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Interview: Dr. Jason King – Cultural Critic and Distinguished Professor

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Dr. Jason King is the Artistic Director of The Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, an innovative leadership institute for aspiring young music entrepreneurs at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. An associate professor and the founding faculty member of the program, he has been teaching classes on the music business, music technology, and pop music history for the last ten years. His pioneering approach to teaching hip-hop in the classroom has been profiled on MTV, BET, and AOL. Dr. King has also given lectures on popular music at various universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and MIT.

In celebration of the publication of “Michael Jackson: An Appreciation of His Talent” in Da Capo Press’ Best Music Writing 2010 compilation, Dr. Jason King squeezed some time out of his busy schedule to conduct an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on changes in the field of music journalism, the emergence of the “global pop star,” and the future of music production.

 As the Artistic Director and founding full-time faculty member of NYU’s Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, your success is intriguing, due to your young age and the universally low number of tenured minority professors at prestigious universities, like NYU. What key personal characteristics do you attribute to your accomplishments?

Well for one, I’m allergic to the word “no.” So I get things done, regardless, and I think you have to have that spirit to counteract all the forces that may not be invested in you succeeding. As someone who was put in an unusual leadership position at a relatively young age, ageism has been the most difficult “ism” I’ve had to deal with probably because it’s the one “ism” that people generally have no self-consciousness about and that makes its expression particularly ugly.

I think some of the work I’ve been able to do is because I chose to explore all of my diverse skills and excel at each one of them, rather than limit myself. In the post-Napster music industry, you know, what they call the new music industry, it’s become increasingly difficult to earn a living just selling recordings, so that now you have to be multi-faceted.  You have to have different skills, or be entrepreneurial, or so the argument goes. I think some of the success I’ve had comes from the idea that I was always already multi-faceted and have experience in a number of different areas of the industry – journalism, management, marketing, performing, producing, and so on. I also think I’ve been successful at identifying and recruiting and developing faculty to teach in the program who might not have even thought of themselves as professors

I think of it as a skill that’s almost like A&R. That was most recently the case with Swizz Beats, as I’d heard him speak last year at a GRAMMY party and thought he was eloquent and reflective – qualities that not every producer has – and so reached out to him to come join an industry panel we were hosting and things took off from there. It’s just sort of having a real sense of where all the pieces fit.  

Currently, you are residing in Singapore – teaching a course for the new MFA program in International Media Producing at Tisch School of the Arts Asia. And just a few months prior, you were teaching “Cosmopolitanism and Popular Culture” at the new NYU campus in Abu Dhabi. In your travels, what have you learned about globalization and the international transit of cultural production?

Growing up in Canada to Caribbean parents and spending most of my adult life in the US, I’ve always been extremely interested in how music and film and other forms of pop culture actually travel. The thing is, if you live in the U.S., you have to really do your homework to figure out what’s going on outside of the U.S. because you have to dig that much more deeply for information.

I have friends who have no idea where Abu Dhabi or Singapore is located if they had to point them out on maps. But everyone in Abu Dhabi and Singapore knows where the U.S. is, so at this late stage in 2010, it’s Americans who are increasingly at a cultural disadvantage. Teaching pop culture abroad is mind-boggling. It’s fascinating to teach MIA or Lady Gaga to a group of students from all over the world, and to be teaching in a part of the world where the type of dissent those artists are known is in short supply.

I believe more strongly than ever that it’s increasingly difficult to write well about pop culture, especially in the web 2.0 or 3.0 moment that we’re in, unless you have a global perspective in your work. How do you make sense of Michael Jackson unless you make sense of that surreal 2007 Internet viral video of male inmates from the Cebu Detention Center doing a lip-synched rendition of Thriller? How do you make sense of that viral video unless you even know where Cebu is on a map or what goes on there?

And then you consider that Michael had been touring around the world for 40 years and that his solo tours were often longer and better funded than many other artists and he went to parts of the globe that other artists neglected.  Then the pieces of the puzzle start to fit. Technology has made us confront the reality of the global pop star in a way that was easier to dismiss or overlook in years past.

One of the music industry’s crucial cultural by-products is the music video. As they criss-cross the globe unchecked via YouTube and MTV, what concerns do you have about the stereotypes, regarding race, masculinity, femininity, sexuality and the like, that are often embedded with their sonic and visual components?

Of course we have to be concerned with the way music videos get read or mis-read as they travel outside of the original contexts of their production and can contribute to the promotion of sexism or racism and so on. A lot of work has been done on that problem especially as it relates to music videos. But it’s also interesting to think about the creative possibilities that come from certain forms of miscommunication – George Lipsitz was writing on this back in the mid 1990s. Or it’s interesting to think about the way music videos have changed the global language of visual culture even sometimes at their most offensive. The discussion has to be balanced.

When your name appears in print, the title of “cultural critic” is generally by its side.  As a consequence, what cautions and reservations do you have when publishing your words within the public domain?

I’m a critic in the sense that I can analyze and deconstruct a song or an album or a film or book and put it in some kind of context that might then serve as a way for others to think about that work differently, or rethink it. I’d also refer to myself as a journalist, in the sense that I have research skills, and investigative and reporting skills, that I can bring to bear on a particular social issue that needs some illumination of some sort. Look, all writers should take responsibility for the ideas they put out into the world.

Facebook and Twitter have become our modern-day public spheres, these sites where all sorts of public and semi-public conversations and arguments take place.  It’s fascinating to think about how so much of our social experience now exists online.  And these sites are also tricky, right, because there’s very little editing – sometimes only self-editing, if we’re lucky. And the audience is often open-ended.  There are all kinds of ways your words can be misread or taken out of context, and you’re sometimes seriously constrained by word count so economy becomes the priority. 

I try to make a separation, at least at times, between the writing I do, usually for free, in the social media sphere, and the writing I do for professional reasons. A blog, let’s say, might be a better place for a long-form essay; Twitter might be better if you have something you immediately want to get off your chest. And privacy is a precious commodity.

As a noted and celebrated music journalist, what do you think have been the most drastic changes in the field of music journalism, for better or for worse?

Well it’s no surprise that music journalism is in serious disrepair in the era of self-publishing.  Anyone with an opinion who can turn on a computer and hit “return” can call himself a music journalist, and if everyone’s become a music journalist then we might also say that nobody’s a journalist anymore. That’s what I think when I look at the way a site like Metacritic now chooses to equalize professional critics’ reviews and readers’ reviews, as if there’s no difference.

On one hand, I think it’s fantastic that the barrier to entry has been evaporated and that we’ve ended the reign of the elite music journalist on staff position at a major newspaper or magazine whose tastes are supposed to stand in for those of the masses. The historical problem was, of course, that a journalist with that platform was generally going to be white, male, straight, and privileged rock music above all else, and nearly everyone else got marginalized in the process. On the other hand, today we seem to have thrown standards out of the window, as the quality of writing you see on blogs is spotty, and it’s increasingly harder to find – or to find pay for – trusted voices that matter. Good luck trying to find a great summary essay on the music of the last decade; this is the problem of the blogosophere.

The best music writing, in my opinion, is still coming from professional journalists who are rock-solid writers, first and foremost. They also happen to have cut their teeth on journalism in the era prior to the rise of Web 2.0 when you actually had a word count, proper editing, and you could get paid for your passion.

Oftentimes, academics are viewed as intellectuals that live in an “ivory tower” – isolated from the masses. As a cultural critic and scholar of popular music culture, how do you walk the fine balance of maintaining a “scholarly” approach to cultural criticism and making your work appealing and accessible to the general public?

Well, there is some truth to that stereotype.  It’s easy for academics, even or especially those who teach in the arts, to become divorced from mass taste. I’ve always had a real aesthetic openness to a lot of different music genres and styles and I’m genuinely curious about what people are listening to now because that tells me something about where people are fundamentally. In terms of the balance issue, if you are a writer what you are doing is putting information out in to the world, and there are a variety of ways and mediums and approaches you can use to do that.

I developed different writing “voices” to reach different audiences. Writing in an academic style might alienate some who aren’t used to seeing that level of jargon, but that writer might just be engaging with the prevailing vocabulary of the academy and all sorts of fascinating conversations can come from that shared language. It also takes a special skill to know how to write for a popular music magazine versus, let’s say, writing a review for the New York Times. But for me, the content is never different.  It’s ultimately the same ideas I want to get across, and the style I choose to use just supports the content.

Your first major publication, The Michael Jackson Treasures, is a Barnes and Noble exclusive biography on the “King of Pop.” As you researched the life and times of Michael Jackson, did you unearth a particular factoid that boggled your mind (or deepened your appreciation) of the “King of Pop”?

I think I already approached the book having a deep appreciation of Michael Jackson and so writing it just deepened it. I’m also critical as well.  I’ve never thought of him as a saint or immune from critique in any way. I have to say, though, it was amazing to discover or rediscover some of the black teen magazines of the early 1970s, like Right On! These magazines are really a great archive of an entire area of black popular culture that never gets its full due. They also proved to be really useful for me, in trying to account for the success of The Jackson Five at the outset of their career.

The 2010 edition of Da Capo Press’ Best Music Writing series features your critically-acclaimed article, “Michael Jackson: An Appreciation of His Talents.” With a year passing since his untimely death, when you look at the media’s portrayal of his legacy, what has been done right, and what has been done wrong?

That essay was written as an email that I sent to my friends and then posted on my blog. It still amazes me how far ideas can travel in today’s digital economy. The biggest issue I had with mainstream media coverage is that there was hardly any attempt to reach out to journalists or critics or just savvy people who could properly put Michael’s artistic contributions in any sort of context.

So you had all these debates immediately after the news of his passing broke as to whether Michael was a ‘real’ artist or just an entertainer. That was incredibly foolish. Michael’s death brought home the fact that there’s still very little understood about his musicianship and artistry, very little understood about how he’s received outside the US, and very little attention to his legacy of humanitarian work. But you can broaden the scope: there are all these brilliant and groundbreaking artists in our midst who have basically been outside the purview of critical attention.

That, I think, is revealing, particularly when it comes to black music and even more specifically black pop. Where’s the great scholarship on Diana Ross? On Janet? On Whitney? On Mariah? These are glaring omissions.  In terms of what’s been done right, I don’t know. I had problems with “This Is It” the film but overall, and in spite of itself, I think managed to be a startling reminder of Michael’s artistry. Also, Michael was smart enough in life to put a team of lawyers in charge who’ve generated substantial income for his estate in his wake.

Your forthcoming project, Blue Magic, will be published via Duke University Press. The book will focus on the role of energy in the music of artists. As a die-hard fan of Janelle Monae, what thoughts do you have on the energy of her musical performance?

Janelle is fantastic and she brings a tremendous amount of kinetic energy to her live shows.  I’m reminded of James Brown, Sugar Pie de Santo, Little Richard and a lot of other 1950s pioneers she explicitly draws on. In terms of her albums, though, I find some of the music a little too self-consciously artistic, but then that’s not surprising because like Gaga, she comes out of an American conservatory tradition, and on top of that she has her roots in the Atlanta black bohemian scene of the 1990s.

I’d be willing to make the same critique about some of Outkast’s work, especially their later work. More tellingly, I’m rarely wowed by her songwriting and I think there is room for improvement there on her next album. That said, I’m also impressed that she persevered through the Bad Boy machine to make really idiosyncratic albums that defy that label’s tendency to insist on slickness and commercialism.

This year, “I Gotta Feeling” [by The Black Eyed Peas] crossed a historical benchmark in digital sales – 6 million copies.  With the rise of iTunes and the sale of individual songs, as opposed to full-length albums, what hopes and fears do you have about the future of music production?

The handful of acts who are creating these sorts of sales benchmarks are mostly artists who’ve previously benefitted from years of major label support and funding, like BEP. And then you have newer artists like Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber who have been industrially recruited, developed and launched into the marketplace in a manner that is in some ways not entirely different from  how an artist would have been transformed into a star fifteen or twenty years ago. So we’re at a great standstill.

On one hand, the new music business is about zeroing in on an already-existing act that’s already generated some visibility on their own ideally through social networks and then applying marketing and promotional expertise to transform that visibility into sales. That’s how you get Susan Boyle or Antoine Dodson climbing the charts and selling records. On the other it’s still a very traditional business. It’s not entirely surprising that someone like Irving Azoff, who has been in the industry for decades, is one of the most powerful men around, or that Michael Jackson, even in his death, could generate the biggest recording contract of all time.

For more information on Dr. Jason King, visit his official website: http://www.jasonkingonline.com/

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About Clayton Perry