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Interview: Ann Powers – Chief Pop Music Critic, Los Angeles Times

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Ann Powers is the chief pop critic for the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, and Tori Amos: Piece By Piece (with the artist), the co-editor of Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap, and the guest editor of Da Capo Press’ 2010 Best Music Writing” anthology.

In support of the Da Capo project, Ann Powers managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on the visibility of women in the marketplace, the legacy of hip-hop, and the influence of Robert Hilburn.

At what point did you realize your penchant for writing?  What led you down the path of pop music criticism?

 I got the writing bug in the fourth grade when a poem of mine was published in the school newspaper. Music criticism came a little later, when I was in high school. In some ways, it was a classic of “those who can’t do, write” – I enjoyed singing and playing guitar but didn’t have the stamina to make music-making a career. In reality, writing was my real gift, and as soon as I figured that out I never looked back.

 In October 1999, you co-edited an anthology entitled “Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap.” What major obstacle do you think female artists have overcome this past decade? And what major obstacle do you think female artists still need to overcome this current decade?

This decade is a pop decade – dance-oriented music and sweet love songs (or dirty sex songs!) top the charts. Artifice and affect are in, roughness and “authenticity” are out. Women in music have always been associated with pop – with prettiness, theatricality, melodic hooks and dance beats. So it’s a great time for women. Another way to look at it would be to flip the script: women have achieved more parity in the marketplace and in the public square, and therefore a “feminine” sensibility is dominating – at least this corner of – popular culture.

As for the obstacles – women still don’t have a lot of pull as music industry executives, and the fact that the music business and the tech business are merging means that the production and distribution of music now often takes place in another male-dominated sphere. There are more women instrumentalists getting visible work now, but the big stars are still all singers. They are songwriters, too, at least – Taylor Swift’s firm ownership of her whole creative process, for example, is one reason she’s an emblematic figure representing where women are in pop right now. And to succeed, they still need to conform to a certain standard of beauty and sexiness. Even Jennifer Hudson, with that great voice, felt the pressure to lose weight. 

To date, Garth Brook still remains America’s best-selling solo artist, and several country musicians rank amongst this past decade’s best-selling artists.  Even so, country music artists rarely receive front-page coverage on music publications, and country songs rarely top Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Why do you think this is the case?  If imaging is a problem, then what steps do you think the country music industry needs to take, in order to garner additional exposure in various outlets?

 Well, I’m not sure I agree with you. Taylor Swift is one of the era’s biggest stars, sought after by all media outlets, and she’s country. Brad Paisley was just profiled in the New Yorker. Carrie Underwood has become American Idol’s most successful alum by holding fast to Nashville. In fact, I think that the new generation of country superstars – also including the likes of Sugarland and Lady Antebellum – are crossover experts who know how to make country pop.

It’s also notable that many rock-oriented artists, like Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi, Kid Rock, and even the venerable Robert Plant, have turned to country in recent years, in part because that’s where the most loyal record-buying public remains. The mainstream media – and obviously, the Top 100 – always favors pop stars over other kinds – ie., favors stars who appeal to more than one audience.  But those stars are just as likely to claim country as any other genre, at this point. 

In 2005, you co-wrote a book with Tori Amos entitled Piece by Piece.  How did you become attached to this project? And what do you most admire about the artistry of Tori Amos? To which song in her catalog do you have the strongest emotional connection?

I’d always been a big Tori fan, and her music has played an important part in my own career. My very first big piece in the Village Voice, the piece that took me to the national level as a music writer, was a review of Tori’s solo debut Little Earthquakes and a couple of other releases by women. Those were the days when “women in rock” was newly the going thing.

She and I first met when I wrote a profile of her for the New York Times in tktkt; after that, I interviewed her onstage in Manhattan during the first year of what became the Times’ annual Arts & Leisure Weekend. Tori must have enjoyed talking to me, because a few years later I got a call from her management asking whether I’d be interested in collaborating with her on the book. I leapt at the chance. She is such a fascinating woman – so determinedly true to her own vision, yet extremely engaged in the world around her, interested in the business side of music, and in how women in general fare in the pop world, beyond just being devoted to her own art.

We met, and quickly determined that we had a good rapport. After that I joined her on the road for a couple of weeks, and then spent a while with her at home in Cornwall, England, recording hours upon hours of interview material about a huge range of topics. The book that came out of that was truly collaborative. I had the interviews transcribed, then assembled the initial chapters; we’d agreed to the format in which a particular mythological figure served as the “muse” of each one, and I wrote that interstitial material.

Then I would send the chapters off to Tori and she’d completely redo them! She was the opposite of the stereotypical celeb who doesn’t really participate in writing her own autobiography. I’d go through her changes, and we’d settle on a final draft. It was a harmonious though laborious process. Tori and I don’t really stay in touch, but I will always hold her dear in my heart. Another important aspect of the project is that Eric and I adopted our daughter Rebecca while I was doing it, so it’s extra special for that reason.

The book is dedicated to Natashya, Tori’s daughter, and my daughter. My favorite Tori song is one I’d always imagined was for a young child – though Tori might feel differently! – and the one which I quote in my dedication: “pick out your cloud.” 

You are married to rock critic Eric Weisbard. And since you both have a strong passion for music, I am sure that you have musical “debates” over certain artists/genres.  Which artist/genre do you both share a mutual love? And which artist/genre do you both have differing opinions? What are the major “sticking points” in your musical tastes?

Oh, we argue all the time. That’s what keeps it fresh! We both like mainstream pop music, luckily enough, and we still have fun going to shows by the likes of Lady Gaga and Rihanna together. Now that he’s a college professor he’s more involved in academic pursuits, and I’m still out there slugging away in journalism. Yet in the end we’re still grown people who think more intensely about pop music than about anything else, and that makes us unusual, and still perfect for each other after more than twenty years together.

Taste-wise, he’s hung on to his love of guitar-based indie rock more than I have, and I have a huge soft spot for sensitive singer-songwriters, who generally drive him up a wall. I’ve gotten way more into contemporary R&B, though he enjoys that too.  Shared passions include the legendary English punk band the Mekons – one prized possession is a photo of their leader, Jon Langford, holding our daughter when she was an infant – and the queer-punk cabaret act Kiki and Herb, and Dolly Parton. But then, who doesn’t love Dolly?

After thirty years, hip-hop music has managed to maintain a firm grip on the contemporary music landscape.  What sonic/stylistic elements do you think have allowed the genre to possess such longevity in a fickle industry, in spite of changing consumer tastes?  And what do you consider to be the hallmark/watershed moment in hip-hop’s storied legacy?

Hip-hop has survived as a sonic practice more than anything else. It’s an approach to music-making based in sampling and rhyming over beats, that’s proven FAR more versatile than its detractors thought it would. Like rock, hip-hop is now one of those umbrella definitions that’s fought over as much as it is celebrated. Some critics have argued that hip-hop, in its true form, has been usurped by a sort of technologically advanced neo-disco – that European dance styles have replaced hip hop beats as the foundation of pop.

I am not sure that I agree with that argument. I prefer to think that hip hop has grown to make room for women like Beyonce and heck, even Ke$ha, rather than being diluted by their presence. Watershed moment – that’s tough. I am not a hip-hop “expert” and it’s frankly kind of scary to make pronouncements about the genre, because – again like rock in its prime – its defender are pretty harsh to commentators who don’t exhibit a high level of expertise.

But what the heck. I’ll say the watershed moment came when Timbaland and Missy Elliott, as a team, fully melded rap and R&B within a musical framework that was also completely futuristic and connected to European dance music. Their work proved that anything could be hip-hop, and hip-hop could be anything.

 Over your career, is there a particular artist that you wish received better – or additional – treatment by the mainstream press?  Why do you think he/she was handled in such a way? Or what barrier do you think kept him/her from receiving widespread coverage?

I don’t understand why the singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur is still only a cult figure. He was doing the delay-pedal/loop thing before anybody else; he writes gorgeous pop songs, and what a voice! He’s a pretty independent-minded guy, though, and he’s very prolific – almost too prolific to be bottled within the pop machine. He just moves too fast for everybody.

But the two tragedies of the past couple of decades are Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo. Such amazing talents. Maybe they started too young; in both cases, it seems that personal demons, or at least major road-blocks, have kept them from following up on early work that still stands as some of the best ever created within pop. I think, though, that subtle racism also played a part.  They remind me of African American geniuses within literature, like Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison, who were just too “much,” in some way, for their moment.

In March 2006, you succeeded Robert Hilburn as chief pop music critic at the Los Angeles Times.  What words of wisdom or encouragement did he bestow upon your arrival?  As a fellow pop music critic, what personal philosophies undergird your approach to writing and the artists that you cover?

Bob is just the nicest human being ever, and I can’t thank him enough for recommending me for the Times job, which changed my life. The advice he gave me that I’ll never forget was regarding emerging artists that I fancied. “Hang on to their legs,” he said. What he meant was, when you find somebody new, write about them as much as you like, follow their development closely; lay your claim to them, in a way. This was coming from the man who’d discovered Elton John, was friends with John Lennon, and been instrumental in the careers of so many others, from U2 to Kanye West.

So even though I’m really not that kind of person – I like to keep a certain critical distance – I’ve done it a bit, with Adam Lambert and, more recently, Janelle Monae, and I’m glad I have, because those artists are taking us into the next era. My personal approach to criticism is always evolving, but a couple of things are key for me. One is, if I don’t like something, I try to not just reject it out of hand, but instead to try to figure out what it holds for those who do like it. That’s why I write about many artists who aren’t critical favorites, from Nickelback to Josh Groban. In a way, there’s more meat there – more questions to be answered about what makes their kind of music work for so many people.

Also, I have less competition from other critics writing about those artists! In the end I usually find something in the work to appreciate, and in some cases, as with Groban, I end up respecting and enjoying something I didn’t know I could like. Also, I always try to write for my brother. My brother is an executive salesman and dad of three who lives with his family outside of Seattle; he’s a smart guy who likes music and is always interested in new stuff, but he’s not super-engaged with it on a daily basis. I try to think of him when I’m writing, so that I don’t fall too far into the wormhole of critic-speak or hipster-speak.

I know I don’t always succeed – there’s residue in my writing from my graduate school days at UC Berkeley – but my favorite pieces are ones that have that emotional quality that lets someone like my brother into the piece.

For more information on Ann Powers, read her contributions to the Los Angeles Times“Pop and Hiss” blog.

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About Clayton Perry