Rock Writing on the Pop Treadmill

by Jean Smith

During the Riot Grrrl media phenomenon I did a lot of mainstream interviews because I had been named an inspiration to the young women playing in bands and writing zines. In every one of those interviews I spoke at length about the media and why people don’t trust it. Riot Grrrls weren’t talking to the media. I was asked why repeatedly. The answer almost never appeared in print. Evelyn McDonnell’s Billboard article was an exception. I was quoted: “The media is playing a significant role in misrepresenting these bands, these women, or the concept.” Editors at mainstream publications want writers to pick a direction and stick to it. The subjects of these articles often appear to be one-dimensional. More from the Billboard piece: “I could sing about anything at this point and people would say — that’s Jean Smith the feminist singing about some further tragedy in her feminist existence.”

In ’92 a producer from the Jane Whitney TV show contacted me. I was invited to participate on their “Women In Rock” panel. I was assured that it was to be an unedited forum where Riot Grrrls could express their concerns. I was flown out to Boston, put up in a fancy hotel and taken by limo to the studio. Audience member Tim Alborn of Harriet records (and a history professor at Harvard) later told me that the studio audience had been jacked-up on sugar, then warned that we ‘Riot Grrrls’ ran foul at the mouth and didn’t shave our legs! During the commercial breaks the producers came out and encouraged us to interrupt each other, and to elaborate on personal victimization. I disregarded the direction of the show, and concentrated on what I’d come to say. I spoke about the absence of adequate medical care, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and the virtually unchallenged maintenance of an electoral system that doesn’t offer choices. Most of this was cut from the final broadcast.

After more than a decade of reading error-riddled Fugazi articles, Dischord’s Cynthia Connolly assumes there are mistakes in everything she reads. In reference to a misspelled band-member’s name Connolly said, “These things may seem like simple errors, but if printed they disqualify the entire review because it makes it sound like the writer doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.”

In issue #34 Puncture’s associate editor John Chandler wrote, “Music executives, journalists and even rabid fans are usually way too busy for anything like careful even-handed consideration.”

In ’96 I wrote an article for Ray Gun, the L.A. based music magazine. The article — “The Industry Talking To Itself” — didn’t run. My editor didn’t want to use quotes from journalists at competing magazines. I’d faxed questions to journalists and musicians. “Have you noticed that rock journalists are reluctant to talk about themselves and their industry?” Craig Marks, music editor at Spin, responded: “Let’s face it: most rock writers are not that bright, or that knowledgeable about the role of journalism in our culture… the majority are more interested in rock than journalism, and it shows.”

Mecca Normal has always made a point of talking to the media — not only about our band, but also about ideas that interest us. This gives writers something more than the music to deal with, and gives us the opportunity to have interesting discussions. Typically, journalists want an angle for a story, something to build on. When we were cited as an inspiration to young women in music we weren’t surprised. We’d created opportunities in interviews to encourage women to start making music with their friends, and to sing about their true concerns. Mecca Normal’s first show was in ’85 opening for D.O.A. The Georgia Straight, Vancouver’s entertainment weekly, ran a headline in their next issue: “D.O.A. Plays Mecca Normal Songs To SRO Crowd.” That was the first time our name appeared in print — we’d only decided on our name the day of the show. Of course D.O.A. hadn’t played any of our songs. The journalist was late, didn’t see us, and she pieced the thing together incorrectly.

Craig Marks again, “One of the many ironies involved in rock journalism is that while it may seem ‘cooler’ and less corporate to not deal with media ogres such as Spin or Rolling Stone, the artist (and the reader) will generally get a more accurate, better reported story. Bigger mags can afford fact checkers, managing editors, and more seasoned writers, and go to greater lengths to avoid inaccuracies.”

But it was Rolling Stone who wrote that Mecca Normal was a Vancouver, Washington band. That error started showing up in other publications — not just the fanzines where you wouldn’t expect fact checking; it also appeared in England’s mainstream music paper Melody Maker.

There are errors that make it to print through lack of research and then there are the ones that appear because the story isn’t exciting enough the way it actually happened. In the September ’98 issue of indie rock music monthly Exclaim! the headline for the column “Credible Ink” reads “Mecca Normal dropped…” I recently called the journalist to ask her why she hadn’t attempted to get my side of the story. She stated that the story reflected the mutual nature of the split between my band and my label, but what appeared was, “Matador made the decision not to renew the band’s contract”. And she told me what I already knew — that she didn’t write the headline. Editors usually write headlines and cut-lines under photos. The larger the publication, the less likely that the author has input in editing, photos, story length etc. Also, the larger the publication, the longer the interview — with a correspondingly shorter amount of it appearing in print. During the media focus on Riot Grrrls I did a series of hour-long interviews with big publications including Seventeen and USA Today. What appeared were one sentence or shorter quotes in these stories.

Rock writers are under pressure to introduce the next big thing. It is also part of their agenda to heave the been-around-too-long bands out of the spotlight. Magazines pay their bills by selling advertising space. Only so much can be said about a band and their releases, then it’s time for the next new things to be ushered in to take their rightful places, nestled in amongst their record company’s ads. Music as a commodity, as a status symbol, is defined by journalists. Journalists are linked to the cyclical nature of musical trends. The sectors of society that want to create culture for themselves, outside mainstream blandness, are frequently ransacked for commodifiable talent. By the time bands are on the pages of Spin and Rolling Stone there is something else going on that is more culturally relevant and reflective of social concerns. But the majority of consumers want a mainstream seal-of-approval before they impose any cultural identification on themselves — they need to be told what to buy. That is the job of mainstream rock journalists.

Jean Smith is the singer in the Vancouver-based band Mecca Normal. Her second novel, “The Ghost Of Understanding”, is available from Arsenal Pulp Press.

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