One goal of NPR journalism is to make the unfamiliar more comprehensible, whether it is in politics, science or culture. Mostly, this happens. But when it comes to modern music reviews, I hear a certain dissonance. For some listeners, the music sounds harsh and the journalism that attempts to explain it, sounds equally irritating (and impenetrable).
NPR regularly reviews new music. This is good, since it takes NPR listeners out of what is familiar and exposes them to what is happening in other parts of the culture.
Too Hip for NPR?
The problem, according to some listeners, is that NPR's reviews are too hip to be good journalism. In short, some musical commentary, especially on All Things Consdered, is incomprehensible to some listeners, and I confess, to me.
A review of the band Wilco on All Things Considered on June 21:
These extended explorations and others, like the five minutes of abrasive dental-drill feedback drone near the end of the disc, give Wilco's music an entirely new dimension. The guitar isn't here to make things pretty. Tweedy uses savage, wild lunges to punctuate the verses and sometimes to inject a little danger into otherwise lovely songs.
A review of the band The Magnetic Fields from All Things Considered on June 9:
The songs themselves are the draw. They're disciplined little gems of composition, poison-pen letters set in the first person and caustic, coffee-shop observations propelled by not particularly heroic desires. The best of them tell about being deluded in love or not being able to let go of an old flame. And even under Merritt's dour storm clouds, they gleam.
A review of an album by Morrissey on All Things Consideredon June 4:
Morrissey has always seemed to be a walking paradox, both playful and morose, ambiguously asexual, political but hopelessly self-involved, which is why You Are the Quarry is still a classic Morrissey album. Songs like "All the Lazy Dykes" and "The World Is Full of Crashing Bores" serve up such themes in spades. But his usual inclination towards detachment ends there. And the new Morrissey, the older Morrissey, the wiser Morrissey, the Morrissey of this moment is unafraid to show a more personal side, venting his soul with songs like "Irish Blood, English Heart" about his withering sense of nationalism and, of course, the starkly brave and confessional accusation of Christianity entitled "I Have Forgiven Jesus."
Presenting these excerpts outside the context of the entire review may be unfair. But for some listeners, the full reviews were incomprehensible, even bordering on a parody of "intellectual" music criticism. The reviews' tone is arch and "hipper-than-thou." They seem to tell most of us not to bother listening — this information is not for you, but only for the people who are part of the scene.
Modern music, and especially rock 'n' roll, was always about who was "in" and who was not. Nothing is more embarrassing than older people claiming to dig the latest sounds.
This is a quandary for NPR. How does NPR reach out to a younger group of listeners without irritating its older core? If NPR's music journalism is really meant for that younger audience, then irritating older listeners is a price young radio producers are willing to pay.
NPR needs to do music reviews but they need to be written so all listeners are able to understand the criticism and the music. The reviews should give listeners a glimpse of something new, even if it is hard to understand (or like).
Unfortunately, I think these reviews make many listeners feel like cultural outsiders. The reviewers sound as if they know and enjoy the music. Can't they convey that to the rest of us?
Better editing would be a start.
Fortunately, not all music reviews on NPR are off-putting.
Recently, Morning Edition aired another of its series on "Intersections" — a series on artists and their inspirations. This time, the subject was a hip-hop artist called Timbaland.
A number of listeners wrote in to complain that the sound was jarring and very un-Morning Edition-like.
I heard the story, and like many listeners, I listened on my way to work. I also found it tough to take, especially that early in the morning. But I also found the report by Neda Ulaby very interesting.
Timbaland or Timberlake?
Like some who wrote in, I initially confused Timbaland with a well known pop singer called Justin Timberlake. Some listeners may know of the latter because he appeared with Janet Jackson during her infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at this past winter's Super Bowl broadcast.
Ulaby's interview with Timbaland was about how he found inspiration in the Tolkien novels, The Lord of the Rings. It seemed an unusual combination, but Ulaby made Timbaland more comprehensible and his music more accessible.
This was good cultural journalism: It introduced me to an artist I didn't know. It told me why he is important and why he is an artist. I may not run out to buy his CD, but at least I can make an informed choice.
Staying Open to New Ideas
One of the characteristics of NPR listeners is that they are "open to new ideas." That's why Ulaby's reports seem to me to be a good example of journalistic inclusiveness. They do not alienate mainstream NPR listeners.
Other examples of accessible musical journalism are Liane Hansen's interviews with musicians on Weekend Edition Sunday (interviews interspersed with music) or Miles Hoffman's riffs on classical music on Morning Edition and Performance Today.
Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.