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 VAN editor Jeffrey Arlo Brown; S.H. Fernando Jr., the author of a new book about Wu-Tang Clan; and music scholar Christine Capetola. Plus! Reading recommendations, a couple of tweets, and more! But first…
Jeffrey Arlo Brown is the editor of the English edition of VAN, one of the most impressive classical music focused magazines around. It’s one of the few publications in that world that breaks news; has a wandering, modern ear; and is genuinely funny too. (Just look at Jeffrey’s ranking of every Schubert song ever.) In this excerpt from our interview, Jeffrey describes how his approach to work in music journalism has changed over the years.
The longer I work in classical music journalism, the more convinced I become about the necessity of reporting. As music writers, our job is to listen: to tons of music, obviously, but also to what everyone involved in music has to say. That means interviewing, but also tending to the garden of relationships: friends from high school and conservatory and people you’ve talked to on the record once but probably have much more to say. In classical music in particular, the 90 minutes (or six hours, if you’re a Wagnerian like me) that make up a performance really are just a tiny fraction of the work that goes into it. What we put down on the page should aspire to capture the prismatic experiences that go into every education, rehearsal, performance, recording, video stream…
Where do you see music journalism headed?
I can really only speak to classical music journalism. But it’s not especially encouraging. The hollowing-out of jobs covering classical music at newspapers is hair-raising. The migration of that work to flat, smooth, publicist-driven coverage is just one more example of how measuring the value of all things in clicks will eventually mean the professional death of all of us.
At the same time, and no thanks to me, but VAN is on remarkably solid footing. We have a loyal group of subscribers and advertisers and the generous sponsorship of Bank Julius Baer. With our tiny team, we’ve broken world news and scooped major publications. Part of that is because—and Hartmut [Welscher, VAN co-founder] has really set the tone on this—we are allowed to cover things that may reach just a couple thousand people, but a passionate couple thousand people. Also, we are based in Germany, where the government implements a flawed but still remarkable approach to supporting classical music, compared to most countries in the world. VAN doesn’t accept government money, but that funding still ensures the future of the ecosystem in which we operate.
Thanks! There are three easy ways you can do that:
S.H. Fernando Jr., AKA SKIZ is the author of the new book From the Streets of Shaolin: The Wu-Tang Saga. SKIZ spent a good deal of the ’90s writing about Wu-Tang for various magazines, so he had a front row seat to the group’s evolution. Next up for SKIZ? A travel memoir about his time spent in the many countries where he’s worked and lived. In this excerpt from the interview, SKIZ explains the writing process for the Wu-Tang book.
Writing the book was almost a spiritual process. I felt like San Te, the main character of 36 Chambers of Shaolin, who has to master all these chambers of kung-fu, which takes him about 7 years. Unfortunately, I didn’t have as much time as him, but only one year to write. But this was the first time in my entire creative life that I had a budget, so I didn’t have to worry about supporting myself while I was doing the work and I could dedicate myself 100% to writing the book, which is what I did. For all of 2020, I worked 6 days a week for probably 8-10 hours a day, but it didn’t seem like work at all because there was nothing else I’d rather be doing. I was absolutely loving going deeper and deeper into the Wu rabbit hole.
It was also the Covid year, when pretty much everything was cancelled, so there were no other distractions. I would get up early and go for a long walk to think about what I was going to cover that day. Then I would work all day only taking breaks for meals. When I went to sleep, I would literally dream about what I was going to write the next day. With this type of dedication and a passion for my subject, I actually lost myself in the process and became, at times, what I would describe as pure awareness, if you can dig that. I felt like what I was writing was coming from some higher place of all knowledge, and that I was just an instrument—like a pen—putting it down. At the same time, however, I had one foot on Earth, and had to really budget my time to make sure I met my deadline. But in the process, writing became really easy for me and I kind of rediscovered my love of writing.
When Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was first released, what mic rating did it receive in The Source?
It was the best of times, it was the trippiest of times: As London tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, pop experimented with the newfound psychedelic territories that would soundtrack the countercultural revolution. The city might not have been the only acid-coloured epicentre of the sixties, but it sure was the swingingest.
According to Jon Savage, 1966 was indeed “the year the decade exploded“—so it comes as no surprise the central role LSD played in this kaleidoscopic process. But the stylistic idiosyncrasies of UK psychedelia (often referred to as “British Pastoral”) were also deeply rooted in a vivid collective imaginary of the bucolic and the fantastic, mixing a militant agenda of communal utopia with aesthetic references that ranged from traditional European folklore to the mystical golden age of Victoriana.
In Psychedelic Britannia, Ginger Baker, Arthur Brown, The Zombies, The Moody Blues, Joe Boyd, and other key players of the scene recount the rise and fall of a 14-hour technicolor dream from which a generation was violently woken a mere couple of years later. Thank God for flashbacks, huh?
Christine Capetola is ACLS Visiting Assistant Professor of African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Her latest essay, published in The Oxford Handbook of Electronic Dance Music, is “Finding a Home in House: Tracing Vibrations of Black Queer Femmeness from Chicago to Robin S. to FKA twigs.” Christine identifies as a Black and queer sound and affect theory scholar, which helps shed some light on how she approached this particular piece. In this excerpt from our interview, Christine explains her method more fully.
My chapter proposes that we can think of house as not only a musical and queer/dance culture but also an affective, or felt, culture powered by the vocals of Black women. In terms of historiography, I trace these house cultures across what I call three different “affective snapshots”: 1) house’s early days in Chicago in the late 1970s/early 1980s; 2) house’s presence on the dance pop charts in the early 1990s in the songs of Robin S., CeCe Peniston, and others; and 3) house’s 2015 resurgence, during which FKA twigs (but also Dawn Richard, Kelela, Shamir…) went on the rise.
In terms of theory, I propose that the combination of Black female vocals and synthesizers and drum machines in house songs sonically, affectively, and vibrationally circulate a Black queer femmeness: “Black” for the ways that it grounds histories of Black musics and cultures, “queer” for the ways that it reconfigures binaries and boundaries of gender and sexuality, and “femme” for how it grounds femininity (in terms of vocals in the higher octaves but also emotionality), both of which have been historically denied to Black women and Black queer people of all genders. I call it an affective history for how it does both theory and historiography simultaneously, which is generally my method in my work.
From Christine Capetola:
The Okra Project is an organization that provides free meals for Black trans people. As a group, Black trans people disproportionately experience food insecurity, so this is a great way intervene in that.
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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Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) originally received four-and-a-half mics in The Source, but was later given five.
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…