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 firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re not already subscribed to the newsletter, you can do so at musicjournalisminsider.com.
Today in the newsletter: Interviews with entertainment reporter Tirhakah Love; opera fan Alison Kinney; and scholar Dan DiPiero, who’s writing a book about improvisation. Plus! Jokes about my old friend Jeff Weiss, reading recommendations, and more! But first…
Tirhakah Love is an entertainment reporter at The Daily Beast. He’s previously been published in outlets like the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the Los Angeles Times. He properly began his career, though, at MTV News, at a moment when it was focused more on longform writing. In this excerpt from our interview, Tirhakah explains how his approach has changed over the past few years.
I’ve gotten better at knowing how much I can actually get done with intense focus. I read a book a couple years back that a friend recommended to me called Deep Work, and it put me on to the idea of tracking how much I can get done in an hour, then two, and so on. I really internalized it and found that the amount of work I could get done in like 4-5 hours was enough to sustain a living. With the reporting gig, that’s shifted a little, just in the sense of having to constantly schedule interviews and stuff like that but, still, in terms of writing, I can get a lot done in a couple of hours.
The other major thing that’s shifted—and maybe this is a residual impact of my increased rate of production—I don’t put so much pressure on one individual piece. I used to get a little stuck in the idea that every piece needed to be some magnum opus; that it needed to showcase all of my talents and greatness or whatever. But that was bullshit, people weren’t even reading my work like that, and I’m not really sure they are now, ya know? A lot of ego there. I sorta sat back and thought to myself, I know I’m good, I know I’m getting better as long as I exercise this muscle as much as I can. Not everything has to read like fucking James Baldwin or, ya know, Greg Tate.
Here are three great ways to do so:
Alison Kinney is the author of the new book Avidly Reads Opera. The book draws on excerpts from Alison’s previous writing about opera, but also incorporates plenty of new material. Her work on music, culture, and history has appeared at the New Yorker, VAN Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, and many more. In this excerpt from our interview, Alison explains how she came to write about opera in the first place.
I came to opera as a complete amateur; for that matter, I have an auditory processing disorder, so music has always been a difficult and puzzling medium for me. I have to listen extra hard, and I know that what I hear can’t necessarily be generalized to the public. So I don’t write criticism (though I have opinions, of course!); I’m interested in opera’s communicative powers, its relationship to larger cultural events, and how people respond to it, for good and for bad. As an amateur, I can welcome the learning process without any claims to mastery over the experience, and I encourage other newbies to approach it the same way. I listen and write about opera to open up my world, to make it a little bigger and brighter, not because I’m an expert.
Can a festival kickstart a movement? On October 21, 1967, the third edition of the Festival de Música Popular Brasileira shook Brazil to the core, trailblazing new musical paths in a country about to endure a military dictatorship.
At the time, Brazilian popular music was fragmenting: there was the traditional MPB, with touches of Bossa and a thorough revisitation of the Jobim catalog; the Jovem Guarda, catering to audiences that simply wanted to do the twist or the French yé-yé; and the emerging Tropicália, which would eventually become Brazilian music’s most celebrated export. The birth of Tropicália is often said to have happened that very October evening.
Two moments in A Night in 67 are key to understanding this turning point: one is Caetano Veloso’s exhilarating performance of “Alegria Alegria” (as the lyrics go, “without handkerchief and without documents”); the other is Os Mutantes backing Gilberto Gil’s “Domingo no Parque,” which must have landed like the uncanniest of musical UFOs. They would all meet again the following year for Tropicália Ou Panis et Circencis, the movement’s breakthrough moment.
From Michael Hann:
My son nearly died of meningitis as a baby, and seeing it up close, you realise how much of a lottery surviving that disease is. So I would love it if people would give to the Meningitis Research Foundation. My son, by the way, is now 17, and I hate the music he likes, which is as it should be.
What group graced the cover of the first issue of dance music magazine Mixmag? (Hint: It was published in 1983.)
Dan DiPiero is a musician and lecturer of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University. Right now, he’s putting the finishing touches on his book Contingent Encounters: Improvisation in Music and Everyday Life. In addition to that work, he’s also the host of the new podcast Public Cultural Studies, a show that features interviews with scholars who have “widely divergent, interdisciplinary interests.” In this excerpt from our interview, Dan explains the upcoming book.
There’s been a lot of work published in the past ten years that treats improvisation as an almost magical social resource—something from which we can draw lessons so that we can use those lessons to re-imagine social relations. In some ways, this is very appealing. In other ways, I noticed that it directly mirrors the kind of language used by lots of neoliberal corporations, who talk about improvisation the same way they talk about developing any skill that’s supposed to help you innovate or problem solve in the business sphere. That connection remains really disturbing for me. But rather than seeing this corporate use of improvisation as somehow less “authentic” or ideal than a free jazz performance, for instance, I think we’re obligated to seriously consider the ways in which so-called neoliberal improvisation is well and truly improvisational, just as much as what we’re doing in a jazz performance or a real-time dance. Taking this possibility seriously is where I start the study.
The book is split into two parts: the first studies the music of Eric Dolphy, a Norwegian free jazz group called Mr. K, and the Ingrid Laubrock/Kris Davis duo. The second part examines improvisations in everyday practices like walking, baking, working, listening, and perceiving. My conclusion ultimately is that improvisation is not a special activity at all, but the thing that happens any time we’re in a contingent situation. And since we’re always in contingent situations, we’re always improvising. In a certain sense, then, my project aims to dissolve the concept of improvisation into nothingness. But at the same time, I don’t think of this as a nihilistic exercise; to me, it’s an invitation to pay attention to our own improvising in new ways. The book should be out sometime in the fall of 2022, and I’m really excited to share it with people.
When alerted to the fact that I was going to joke publicly about editing him, Jeff Weiss asked for it be made clear that I only edited him in the very distant past and that “my copy is immaculate now.”
Thanks for reading! In case you’ve missed them, I’ve published a number of special features 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, including the latest one with Danyel Smith, here.
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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…