Critic’s eye: writer/musician Sasha Frere-Jones.”I DON’T believe there’s any particular reason you should trust me, or two or three people like me,” says Sasha Frere-Jones. He’s the pop music critic for The New Yorker – one of several of the magazine’s staff who are here for sold-out sessions at the Melbourne Writers Festival – but the last thing he wants to do is tell readers what they should be listening to.
In the digital world, you can get musical recommendations, he says, from all sorts of places, ”and to be perfectly honest, I believe in the wisdom of the crowd” when it comes to that sort of thing.
Instead, he believes that ”critics are reporters. Our taste is not that important to the average reader: they just want to know what the thing is, and how does it work, and what the f— is going on. My tastes are in there, but that’s not the point. People talk about writing from passion, and that’s definitely part of what I do, but to me, it’s not an interesting assignment.
”It is really about trying to figure out what a piece of work is doing.” And good prose is vital.
Frere-Jones, 45, has been on staff since 2004, after writing for Slate, Village Voice, Spin and the New York Post. He’s perfectly ready to own up to his ”biases as a listener, which I try not to bring too much to the table, but they are in there”, and he’s quick to acknowledge the music that first inspired him. He’s a child of 1980s post-punk and hip-hop, of seeing hardcore band the Bad Brains perform with the impact of ”a nuclear reactor” and of being gobsmacked and then entranced by the minimalist ”drum machine and yelling” of Run DMC’s track Sucker MCs. This has left him, he says, impatient with music that’s ”polite”, of live performances that hold back too much. His injunction: ”Don’t be winning. Transform me. You can do it quietly – but put me through something.” For The New Yorker, writing about pop music, his reach is wide-ranging, eclectic. Across his contributions – 1500-word features, a critic’s notebook, live reviews and blog posts – he can cover anything from the Cuban conga player Pedrito Martinez to American black metal, to boy-band One Direction to M.I.A. ”I like the challenge of general interest writing,” he says. The New Yorker might have a sophisticated reputation, but ”the whole magazine has an incredibly simple premise. If you don’t know about fermentation or weightlifting or the Sudan, it will be explained to you.” This is not in any way simplifying or reductive – and for a writer, ”making yourself figure it out from square one” can be an energising, clarifying discipline. That’s when things start coming to you. There are thoughts you don’t get, he says, any other way.
He’s working on a book that grew out of a much-discussed 2007 essay about the relationship, or lack of it, between recent indie music and R&B – a piece that he says had a more judgmental tone than he had intended, indeed was trying to avoid. The book has since morphed into a memoir that’s also about criticism.
He has a story to file while he is here in Melbourne, a piece on the idiosyncratic Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, whom he has written about before. This time, he says, he thinks he’s going to bring her into the story more. ”She writes simple elemental music, but she’s such a funny, wildly entertaining person to be around, so completely not the sort of dark depressing person you would imagine.” And if he can give a greater sense of her, he says, ”it only makes you like or understand the music more, knowing how this polymath autodidact mind is flying off in all these directions.
”She knows so much stuff, and she writes these incredibly simple songs.”
Frere-Jones was a performer when got his start in music writing, and he is still making music. He is now with Calvinist, a collaboration that includes Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells. There will be an album, he says, and what’s more, ”actually a record that people might buy”.
”And that’s strange for me – making music that people might hear is kind of a weird proposition.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.