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.
Today in the newsletter: Interviews with longtime music writer Michael A. Gonzales; South African journalist Helen Herimbi; Indian film writer Prathyush Parasuraman; and James Grier, author of the new book entitled Musical Notation in the West. Plus! Reading recommendations, podcast picks, and more! But first!
Michael A. Gonzales got his start writing about music in the ’80s, and has often defined himself as a “hip-hop writer.” But over the years, he’s also written about art, film, books, comics, fiction, and plenty of other music too. In this excerpt from our interview, Michael explains how his approach has changed over the past few years.
I really try to write every day, but I also like writing what I want to write. A few years back I started writing stories that I wasn’t assigned and selling them when they’re done. It’s worked out so far, thank God. When I wrote my most recent Wax Poetics piece, which was on King Curtis, I didn’t necessarily write it for them. I wrote it because, after reading about his life and brutal death in an Aretha Franklin biography, his was a story I wanted to tell.
Helen Herimbi is a music journalist and founder of i(m)bali, “an evolving interview series [that gives] key players in South African music the space to tell their stories their way while giving them their flowers while they can still smell them.” In this excerpt from our interview, Helen describes how her approach to journalism has changed in the past few years.
Earlier this year, a famous rapper asked me to interview her on TV. Later, she asked me if I’d ever consider doing these types of interviews with her artist friends, not for public consumption but just so they can talk about their lives and experiences in a safe space because she always left an interview with me feeling like she’d just been in a therapy session.
Lately, I have changed my focus from the audience’s experience to the artist’s. That intentional focus has made me structure my questions, even if they are tough to ask, in ways that respectfully hold up a mirror to my subjects. The interview doesn’t always go how I envision it will go but, in the moment, it feels exactly like what I ought to be doing. The best part? In the last five years, readers, viewers and listeners have told me how positively transformational my work has been to their lives. They don’t even know I no longer do it for them.
In 1994, iconic queercore band Tribe 8 played the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival to the outrage of many festival goers. At that point, “Michfest,” the longest running women’s music festival, had largely catered to softer folk and pop tastes. Tribe 8 was a rollicking punk band full of genderqueer dykes. They brandished bondage gear and strap-ons and sang songs about fucking trans women and getting suffocated by tattooed breasts. Violent! Phallocentric! Objectifying! Misogynist! That’s how much of the audience reacted to their set. Tribe 8 responded: “Let’s talk it out.”
Over the course of Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary, we learn about what shaped Tribe 8’s aggressive, sexual, goofy punk—issues such as experiencing physical and sexual violence; exploring gender; struggling with racial identity; overcoming addiction; surviving as undocumented; and looking for happiness and self-actualization beyond heterocapitalist patriarchy. Life is heavy, but music helps the members find levity and joy. Eventually, Michfest attendees realize this, too, and accept their performances as opportunities for feminist inquiry. The documentary closes by saying they played the festival three more times before disbanding.
It’s worth noting that Michfest shuttered in 2015 for being an aggressively trans-exclusionary space, and since the movie, two of Tribe 8’s members have transitioned. I’m unsure if either of these facts influenced why Tribe 8 stopped performing at Michfest, but that tension reveals something about why their initial show was so controversial. It challenged the boundaries of acceptable gender and sexual expression in ways that made “like minds” uncomfortable. Rise Above proves so many contemporary discussions about these ideas aren’t new.
Ultimately, Michfest came around to accepting Tribe 8 as artists but failed at welcoming the people they sang about: sexual and gender rebels confronting an inhospitable world on their own terms—and laughing anyway. For that reason, Michfest is remembered with infamy. After watching Rise Above, you’ll only recall Tribe 8 as glorious trailblazers.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer (“mostly film, mostly Indian”), with a regular gig at Film Companion and a weekly newsletter. Prathyush recently put together a great oral history of “O Sanam,” one of the most popular Indian pop songs ever. In this excerpt from our interview, Prathyush explains what’s changed in his approach to his writing over the past few years.
I have stopped writing long sentences within parentheses. I thought it was cool. Now, I find it frustrating. It might be a growing realization that writing shouldn’t be too distracting. Say what you want. Say it clearly. Also, less reverence, more curiosity for the art form.
How do you organize your work?
I organize my thoughts through my writing, so I let the pen hit the pavement running at the earliest. I figure out the missing pieces, structure, etc. later as afterthoughts. Especially if you are writing about music or film as a review, you have to have an immediacy that is both persuasive and excitable. I love that Parul Sehgal, the NYT book critic, noted that the best critic makes you want to sit by them as they explain what worked and what didn’t.
From Prathyush Parasuraman:
Right now India is seething through a deadly, bloody second wave of COVID-19 while also battling government apathy and repression. Twitter and Instagram have turned into help-lines looking for oxygen and hospital beds. If you can donate to any of these organizations, that would be wonderful.
James Grier is Professor of Music History at the University of Western Ontario and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. His latest book is Musical Notation in the West, which spans “its origins ca. A.D. 800 to the present with a focus on how it functions as a system of non-verbal, symbolic representation.” In this excerpt from our interview, James describes the easiest aspect of writing the book.
Dealing with the music and with musical issues. How does music communicate through the agency of writing? How and why do musicians design their notations and what strategies are necessary for reading them? How do the exigencies of realizing music in real time during performance affect strategies of writing and reading?
These are problems that musicians confront every day, but they have internalized the processes to such a large extent that they barely impinge on the consciousness. I am hoping, through the book, to make musicians a little more conscious of what they are doing and how they do it.
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First and foremost, thanks for reading! Second, big thanks to Laurent Fintoni this week for helping me out with the newsletter. 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…