The book tour for Listen to This is winding down. I'd have posted more zany pictures and anecdotes along the way, but a persistent head cold laid me low for a while. As it happens, several remaining events will place me in conjunction with colleagues in le Monde de Pop. On Monday, Nov. 15, I will appear alongside Sasha Frere-Jones, the New Yorker's pop critic, at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. On Nov. 20, at the Miami Book Fair, I'll share a stage with the iconic rock critic Greil Marcus, who has a new collection of writings on Bob Dylan. And on Nov. 22, at Housing Works Café in NYC, I'll join a reading for Best Music Writing 2010, of which I'm honored to be a part. Also present will be such rock/pop eminences as Ann Powers (editor of the volume), Robert Christgau, Jody Rosen, Greg Tate, and Sasha again. I thought I'd take the opportunity to muse about my extra-classical adventures.
One problem was that I lacked a critical language. I'd been reading classical commentators from an early age, but I doubt I'd ever looked more than once or twice at pop writing, with the exception of Maximumrocknroll and other punk tracts. Producing the pieces was a tortuous process, and I was seldom thrilled with the outcome. (I have a bad memory of inserting the word "damn" into one of my Spin reviews in the hope that it would make me sound like less of a geek.) Nonetheless, once I became a full-time New Yorker writer, in 1996, I kept on trying. I liked the idea of transcending genres and addressing music as a continuous whole, as Wilfrid Mellers did so magnificently in Music in a New Found Land. Also, the magazine then lacked a pop critic, and certain assignments fell by default to me. Between 1996 and 1998 I produced three critical columns on pop: only the last of these, on Sonic Youth and Cecil Taylor, appears in Listen to This. It became clear to me that I couldn't hack it as a working pop critic. In time, the magazine did hire a writer who knew enough — more than enough — to accomplish the task. That's Sasha, and I learn from him constantly.
I'm happier with the three long-form pieces that I've included (with some revisions) in Listen to This: my essay on Bob Dylan and my profiles of Björk and Radiohead. In the first instance, I was speaking more as an obsessed fan than as a critic. In the others, I was chronicling the artistic process in a journalistic mode. By the time I wrote about Björk, I felt that I'd finally overcome my hangups on the issue of style — my fear of sounding square, my puzzlement over the simple question of what words to use. I decided simply to approach Björk as if she were another gifted younger composer, which indeed she is. Inded, of all the profiles I've done, this is the one that makes me cringe the least. I don't anticipate attempting another long piece on pop — might as well finish on a relatively high note.