Interview with Music Journalism Insider
Welcome to Reasonable Things, an occasional newsletter about music, language, and meaning from Joel Heng Hartse.
This summer I did an interview with Todd Burns, who writes the extremely interesting newsletter Music Journalism Insider, which I commend to you. He's given me permission to re-run it here, which I'll do below, after a few more brief notes, such as:
I was on some more podcasts: I talked to Chris Marchand of Post Consumer Reports in a wide-ranging conversation about, among other things, taste, criticism, and having to admit that the Dave Matthews Band and Phish might be good, despite everything. I also was on the very fun Magnified Pod, a podcast about 90's Christian underground music, which is absolutely my wheelhouse, on which we discussed the bands Morella's Forest and PFR, among many other things.
I wish you well! The interview is below.
from Vancouver, BC
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I’m primarily an academic who does music writing on the side, but I’ve been trying to find a way to bring those two things closer together for years. I’ve been in love with pop music and language for as long as I can remember, and 25 years ago thought I’d either become a rock star or a journalist, not realizing there are various degrees of things in between one can be.
I started writing about music when I was a teenager who was obsessed with Christian rock — which was the subject of my first book, Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll, which is a sort of memoir of 90’s Christian rock fandom — I wrote a fanzine that I never published; it just sat on my dad’s computer in the basement. I was an avid reader of music magazines and just devoured and absorbed everything I could get my hands on, from Christian rock websites to CMJ to Rolling Stone to the Rocket (RIP).
In college I started writing record reviews for the campus newspaper and also cold-emailing magazines and newspapers. My first paying writing gig was Paste magazine (the print version! They mailed me a paper check!) — it was early enough that even somebody like me, a relatively inexperienced writer in my early 20s, was assigned to do stuff like review Coldplay’s second album or interview Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla when Transatlanticism came out. (Still one of my favourite interviews, done in person at a coffee shop in downtown Seattle.) From there I started emailing other various publications, usually local-ish weeklies wherever I was living, but I was already pretty interested in the academic path at this point and not really pursuing full-time work in journalism. Every once in a while I’d apply for a job at a newspaper, and for a while I worked for a daily paper compiling the entertainment calendar part-time, but I could never quite hustle enough to make it pay the bills, nor could I muster up the enthusiasm to write about music I didn’t truly love.
I ended up doing a PhD and getting an academic job, but I can’t stop writing about music, and over the last ten or fifteen years I settled into a niche writing about religion and pop music, mostly for Christianity Today. People are usually surprised when I tell them I write for that publication, but I don’t really write about church music for them — more about the intersection of faith and music. So I’ll write about Pedro the Lion or the Mountain Goats or mewithoutYou for them, but not praise and worship music or whatever.
Can you please briefly describe your new book?
Dancing about Architecture is a Reasonable Thing to Do is kind of a personal “greatest hits” for me — it’s my attempt to get at why writing about music is a worthwhile enterprise, and I’m throwing every tool I can at it: theories of aesthetics, rhetorical analysis, poetry, personal essays, interviews, travel writing even — almost all the pieces are things I wrote in other contexts over the last 20 years repurposed to make the central point that music criticism is a good thing — in fact, more than a good thing, but part of the mysterious meaning-making impulse that drives almost everything that makes us human. My hope is that readers will come away with a sense that a) certain things are all but impossible to write about, but b) we should try anyway, and that the trying is a vital, joyful task.
What are a few books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic?
There are three books this book couldn’t exist without: Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock, which I read in a graduate seminar on aesthetics and whose description of rock criticism as a “parallel artistic effort” with music itself was an absolute revelation to me; George Steiner’s Real Presences, which is a book arguing that “genuine art and human communication is grounded in a transcendent reality,” and the rhetoric scholar Peter Elbow’s book Writing without Teachers, which asserts that you can’t ever really evaluate whether a piece of writing is good or not and the best you can hope to do is provide what he calls a “movie of your mind” to the person whose work you’re ostensibly “critiquing.” This might sound like a weird trio, but I think it all sums up what I find so compelling about music writing.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
I’ve had many mentors in various areas of my career, but two people I should single out: David Stacey, a professor I had during my master’s degree at Humboldt State University, who showed me that it’s possible to do serious academic work (even in my field, which I’d broadly call “writing studies”) that is deeply influenced by music, and the movie and culture critic Jeffrey Overstreet (also now an academic at my alma mater, Seattle Pacific University), who did years of yeoman’s work and endured decades of hate mail from evangelical readers to establish serious cultural criticism as a legitimate part of magazines like Christianity Today and similarly faith-based publications. I don’t think I would have been able to go down some of the strange and rewarding paths I have without them.
What's next for you?
I have two book projects on the go that I don’t want to jinx and probably can’t say much about anyway as they’re not signed, sealed, and delivered. One is a book about one specific band, which seems like a daunting and cool challenge, and one I’ve always wanted to take on [note: this book is currently on hold]; the other is basically a writing textbook. I don’t know if or when these will be published but I’m enjoying working on both of them.
Please recommend a great piece of music journalism and let folks know why you picked it.
I love John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Upon this Rock,” which is a classic GQ piece where he’s sort of ‘embedded’ with a group of teenagers at a Christian rock festival. Obviously it pushes a lot of my buttons as someone who grew up in that world, but Sullivan also just writes really movingly about why and how music matters, how it means, so personally to people.