Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, hosts of Chicago Public Radio’s “Sound Opinions,” the only rock ‘ n’ roll talk show around, will be coming to Wesleyan April 15 to give a lecture on the music industry, its past, present, and some of the most influential players in the game.
Both DeRogatis and Kot are published authors and have contributed to magazines such as the “Rolling Stone,” “Spin,” and “VIBE.” Kot, who wrote the biography “Wilco: Learning How to Die” (2004), and most recently “Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music” (2009), an account of the digital music movement, has been the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 20 years. DeRogatis, currently the pop music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has written five books, most recently “Staring at Sound” (2006), a biography of the Flaming Lips. Kot and DeRogatis come together weekly during “Sound Opinions” to discuss music news, spurring concise, controversial, and spirited conversation on various artists, past and present. Recent on-air guests have included The Vivian Girls, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, and electro-pop artist Peaches.
The lecture, presented by the Eclectic Society and organized by Shira Knishkowy ’10, will be held in the CFA Hall on April 15 at 5 p.m.
Argus: What was your start in music?
Greg Kot: …When I went to college the bug really hit. I went to Marquette University and just the influence of all these people that I met from all different parts of the world at Marquette and their record collections were just a huge influence on me. This fascinating world of music was opened up to me. We would have listening parties. We would sit around in each other’s dorm rooms and apartments getting high and listening to records. We were having these amazingly heavy discussions about what we were listening to and I started thinking about music in a new way, and that led me to writing about music in that way. I read Grail Marques’ book “Mystery Train” and that really opened up the floodgate. What Grail’s writing showed me was that writing about music was like a window into the world. You could write about anything using music as a platform. It suddenly became this expansive world of possibilities. It’s not just about a record. It’s about putting this record, or music or this artist in a broader context in the world.
Pop music in particular is a way for a society to talk to itself. It was the most immediate reflection of who we are as a people of any art form. You think about movies. By the time you got a movie about whatever war we were in, it would be two years down the road. It’d be a delayed reaction, whereas music was much more immediate. If somebody wanted to write a song about any of this stuff they could do it and then put it out and it was out there for us to reflect on. You look at the charts and you get an immediate sense of what was going on at the time. If I could actually get a job where my main job was to cover popular music I said I would never run out of things to write about…It’s not just criticism, but it’s also writing about socially and politics and the way people live their lives and I saw all of that being reflected in music.
A: Did you have a favorite genre of music or artist in college?
GK: The big thing for me was expanding the horizon. I still remember the first Ramones records. One of my friends brought this record to my room and he said ‘You gotta listen to this record, it’s the funniest record I ever heard.’ And we put it on and we’re laughing and for two weeks we’re laughing about this joke record. We almost thought it was a parody of a rock record. And then later we came to conclusion ‘This is the greatest rock record ever made!’ It wasn’t a joke, it was amazing, this document of a new thing. I was a huge hip-hop fan. Grand Master Flash, LL Cool J, the first Run DMC records….it was all over the map. I think there are great things in all style of music. I always think there’s good stuff to be found anywhere you want. It’s just a matter of investigating.
A: What do you think about the direction Hip-Hop and Rap is going in? Now people think it’s all about guns and cars and women and money.
GK: I’ve heard that. A lot of mainstream hip-hop is kind of in that cul-de-sac. It’s really kind of sad. I grew up in that golden age of hip-hop where every subject was on the table. It was about being unique. And now on the mainstream level a lot of it is obsessed with ‘well this is successful so we have to do our version of this really successful sound’ and it starts to sound alike…And yet there are other levels that are just not exposed. “Yo MTV Raps” wasn’t considered mainstream, and really opened up peoples worlds ‘cause they were seeing everything from De La Soul and Public Enemy to the Beastie Boys to Run DMC to early Tribe Called Quest. And every group was unique, every group was different. Their sound was unique. You still have that, but it’s on an underground level. There’s this “bling” obsessed mainstream and there are all these buried voices underneath all that that never get exposed…And I think that’s to the detriment of hip-hop in general. People have this very negative impression and a very narrow impression of what hip-hop is when in fact a lot of interesting stuff is going on, it’s just not getting properly exposed.
A: What do you think about the people who get upset over what you write?
GK: To my mind it’s just kind of like ‘Ok. People are excited about something I wrote.’ To me it indicates how passionate people are about music. People take their music very personally. So I always take that as a positive thing rather than a negative…At the end of the day I’m not here to reflect anyone’s opinion but my own. My job is to be as honest and forthright about what I think about something. That doesn’t mean I’m right or wrong…I may offend somebody but I am trying to be honest and responsible and informed. One of the assets I hopefully bring is a sense of context. What separates a good journalist from a bad one? Well, two things: one, curiosity. And two, the ability to place what it is they’re writing about in a context. Both those things are missing from a lot of writing these days. I view the job that a good critic does as a conversation starter. If you’re just going around lighting bombs to light bombs because it’s exciting to get in the snarkiest comment or the one that’s most provocative then you’re going to have a very short shelf life as a reliable critic. I’ve had artists confront me about stuff. One thing I always tell people when they write reviews is ‘When you write your review imagine yourself reading every word aloud to the person you’re writing about.’…I think for a lot of people it’s easy to hide behind pseudonyms, it’s easy to hide behind the anonymity that the Internet provides. You might be thinking differently about what you have to write if you believe that there is a responsibility attached to that. And that responsibility is to mean every word you say and have absolute conviction about it. I’ve never written anything that I could not read aloud to someone’s face and say ‘You know what, this is what I think, this is what I feel.’ And I feel you can do that in an honest way. If you worry about the way your criticism is going to be perceived then you won’t be able to write at all.
A: Have you ever been prevented from publishing something?
GK: The only time that happened was very early on when I was writing for the Trib [Chicago Tribune] and it had nothing to do with the content of the article. I was writing about a band called the Butthole Surfers. The editor didn’t want the words “Butthole Surfers” in the story. But other than that it’s never been an issue. The same has been true with the radio show. The integrity of what we say as critics is based on the whole idea that there are no strings attached, that we can say whatever we want without fear of reprisal. That’s the name of the game. As a critic you can be beholden to no one. You are not a part of the industry that you write about.
A: How do you come up with what you talk about on your radio show?
GK: A lot of it has to do with our work in the newspapers and what’s timely. Usually the two go hand in hand. Next week we’re going to be reviewing the new Management (MGMT) record. Alumni of Wesleyan! Are you guys fans of theirs?
A: Haha, well there’s a big sign in our newsroom that says “MGMT is dead to us” so…
GK: That’s so great. We talk about everything. We spent a few minutes talking about Justin Bieber [the other day]. It’s like what the hell! Sixteen year old kid. He’s like the number one thing on twitter. He’s number one on Youtube. He’s got this incredible amount of cultural cache. Whatever we think of Justin Bieber or not, as cultural critics you gotta weigh in a little bit, you can’t just sweep it under the rug…The way we kind of view it is like one stop shopping. You come to “Sound Opinions” for an hour a week you kinda get your dose of the whole world. We don’t take this narrow view of what pop music is. If we just talked about the records we really love that would be a boring show.
A: What about Gaga?
GK: I kinda dig her. I didn’t know what to make of her for a while…I heard it and thought ‘Ok, another provocateur in the sort of Madonna mold.’ But a couple of things jumped out at me. Her videos are amazing. I saw the stage show and that was mind-blowingly good. The visuals were pretty astonishing. What struck me about it was the subversive quality of it. It’s not a glamorized female beauty. She’s disturbing. There’s an ugliness to some of it. There’s a nightmarish quality to it…These songs are well constructed. Some of her songs are insanely catchy, undeniable. You’re in the shower and all of a sudden this song pops in your head and you’re going ‘God, I’m singing a Lady Gaga song again.’ I’m not convinced yet that she is gonna be a megastar, but I do think that she’s created an energy around her that is legitimate. I think that’s exciting. So far thumbs up on Lady Gaga.
Argus: What inspired you to do music journalism?
Jim DeRogatis: To me, the people who wrote about rock ‘n’ roll and really explained it movingly were as big a hero as any of the musicians. I worshipped Lester Bangs and interviewed him in 1982. He was very inspiring, and two weeks later he died. I always wanted to follow in his footsteps and do what he had done.
A: What kind of music where you into as a kid?
JD: I was into questioning anything that was written on the mountaintop in stone, I was going to challenge and have my own opinion about. I was a fan of progressive rock and Genesis and the Clash and the Sex Pistols, it was all great to me. What wasn’t great for me was Bruce Springsteen or the Grateful Dead or a lot of these Baby Boom heroes.
A: How does the music scene when you were growing up compare to today?
JD: I think that there’s great music in any given year. I think you can’t be a music fan or a music critic if you don’t think the greatest music you’ve ever heard is being played in a garage. I hate the romanticization of the past. This line of B.S. that gets fed to people that’s like ‘Well you have your music today but nothing you hear, Junior, is going to be half as great as the Beatles were.’ That’s just bullshit. At any given time there’s incredible music out there and it depends on how hard you want to dig to find it.
A: I heard you hated Lollapolooza. Why do you think it’s a “corporate suckfest”?
JD: The original Lollapolooza was booked in a way to really challenge people. You could go from seeing Nick Cave, to the Flaming Lips, to George Clinton, then seeing the Beastie Boys and the Smashing Pumpkins headlining. Today it’s all about selling t-shirts, and overpriced beer. There are half a dozen corporate sponsors and it’s brought to you by big horrible telecommunications companies and bad-tasting light beer. It’s about advertising, and a pose. It’s not really about the music, or about a musical community.
Contrast that to something like Pitchfork. It’s really exciting in terms of the cutting-edge music that it’s presenting, and the feeling of community. There’s 30,000 people in a park and these people share a similar aesthetic and ideals of what music can be. It’s not just background music. It’s not just some hip thing to consume to prove how cool you are.
A: What was your most difficult interview?
JD: There’s been so many. One of the first things to learn when you’re a professional music journalist is that sometimes great music is made by really despicable people. Sometimes the nicest people in the world make just okay, mediocre music. You have to separate the art from the artist. However, there’s been a handful of times where you really feel like you’re in the presence of somebody very, very special. I started that way with Lester Bangs, and I felt that way about Kurt Cobain. I sat with him in Seattle for one of the last interviews he ever did. He was a brilliant man. He didn’t show that to a lot of people. He would play a backwoods, backwards character. Courtney Love was a fascinating character. She’s certainly self-destructive but much smarter than anyone gives her credit for. I felt that way about Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and about Brian Eno.
A: What do you think about indie music? Do you prefer indie over mainstream?
JD: Being a writer for a daily newspaper you’ve got to cover everything from Beach House to Britney Spears. To me, the indie world is always much more exciting because that’s where people are pushing the envelope, and it’s not about the money necessarily. I try not to care though. It doesn’t matter to me. If I’m excited about a band it doesn’t matter if they’re selling 1,000 records or 10 million. It’s about the music, not the commercial impact. But certainly the musical underground where they are working at Borders or Starbucks during the day and they’re doing that because they love it, that’s always going to be more special than the new Jacob Dylan record.
A: Are you playing any music?
JD: I’m in a punk rock band called Vortis. I play the drums, but I’m not a musician. There’s a joke that the drummer’s just the guy in the back banging on shit. Everyone likes to dis the drummer. We play shithole punk joints around Chicago, it’s a lot of fun. There’s a criticism that critics are just frustrated musicians. I’ve never been a frustrated musician. I’ve always been a musician, but I always wanted to do it on my own terms. I don’t want to do it as a living. I do it because I love doing it.
A: What do you think qualifies you to judge these artists?
JD: I’m no more qualified than you are. If some 13 year old girl says to me, “You hate Taylor Swift, but I love her music, she brings beauty and joy into my life.” God bless you, there’s not enough beauty in this ugly world. If this music really makes your life better, I’m really happy you have it. If you’re just buying it because it’s force-fed down your throat by Radio Disney and the corporate conglomerate and the hype is just ubiquitous and you can’t avoid it… If it’s not really speaking to you and your just being used, I feel sorry for you. If you honestly say it makes you happy, that’s wonderful.
A: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
JD: That’s a very Catholic concept, and as someone who was damaged by 12 years of Catholic school….Why should you feel guilty about what gives you pleasure? What the fuck is there to be guilty about? You like the Jonas Brothers, I like the Black Eyed Peas.
A: Anyone you’re dying to interview?
JD: I’ve always really wanted to interview Neil Young.
A: Ever compromise your honesty or self-censor?
JD: Sometimes I can’t say “fuck” but that’s about it. First and foremost you owe 100% honesty to the reader. If something sucks, you owe the reader 100% of your honest opinion.
A: What about negative feedback from fans?
JD: I welcome other people’s opinions. I’m not saying my view of anything is the only one. I want to hear what other people think. Even if [a response] starts by saying, ‘Dear Jim, you are a big idiot.’ Sometimes it’s much worse, like ‘Dear fat fuck.’