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Interview With Frank Kogan, Author of Real Punks Don’t Wear Black

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Frank Kogan is an intense music critic who challenges readers and music listeners to question what they hear and why it makes them feel the way it does. His writing is dense but of high quality, like a Tom Robbins novel or a good article in The New Yorker.
His answers to the questions I emailed him are akin to the material collected in his book, Real Punks Don't Wear Black, with each containing many thoughtful ideas in nearly every paragraph.

Scott Butki: Can there then be multiple correct meanings to the same songs? If so, does that mean that the list of 100 most conservative songs — which I previously wrote about  — might not be as ridiculous idea as it might first seem?"

Frank Kogan: Well, the phrase "meaning of a song" (or "meaning of a poem" or "meaning of a story") is one I find utterly stupefying. It's basically something that's inflicted by English teachers on defenseless high school students. In its non-English-class uses, "to mean" and its variants are functional non-problematic words used in conveying or asking for further information.

For instance, you can explain that, to a kid, a vacant lot means that he can organize a pickup baseball game, while to a land developer it means potential investment opportunities. So a vacant lot can mean more than one thing, and there's nothing mysterious about this. You can ask what the phrase "I'll glock you" means, and if you don't give him the answer "I'll shoot you," you're wrong. But as to what a rapper is telling you about himself when he uses phrases such as "He'll glock you," there can legitimately be a number of different explanations. And again, this isn't mysterious. (And the word "subjective" and its cousin, "objective," are worthless in explaining why you can or cannot get more than one answer. They're just intellectual-sounding buzz words that explain nothing.)

Which is more rare: A great album or a great review of an album?

Way more great albums, but that's not owing to any inherent superiority of music over criticism, just that at the moment music is a healthier environment than journalism is, and most record reviewing is imprisoned within journalism. But I wouldn't say that there are more great albums than there are great dances to albums, or great conversations about albums, or great wisecracks about albums, or great love affairs conducted to the sound of albums. So I don't exalt music above the life that surrounds it, or above the writer's life.

You mention in the book that you stopped writing for the commercial press. Why was that? How long did you do that? Has music writing ever been your full-time job or is it more of a hobby?

It's my full-time job right now, but I'm not really making a go of it; in fact I can't stop myself spending more time doing stuff like answering these questions than pitching album reviews…

I did very little writing for pay between 1991 to 1998; the reasons are complex (see part four of my book). I've never felt on home ground when writing for the commercial press, and by 1991 this had worn me down to the point where I stopped. And then I started up again in 1999 when my friend Chuck Eddy became music editor at the Village Voice. I'm still not on home ground in journalism, and I never will be, nor in academia. And that's not likely to change.

Have you seen this satire of Guns 'n' Roses lyrics? Is there a better band to show the disconnect between critics and the fans?

Which critics and which fans. Seems to me that fans are critics. Everyone has an opinion. But professional/semi-professional critics tended not to be in the prime audience for Guns 'N' Roses, whereas professional/semi-professional critics did tend to be in the prime audience for Nirvana. But there's also a disconnect between how critics write about music for the press and how they talk about it to their friends and chat about it online. In the latter circumstances they're more likely to flirt and fight and gossip and make jokes, just like real people.

You do a good job describing what some might consider Axl Rose's
attraction. Should appearance even be a factor in music reviews and criticism or should it stick to the music itself?

As for appearance, it is part of music; any discussion of James Brown or Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones that didn't include how they looked (and how they danced) would be incomplete. It's not just a strange, random coincidence that metal bands tend to look like metal bands, and indie bands tend to look like indie bands.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • Nice interview, Scott. Good questions that triggered interesting answers.

  • I really enjoyed this. It’s a great interview. I agree with Gordon, good questions.

  • Scott Butki

    Thanks, Katie and Gordon. I try to think of original questions.

  • Scott Butki

    I just added Kogan’s comments on a piece I did about overrated bands.

  • Scott Butki

    I’ll see if I can get Frank to come over and elaborate.

    Thanks for the compliment.

    Interviews with Stewart Copeland (of the Police) and a folk singer are coming within the week, as I find time in between teaching poetry at a middle school and planning how to teach nonfiction next week.

  • Nan Booth

    Nice interview. I am reminded a bit of Frank’s fanzine “Why Music Sucks” in which he would pose questions and publish responses. Frank has a reputation for thoughtful commentary, and your excellent questions set the stage for a particularly nice exchange.

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