Why I Write: Ann Powers Reflects on Writing About Rock
Date: October 19, 2011
Summary: Ann Powers, a music critic who has written for The New York Times, National Public Radio, the LA Times, and the Village Voice, discusses the figures who have inspired her, how being female affected her perception of music, and how writing about music should be about trying to capture how it feels to listeners.
How did you become a music journalist?
I was in high school and got into the local arty punk scene in Seattle. I knew I was a writer, already. (First poem published in the Our Lady of Fatima school newspaper, which I also edited and art directed, when I was in 4th grade. I was a lonely and precocious child.) Wanted to have a reason to hang out, and as a young woman, I didn't feel comfortable without some task—it was too easy to be mistaken for a groupie. Groupies are cool with me; I just wasn't one. I did try to be a singer, but couldn't stay on pitch.
That was the start: writing about bands for my high school newspaper. From there, it just snowballed. People kept giving me work. For a long time I lived on the poverty line, doing the bohemian thing—thrift store clothes, group houses, S&B Curry Mix potatoes for dinner. Living in Seattle and then San Francisco, I put living first and career second; I was a very romantic and pretentious kid, and to me being a writer was a calling, not a job. Luckily, others saw fit to give me a paycheck anyway.
It's important to note that I continued to have my doubts about being "just" a music writer pretty much until I took the job of chief pop critic at the L.A. Times in 2006. I was 42 then and had been writing about music for more than 20 years.
I've always loved writing about music but have also been open to doing other things: I've been a museum curator, studied literary theory, written about other subjects like feminism and film and religion. Questioning whatever practice into which you fall is important, I think. It keeps you looking elsewhere for inspiration, which widens your perspective and creates the opportunity to do something distinctive, if not completely new (since nothing is that).
Somebody once said that "writing about music is like dancing to architecture." Do you agree? What's your approach to putting words to music?
Oh, that quote! Whatever. I think it's "dancing about architecture." Which, as others have pointed out, sounds like a pretty cool thing to do.
I far prefer what my first major inspiration Greil Marcus said about what he tried to do in music writing, which I can't quote but I can paraphrase. He said that he worked to stimulate a feeling in readers akin to what the music made him feel. I think that's a goal. I mean, most pop songs have words. It's not so hard to find a connection between them and your own prose. Now, what my friend Alex Ross does—write so beautifully about classical music, which often has no words, or has words in a different language—that's harder.
Which music journalists have influenced you the most?
I mentioned Greil, he was my first overwhelming influence. His early book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock `n' Roll made me realize I could pursue the ambitions I'd developed studying poetry—to write beautifully and evocatively, to use metaphor and make all kinds of leaps—within criticism.
Later I became very close with Robert Christgau and learned so much from him about having open ears, staying in touch with the world and being a good editor—of yourself as well as others. Bob is like my spiritual dad; we remain the best of friends, and I value him and his wife, Carola Dibbell, who is also a great writer, more than I can say.
Questioning whatever practice into which you fall is important, I think.
Obviously Ellen Willis is a huge influence. I never knew her well personally, but my copy of her anthology Beginning to See the Light literally fell apart from me reading it so much. (There's a recent anthology edited by her daughter Nona, Out of the Vinyl Deeps, that collects her music writing—it's invaluable.)
Ellen did the thing every self-aware female writer dealing with popular culture has to do: she held contradiction close, and examined it. She loved rock and roll but recognized its fundamental sexism. She cared deeply about how music affects the body, and I think she believed in its potential to change minds, but she also wrote about it as part of the marketplace. Her writing was funny and accessible but so packed with ideas. I aspire to her heights, and rarely get anywhere near them.
There are so many more writers that matter to me. I have been extremely lucky to be part of an active and growing writers' community for most of my working life. Working at the Village Voice in the mid-1990s allowed me to hang out with some of the most incredible minds of my generation and the ones slightly older than me: Greg Tate, Lisa Jones, Donna Gaines, Lisa Kennedy, Donna Minkowitz, Erik Davis, Joe Levy, Julian Dibbell, Amy Taubin, Mahohla Dargis, it just goes on and on.
Then there were my New York Times colleagues, especially Jon Pareles, who brought me to that paper in 1992 and taught me about precision and clarity and humility. And Craig Marks, whom I first met when he was editing SPIN magazine, is one of the savviest and most intuitively gifted editors I've ever had.
In 1995 Evelyn McDonnell and I co-edited the anthology Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap, and that was another life-changing experience. I'd been a feminist since taking my first women's studies class at the University of Washington in 1982, but uncovering all of these great women writers really made me realize that my work is part of a continuum.
I was very influenced by my feminist peers at the time, too, some of whom are no longer writing about music. Women like Sue Cummings, Terri Sutton and Danyel Smith—who thankfully is still going strong as editor-in-chief of Billboard. Now I'm also very inspired by younger women writers like Daphne Carr and Molly Lambert, the bloggers for the Crunk Feminist Collective, and academics working in popular music studies, like Daphne Brooks and Gayle Wald.
These days I am in constant conversation with an amazing array of writers who feed my head and kick me in the pants. Many of them I've met through the annual EMP-sponsored Pop Conference, a gathering organized by my husband Eric Weisbard, which brings together all kinds of smart folks who write about music. I am constantly throwing ideas around with people all over the country. One of the great things about the Web is that I can bounce ideas off my friends in New York or Toronto or California so easily.
What are the things you're most proud of having written, from any time in your life?
I'm proud of my books. Books are so hard—they take forever and require the kind of patience that someone like myself, who's spent most of her life writing for daily or weekly publications, doesn't naturally have. So, I love my books! One is my personal history of bohemian life in the 1980s and 1990s, Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, which is excerpted here , and the other is a collaboration with my favorite female singer-songwriter, Tori Amos: Piece By Piece. I also was guest editor of the 2010 Best Music Writing anthology, which was a great honor. I hope to be proud of another book someday.
When it comes to the writing itself, be a writer first and a music fan second.
Of periodical publications, it's hard to choose. Not because I'm so great but because there have been so many—hundreds of pieces. I'm proud of the cover story I did about the death of Kurt Cobain for the Village Voice, and of another mid-1990s Voice cover, "In Defense of Nasty Art," which has weathered surprisingly well.
I'm pleased with all the pieces that have been selected for the Best Music Writing series, including a little one that I wrote about singing my daughter to sleep. I thought my run at the L.A. Times was pretty good, and I am pretty sure I'm still doing a good job now that I'm writing for NPR Music.
Have you reviewed any albums or bands only to find that your opinion completely changed over time?
Not completely, but significantly. I hated the White Stripes when I first saw them; I thought they were just doing what the Jon Spencer Blue Explosion had done, but not as well. Plus I didn't get Meg's drumming. I was wrong about that, obviously. Jack White is a crucial figure in 21st century rock and only a fool would not acknowledge that. And a conversation with the producer Jon Brion circa 2008 convinced me I was being sorta dumb about Meg.
How would you describe your writing process?
My husband Eric just walked up to me and said, "I'm going to bed. I'm not like you." I said, "What does that mean?" He replied, "A writing machine." For better or worse, I do write all the time. It's only gotten worse in the Internet era, when I'm always having exchanges on Facebook, or Tweeting—more writing, just in different forms.
That said, I always value a thorough second look if there's time. I feel utterly blessed to have spent those years at the Voice getting edited like crazy. The meticulous line editing of Joe Levy, Richard Goldstein, Bob Christgau, and others really taught me how to write. Working with Fletcher Roberts and others at The New York Times taught me a lot too, about how to write for a more general audience.
The foundation for my writing is wide reading. I went to graduate school in American literature, at Berkeley; I almost went on to get my PhD. and become an academic, but The New York Times called and put a stop to that.
Reading critical theory and stretching my brain really changed me. I read a lot of books about music, but also about psychology, spirituality, history. Before graduate school, I studied creative writing at San Francisco State University. That's where I got my love of evocative language, my awareness of structure, and my possibly unhealthy addiction to metaphor.
And...wide listening. I'm a generalist as a critic. Others go for the niche, but since I'm most interested in how music becomes a shared conversation about core values, I look for that across the range of style. Plus I just like all kinds of music. My sweet spots are probably singer-songwriter stuff and R&B, but I love African music, early jazz, Nicki Minaj, hard country, Metallica, you name it. The last three shows I saw were the North Mississippi All Stars, Jill Scott, and Widespread Panic.
How do you think of your audience as you write?
I've long said that I think of my brother. Smart guy, into music, not an expert. He's my ideal reader. Of course, it's hard to not write for other critics, especially since so many of them are my friends. But my brother is the one I come back to.
What's the best thing about writing about music?
That's easy: getting paid for listening to music, for dancing in crowds or diving deep into a recording, and reporting back. That's become really difficult for most people as print publications have dried up and online writing has evolved into something that "feels free." I am so lucky to be one of the few still able to support myself this way. Also: I met Prince! Bono rowed me in a boat across the river Liffey. I've heard Dolly Parton laugh up close, and once L.L. Cool J winked at me.
What advice would you give to a young person who wants to become a music journalist?
It's tough these days. Not a lot of decently paying work out there. But hell, try it. Just don't only do that. You'll be a much better writer if you explore many different styles: study poetry and philosophy, do some hard reporting, learn multimedia. There are some good masters programs out there now in arts journalism that give you a spectrum of skills. I think those are worth looking into.
Or go work on an organic farm for a year, moonlight as a DJ, occupy Wall Street. Keep doing the music writing one way or another as you move through life. If it becomes a serious thing, great; if not, it will have still changed you somehow.
Also, this is important: when it comes to the writing itself, be a writer first and a music fan second. If you are going to pursue this as a career, most of your time will not be spent hanging around with artists or attending shows or even listening to recordings. Most of your time will be sitting in front of the computer putting together sentences. That has to be your top priority, period.
You're married to a fellow music critic, Eric Weisbard. How does a marriage of writers help or hinder your writing?
I have no idea what I would have become, intellectually as well as in pretty much every other way, if not for Eric. When we met, I was a columnist for an alternative weekly in San Francisco, but I didn't really think about writing for a national audience. He was from New York and saw things differently. He convinced me to send off my first samples of writing to the Village Voice, and gave me a way to see what I was doing within a bigger context. We've been together for more than two decades and it's an incredible partnership.
He's an academic now, and doing different kinds of work. But I still regularly raid his library and rack his brain! In fact, right now, I should be working on a presentation for a panel we're appearing on together in Baltimore on Thursday, instead of indulging in autobiography.
Why do you write?
Because I'm still breathing.