Terminated for Reasons of Taste (2016) is Chuck Eddy’s second book of music criticism published by Duke University Press. The collection features articles written over a period of forty years and covering music from the Great Depression to the late aughts. Despite the broad scope, there are enduring thematic ‘threads’ throughout the book. This is an impressive collection that covers a wide range of genres, and Chuck covers not only so-called ‘essential’ music, but bargain bin finds and songs that rarely appear on the radars of even the most devoted fans. This book is an excellent example of music journalism and is especially helpful as a cue for how to write compellingly about music.
Rachel Skaggs: I want to start by noting that you write about such a diverse array of genres and styles. Obviously it is over a pretty long time period, too. Can you tell me about your approach to listening to and writing about music so broadly?
Chuck Eddy: I think what it has been is just—I started writing in the early ‘80s, for money. A lot of it was just, “necessity is the mother of invention” stuff. I’d find kind of a niche. When I was writing in the mid ‘80s there was really no one writing about metal and I had grown up in the upper Midwest where that was just the environment. So, I basically started writing about that, not because I was a huge fan, but because I knew it just from growing up around it, and apparently I had a voice there. As time has gone on in the decades since, I’m curious. I have curiosity about different types of music. You may have picked up in the book that if I’m concentrating too much on one genre or one artist, I tend to get bored. So, I’m constantly looking for other things to listen to. And because it is what I do for a living to write about and it hasn’t really been a conscious thing where I’ve said, “Oh, I want to write about a wide variety of music” it just sort of has to do with how my personality is and staying alive in the business, at least to a certain extent, for a pretty ridiculously long time.
RS: At the same time as it’s diverse, it seems like your voice is very consistent across the book, even as you are writing about things from pre-R&B to bro-country. It is clear that you are still the one writing it.
CE: That’s interesting to me because my voice really changes according to the source I’m writing for. In the course of the book, I probably arranged it so that the pieces would flow into each other. If you look at the pieces I wrote for Creem magazine in the 80’s—in a way it’s, I’d almost be embarrassed to write a piece like that. I think—well I wouldn’t be embarrassed, but there’s stuff in there that I can’t believe or some of the fanzine stuff too, whereas if you look at the stuff I’ve written for the Village Voice it is probably in some ways more straightforward. I wouldn’t say it is less jokey or humorous, but it’s probably more—I don’t want to say academic, but it’s sort of less tossed off, more like written more as an expert. The oldest thing in there is something I did for my high school paper. The other thing is, talking about the really early music, from the 1930s, the music of the depression. One thing to remember is that I wasn’t actually writing that in the 1930s.
RS: There is the retrospective side, so writing about music that you weren’t there for or music that you were there for but that you wrote about later. So how do you write about music from the past and the present—you bend the lines between that throughout.
CE: I think that was intentional in the book, to have them melt together in that way. I’d say in recent years, especially since the dawning of the internet, there have just been more opportunities to write about music retrospectively. Historically, music critics wrote about music it in real time. Also in recent years, since SoundScan started in the early 90’s, you write about albums the week they came out or even now the day or night that they come out, if it is something that comes out at midnight. Whereas thirty years ago you could easily review a record three months down the line. People wouldn’t think you were behind the curve. So, it has sort of gone in both directions. With new music, you almost have to write about it immediately, but at the same time, there are more opportunities to write about stuff that is really old, a couple of decades old, because websites know—or think—they can get lots of hits that way. They have determined that it is part of their business plan. I guess what I’m saying is, the music of the Depression piece or the songs of the 1930s piece weren’t really written too far away from that bro-country piece or the Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe piece—they were all written in the past half-decade. Whereas, the early part of the book, the BC section, which is Before Criticism/Before Chuck, most of that is fairly recent writing. The oldest stuff is probably from the mid-‘80s. Because the BC section, for the most part, is stuff that was written in the last decade.
RS: So how did you approach that BC section—I think it stands out. I’ve never read much music criticism about that period and I found it very interesting. How did you go about choosing content for that?
CE: Well there’s actually a lot of writing about music from then. In the introduction to that section, I say “I am not a historian.” I’m a guy who is interested in this stuff, but there are academics who have written about this stuff and have gone even further back. There’s a recurring series through the book called “Country Songs 1” “Country Songs 2”, etc. Those were all written originally as one piece, bizarrely for a hip hop website called Complex. I just, when I did that, I think the earliest one is a song from the late ‘20s or something, Charlie Poole, and the most recent ones are probably a Toby Keith song from a few years ago. They actually called it, and I hated this, they called it “50 country songs that don’t suck” which I was like—the assumption here is that most country does—like these are the 50 exceptions. I wanted that to run the scope of the history of country music from the beginning because I see threads running through. I think one of the threads I talk about is the idea of country calling from fairly recent African American music—blues all the way to hip hop. You see, some people who consider themselves purists about country music say, ‘oh my gosh, these singers are influenced by rap music,’ and I wanted to get across the idea that this is what country music has always done. It isn’t a new thing; it was never a purist music. That is a myth.
RS: And it is really explicit now, thinking about all of the name-dropping and collaboration in country music. Obviously like Florida Georgia Line and Nelly, but even a newer country song that name-drops Tupac. It also name-drops Travis Tritt in the same song.
CE: When I first started seeing that was the first Big and Rich album around 2004. I remember getting a press release in the mail that said ‘our fans don’t just listen to Kenny Chesney, they also listen to Outkast and Ludacris’. And they had a rapper named Cowboy Troy and they had their hit “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” but they also had a song called “Rollin’ with Big and Rich” that was, I remember actually. I was living in Philadelphia and I was listening to a country station and I didn’t know who Big and Rich was, and I’m like, ‘What the hell is this,’ and then it broke into this extended rap and then started rapping in Spanish, and this is like the most amazing thing. I guess some people would be aghast, but I found it really, really interesting. And I their first album was really big but it took a few years for it really to grab hold, and in the bro-country piece, I talk about how a song that Luke Bryan sings has internal rhymes that is really hip hop. It isn’t even that explicit; it’s an incidental thing. And Jason Aldean references “Real Slim Shady” in a song, almost without making a big deal out of it.
RS: Now I’d like to talk about format—broadly. The period of time that this book covers saw the rise and fall of different iterations of recorded music and the places where fans can discover new music have become more numerous than in the past. What are your thoughts about the ways we now listen and respond to music?
CE: Theoretically, music criticism has expanded, with the idea that “anyone can do it,” but in a lot of ways, it has been reined in. I had infinitely more freedom about what I can write about 30 years ago, compared to now. It is really data driven now, what outlets want me to write about, when you write about it. Its metrics driven. There are always new people coming in to listen to stuff. There is the assumption now that younger people have a wider scope of taste just because they can download or stream anything they want at any possible time, but I don’t know. Outside of people who are really dedicated to one specific genre, like someone who would really call themselves a metal head, I don’t know that most listeners really ever drew boundaries around genres like saying “I’m only going to listen to R&B” or “I’m only going to listen to country” or “I’m only going to listen to something brand new.” There has been a phenomenon at least since the ‘80s where kids would listen to rock music that their parents grew up on like the Beatles or Led Zeppelin. It is almost a platitude or a foregone conclusion now that kids grow up listening to this huge, wide scope of music with no boundaries whatsoever, but I’m just not sure I buy it.
RS: Music is political and can be emblematic of big societal issues, but it is also mundane in the sense that it is part of many people’s daily routines. Throughout your writing, you talk about music in both of these ways—in kind of the big way and in the everyday way as well. Can you elaborate on the cultural connections, cultural commentary, and the balance you strike while writing?
CE: Yeah—I guess I’m not sure that I even acknowledge the dichotomy. I think that music happens in the course of life. You know, you listen to music while you are driving to work, while you are driving to the store. And while you’re hearing it, or you’re playing Christmas songs at the holidays, or you’re at the grocery store and they are playing a radio station. I think that political stuff is mundane too, political stuff happens. I guess I have one piece in here, the “Country Music after 9/11” one and the “Country Music Talks about Mexico” one—I don’t necessarily think those are bigger than when I talk about something that might be more mundane. For a lot of those Radio On reviews, it is just like a song reminded me of someone in my neighborhood or something that was happening in my life or my kids. It doesn’t make sense to talk about music not as part of life, but the bigger picture is just life in general. Whether that is washing dishes, watching The Sopranos, or whoever won an election. You don’t have to separate it. One thing to understand is that there is way more writing that I’ve done that I left out of this book and my previous book, Rock and Roll Always Forgets. So really there’s been two editions, so together it is probably somewhere between 600-700 pages, and two books before them, but there is way more writing that I’ve left out of these books than what I put in. The writing I put in is the writing I like most, and a lot of that is because it talks about music in the course of everyday life, whether that’s, as you call it, big picture life, or just what happens in it. I’ve always enjoyed using music writing as a frame where I could bring in whatever I want whether it is baseball or dinosaurs, or whatever.
Chuck Eddy is an independent music journalist living in Austin, Texas. Formerly the music editor at the Village Voice and a senior editor at Billboard, he is author of Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism, also published by Duke University Press; The Accidental Evolution of Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Misguided Tour Through Popular Music; and Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe.
Rachel Skaggs is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Vanderbilt University. Her dissertation focuses on the career pathways of Nashville Songwriters, a piece of her larger focus on arts entrepreneurship and work in the new economy.