which narrate his own rise, fall and rebirth as a Juggalo, it’s an unflinching look at loss and the transformative power of the community. Together, the two shorts are an entertaining and thoughtful one-two punch, clarifying and highlighting the depth of Juggalo fandom on a collective and individual level.
What music journalist sometimes writes under the pseudonym Mr. Agreeable?
Dave Rimmer is the author of Like Punk Never Happened: Culture Club and the New Pop, one of the finest chronicles of ’80s pop music ever written. Dave was a writer and editor for Smash Hits, The Face and an assortment of other publications in the early ’80s and had a front row seat to everything going on in UK pop music at the time. The book was recently re-released, with a new foreword by Neil Tennant. In this excerpt from our interview, Dave explains how the re-release of the book came about.
Neil Tennant, a very old friend, as well as a colleague in the early ’80s, had acted as my agent and editor for the original edition. In 2018, Faber published his One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem. While he was in contact with them, he suggested they republish LPNH, and if they did he would write the foreword. The book had been more or less forgotten at Faber, but they looked at it and found that it was good. So here it is again, 37 years after its original publication.
Writing the new afterword was hard, partly in finding a voice that would harmonize with the voice of the 29-year-old me, partly because it was difficult writing during lockdown. For a while I thought that was just my problem, and then I found a social media discussion among music journalist friends and colleagues, all describing the same difficulties I was having with lockdown’s lack of stimuli slowing down thought and reducing deadlines to mere abstraction. No one seemed to be getting anywhere with anything. Not just me. The experience left me with a huge respect for people who manage to write books in prison.
Thanks for reading! In case you’ve missed any special features, I’ve published a number of them in the newsletter, including articles about music journalism history, what music journalism will be like in 2221, and much more. You can check out all of that here.
I also do a recurring column in the newsletter called Notes On Process. The premise is simple: I share a Google Doc with a music journalist where we go into depth on one of their pieces. It hopefully provides an insight into how music writers do their work. You can check out all editions of Notes On Process here.
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David Stubbs, who made his Melody Maker debut in 1990, has sometimes written under the name Mr. Agreeable.
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