Why Music Journalism Bias Works

A Shopworn Adage

When I began music blogging, one of the first things I heard repeated over and over was the phrase, “you need to be unbiased in your journalism.” I heard it even more when I shifted my focus from writing about artists that everyone already knew about to ones that people should know about. As I retuned my radar (under the moniker Underground Takeover) to scan for artists that were up and coming, I noticed that the skepticism became more palpable; it seemed that writing a post slamming a new artists—being “unbiased”—was somehow a badge of honor that marked one as “a real journalist.” Yet something didn’t fit.

Me with Those Mockingbirds at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA, 3/9/14

Me with Those Mockingbirds at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA, 3/9/14

The shopworn adage that music journalists should be and need to be unbiased when reviewing music doesn’t work in practice simply because it’s based upon a flawed premise. Non-bias works well in coverage of politics and economics—however, it does not work well within the realm of music and art. Music is an individualized, subjective response to the world or to life by each respective artist. It is a contradiction in terms to try to judge that individualized, subjective response by an impersonal, objective standard, even assuming that we could agree on what that standard is. In addition to that internal contradiction, the fact is that so-called “objective” music journalism is unenjoyable to read either by the music fan or by the artist. Indeed, I didn’t—and still don’t—like writing negative music journalism. Concluding that a work of music is either “great” or “terrible,” or somewhere in between, fails to provide the reader with an understanding of the artist’s intent, or worldview, or what the artist was seeking to express by his or her creation.

Music At Its Core

At its very core, music is simply another form of art; an expression by one or more creative minds of how they see and interact with the world. As with all forms of art, you either like something or you don’t. You may like it somewhat, or it may grow on you after a period of time. All of these possibilities have nothing to do with how “good” or “bad” something is. Within the context of art, concepts of “good” and “bad” don’t exist. How can they? I’m not much of a Rolling Stones fan, but there are a ton of people who are. I’d prefer to listen to a Wipers album (if you know who the Wipers are, then I’m impressed), but my preference doesn’t make me right or wrong.

What I learned from my days in music journalism is that, regardless of what one might glean from watching Almost Famous or reading Rolling Stone, today’s world with the internet and plethora of music blogs and journalists has brought about the democratization of music journalism. This has created a new view of music journalists within the music community, both by artists and by journalists as well. This new perspective is that if you write negative pieces, you’re just some fool with a laptop and internet connection; but if you write positive pieces, then you become a credible news source. And amazingly, this new understanding of music journalism is held as much by music fans as by the artists themselves. After all, when someone attacks an artist I love as “derivative” and “overdriven,” then that journalist attacks me by extension, an action which does not engender a positive feeling in me for the writer.

Me with Sunshine & Bullets at Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta, GA, 7/5/14

Me with Sunshine & Bullets at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta, GA, 7/5/14

I expect that the established music journalism world will say that without articles ripping new album releases, music fans will be unable to know what’s “good” and what’s not. But as demonstrated already, that line of thinking is flawed in itself since the notions of “good” and “bad” don’t exist within the confines of art at all. You either like something or you don’t—”good” or “bad” simply don’t enter into the equation. (Outside the scope of music journalism, interestingly enough, Marc Andreessen makes a similar point about journalism in general in the new age here, when he spoke last year at Stanford).

I do not advocate for writing positive pieces about music one doesn’t like. If you don’t like a piece of music, it’s impossible to fake a positive review written well enough to fool a reader. Thus it becomes clear that one should write about the music that really resonates with one’s personal tastes. Don’t write rap music journalism if you’re a punk fan. But the flip side is also true: when you’re writing about something you absolutely love and can barely contain yourself long enough to lay the words down on paper because you’re dying to get back to that song again—well your audience can also tell that, and from my experience, that’s when you have them hooked.

Don’t Be “The Enemy”

The added benefit to writing positive pieces about music you like is that you very quickly begin to develop relationships with those very artists. You will no longer be held at arm’s length—as “the enemy” portrayed in Almost Famous. Instead, as you become as much of a fan as those who attend the artists’ shows, you will benefit from reciprocal artist loyalty in most cases that becomes indispensable to you as a writer. I could never have imagined how much reputation is tied to what and how you write until I started getting emails from friends of friends of artists I’d reviewed, asking me to review or interview bands they knew, or their own bands. This opened me up to opportunities I’d never even considered but retrospectively was so lucky to be able to be exposed to (something that Steven Sinofsky talked about here, when he spoke at UC Berkley last year).

Me with June Divided at Warped Tour Atlanta, 2012

Me with June Divided at Warped Tour Atlanta, 2012

Within my own universe I began to do things I’d never thought of. Writing music articles turned into artists seeking me out to do interviews (and making themselves readily available to do so), artists sharing demo mixes with me weeks or even months before final products were released, and artists asking for my opinion, initially just as a fan and eventually as a friend. It’s a wonderful feeling to see your name in the liner notes of an album by an artist you so doggedly support.

Through all of these experiences, I became privy to things that I never could have, had I been shut out as the “enemy journalist.” Having a reputation as an “album killer” may be good for climbing the corporate ladder at an established music magazine, but it’s counterproductive in the real world of music. If you want to sit behind a desk all day and write reviews that will garner views because of how ruthless they are, by all means do that. But if you got into music journalism to talk to artists (which I do daily), to go to shows and (very possibly) get waved past security backstage (which I have been often), to get press access to festivals like Warped Tour (draw your own conclusions here), and grow a reputation as someone to be in contact with within your industry (draw your own conclusions here too), then I highly suggest reaching out with a positive keyboard to this industry.

 

Thanks to Dad, Charles Jo, Scott Menor, and Terrence Yang for reading drafts of this.

Basquiat’s Prevalence in the Tech Space

As an art history student, Jean-Michel Basquiat spoke to me on a very cerebral level. He was (and is) art in its rawest form since perhaps the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, with half the amount of time lived, and probably a quarter (or none) of the experiences of Pollock. Basquiat’s death at 27 (yet another addition to the 27 Club) was tragic in more ways than one, but perhaps the greatest loss from an academic perspective is the loss of such a natural talent and artistic genius. It makes sense for Basquiat to command so much of my attention; I studied art history in college and find something calming about it. But what’s so intriguing to me is that prevalence of Basquiat’s work in the tech community, something I’m beginning to see more and more.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat

I’ve seen Basquiat paintings retweeted and made as backgrounds, and have come to question just how much Basquiat’s work connects with those outside the art community. Certainly works by one of his contemporaries, Keith Haring, are popular in society today. They grace shirts, backpacks and the sides of water-bottles. But comparatively, Haring’s work is understandably more mainstream-acceptable: there’s a unique sense of balance in it that appeals to the human emotion. As far as graffiti art goes, to the mainstream mind, it appears as doodles, almost child-like in its composure. And that’s exactly the way Haring wanted it–that was his style.

Crack Is Wack!; Keith Haring; 1986

Crack Is Wack!; Keith Haring; 1986

Basquit’s style, though, presents more of a bitter pill for a mainstream audience to swallow. It’s wild, rude, crass, raw, racial, emblematic, poetic, nonsensical, grungy, sloppy, brilliant. It’s not a pretty picture, nor a balanced composition, and thus presents the audience with an almost reversible set of emotions. It is at once both obsessive and nonchalant, as if Basquiat cares so much up until a certain point, then doesn’t at all beyond that. (More of the deep artistic undercurrents of Basquiat’s work later).

Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump; Jean-Michel Basquiat;1982

Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump; Jean-Michel Basquiat;1982

And through all this artistic rage and raw power, I’m intrigued by what I perceive of the minds of some in the tech community (though this, admittedly, is based on my own experience). Perhaps it makes sense that an industry and community so centered around creation would find such a riveting painter fascinating. Certainly it can be said that a good many within the tech sphere are driven by the desire to create and view the world from a continually evolving perspective. Would this, then, explain why I’ve seen Jean-Michel’s work pop up more than a few times in this intriguing community of tech enthusiasts? More research is necessary to find out.