IASPM-US Interview Series: Devon Powers, “Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism”

by Mike D'Errico on September 23, 2013

Devon PowersWriting the Record

Devon Powers’ Writing The Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013) examines the mid-1960s shift from the superficial press coverage of rock ‘n’ roll and other popular music forms to the serious critical treatment of rock music. Here, Kim Mack chats with Powers about the origins of her project as well as the past and current state of pop music criticism.

Kim Mack: Can you talk a little bit about the origins of Writing the Record?  How did your own background as a music journalist and an academic inform your project?

Devon Powers: I started my graduate work at New York University’s Media, Culture and Communication Department in 2002. At the time, I was doing freelance music writing and editing, largely for the website PopMatters. In 2003, I wrote what became the coda for Chapter 1, a term paper about the controversy over folk music in the Village during the early 1960s. But I wasn’t thinking that music writing would be the topic of my dissertation—at the time, I wanted to write my diss about the personals. It was only in talking to one of my professors, Siva Vaidhyanathan, that I realized I could combine my professional practice of rock criticism with my academic studies. It seems very obvious to me from where I stand now, but it was not clear at all to me at the time.

For a few years very early in my studies, I was actively freelancing. One of my outlets to bring the two together was at PopMatters, where I wrote a column that was called More Than Words: Musings on Music Journalism. That column was where I tested out a lot of my ideas about the social function of music criticism. I was also thinking a lot at the time about the differences and similarities between academics and music journalists. So it’s safe to say that, especially during the genesis of the project, these issues were very much intertwined for me.

“More Than Words: Musings on Music Journalism”

KM: In the Acknowledgements you mention that your book was an outgrowth of your doctoral dissertation.  How did you approach turning your dissertation into a book project? Is there anything you might do differently in retrospect?

DP: Turning my dissertation into a book was one of the most difficult, humbling things I have ever done. A lot of people say as they are writing their dissertations that they are writing them as books, and I certainly believed I was. But I couldn’t have been more mistaken. For the vast majority of us, dissertations are not books. A dissertation is the final project you complete for your doctoral degree. Not only does a dissertation require gymnastics you must excise from a book, but also your thinking matures in the process, and continues to mature as you move on from your graduate studies. Your confidence deepens, your perspective changes—it really is so, so very different. Not to mention that if you think wrestling your demons is difficult in the dissertation phase, it becomes even more so when you don’t have a supportive committee and similarly situated peers there to guide you every step of the way. Even though I had a tremendous support system as I was writing, at the end of the day the book was me, on the page, working through my own stress, insecurities, and intellectual questions.

Because, in the beginning, I believed in my heart of hearts that my dissertation was a book, the process of getting a contract and revising the manuscript took me a fair amount of time. That said, the process of writing this book, as agonizing as it was at times, taught me so much I’m not sure I’d do anything differently. Maybe I wish I’d been more willing to let the project become what it needed to be sooner, to let go of the emotional connection I had to the dissertation as a project. But otherwise, the effort it took I think was an important, instructive part of the process.

KM: In your book you speak about what you characterize as the “false divide” between music journalists and popular music scholars.  What exactly is the rift supposed to be about, where does it come from, and why do you think it persists?

DP: That is a really excellent question, one that I’ve thought a lot about as I’ve made the professional shift from journalism to academia. The rift can be characterized in a few different ways, I think. First, I’m reminded of Bourdieu’s classification of intellectuals as “a dominated fraction of the dominant class.” Despite the trappings of privilege that are conferred upon academic intellectuals, I think many people, especially in the United States, don’t take us all that seriously—especially those of us in the “impractical” fields of the humanities and social sciences. So there’s a lot of general scorn about academics out there, and sometimes that finds its way into the popular press and other outlets for cultural commentary.

The press gets its fair share of criticism too, of course, and as such journalists often have to do a lot of work justifying their social value. In these arguments, which often concern the democratic function of the press for an informed citizenry, cultural criticism is often an afterthought, at best. There’s a sense that it’s easier to go to bat for political reporters or foreign correspondents than it is to argue for the need for more music critics or fashion commentators. Still, I think one of the common justifications for cultural criticism/journalism emanates from populism: that popular culture matters to people, and as such so does commentary about it. This isn’t a bad argument, per se, but it’s one that I think alienates journalistic and academic critics even more from each other. Despite our inherent educational purpose, it’s much harder to argue that academic scholarship exists for populist reasons.

As for why this persists, I think our ideas of public intellectualism are still very much idealized according to a standard that solidified in the 1950s. And even then, when you’re talking about folks like Dwight Macdonald, it’s just a lot more complicated than drawing a firm line between journalists and academics.

KM: So some music journalists may see academics as elitists who are removed from the common folk. In what ways might the academic who writes about music scorn the music journalist?

DP: I think it’s kind of a lopsided critique but that has a lot to do with cultural power. Academics enjoy more cultural privileges, by and large, than music journalists even if we may be lampooned for it. But music journalists win on cool and on trendiness. As a result, I think academics are in the odd position of being empowered while also feeling persecuted and seeking acceptance. Anyway, I think it’s harder to paint music journalists with a wide brush than it is to paint academics with one. You have a certain class of them who are very much thinking about the same kinds of issues as many academics. And you have others who are writing events listings or trying to be cheeky to garner click-throughs. Of course, taken together, there are trends in music writing around issues of representation, political economy, framing, or what have you. But that’s not the same thing as critiquing the profession. In this country, for whatever reason, people will pay lip service to the importance of education but deep down, many people dislike educators. Maybe I feel that acutely as an educator, but that is how it seems from where I stand.

KM: One of the interesting parts of your book is your discussion about the Village Voice functioning within a capitalistic model at a time (and in a location) when it was not politically popular with some of the younger generation to do so. What impact do you think this had on the quality of writers the publication employed and their level of creative experimentation?

DP: I’m reminded here of Sarah Thornton’s (1996) characterization of capitalism as both an engine of creative circulation as well as the foil against which creative subcultures often act. The early Voice was quite a bit more qualified in its radicalism than the underground dance cultures Thornton describes, but that duality is very much evident in the paper’s beginnings. So on the one hand, the paper was a capitalist enterprise and never made any efforts to be otherwise. On the other, its desire to be alternative and different from the mainstream automatically aligned it with more radical sensibilities, some of which were fervently anticapitalist.

I think this is a common paradox that many start-up creative endeavors as well as many creative people face. I think for most of its history, the Voice is a pretty good example of how these things can sit together. Was it sometimes uncomfortable? Yes. Were there controversies about advertising, labor issues, and content? Yes. Despite these, and even because of these, the paper broke a lot of ground in ways more traditional papers could not. And it did so over a very long time—something many of its more radical peers could not sustain.

KM: In your book you suggest that Richard Goldstein (like other “critics of his generation”) saw himself as a “radical cultural intellectual,” his political activism as important as the quality of his writing. What was it about the times in which Goldstein came of age that made such ideals possible?  Is there a scenario in which today’s music critic might see him or herself in that role?

DP: I wasn’t born until the 1970s, and I know as a result it is impossible for me to view the 1960s “as it really was.” History has a way of refracting time, diminishing certain details and overemphasizing others. That said, I think it’s fair to say that the idealism that so often manifests among younger generations had a platform during the 1960s that it has been struggling to achieve since. It wasn’t just that young writers at the time believed that their writing mattered and was part of a cultural revolution; it was that observers around them took notice of them and said “hey, what’s that?” The newness of what critics like Goldstein were doing also provided them with the license to define what it was, to carve a space for themselves.

Is that still possible today? Yes and no. There are plenty of writers out there in the mold of Goldstein and Christgau who continue to write in radical, intellectual ways about pop music and culture. There are also a fair number of writers who think they are doing that but, in my opinion, are simply rehearsing what are now pretty pat ways of doing pop cultural criticism. At the same time, the fact that there are so many people able to do it is also indicative of the fact that, perhaps, it has become too easy to do, which ironically means that it’s harder today to be a cultural radical.

“We Still Need the Beatles, But…”

KM: You quote Goldstein as saying in one of his Voice columns, “A pop critic needs his eyes, his ears, a typewriter, and an impressive German vocabulary.” Given Goldstein’s college education, and his familiarity with German writers like Marcuse and Marx, what impact does this stance have on other music critics (then and now) who may not have access to that sort of elite formal education? 
DP: Goldstein was caught in a paradox that I think he’d today readily acknowledge. In order to carve a space in which to proclaim that popular culture mattered, he rested upon the tools of legitimation that he had available to him, which included his educational credentials. And it is important to acknowledge that many of the early music critics were very educated people, completing undergraduate degrees and in some cases graduate degrees. That said, theirs was only one model of doing criticism and there’s certainly been diversification since—though I think you will still see a lot of educated folks among the ranks of popular music critics. Furthermore, they won the battle of legitimacy. They really did win. If you followed any of the discussion of Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke and the VMAs—I mean, is there really any clearer indication of how much space we allot for debates about popular culture? As a result of their victories, more of us are able to enjoy the space they forged.

“Was Miley Cyrus’s VMA Performance a Failed ‘Blurred Lines’ Criticism?”

KM: Why do you think we “still see a lot of educated folks among the ranks of popular music critics?”  Do you think a certain type of “educated” critique is privileged over other types?

DP: It all depends on who you are talking to and what matters. There is a kind of erudite, usually longform criticism out there that very much borrows from the tropes that emerge from a humanistic, liberal arts oriented education. I am not going to go so far to say that every critic who writes that kind of criticism was educated in that way, but it’s a style that clearly is culled from that model. Textual and lyrical analysis, representation, an interest in personas–call it what you will, but it is an outgrowth of the ways people learned how to study poetry and literature in the mid-20th century.

Of course, there are people writing in other ways, using voices that don’t echo that model. There are critics out there who write about music in invested ways but who don’t write long. It would be impossible to characterize all of the writing people are doing about music. In terms of privilege, again that’s hard to say and measure. In terms of what’s published by the most prestigious publications? Yes, probably there is a sociological correlation between level of education (and a whole host of other things) and who is writing in those places. In terms of who has the biggest readership or whose writing is the most compelling? That is a guess.

KM: In addition to Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau, Writing the Record engages lesser known early rock critics. One of them, Jane Scott, took a different approach to her rock criticism than did some of her younger, and mostly male, peers. How did Scott’s encouraging (rather than skeptical or even snarky) approach to the musicians and music she saw and heard affect how seriously she was taken as a rock critic?  Please discuss the ways in which one’s approach to rock criticism can be politicized.

DP: As you mention, Jane Scott has often been a sort of footnote to the younger, mostly male generation that took up her practice after her. Unlike many of the other critics I write about in the book, I never interviewed her so I can at best speculate about her feelings about the matter. That said, while she definitely wrote as an advocate for rock music, I’m not sure she would have characterized herself as an activist for it, in either political or cultural terms. That doesn’t mean that can’t be read backwards into what she was doing, and of course as an older woman, she certainly had to face tremendous obstacles. But, compared to someone like Ellen Willis, I believe politicizing Scott belongs to our agenda, not hers. If you read Scott’s writing, you will by and large not see overt mentions of identity politics, for instance.

However, we are still talking about a time when there were “women’s pages” in newspapers, when bylines by women were rare. We are still talking about a time when people thought there were satanic messages in the most bubblegum of rock lyrics. So the work Scott was doing was radical, in the truest sense of the word. Even if many of those who followed in her footsteps disavowed or ignored her, she still was an important element of what made their practice possible.

KM: In your book you state, “these days it is hard to imagine what kind of pop cultural criticism would actually warrant remark.” There was a time when some rock critics became celebrities like the artists they covered. Has something been lost now that this is no longer the case?  Is there a possibility for this to happen today?

DP: I do think that something has been lost, though I’m not sure we should be nostalgic for it in any kneejerk fashion. First of all, there are still rather famous critics, though in popular music, the most famous of these have either been around a long time, or have become “talking heads” or “pundits,” who may be better known for pithy commentary on Twitter or cable TV than their writing. So when we talk about the passage of a certain social standing for pop music critics, I think we also have to talk about the changing station of long form criticism, the rise of social media, the changing media industrial complex, and a host of other things that have participated in shifting how we think about critics.

In the grand scheme of things music critics have never been as important to the general population as sports stars, actors, or musicians themselves. But I do think there was a time when, especially to a certain segment of the population, they were—for lack of a better way of putting it—sexy. And as I stated before, I think the success of pop music critics has been the normalization and democratization of the pop critical function, which has had the ironic effect of watering down their social impact.

Is it possible for a pop critic to shock, move, or mobilize? Of course. Do I think it’s harder to do? Absolutely.

KM: You talk about how identity politics can interfere with good music journalism. How would you situate the African American Voice journalist Carman Moore’s trajectory from classical to rock critic and from integrationist to black power sympathizer within this conversation?

DP: One of the more controversial stances I take in my book is to be critical of the preponderance of identity politics as the epistemological frame for popular music criticism. I believe when we start saying certain people can and can’t talk about music with authority because of the body they were born into, or that identity is the most important or only thing to say about any given kind of music, we make the conversation not productive and, even worse, completely predictable.

That is not the same thing as saying, though, that identity doesn’t matter. And I think Carman Moore is very interesting because I see him really trying to balance the tremendous raising of consciousness that was transpiring in relationship to black power with his deep love of music as a composer, which despite various obstacles in his life did not begin and end with his racial identity. I don’t think his writing suffered because he was trying to figure out how to negotiate what black power meant. Nor do I think he was suddenly “aware” and as such had an easy path to writing about music. The lessons he has to teach us are much more complicated than that. I think you can see in his writing a struggle with these issues, which is what makes him interesting.

KM: Robert Christgau suggests that the disappearance of “monoculture,” the concept of a small group of music artists mattering to a mass listening audience, has made music criticism less useful or necessary. Would you talk a little bit about your perspective on the loss of monoculture and how music criticism can still possibly be of use in our current, more fragmented, culture?

DP: This is a second sticky issue I try to confront in my book. I have two answers to this question. The first is that there is still mass culture—in some ways, even “massier” mass culture—in the age of the Internet. This is an issue upon which my thinking has evolved since I finished this book. Social media like YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook absolutely give us evidence that there are still blockbusters, although predicting them has become a little more difficult and they are probably more ephemeral than they once were.

But at the same time, one of the ironies of the Internet is that it really has also allowed for an extensive “long tail” of cultural production. There really is just so much music out there, you wouldn’t be able to listen to it all if you tried. I also think Christgau’s conception of monoculture stems from an era when critical acclaim and popular taste were more in line than they are today—and there were also fewer critics to keep track of.

But what’s controversial about monoculture is that, for some people, it connotes the cultural dominance of certain genres of music—especially rock—to the exclusion of pop, R&B, and many other kinds of music as well as the people—women, people of color—who enjoy those kinds of music. Moreover, as rock was eclipsed as the music of the masses and young people and splintered into dozens of subcategories, critics who followed it seemed out of touch with a world that loved disco, pop, rap, etc.

But this is where I see the criticism of monoculture going awry. We can, and should, be critical of any perspective that seems to champion hegemonic music over marginalized music (even though I don’t believe that’s what Christgau was saying, either overtly or subconsciously, when he lamented its disappearance). But let’s take that to its logical extension. There is a whole lot of music being made out there, some of which will get lots of attention and some of which won’t. Critics do not need to be cheerleaders of the most mainstream stuff in order for what they write to be meaningful. Instead, I think critics owe it to themselves and all of us who read them to seek out all kinds of interesting music, wherever it is being made. This is an inherently useful project in a world where music is one way in which people make meaning of their lives, not to mention in a world of constant information overload.

As you’ve probably surmised, I’m not really a populist. It is easy to witness how populism is often perverted for antipopulist means, anyway. Instead, I’m a champion of thinking about culture and music in terms of the communities that find meaning and value in them. Those communities don’t have to be large, they just have to be invested.

“My Tastes Don’t Evolve, They Broaden: An Interview with Robert Christgau”

Devon Powers is Assistant Professor of Communication, Drexel University. Her research explores popular music and consumer culture, especially promotional culture, cultural intermediation, and cultural circulation. With Melissa Aronczyk, she is the editor of Blowing Up the Brand: Critical Perspectives on Promotional Culture (Peter Lang, 2010), and is the author of Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

Kimberly Mack is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at UCLA. Her dissertation, “The Fictional Black Blues Figure: Blues Music and the Art of Narrative Self-Invention,” examines fictional constructions of the American black blues musician in post-1960 American literature and popular music. Kimberly is also a music journalist who has written for national and international publications including Music Connection, Relix, PopMatters, and Ireland’s Hot Press.

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