It was the worst of times, it was the, uh… worst of times. But there were a few individual rays of light, much of them, appropriately enough, from a distaff perspective. Pictured above: happier times (at least for, ahem, a select, privileged few).
BY JASON GROSS
Looking for solace in the age of Trump, CNN’s Frida Ghitis found some upsides to having Orange Voldemort at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: We’ve seen, among other things, a revival in feminism and journalism. This isn’t just desperate rose-colored glasses optimism or limited to politics — these are important trends that have real meaning in our musical universe and came to bear this past year there in full force.
It just wouldn’t be a journo round-up if we didn’t dispense with the misery so hold on, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. Overall in the larger journo world, a pile of high-name editors have fled their own publications since even the big-name pubs are struggling for dough right alongside online behemoths like Buzzfeed. Having deep-pocketed sugar daddies isn’t always the best answer as Gothamist or DNAinfo could tell you if they were still around, much less the now-decimated L.A. Weekly, leaving the whole alt-weekly environment in shambles (including The Village Voice, more of which we’ll see later).
The usual culprit to all this journalistic bloodletting is social media as mags and writers are still figuring out how to navigate this world, still after a whole decade ago when Facebook and Twitter exploded on the scene. The strange, frustrating fact is also that the big social media platforms themselves aren’t sure how they fit into the media-scape or how to maneuver it. Big pubs latch onto social platforms as we hear that most millennials getting their news from these sources through the social giants try to reconcile their role as media arbitrators and understand that some user fatigue is setting in with users. As for giving something back to and helping the journo world, Facebook is starting its own journalism project, but some cynics are right to note that it might be too little and too late and that it’s ridiculous to think that these social platforms alone should be responsible for propping up the industry or be trusted to save it.
And sure, media companies ranging from national publications to local blogs have every right to be suspicious of the social giants. Among other issues, it’s questionable whether these social hook-ups produce healthy results for pubs (or not), which leads some publishers to become wary of social innovations that are supposed to help them, especially when some moves like advanced ad-blockers seem like they cut off the financial bread & butter of these publications.*
That isn’t even mentioning how Facebook still struggles with filtering out ‘fake news’ which competes with real stories (music writing has its own problems with this as we’ll see later). Media videos might hold some promise as a way to attract viewers, but pivoting there ain’t cheap, plus, the social giants aren’t willing to pay out to pubs for content anymore. And while YouTube can’t get its shit together to grab ad money, they cut a significant deal with Universal and Sony that might mean that a new rival streaming service is coming. Not to be outdone, Facebook inked a licensing deal with Universal, meaning the other majors may not be far behind but to what end…? The social puzzle has gotten so desperate that the media giants themselves are coming together to battle and negotiate with Google and Facebook from a position of (what they think is) strength in numbers. Maybe the most dispiriting thing when it comes to social media though is the fact that most pubs still have self-defeating social media buttons that do a lame-ass job of sharing their articles, not to mention the start-up videos and pop-up ads that still render most web pages unreadable — no links needed, just go to any major publication site and see for yourself.
When we zoom in specifically on what’s happened with music/entertainment pubs in ’17… well, it ain’t pretty. After showing initial promise with expanded music coverage in 2014, Medium has had to close its New York office and it looks like the CMJ College Radio Chart looks like a corpse. The Jazz Journalists Association finds that only 5% of its members have full-time newspaper work as online destinations take up the slack but usually offer no pay. The Quietus has gotten so desperate that they’ve put out a public appeal for funding after their ad dollars dried up, admitting that their “corporate advertising is down by around 90%.” ** Struggling with years of slimmed-down staffing, Spin had to take to recycling content from themselves (including this great 1997 Sleater-Kinney review from Ann Powers) and elsewhere (this fascinating take from Chuck Berry on punk rock records, which came from a blog, which itself recycled the story from elsewhere). Still, Spin were able to have some solid stories, like the reporting of another music journo bummer — MTV News‘ collapse and disgrace (more on that below). Shakes-ups came in the form of Chris Kaskie leaving Pitchfork after 14 years as its president and Billboard shuffling chair and roles at the top. Vlogging sensation Anthony Fantano took a big hit to his reputation after a Fader article (see in the article listing below) outed his alt-right leanings, though he still retains an impressive following. Layoffs were a constant, long-running theme as they came to Slate, Vice (which had build up staff only three years ago) and the Village Voice, where all of us long-time Pazz & Jop voters wondered as December rolled to end if the poll died until we saw some hope in this tweet. Although it finally arrived shortly before Christmas, my ballot and those of several others initially weren’t able to go through their online system. Eventually the Voice fixed the glitch, however. ***
Speaking of the Voice (which has gone through years of ownership sales and music chairs at the top of the ladder), even more than the recent layoffs, the big news there was that they were ending their print edition, which unleashed a wave of historic nostalgia among its old writers and editors via NPR and Chuck Eddy’s Austin360 piece. Paste also folded up their print edition but did it with a bang, making a book edition with a music sampler put together at their own studios.
For Billboard (which has also endured staff shake-ups, ownership sales, layoffs and revenue loss in the last few years alone), though they boasted online traffic growth and managed to gobble up Spin, Vibe and Stereogum through their parent company in late ’16, they still had growing pains as they tried to wrestle with how to count up the streaming figures and add them into their music charts. After head scratching over how many streams equals a sale at the start of ’17, they decided to change up their streaming math to include genre albums and Pandora plays and then changed their magazine and chart dates to line-up with the week they covered. YouTube however was SOL as they were cut out of the magazine’s chart tallies. All of this makes you wonder how accurate the tallies are and if it’s possible to draw an accurate chart listing at all in the download/digital/streaming age.
And then there’s Rolling Stone, the grey lady of music, celebrating its 50th anniversary with not a lot to celebrate and with a huge lawsuit haunting them, not to mention their own layoffs and staff shake-ups over the last few years. After shifting around its high level teams around May, the UVA story lawsuit was revived (having gone on for two years already), leading to a settlement with the school and later with the fraternity involved. Considering the considerable money involved in the suits, maybe it was no coincidence that a few months later, the magazine announced that it was putting itself up for sale amid talks of a ‘diminished staff,’ a double-digit drop in news stand sales, online traffic dipping by over 25% and talk of making the pub into a quarterly. To make it an attractive buy, RS was also promising to cut back on editorial. All this culminated with the year-end announcement that the majority stake in the company went to Penske Media (which also owns Variety) for $100 million along with plans to lean into more live events and licensing, though as ReCode notes, the deal is an investment and not a sale, which means that founder/publisher Jann Wenner and son Gus keep senior positions. If that wasn’t enough for RS this year, Wenner Sr. faced his own accusations of sexual harassment, which he denied.
Another dispiriting trend was how “fake news” and misleading items made its way to the music journo world, though we’ve already had more than our share from our head of state. This discouraging trend has been always around but bubbling up even more in the last few years with a raft of misleading stories in ’14 — you might remember Steve Albini’s Internet speech or Pomplamoose’s whining tour diary — or last year’s BS about Mozart outselling Drake (sorry but Wolfy didn’t). First and foremost among ’17 fakery was the Tom Petty death watch which pronounced him gone before the eventual fact. Much more serious and tragic was the mistaken identity given to the shooter at Jason Aldean’s Las Vegas show. MTV News‘ reputation got a mud-drag when it came out thanks to Spin and Vulture that artists were able to muscle the network to take down unflattering stories if the network wanted to book them for their TV shows. And just in case you thought you were getting the whole truth and nothing but the truth, The Outline tells us that ad agencies are paying writers for product plugging/mentions in big-name publications like Forbes and Huffington Post. Then there was the bizarre BS story about the Discogs highest sales record which was exposed by NPR (see in the article listing below). And with the gloomy landscape it was obviously time to trot out the tired old-guy argument about music writing being a corpse (complete with a Lester Bangs graphic), which was trotted out by a Hypebot writer who pointed to my SXSW panel (which he didn’t attend) and based it on a misguided review of it from elsewhere (sure I’m biased, but I know that it was actually a meaty discussion thanks to Rachel Brodsky, Chuck Eddy, Greg Kot).
In terms of tech initiatives and music publications, what was most notable was what you didn’t hear about in 2017 — there weren’t any real innovations that might hold promise (one great exception being this NY Times info dump on music maps). Compare this to 2014 when data-driven articles were springing up plus crowd-funding ideas, content platforms and apps (see the music writing round-up for that year) or last year when we had more innovative crowd funders plus Vice‘s documentary series and the Pitchfork TV venture (see the 2016 round-up for details). With apps drying up as a possible savior and no new bold tech ideas this past year, music journalism is making life even harder for itself in a world where cutting edge tech is everything now. Hint: take some tips from Sarah Toporoff of Global Editors Network about media innovation.
Maybe it’s appropriate to end the weeping and wailing here with a few sad goodbyes to some noted music scribes who will be missed: Nat Hentoff, Marc Spitz, Richie Yorke, Reggie Ossie and Marc Fisher (see Simon Reynolds’ article below).
And after all of that misery, ’17 did have a few bright spots for the music journo world. Despite the hits to its integrity, MTV News managed to unionize. Fader got a fine editor-in-chief (Duncan Cooper). WBGO got a jazz expert in the form of Nate Chinen (formerly at NY Times). Vice snapped up $450 million in investments. Billboard added on Hannah Karp as news editor. Variety beefed up its music staff with Shirley Halperin and Jem Asward (formerly at Billboard). In late breaking news from the end of ’16, Fader upped its social media team (wise move, especially now) and both Pitchfork and Thump/Vice did their own round-up’s of 2016 music stories. For all the music scribe fans out there, there was also a Lester Bangs play How To Be A Rock Critic which made its way from L.A. to Chicago and is now heading to NYC in early ’18 which should seen drooling hoards of fan boys there as we speak. And if all of that isn’t cheery enough for you, how about having LeBron James as one of our best music critics? Sure, that pales in comparison to all the sad stuff from ’17 but you gotta grasp onto something.
And you can’t talk about 2017 without talking about #MeToo, which IS a bright spot and did affect the music biz. Though this movement became a huge story this year, don’t forget that in early ’16, a big-name music publicist was outed and forced out of work when stories of him as a sexual predator came out, though at the time, there was no floodgates opening the way they are now. After the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in early October though, there was plenty of schadenfreude about other scummy characters taken down several notches and booted off their thrones but it also hit some previously well-admired cultural figures (Charlie Rose, Louie C.K.). Painful as it is to hear about this from people that we admire, we have to take our collective lumps and have a no-tolerance policy for this sick behavior. And of course the music biz isn’t immune to this problem either as noted with country singer Katie Armiger’s brave stance, Dorothy Cavello’s column in Variety, Baebel Blog’s “These Musicians Have Come Forward to Say ‘Me Too’” article, Andrew Wallenstein’s “Vice Media Admits ‘We Failed’ to Curb Sexual Harassment at Company” report in Variety, and Warner Music execs being accused of sexual misconduct. Rest assured, many more #MeToo stories will come out in ’18 and beyond. Should we be surprised about it either in an industry known for its excesses?
Maybe another piece of good news for ’17 is the almost-40 excellent articles below, coming from everywhere, ranging from big-time media sources (Vulture/NewYork, NPR, Washington Post in particular) to blogs, plus Pitchfork proving that it’s much more than just numeric rankings. Sorry, there’s no worthy social media entries this time though Erykah Badu’s (below) and Howe Gelb’s Instagram posts are wonderful photo art. There’s also plenty of healthy skepticism in these stories about Spotify (see Marc Hogan, Liz Pelly). Jim DeRogatis’ story is particularly of note ’cause it almost didn’t happen for fear of lawsuits, which many pubs don’t have the deep pockets to battle for fear that another Peter Thiel will take them down as he did with Gawker (making me wonder how many other important stories we WON’T see because of that same fear).
Maybe the most encouraging sign for music journalism is the fact that many of the stories below that deal with feminism (especially Ann Powers’ pivotal piece for NPR) actually predate the October 5th reporting of the Weinstein story, making you wonder if even before that article come out, the specter of a misogynist wave coming out of the ’16 election drove a much needed correction in the other direction, along with similar push backs about race and identity (and the irony that if the election results were different, a wave of women empowerment would have happened for other reasons). No doubt related to that, you might also notice that many of the writers below happen to be women, following a growing, encouraging trend over the last decade. You can chalk it up to any pointy-headed theory you like but there’s probably a much simpler explanation — women are just better music writers. You think it’s a coincidence that Merriam-Webster’s word of the year was ‘feminism‘?
Ella Alovisi “Last.fm Was the Only Music Social Network That Made Sense” (Noisey, December 5, 2017)
The music streaming wars already have plenty of casualties and with the profits razor-thin, there will be more to come. Nowhere near as popular as Spotify or Pandora, Last.fm still served a purpose — unlike those other services, it actually fostered a community of music fans who could communicate, learn from each other and compare notes. Ideally, you’d hope the bigger streaming survivors would provide the same type of communities but will they bother if they don’t see any ($) value to it?
Adrienne Black “Music Industry Advice For Women, By Women” (Pigeons and Planes, January 3, 2017)
Like most industries, the music biz is still a man’s world but to change that, we need less mansplaining and to hear more from the women there who’ve made it to share some of their advice. Find mentors and demand respect as Black insists, but also know that you have to “work harder than the rest.”…And write good articles like this one.
Britt Brown “Collateral Damage: Britt Brown on negative reviews” (The Wire, September 2017)
Years ago, when print was still somewhat alive, a reviews editor at a big publication told me ‘we don’t have room for bad reviews anymore.’ That’s understandable but Brown makes the argument of why it’s still important regardless, even if it’s tempered by fear of trolls and hemmed in by grading systems that fortify a plateau of middle-ground acceptance. “It’s often forgotten that the function of press is not to boost sales, but to document a dialogue sparked by the reception of the work.” You heard it here first, folks!
Sarah Cahill “What I Learned as a Music Critic, and Why It Still Matters” (The Log, April 4, 2017)
It’s silly to call this kind of introspection ‘navel-gazing’ — all music journalism is just that in some way, but it can also be much more than that, as we learn from Cahill. It’s not just that she has a unique perspective because she’s also a musician but she’s also found that sinking her brain into the music she covers actually gave her more of an appreciation of it. And what more could we ask from music scribes than that? Of course, this kind of background can make you hyper-critical of other music writing too (just like here).
Adam Chandler “The Eternal Unbearable Greatness of Billy Joel” (The Atlantic, April 21, 2017)
Even if you’re a Joel hater, you can’t help but be impressed and fascinated by his long game, especially since he still fills stadiums while he’s stopped putting out albums in the early 90’s. Hell, even the stones and Macca put out new albums once in a while (even if you don’t wanna hear ’em). Face it — he’s a cultural institution and not just in the Tri-State area. “Not bad for someone who spent part of the 1970s opening for Olivia Newton-John, Yes, and Captain Beefheart.”
Jim DeRogatis “Inside the Pied Piper of R&B’s “Cult”” (Buzzfeed, July 17, 2017)
An incredible story not just because of the accusations — that Kelly kept women as prisoners — but also the long-term efforts that it took to get the story itself out, as detailed in this Slate article and this Washington Post article about how the story almost never got published, not to mention this follow-up Buzzfeed article detailing other women speaking out about Kelly. And it’s not as if Kelly hasn’t had a long and sordid history with women.
Geoff Edgers “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (Washington Post, June 22, 2017)
Cringe at the title but don’t discount the message — the electric guitar is falling out of favor in the music biz and there are numbers here to prove it. This doesn’t stop 1000’s of bands who ignore this every day but it ain’t what it used to be, right up to the 90’s when Cobain convinced young hopefuls to seek out six-strings. Nowadays? Apps and drum machines and sequencers rule. And some day, they’ll fall of favor too. Also see Edgers’ warts-and-all portrait of Billy Joe Shaver.
Andrew Flanagan “The Most Expensive Record Never Sold” (NPR, March 23, 2017)
Real news about fake news. A guy who went blackface to pretend he was Hendrix’s son, almost got a label deal through Bruce Hornsby and later sold, and probably bought, his own album, which might not exist and set a record for a single sale at the Discogs site. Or maybe not… But the hoax worked ’cause you’re reading about him right now.
Abigail Gardner “Whose record is it anyway? Musical ‘crate digging’ across Africa” (The Conversation, September 6, 2017)
Sure, colonialism and crate digging in search of exotica is kind of an opt-putting venture but it means that we get all kinds of rare, unknown goodies and these artists get the recognition (and maybe royalties) they have never had before. So that’s great, right? But why are black music archivists usually well-meaning white people? And why aren’t these albums part of a larger cultural picture that we’re missing out on?
Sasha Geffen “TOKiMONSTA Lost Speaking and Musical Abilities After Brain Surgery. This Is How She Regained Them.” (Pitchfork, September 12, 2017)
Even if you think that the first half of the article which details her illness is TMI (actually, it’s pretty interesting though still heart-breaking), you’ll quickly get on her side as she tells of how her music helped her recovery and she learned the best way to get back on her feet was to not push herself but let the music comes to her as it needed to. Also see this fascinating AP article about how scientists are still scratching their head over music therapy but still finding it helpful for patients.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah “Her Eyes Were Watching the Stars: How Missy Elliott Became An Icon” (Elle, May 15, 2017)
Missy as feminist icon and as a little-praised producer and as a private/public person who battles shyness and an abuse-ridden past. Surely she deserves a 2nd, 3rd act after her 2015 Super Bowl cameo.
Marc Hogan “Uncovering How Streaming Is Changing the Sound of Pop” (Pitchfork, September 25, 2017)
“Spotify tells you what your job is,” Chainsmokers singer Elizabeth Mencel explains. In the first 30 seconds, throw out a slew of hooks, get the chorus in early and you’ve got a hit. Why? You gotta get the listener to stay tuned for at least the first 30 secs of streaming to get counted the song counted as a ‘play’ (which you can earn royalties for), hence all the early ornaments in these songs. Call it the “Spotify Sound.” If you like, long dramatic intros, you’re outta luck. Also see Eamonn Forde “‘They could destroy the album’: how Spotify’s playlists have changed music for ever” (The Guardian, August 17, 2017) where we get a scary glimpse into a future where voice control for devices (“Hey Siri, play dubstep!”) and trigger words could affect our whole pop landscape.
Steven J. Horowitz “The Concert Ticket Industry Is Still Broken” (Vulture, May 2, 2017)
Finding that your favorite shows are sold out a millisecond after they go on sale and then you have to pay hundreds of dollars from legalized scalpers through the likes of Stubhub (via eBay) and TicketsNow (via LiveNation)? There’s a good reason. Verified Fan programs haven’t stamped out scalpers who still find a way to game the system (thanks in part to bots) and it may also be that some of the artists themselves hold back tickets to get some sweet resell money. Until a strong fan lobby pushes back at Congress to regulate this industry more, expect the same to keep happening.
Hua Hsu “Alice Coltrane’s Devotional Music” (The New Yorker, April 24, 2017)
Thankfully no longer in her husband’s shadow, she was on the same celestial plane and took her music even farther after Saint John’s death — her idea of religious music ain’t your parent’s church but was instead led by her own Hindu-inspired faith. Even if you don’t have any need for hipsters and other spiritual types, you can at least thank them for helping with her revival.
Craig Jenkins “The Sound of Modern Pop Peaked This Year — and Now It Needs to Change” (Vulture, December 11, 2017)
If you happen to love singles now (shame on you if you don’t — 2017 was a great singles year) and wonder why, there’s a cunning reason. It might not be as obvious as with other pop trends but there’s definitely a formula out there and Jenkins nails it down — “fluttering horns, folk-pop–indebted guitar licks with fat synth lines played staccato or else broken up into choppy eighth and 16th notes, and drums that nod either to the hand claps and finger snaps.” It transcends pop and makes its way into R&B, rap. And now that it’s named, we should move on to something new. Also see Jenkins’ other important pieces for Vulture: “The Life and Death of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy” (June 22, 2017) and “Rap Is Less Homophobic Than Ever, But It Has a Long Way to Go” (February 13, 2017).
Steve Knopper “The Rope: The Forgotten History of Segregated Rock & Roll Concerts” (Rolling Stone, November 16, 2017)
“As the original rock & roll pioneers are fading out, it’s more important than ever to share their stories,” Knopper notes and with Chuck and Fats now gone and prayers to keep Little Richard and Jerry Lee with us as long as possible, it’s definitely an urgent project to get these stories down for the record, not just for the history books but also so we can learn and remember. One complaint — this story is broad and vital enough to be told in the span of an entire book.
Dee Lockett “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Still Has No Idea What to Make of Black Art” (Vulture, April 29, 2017)
For this past year’s ceremony, Lockett picks up on the stark contrast to when Tupac was supposed to be honored versus the love shown to the otherwise-white roster of inductees. Just as at the ’95 Source Awards, when Snoop wondered if “East Coast ain’t got no love,” the audience didn’t seem interested again though Snoop took it with better grace now. If the crowd really needed a piss break moment during the show, they would have been much better off with Journey.
Jillian Mapes “The Music World’s Reaction to Sexual Assault Needs to Keep Changing” (Pitchfork, October 24, 2017)
A much-needed manifesto for the #MeToo age. “We need male musicians and men working in the music industry to examine their own behavior, and to hold other men accountable for the indiscretions they witness.” And even more importantly: “It is lazy and shameful to only deal with this problem when women take on the burden of speaking out, and the illusion of independent music as a progressive field is dented for all to see.”
Ezra Marcus “The Needle Drop pioneered music review vlogs. His lesser-known channel pandered to the alt-right.” (The Fader, October 3, 2017)
Anthony Fantano, ground breaking online music critic, now outed as alt-right troll, leaving his fans and admirers awestruck and hurt. Marcus said that he was piled on with hate mail thanks to this piece but thanks to him for coming forward with this, fan hood be damned. Kill your idols indeed.
Mike McCollum “The Drive By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera and Contemporary Southern Identity” (Mike McCollum, January 11, 2017)
This exhaustive blog post as term paper not only does justice to a great album but also puts it into the context of not just music history but also a Southern culture that’s not necessarily on the skids, where William Faulkner rubs shoulders with Ronnie Van Zant.
Maeve McDermott “The 2018 Grammy nominations deservedly celebrate artists of color” (USA Today, November 28, 2017)
Compared to the lily-white Oscars, NARAS is in even more of a bind as it’s obvious that white men aren’t where the action is in terms of quality and innovation in the music world so in a way, they NEEDED to acknowledge it and finally did. Will it stop the boycotts? Maybe for now. But maybe not with Kanye, unless they give him every award.
Michelle Mercer “Sexism From Two Leading Jazz Artists Draws Anger — And Presents An Opportunity” (NPR, March 9, 2017)
Most any forward-thinking jazz fan cheers on pianist/composer Robert Glasper and fellow keysman Ethan Iverson (Bad Plus) but what happens when the former lays out some sexist crap (women don’t like solos, you just play groove and the music is like sex to them) and the later defends this, call BS on the attacks and insists he’s a liberal and a feminist? Don’t we all know plenty of guys who don’t dig solos and get the hots from music? Mercer isn’t buying it either but at least finds some upside in that we’re still able to connect jazz with erotica and that in these heated arguments, “we need an intelligent public discussion about gendered notions of jazz.”
Tom Moon “Walter Becker Was A Master Of Musical Understatement” (NPR, September 4, 2017)
Finding the craggily essence of a private person who wrote multi-million dollar music and posed proudly as a cynic, misanthrope, jazz head and a hell of a funny guy (as Donald Fagen tells it).
Marissa R. Moss “We Need To Talk About How We Write About Women Musicians” (Lockeland Springsteen, April 10, 2017)
Subtitle (which Moss hears a lot from editors): “But we write about female musicians ALL the time.” This stirring manifesto lays out its point cleanly and decisively. For the “Women In Music” special issues, she says “appreciate the gesture, but how about you just write about women on all the days.” And finally, nailing the semantics of how music scribing approaches women: “If we point out problematic language or systemic sexism, we are not always calling you sexist. This isn’t about you. For once, this is about women. So listen.” Got it?
Liz Pelly “The Problem With Muzak” (The Baffler, December 4, 2017)
Following up on her excellent piece in Watt about how Spotify playlists are the new payola, Pelly tracks more insidious ways that the streaming service screws the rest of the musical food chain. Brands using artists in their playlists without their consent? Check. Trying to do away with music labels? Check. Turning music into nothing more than background for all your daily activities? Check. Getting publications to create playlists while their readers are sucked into a service that may render these same publications obsolete? Check. And you thought Google and Facebook were evil? They are, but these guys aren’t far behind now.
Robyn Pennacchia “America’s wholesome square dancing tradition is a tool of white supremacy” (Quartz, December 12, 2017)
What could be more innocent than square dancing (which many of us had to endure as kids)? Sad to say, the intro of this musical ritual can be traced to industrialist and anti-Semite Henry Ford who thought that jazz was having an evil influence on American culture and needed some way to counter it. And so, the seemingly innocuous ritual lives alongside minstrelsy and Birth of A Nation as important artistic touchstones with disturbing racial histories attached.
Ann Powers “A New Canon: In Pop Music, Women Belong At The Center Of The Story” (NPR, July 24, 2017)
In and of itself, one of the most important music articles not just in ’17 but in the last few years. Powers throws down the gauntlet on what our cherished musical canons should be like, which is much more inclusive of innovative, brilliant women. The article is already so influential that it inspired Julianne Escobedo Shepherd’s hilarious response in Jezebel (where Sgt. Pepper’s and Kid A both get their asses kicked), this classical-themed follow-up from Anne Midgette and this expansive multi-media piece from the NY Times, which are all superior articles themselves. So, can we have more follow-ups, please…?
Anna Quito “The classical music concert is a vital workout for our sagging, flabby attention spans” (Quartz, April 9, 2017)
For every moment in our waking life where there’s a pause or waiting, we reflexively pull out our phone and amuse ourselves (hell, I do it all the time). But what if we could unplug ourselves for just an hour or two, without any active visual stimulus other that dozens of musicians playing a stirring symphony? Quito suggests that this kind of exercise is tonic in our digital world and with a little practice (just like a gym workout), we can do it easier than we think. No scientific study here though it does touch on some of those — it’s just a moving, personalized guide about how classical music changed the writer’s way of thinking and life, and it might do the same for you.
Simon Reynolds “Mark His Words” (Blissblog, February 9, 2017)
Aka Mark Fisher’s Greatest Hits. The writer/educator/theorist/philosopher, aka ‘K-Punk,’ was just as comfortable critiquing capitalism and post-modernism as he was attacking Dylan, understanding Michael Jackson’s legacy, dissecting the eloquent misery of James Blake and untangling Drake’s insatiable appetite. Reynolds once described K’s blog as superior to any Brit music publication and didn’t mind it a bit when Fisher himself tangled with him over music. He relished it actually. And don’t you think Fisher would have relished this very write-up — a review of an unofficial collection of his essays about music — as a great post-modern twist?
Chris Richards “How the death of EDM brought pop music one step closer to eternal life” (Washington Post, August 3, 2017)
For ‘real’ techno fans, EDM’s passing was a blessing — no more drunk jocks partying to empty, pandering dance music, right? Not really. EDM just got gobbled up into pop music and has lived on through it, courtesy of machine-like affectations that singers latch on to. Of course, the lyrics distract from the partying but there’s always hip hop to draw in the frat-boy crowd, right? Also see Richards’ insightful pieces on apocalypse pop and bridging the freestyle/mumble rap gap.
Jenna Romaine “If Moby Accepted Trump Inauguration Invitation, This Would Be His Playlist” (Billboard, January 9, 2017)
When the charmless would-be autocrat looked around for musical talent for his coronation, the list of A-list performers who refused was impressive, leaving Toby Keith, 3 Doors Down and some D-listers to fill in the gaps. The techno-turned-pop whiz Moby was a refusenik himself but was coaxed to come up with his own set list to entertain the MAGA crowd, including Public Enemy, Gil Scott-Heron, Pete Seeger, Billie Holiday, Cat Stevens, John Lennon, Sex Pistols, the Clash, Killing Joke and all manner of political tunes. It would have beat the hell out of the endless replays of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which Trump used at most of his rallies (without the Stones’ approval).
Alex Ross “The Fate of the Critic in the Clickbait Age” (New Yorker, March 13, 2017)
“Why publish articles that almost nobody wants?” wonders of our finest classical scribes, struggling to figure out where classical music fits into a post-millennial culture where arts writers are a rare, dying breed at many large-scale publications since there’s no proof that their columns get enough clicks and ad bucks. Surely the music he loves can’t compete against Marvel flicks in the entertainment section of any publication left standing? Still, he makes a valiant argument that we need space for ‘unpopular’ music regardless unless we want our entire culture conversation to turn into emojis. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Ruth Saxelby “We need to talk about drugging” (The Fader, December 12, 2017)
In the wake of #MeToo, we hear some harrowing first-hand accounts of roofie-induced rapes. Horrible to also hear that this actually ISN’T totally illegal in all states and that most cases never get reported, out of fear and shame. If that wasn’t bad enough, the research on this is lacking too. As a music exec who was a drugging victim painfully recounts “I’ve thought about this more than I’ve ever thought about anything. I’ve searched for any other possible explanation. There is none.” Saxelby wisely advises us that one way to counter this is to spread the word about the problem so that potential victims are on guard. Also, you can help by donating to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network).
Adam Shatz “The Ethereal Genius of Craig Taborn” (New York Times, June 22, 2017)
The charming, frustrating, romantic story of an ego-less jazz pioneer who shows supreme dedication to his craft, even if it means not advancing his career, which in turn endears him to other musicians and label heads.
Art Tavana “How Guns N’ Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction” Hijacked the Music Industry” (Ultimate Classic Rock, July 19, 2017)
Even if you’re sick of GNR, Axl’s whiny ego and their played-out reunion, this article makes a good case for their place in history and how their sound, their image, their ‘tude and even their musicianship turned the music world topsy-turvy for a while. At least until the long wait for Chinese Democracy.
Martha Tesema “Black-centric spaces like Afropunk Festival are valuable now more than ever, and here are 8 people’s reasons why” (Mashable, August 30, 2017)
Afropunk isn’t just an incredible coming together of musical styles but also a place where an African-American audience can really let their freak flag fly. Tesema nails the essence of the fest not just with the interviews where attendees celebrate the ‘black-centric space’ but also the wonderful pics she provides, making this an intriguing photo essay too.
Emily Yahr “Nashville songwriters are like family. Here’s what happens when things get complicated.” (Washington Post, August 10, 2017)
Until A.I. renders them useless (maybe sooner than you think or hope), songwriters are still a vital part of not just pop music but also country. In Nashville, where it’s a tiny world indeed, a good song-smith can be gold if they can beat out the competition, find the right singer and not get their song put on hold indefinitely, which provides a hard-won lesson about making it in Music City: that’s why “the artists that are most successful. . . are great at responding quickly.”
* Guilty. I use ad-blockers. But in my defense, media websites relentlessly place in front of me “supported content,” floating ads, pop-ups, and outright screen-fillers that require multiple clicks on my part just to finish reading a paragraph. So my sympathy for anyone employing these strategies ies has eroded to a considerable degree. — Uncle Blurt, website administrator
** We here at BLURT donated to a number such causes, however much we could afford at the time and when it was a website that we frequent on a regular basis in dire need,, such as the Internet Archive and of course The Quietus. Maybe we should make our own pitch for support from readers. — Ed.
*** As Jason noted above, the pollsters at the Voice didn’t bother to send out ballots until a couple of days before Christmas; at least not to a number of longtime voters, including BLURT’s own editor, hardly a vote of confidence. Staff downsizing, perhaps? — Minutiae Ed.
Jason Gross, a longtime BLURT contributor, is also the publisher and editor of the most excellent web magazine Perfect Sound Forever — which, we should note, has been the consistent favorite over the years of this publication’s own editor.