Devon Powers Explains, There Is No “New Boss”: There Is No “New” Narrative

Since the last time we spoke, Patrick Stickles “publicly” “attacked” me on twitter about the review I wrote of his show. It was awesome and ended well. I think we’re friends now. (When I find a way to embed long twitter conversations, I’ll get it to you.)

But before and since then, I’ve been thinking out an idea I had. And when I say “thinking out” I mean “subtly obsessing over.” It’s been around the bend a lot for the last month. And it’s even turned into a concept and then a sort of thesis. But I still couldn’t get it straight – or out of my mind.

I was also preoccupied wrapping up my job. To get us all up to speed, I left my job at Sirius XM Satellite Radio as a Music Programming Coordinator to – quite literally – chase the dream. This September, I start work on my Masters of Fine Arts for Non-Fiction Writing (hence the word “thesis”) at Sarah Lawrence College. (Where I plan to put two in-the-works actual theses to the page.)

It seemed perfect that Eric Harvy‘s review of “Writing The Record: The Village Voice and the Birth Of Rock Criticism” would ultimately find me. I splurged and ordered the book special from the University of Massachusetts press. (And ironically enough, I am writing this from Cambridge, MA where my best friend/hetero-life-mate is graduating from Graduate School at Harvard this weekend.) Devon Powers’ book not only fuels my obsession with New York City and New York City publications (mainly New York Magazine) but it straightened out my concept.

In many essays, homework assignments and ‘what-does-it-all-mean’ think pieces assigned to me over the years, I’ve spent my whole life trying to explain my overwhelming love for culture to everyone I know. Telling people that you’re personally offended when someone hasn’t seen a classic, or worse – your favorite – movie doesn’t really cut it (all the time.) You can only be as passionate as your friends will tolerate in conversation when you’re talking about the new Kanye West singles. (Why do people only call him Kanye these days?) They get sick of you dissecting GIRLS, the character arc of Adam Driver, the music direction on the show, and they also get sick of hearing about the plot of the novel you’re reading. (They also get sick of you laughing aloud to yourself when you’re only “reading” “online.”) All I know is, culture is all I’ve ever cared about. And “in this day and age” I’m pretty sure it’s all anyone cares about. (Note: I said “pretty sure.”) I thought radio would fulfill me, like it always had, but the corporation part started to swallow up my heart.

Getting back to the basics and understanding why we do what we do is essential, no matter what your passion is. Every once and a while we ALL need to be reminded why we work where we work and do what we do. (And we also need to be reminded that you can walk away if you’re unhappy. I’ve done it and I’ve watched people I’m close to do it. It can be really hard and it’s “brave” or whatever but its the best lesson you can learn – for free.

So it struck a chord with me, as I was underlining the last paragraph in Powers’ book (Hell, all 136 pages are pretty much underlined) as the plane was touching down in Boston (there are metaphors all over the place here):

“Every one of us who is a cultural worker has a stake in making this claim, because not only the solvency of our labor depends upon it, but so does the vitality of our culture itself. To live in a world that cares about music and culture, that creates musical citizens, demands that we are loud and clear in these beliefs. It also requires being proud of what criticism does well – that is, that we champion its ability to start conversations, catalyze interest in music, and produce knowledge. A robust critical sphere is good for all of us less because it has mass appeal than because it is representative of the salience of music in American culture. And that matters.” 

Those words, in that order, “a cultural worker,” it’s like they knew. I KNEW. Have you ever just known that you’re in the right place at the right time? Right now, I’ve never been so sure. AND I just sat through some serious commencement speeches, talking about how failure and unplanned life will only make you stronger. Changing your own course – even when it’s scary – forces you to just work harder. Work through it and you’ll find the other side, they promise. (I promise?)

This essay idea I’ve been working on goes something like, “The New Indie Narrative.” I was trying to figure out, without entirely publicly attacking The Fork (but I guess I’ve already done that), a simple way to discuss how people talk about music. First and foremost there is so much to address in “the way people talk about music” that we might as well just hold a weekly seminar and call it a day. There isn’t a simple way to do it. Likely, if anything, it will be a few chapters long in the book I haven’t written yet. Powers helped me realize all of this. He even helped me realize that the whole concept itself was off. YES we (I) want to talk about how people talk about music, but it’s not about how it’s changed. The business of hip – and the hip press – hasn’t changed at all. It’s just the delivery method. There is no new narrative. The new boss IS the same as the old boss. The revolution WAS televised…but then it was canceled. Now it lives online.

What we need to do is take an alternative look at the music press. Which among many things Powers discusses, was never really alternative. Or if it was it was only for the first year or so before everyone wanted to start making money. (I’m beginning to think that “being hip” only lasts the first 100 days – like Mick Jones said about Punk.) Powers explains commercialization of rock music (via venues and touring – for money – to propel rock’s story, we need money and we tour to make money, et al.) in the 1960s and how music coverage has always been a hype machine.

“As the music industry sought to forge organic connections with the counterculture, some members turned to it for job opportunities, while others joined different industries or started companies that catered to alternative markets. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, these dynamics of acquired the name “hip capitalism,” a term applied to a wide range of companies with a “counterculture business philosophy” – from head shop owners to camping goods retailers, vegetarian restauranteurs to rock radio DJs.” 

That all sounds very familiar.

Then there’s the mention of Craig Karpel’s 1970 Esquire essay, ” Das Hip Kapital.” Which could, possibly, maybe resonate a lot with “liking it before it was cool”: [hip] capitalists are increasingly finding that their markets becoming antagonistic because the kids who consume their product do not want to be consumers…it has gulled ‘the people’ into thinking that the culture is their property..”

Powers then goes on to site Woodstock as the best example of the “mutable relationship among capitalism, music and the “hip community.” Relatable to the MANY (corporately sponsored) festivals that happen all over the U.S. – and all over the world – all year round, Powers questions, “the musicians who performed were paid, or that the originators of the event still intended to turn a profit even if they were unsuccessful in doing so. Why, then, was the communitarian vibe of the festval enough to underplay its capitalist intentions – so much so that, to this day, the original Woodstock stands as a sacrosanct emblem of the way things could have been?” 

Powers’ book is split into sections and I could talk about all of them at length. (Oh, wait. I already have/I’m about to.) There is (1) a (brief) history of The Village and of (2) Pop Music, (3) the discussion of Hype and how it’s been there since the beginning (under one of many headings, “Hype=Death”), (4) Identity – where he touches upon gender AND race  – and (5) Robert Christgau’s theory of “Mattering.”

Robert Christgau was the self proclaimed “Dean Of American Rock Critics.” He worked as the Village Voice editor after the even better Richard Goldstein who famously put out the “Giraffe Hunters” theory. (Basically, rock and roll is the giraffe and the hunters who slaughter it and tear it apart are PR men, disc jockeys, executives….you get the picture.) (Goldstein also called Sgt. Pepper “spoiled” and unfavorably reviewed it calling it “shoddy” and anything but beautiful….in The New York Times!) Christgau started the Pazz & Jop Poll in 1971, and it’s still running. He was also dating Ellen Willis – the first music writer for The New Yorker and who Powers calls “a pillar of rock criticism.” (You should also read the compilation book of her writing “Out Of The Vinyl Deeps“.)

“…criticism’s social function, its why, also needed revisiting. In the ’70s, this meant contending with how rock could both be a “multibillion-dollar industry” and at the same time have “suffered a loss of cultural prestige” as it shrank to occupy a mere “subcultureal life.” Ten years later, “’70s fragmentation became a way of life”‘ in another ten, even a strong distaste for ’60s exceptionalism did not preclude him from observing that “the popular music we call rock did once galvanize social forces in a way it hasn’t since.” 

Well, I guess if he was writing this now, Christgau might’ve included a little something about twitter and the “online” “social” “revolution.” Basically, “The Mattering” is questioning why the work of criticism matters. Powers does a nice job answering that (from above): It also requires being proud of what criticism does well – that is, that we champion its ability to start conversations, catalyze interest in music, and produce knowledge. Critics shouldn’t have to find a purpose. We just want to create an interesting conversation about culture. We aren’t trying to reason with those who constantly question the human existence  Sometimes things just are the way they are. Criticism is more than that, but it can also be that. (No matter how mad I get – or any of us do – at any publication for whatever review they might print. They’re still going to print it.)

And because I can, I want to talk about Jann Wenner and how Rolling Stone is a big load of corporate fame obsessed tastemakers and gatekeepers. (Wait, isn’t any “charming” decades old publication?…kind of like?…The Fork?)

Powers also touches upon the fact that Jann Wenner knew he could make money off of a music magazine and employed the business to do just that

Back in high school, I thought Rolling Stone was great. I followed it around for a long time. But that is also before I discovered college radio and before I discovered music that was released after 1975. Once I realized all this, I learned about Rolling Stone’s History Of Music and how it can plague the American “public”. Jann Wenner dropped out of UC Berkeley to start RS and to do something different, but the fact of the matter is, he’s always been “the man”. Yes, Wenner started the magazine as an alternative and as the first national music-centered magazine but they still sold ad space, just like the Village Voice, and they still had an agenda – the same way The Fork does now.

“Wenner wielded a much more forceful editorial hand. Ellen Willis later dubbed this the “San Francisco ‘rock-as-art’ orthodoxy,” which played out not only in the magazine’s prejudices but also in how freely writers could express their opinions. [Lester Bangs was banned in the early ’70s for reviews ‘that Wenner considered insolent.’] The magazine also marginalized women and people of color in both its staff and its coverage.”

“Wenner was also an unabashed capitalist, and believed rock journalism could be profitable if it attracted an audience that youth-targeted businesses wanted to reach.” 

“Rolling Stone not only thoughtfully engaged with the entirety of rock culture but also presided over determining its parameters. Quite correctly, the employees of Rolling Stone saw themselves as leaders and tastemakers…the decisions made by Rolling Stone had significant impact on the music business and the artists within it.” 

Powers goes on later to discuss when Jon Landau used to write for Rolling Stone and then left and went on to manage – to this day – Bruce Springsteen (well, all that makes sense now.) “Some company freaks worked as critics before, after, or even during their jobs in publicity, and critics who left writing at times took jobs in the industry, as Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau famously did when he began to manage Bruce Springsteen.” It really is no wonder that Bruce tops lists and graces the cover constantly.

I’m not sure I can re-print any more of this book here. (I would. But you might as well just order it and read it.) The overall thesis of these wonderful 136 pages are all accounted for here: Powers takes an in-depth look at “the social worth of popular entertainment” and “the championed appreciation of popular/populist culture, while at the same time it reproduced old hierarchies and erected new ones in unchartered terrain.”

Trying to make sense of the “social worth of popular entertainment” is what I’ve spent my last 24 years of life doing. Call me a culture hoarder or a “cultural worker” or…whatever you want. But I’m going to keep doing it. And I’m very grateful to have Powers iron out the folds in my brain the Internet has created lately/every day.

And it’s sad to say that The Village Voice recently waded through some seriously bad news. Editors walked out on their jobs to protest the planned firing of staff columnists. And then those columnists were fired. And some other people are leaving The Voice too. So, after all, it really was a good time for me to quit my job to be a writer. Because I’m pretty sure the world’s “karma-failure” can’t hold me back right now.

That being said: who is interested in writing with me? Write what you want, how you want. Please, no typos and get your facts straight. Edit yourself and don’t be boring. I want to write about music/culture (they’re the same thing, no?) I want negative and positive reviews – how Lester would’ve done it. I want to hear your complaints AND your praises. I want to hear ALL of it: we can analyze the press while we make our own. Now that I’m unemployed/a student/basically reading the Internet cover to cover all day and writing about it, I’m ready for something big. “It’s not enough to aim at the target,” they say. “You must hit it.”