Frank Zappa’s comment on the music press is evergreen: “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.”
What’s remarkable about the comment is not whether it’s true or not (your opinion is as valid as mine) but that when Zappa spoke to the Toronto Star reporter in 1977, he had no idea how much worse things were going to get.
This was ten years after the establishment of Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone, nine ahead of the founding of David Hepworth and Mark Ellen’s Q magazine and it was around thirty years before record companies started offering media training for fledgling pop stars. Now we have Rolling Stone’s 2017 cover story on Kendrick Lamar where the rapper mentions a videographer present, putting paid to any pretence of intimacy. The September 2018 edition of Vogue was graced by Beyoncé on the cover (good) but the feature inside was a first-person piece, clearly dictated and edited to within an inch of its life by Team Beyoncé (less good).
Where once the minibar and life secrets were shared, when a journalist now braves some alone time with a living legend, the results can be glacial. See Van Morrison’s 18 minute encounter with The Guardian’s Laura Barton as the latest example.
You could conclude that music journalism is in the same shape as Elvis’s television set after it became acquainted with Elvis’s .357 magnum, or even Elvis himself. But what’s actually happened is that music journalism didn’t die, it just changed channel.
The interesting books of recent years, from Hepworth’s riffs on the limited shelf-life of the Rock Star (Uncommon People) and the year 1971 (Never A Dull Moment), Brooklyn writer Rob Sheffield’s idiosyncratic takes On Bowie and Dreaming The Beatles, Sylvia Patterson’s on-off relationship with the celebrity interview, 2016’s I’m Not With The Band, or Saint Etienne member Bob Stanley’s sprawling tome on British pop music Yeah Yeah Yeah are all wildly different. What each has in common is the author’s strong personality writ large over every page.
One of my favourite music books of this decade was Alan Light’s 2012 The Holy or the Broken. Light took more than 250 pages on one album track from a 1984 Leonard Cohen record which his US record company wouldn’t even release. This sounds unpromising, but the song Hallelujah would become a staple of reality shows and glossy dramas, beloved by everyone from Simon Cowell to Bob Dylan.
We can end up learning more about current and past artists not by the confessional interview, shunned by almost all the big stars but longer form music books.