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 The Quietus co-founder John Doran; hip-hop and media scholar Eric Harvey; and Alyssa Favreau, author of a new 33 1/3 on Janelle Monáe. Plus! Saturday Night Live music intros, Kelefa Sanneh-palooza, and more! But first…
John Doran is the co-founder and editor of The Quietus, one of the most essential music magazines in the world. I say essential because they cover things that few others do, and they cover it in a way that no one else does. This is a special interview, as John provided a funny, critical, and extremely personal 8k+ words in response to my questions. I’m very grateful that he took the time and energy to put all of it down. In this excerpt from the interview (which you should really go read in full!), John talks about three music journalism mentors who have made a difference in his life.
I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to start planning The Quietus without having spent a few years hanging round with Simon Price first. Even just meeting this really imposing guy, who looked like a youthful Marlon Brando in frosted pink lipstick, a fake leopard skin coat and stack heel boots with what looked like bolts of lightning shooting out of his head, was impressive enough. You know, he used to walk around London in the late 80s with a plastic lobster on a bejewelled dog leash, in tribute to the French poet Gérard de Nerval, just deprogramming himself, absolving himself of the need to pay attention to what anyone else thought of him… in cultural terms at least. And the space that this kind of surreal, new romantic/glam discipline created allowed him to build up this grand universal theory of music that he still pretty much applies to everything to this day. It was eye-opening, like dropping acid, to hear him talk about this stuff at length. A heroic figure.
And then with someone like John Robb, the tireless voice of the spirit of punk rock in the UK, you have what I find is an incredibly inspiring figure. He’s 60 but he always looks really good, he’s always 100% on, 100% positive. A true evangelist. I remember once walking down by the pierhead in Liverpool with my family and running into John who was having his photograph taken by a giant brass statue of Billy Fury, the sun was behind him and momentarily I couldn’t tell them apart. A monumental guy.
Another person who made a deep impact on me was Michael Hann. Not only did he give me my first work on The Guardian (writing a column on Middle Eastern and North African music) despite me having given him very good reason not to employ me when I was still drinking and sometimes quite childishly obnoxious and self-sabotaging, but he did my website a massive favour. When he left his position as The Guardian’s music editor, he told me he was worried about going straight into the much more solitary role of freelancer, so he came and worked in our office for free one day a week for a year. I don’t think people realise how despondent Luke and I become sometimes, just trying to keep the show on the road, how ostracized we can feel, so having him come to us was an incredible shot in the arm.
From John Doran:
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Eric Harvey is Associate Professor in the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University. (He’s also published widely in places like Pitchfork, Slate, and the LA Times.) His new book is Who Got the Camera?: A History of Rap and Reality. As he explains, the book “re-tells the ‘gangsta rap’ story within the context of the tabloid culture that was re-defining journalism, entertainment, and politics between 1986 and 1996. It’s a cultural history of the first era of ‘reality entertainment’ told mostly through rap.” In this excerpt from the interview, Eric explains the hardest part about writing the book.
It was writing a book about Black popular culture as a white man from the midwest. I’m not worried at all about facts and history, I came of age during the era, and I always stand by my critical work, but there were moments when I had to check myself, my privilege, and my distance from the lived experiences of others. I wanted to make abundantly clear, as I do in the preface, that I was approaching this topic from the outside in—as a consumer, fan, and critic—and not the other way around. I consider myself an expert on this particular era of Black popular culture, and I think my book productively re-frames “gangsta” rap in its full mass-media context, but I also of course have zero idea of what it’s like to go through life as a Black person, let alone how these records affect Black people. So, like all white people writing about Black culture, I strove to keep my work aligned with the historical truths as I see them, but not to speculate any further than the literature and historical record allowed.
While working at a Boston record store, Kelefa spent an entire 9-to-5 day putting price tags on what album?
Here’s how director Andrew Porter describes The DJ Is Here on Vimeo: “A ‘ghostly’ portrait of disk jockey Rene Sanchez. An ex trucker who finds solace by playing roller disco music for free at a local park in upstate, New York.” The seven-minute short blew up on Reddit twice, 15 months apart. The first time was March 22, 2020, and it’s precisely the kind of feel-good human interest story to garner thousands of upvotes in early quarantine.
Long, slow, panning shots show Sanchez sitting at his big PA, staring into the middle distance and smiling sheepishly to camera over an ambient soundtrack. He describes his glory days rollerskating, growing up to become a semi-truck driver, and the accident that put him on his ass for two years. Then, one day, he went to the park at lunch to play tunes like Nu Shooz’ “I Can’t Wait” and Mariah Carey’s “Someday” off his computer louder than he could at home. And he kept going. He talks about DJing as therapy and service, and, in a roundabout way, escape. “I’m glad I could take you back to a better time in your life,” he recalls telling one grateful parkgoer.
Sanchez cuts a solitary figure, even amidst kids’ parties, dogs frolicking, and families gathering. His eyes are nervous as he scans the scene in front of him. But why does he stay apart? Porter never shows us. Instead, he relies on the same instincts that inspire him to describe his own film as “ghostly” in quotes. He increases Sanchez’s disconnection by relegating all of his words to voiceover. Ultimately, it’s a portrait that obscures rather than reveals.
Alyssa Favreau is a Tiohtià:ke/Montreal-based writer and production editor at the McGill-Queen’s University Press. Her new book is a 33 1/3 volume on Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid. Alyssa wrote a thesis on Octavia Butler’s science fiction, so she was uniquely primed to unpack parts of the album. In this excerpt from our interview, she explains her approach to the book.
The ArchAndroid is a science fiction concept album that tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android from 28th century Metropolis who is on the run for the crime of loving a human, and destined to become the messiah known as the ArchAndroid. Because of my background I wanted to treat the album like a literary document, like a text to be analyzed. It’s a rich album that brings together a lot of genres, references, and storytelling conventions. There’s a lot there to sink your teeth into, and the album really rewards repeat listens. The ArchAndroid was a joy to write about, to really get into its story, its significance, and its genius.
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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In Kelefa’s interview with Marc Maron this week, he mentions that he spent an entire eight hour shift putting price tags on One Hot Minute by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
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 email@example.com. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…