You write on the internet for a living, and I hear a lot about how difficult of a time it is to be a person who writes on the internet - or writes in general. It’s a pretty great time to be a reader, though, with all the really amazing voices coming through online and such an explosion and diversity of interesting perspectives, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. Have you found things to be as tough as the discussion about the media industry implies and do you think there’s some weird relationship between the volume of great writers emerging and the supposedly perilous conditions of being one of those great writers?
It is an absolutely great time to be a writer for the internet, which is something that didn’t even exist as a real job until a couple years ago! I think people forget how new this really is, and how much of a privilege it is to do what we do. In my newest job, as the managing editor for music at Uproxx, I can also work remotely. I can write about music from anywhere in the world -- how could I possibly complain about that? But sure, every job has serious drawbacks, and any time you are consistently and strongly putting your thoughts and ideas out into the world, you’re bound to get hurt in ways that other types of work don’t include. The only thing I would personally say is horrible about being a writer right now is the influx of public shaming.
Whenever I see that happening, I get sick to my stomach. Jon Ronson actually wrote a book about this where he details that they discontinued doing it in medieval times because it literally fucks people up too much. Even when and if it’s “deserved” per se, I think it’s a despicable thing to do. And people LOVE doing it. Some even take joy in it. I find it frightening and unsettling. My personal ethos is to create and bring life whenever possible, any work I’ve done that is destructive or vindictive always brought me down, too. But it seems like you can only learn that the hard way, unfortunately.
Aside from that, if things are tough, it’s only because an old guard is making it that way by consistently pointing back to the way things used to be. But I don’t even think things are tough, they’re actually easy. It used to be incredibly difficult to build up a following or voice, or get a steady writing job if you weren’t an affluent white man with a specific set of interests. I became a music writer, in part, because I didn’t see a lot of the music I loved being written about -- or at least not written about without an undercurrent of mockery -- and because I didn’t see any writing that honed in on why I listened to music or what I got out of it, what it really meant to me.
I think I’ve been successful because a lot of people felt that way, and they wanted to see or read something new. If you are doing something that nobody else is doing, you have a great shot at making a place for yourself in this industry. Truly “Great writers” become great through the determination to be so, nothing more or less. There’s no reason a smaller or larger number of writers at large would have any impact your own work, if you believe in it and pursue it diligently.
This is a weird ramble, so I apologize in advance. I saw your post the other day about a Smash Mouth and Evanescence Mashup, in which you said Evanescence was unfairly maligned. It made me think of an interview with Smash Mouth I read for some reason a year or so ago in which the main guy said something similar to, “at the end of the day we made some songs people are still singing and enjoying and probably will be for decades, so I’m proud.”
For a long time, especially when I was younger and Evanescence and Smash Mouth were new music, there was this huge divide between “good” music and mainstream pop music. Essentially Pitchfork readers vs everyone else, and it was very judgmental. It also seems there’s kind of a permanent stigma for acts that came up as the latter during that time. Recently, though, it seems like this divide has disappeared - lots of young hip people aren’t ashamed to like both 1Direction and The National (are The National still cool?), for example, and Lady Gaga and Rihanna aren’t embarrassing in the way Britney and Christina were at their peaks. Do you have any thoughts on why that is? Is it a fad or are we sort of culturally past this pop-is-low-art thing? And, will Smash Mouth’s legacy ever be reclaimed?
Music will continue to have a precarious relationship with capitalism. All art does, but for some reason music more than anything else tends to exist in strict binary: If a lot of people like it, and it makes a lot of money, it must lack artistic integrity. Another element to that, within the Pitchfork worldview, was that possessing knowledge about music that wasn’t widely-known somehow made you a better or more interesting person.
Five years living in New York among people who ascribe to this rare-knowledge-as-worth model has rendered it completely untrue in my mind. But, there is the obvious caveat here that plenty of fantastic music gets overlooked because it doesn’t make money, and that most bands get worse the more successful they become, or the more money they make. My personal take on that is that struggle tends to render better art, and fame is so distracting it knocks most decent artists off track. It takes a truly great, focused artist to make tons of money and continue to make compelling, culture-shifting art.
However, not all art need be compelling, controversial, “powerful” or even culture-shifting in the traditional sense. I don’t believe that a naked pursuit of fame makes art less meaningful, though some do. I actually like the idea of a musician using art to get money. I like it when people are calculated and upfront about their goals. I don’t believe that pop music is low art, though many do.
I believe art that was traditionally skewed feminine or toward younger people has always been belittled by older, fragile (white) men who understood it fundamentally left them out in some way. If Rihanna is flexing on a guy about how he was more into the relationship than she was (see “Needed Me”), the traditional dynamic of power in our white supremacist patriarchy is completely threatened. Shattered even. I don’t see how a song that can achieve a feat like that could possibly be considered “lowbrow” in the grand scheme of our culture.
I think an influx of female, queer, and minority voices has shifted the scales on what all people ascribe to as meaningful, interesting art. I find myself constantly reminding men that the patriarchy hurts them, too. There was a time when I was a writer and I hid my love of country music, because I knew it would discredit me to the male editors who made decisions about whether or not they would hang out with me, trust me, hire me. So I can see firsthand see how the hegemony of ideas like “Britney Spears sucks” is perpetuated.
I still believe Evanescence was unfairly maligned because they were a rock group with a female singer (they forced them to hire a male vocalist), and because they had major Christian overtones, yet those two elements were the very thing that drew me to them! As far as Smash Mouth, man, I think that’s just a case of oversaturation. I haven’t spent enough time with that band’s entire discography to say whether or not I think their legacy has been unfair. Any white rock bands that became a household name seem to be doing fine to me, clowning them also seems to be fine to me because their music was very jocular and they were mostly a glorified cover band. I think they would agree? But keep getting those Shrek checks guys.
One thing I’ve noticed this year is a dearth of overlap between popular arts and politics, particularly in regards to music. It’s not that there’s been no activism from the arts communities, but given the insane year we’re having politically, I feel like I’d expect a lot more protest music and protest art than we’re seeing. Do you have any thoughts on why we’re not seeing a more activist and engaged creative community? Or do you think I’m way off base here? (Side note: I have a weird theory that people bulldozing Dixie Chicks records during the Iraq War linger as a scar between popular arts and social controversy.)
Now that we’ve established that white, straight men have mostly run music and music writing, I think it’s fair to say that the overlap seems stronger because people who are actually impacted by racist, sexist, and xenophobic policies have managed to create a space for themselves in this chilly industry. But it’s a precarious one. If you piss off the wrong person, you could still be out, and the people at the very top, across the board, are still mostly Conservative white guys who have money, stability, and power as their primary values. Those aren’t necessarily even values I disagree with -- hell, I want all of those things -- but the way the system has been set up white men maintain those values by keeping others out or exploiting them for their own gain. So I think yes, we’re hearing more, but potentially seeing less activism. Then again, I believe speaking out is its own form of activism, and can be very valuable.
The Dixie Chicks example is a great illustration of what I’m talking about. Those girls had everything -- talent through the roof, album sales, singles on the radio… and essentially one political statement and they were done. Do you think that would’ve happened if women ran the radio stations, labels, and booking in venues nationwide?
I kind of don’t think it would’ve, because even though I was raised Conservative and taught at the time that what they said was “wrong,” I still listened to their music. I think men were pissed off that these three women thought they could talk politics and “get away with it.” The other thing is, unlike writing, making actual money off making music has become much harder with the rise of the internet. These artists don’t necessarily have time and energy to invest in intensive activism -- they have to tour constantly just to make ends meet.
You don’t only cover music; you write some fairly personal essays and social pieces as well. Do you feel any divide between the work you do to put pieces out to populate the site you work for vs the “creative” or “personal” work you do -- or do you have some sense of balance between them?
I do a lot of writing that I really love that is tied back to my career, or my desire to have a piece be successful, or my desire to receive money. That work is still personal to me, because I write from a standpoint that objectivity is essentially impossible and subjectivity is way more interesting anyway. I’m lucky I get to do that, like I said, there’s never been a better time to be a writer, and we owe a lot of that to the internet.
The internet gave rise to this because it allowed the removal of so many gatekeepers. Turns out, a lot of people wanted to read my shot at a review of Father John Misty’s first album on my old Wordpress blog. No one would’ve ever published that, and I wouldn’t have pitched it to an editor because I wouldn’t have trusted them. Even if I had, they probably would’ve changed it into a different kind of review -- that’s what they were trained to do.
Instead, the people who liked that writing, and that style of writing, followed me on Twitter, and my relatively large Twitter following initially got me a job at AOL Music and so on and so on. At this point in my career I have worked for a number of different sites, and I have published pieces at all of them that I’m very proud of and that I consider to be work that is very me. But I don’t own any of it. None of it is mine and most of it still functions within the larger musical release calendar, even when it’s a highly personal piece. On some level, as an artist, I do think about that. A big part of the reason I took the job at Uproxx and chose to move to Los Angeles is because I am working on some larger writing projects that will be entirely me. Obviously, I’ll share updates on those as they come together, but that is something that’s in the works.
I also think it’s important to note that I have no regrets at all about the kind of work I’ve done. I think everything has taught me something and life is very long. I have plenty of time to write boring, perfect New Yorker essays and traditional criticism someday still. Currently, I’m way more interested in the weird blogging I can do right now.
Like, when will I ever get to commission a series of essays about sex like I did at Brooklyn Magazine, and write about why I love my vibrator? To me that has been more fulfilling than a job at The New York Times or a more traditional, esteemed outlet would’ve been, because it’s a singular experience. It might only exist right now, we don’t really know what’s going to happen. I also try to write pretty frequently on my own Medium page so I don’t lose a sense of what my voice is like when it’s completely unbridled.
Do you have any daily rituals around your work?
I love this question! Rituals are very important to me because I grew up in an environment that I had very little control over. I was borderline OCD as a child, and I’ve always hung onto specific tasks or habits to get me through the day. Currently, I burn Palo Santo wood every morning when I wake up and begin to work, and then again to signal to myself when I’m done working. Palo Santo is basically the same as incense, it’s a naturally occurring wood that smells like smoky ginger cinnamon when you burn it. It’s also an energy clearing smoke, I found it through my old yoga practice in Brooklyn and the smell calmed me so much I realized it would really help with deadline stress. It helps me get into work mode while also remembering that there are important and beautiful things outside of the screen, stressful emails, Twitter screeds, commenters etc.
Another thing I do, if I really care about a piece, is go walk around outside to write it. I’ll just walk around the block again and again and type whatever I can think of into my iPhone notes. For some reason I will get way better stuff out of myself if I can go do that for 30-40 minutes. That process is more of a luxury now that I’m a managing editor and run a whole section, but it literally never fails.
Finally, if shit gets really real -- someone is attacking me on Twitter, I fucked something up, I’m panicking in general -- I use Eucalyptus oil to calm myself down. You can buy a small bottle of it at any health food store for under $10, and it will last for months. I just rub some on my wrists like perfume and on my neck so the aroma kind of envelops me. Smells help me remember that reading and writing is only one of the many ways I can experience the world, and humanizing myself in that way tends to jolt me out of whatever destructive spiral I might be getting sucked into.
I hate to end this on such a dark note so I’ll elaborate a bit more. The main point is, if you know there’s going to be difficult parts of your day or your job, try to build little triggers of joy or hope into your schedule too. It’s a good way to combat the ways life can be dark or depressing, just by asserting that those elements don’t get to dominate your day or your life. If the oil and smoke of a plant make me feel better, I’m gonna keep that stuff around me! I think the one of the few downfalls of the internet is that we ignore the earth too much, there is so much medicine and goodness in the natural world. But hell, I’m telling this to a guy who works for a tea company, so this is preaching to the choir.
Follow Caitlin on Twitter here, she is smart and funny and you will be happy when she tweets.