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 this first newsletter of the year: Interviews with John Prine expert Erin Osmon; lover of all things heavy, JR Moores; and Jordannah Elizabeth, the author of She Raised Her Voice!: 50 Black Women Who Sang Their Way Into Music History. Plus! A lot of fun things to read, watch, and listen to. But first…
Erin Osmon is a Midwest native whose music journalism and criticism has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and numerous other print and digital publications. She is also an instructor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and a veteran of top Chicago newsrooms. Her new book on John Prine’s debut album is one of the latest entries in the 33 1/3 series. In this excerpt from our interview, Erin talks about her research process for the book.
It was rigorous. I set a tight schedule and stuck to it, completing my research, interviews and writing in about five months. I tend to become obsessed with things, and it was easy to disappear into this process because I love this album. I already knew a lot about it and I also deeply relate to Prine on a personal level. He and I also share a lot of the same provenance—as Midwesterners, Chicagoans with family spread across Western KY. Like Prine, I wanted to get down and relate one-on-one, tell a story of time and place as well as discovery. Also, the pandemic had me in the house. There were few distractions other than my own anxiety amid all the scary news and changes.
How did you go about writing the actual book?
I’m a bit of a technician. I map everything out in Post-its on my home office wall. My husband says it looks like I’m trying to crack a cold case. Once I have covered a particular note, I check it off. If I want to add something, I shift everything around. Ditto if I want to remove something. I view the act of book making like a glorious puzzle—all of these pieces add up to something much greater, much more salient and beautiful than the sum of their parts. I also love details, and this ensures that I fit them all in. I also organize endless browser tabs using Toby, and make sure to take long walks. The best ideas come when I’m away from the computer.
JR Moores is a freelance writer and author, resident psych columnist at The Quietus and Record Collector magazine, and part-time lecturer in music journalism. Last year, he published the book Electric Wizards: A Tapestry of Heavy Music, 1968 to the Present. In this excerpt from our interview, JR explains what he’d like to see more of in music journalism.
More humour. More irreverence. More cheekiness. More fun. More mockery, even. More proper, well-argued, readable criticism. One of my main bugbears is that reviews are more overwhelmingly positive than they have ever been, to the point at which a lot of music journalism is virtually indistinguishable from PR and marketing (and less well paid, so if that’s your bag, you might as well pivot to copywriting or similar)....
Among other things, music journalism can attempt to redress that imbalance, if it wants to. Lots of people see us as elitist snobs, but I like to think that, as with satire and other areas of journalism, the best music writing has an egalitarian and anti-hierarchical purpose. I tried to raise that point in my faintly infamous review of Idles’ dreadful third album, and some of their fans threatened to harass me at my home. I saw one fellow writer accuse me (though not directly “@” me) of “punching down.” Now, Idles are one of the biggest bands in the country. If I’m punching down, that must make me the 11th Duke of Richmond. Another writer said it wasn’t a review but a “character assassination.” I thought it was a fairly light-hearted and overdue ribbing with some well-crafted gags.
What annoyed me is that they, of all people, should know better. If I’d have written the exact same words about, let’s say, Kasabian, those two men would’ve laughed until their Arcade Fire t-shirts split open and their guts fell out, and they’d have defended me right up to the moment of their suddenly immediate death. Do you support criticism or not?
How many stars did Rolling Stone give Kasabian’s debut album?
From JR Moores:
Recently, we lost one of my longest and dearest friends. We drew the same band logos and angsty lyrics on our pencil cases together. He would go on to play and record heavy music of various kinds, whereas I would go on to write about it. I would not be the writer I am today without his friendship. Suicide is the biggest killer of young people in the UK. The mission of Papyrus is to reduce the number of young people who take their own lives by shattering the stigma around suicide and equipping young people and their communities with the skills to recognise and respond to suicidal behaviour.
For a brief moment, comedy rockers Mamonas Assassinas were Brazil’s biggest band. Their 1995 self-titled album remains the best-selling debut of any Brazilian band, eventually earning a triple platinum certification. They were huge overseas too—especially in the Portuguese market, with their double-entendre lyrics and innovative sound leading to a renewed relevance for Brazilian rock.
Tracing their story from first incarnation Utopia (a more “serious” band similar to Barão Vermelho, Legião Urbana, and other classic São Paulo rock acts) to their groundbreaking success, the documentary Mamonas Forever gathers several interviews with the band’s friends and family as well as backstage footage and snippets of live shows, rehearsals, and TV appearances in order to tell the heartbreaking story of Mamonas Assassinas’s short-lived career. (The group died in a plane crash on March 2, 1996, as they were embarking on an international tour.)
Mamonas Assassinas’s music had a contagious euphoria that sparkled in a mix of childlike innocence and irresistible naughtiness. Mamonas Forever is faithful to this unique combination in both its editing style and aesthetics, reflecting an irreverent yet naive sweetness typical of the band.
Third Bridge Creative is hiring a curation specialist focused on emo rap, digicore, and hyperpop. Candidates should be passionate about emerging music and hungry to identify new scenes and sounds. If you’re interested, please fill out their talent survey here and reach out to them at email@example.com.
Third Bridge Creative is also hiring a podcast curation specialist. Candidates should have encyclopedic knowledge of one or more podcast categories (e.g, True Crime, Sports, etc), understanding the essential podcasts as well as trends and emerging franchises within these categories. If you’re interested, please fill out their talent survey here and reach out to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jordannah Elizabeth is a freelance writer and the author of the new book She Raised Her Voice!: 50 Black Women Who Sang Their Way Into Music History. While Jordannah has written for a variety of publications, including Bitch Media and LA Weekly, this book is aimed at young readers, with short bios of each artist, accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Briana Dengoue. In this excerpt from our interview, Jordannah explains the differences she found in working for a publisher focused on children’s books.
I didn’t learn anything super profound. Children’s publishers run like any professional publisher. I had to be just as thorough and professional as I’d have to be writing an adult non-fiction book. [That said,] the children’s book world is FUN! It’s a lighter vibe than if I was writing an adult nonfiction book about Black women, and it’s more light-hearted. I didn’t have to go too much into heavy issues like sexual assault, abuse, gender and sexuality and oppression as deeply, even though we did touch on some things. The cool thing about this book is that adults can learn just as much as kids. I think that’s what makes it special. I was able to lightly balance serious issues with how amazing and talented these women were. That was the focus.
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…