What I Owe To Paste Magazine

I’ve got a love-hate relationship at best with music magazines, but I was and am sorry to hear that Paste suspended print operations on Wednesday. Their headquarters was just across the railroad tracks from my alma mater, and I actually used one of their articles in my senior thesis on Stephen King.

It was a pretty important piece of theory within my thesis — though I didn’t use it as well as I could or should have — but the blurb took on broader importance as I started to think more and harder about how I wanted to write about music.

The phrase “pop music” is usually understood as shorthand for “popular music” — whatever music sells the most recordings, concert tickets and radio ads. But the phrase has an alternate meaning — “populist music”, music that not only gives an audience what it wants but also what it needs. Popular music treats the listener as an object, as an ATM machine that will spit out money if you punch the right buttons. Populist music treats the listener as a subject, as a protagonist whose struggles deserve the catharsis of a musical mini-drama.

— Geoffrey Himes, “The 100 Best Living Songwriters: Bruce Springsteen”, Paste #22, June/July 2006

I know I don’t think about this paragraph in the same way as I did when I first read it, but I remember that it felt like a revelation to me at the time — that writing about music didn’t have to focus on the musicians, but could instead focus on the audience. That sometimes writing about music could be about what we, the audience, deserved, and what we thought, instead of what we were handed.

In the last couple of years I’ve become increasingly frustrated with mainstream music magazines, Paste included — not because they’ve changed, but because I’ve changed. Reviews of new albums look like mad libs with interchangeable clichés; feature articles aren’t much better, though they have more research in them. A lot of what’s in mainstream music magazines, in other words, seems to be more about telling us things we should know, that we’re expected to know, than the joy of discovery. How do you write a feature article about the ways in which we can become arrested by a song, or about the roles that nostalgia can play in forming musical taste? Who’s writing about that kind of thing these days?

The answers I’ve found: the 33 1/3 series, and once a year, every December, the thoroughly magical and delightful Oxford American music issue. But not in the monthly or bimonthly glossies I find at the Tattered Cover here in Denver.

Whether popular or populist, as Himes has it, the music we listen to insinuates itself into our lives in ways that aren’t always obvious — beyond the earworms and songbombs, beyond the record stores and music festivals, beyond seeing whatever it is that Kanye West is saying on Twitter today and laughing about it with our friends after work. We deserve writing about music that asks questions about its function in our lives, that is willing to reach back into the past to talk about records and artists that people may not know, and that doesn’t use arbitrary aesthetic guidelines to tell us, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that our taste in music isn’t good enough. That we aren’t good enough.

Music criticism shouldn’t be a tool to make us feel bad about ourselves. Sure, we’re consumers — I’m going to my local indie after work to pick up an album to hand off to a friend this weekend — but we’re not brainless. Sure, people tell us about new artists they think we should listen to, but there’s a difference in saying, “hey, this is cool, I think you should listen to it,” and “hey, I can’t believe you haven’t heard this yet, what’s wrong with you that you don’t know about it already.”

These are a lot of generalizations. They’re general enough, though, to keep me from buying those glossies on the newsstand after I flip through them. Every so often I’d buy an issue of Paste — mostly when I found an article that filled me with enough delight that I wanted to add it to my collection. In that way I deserve a little of the blame for Paste killing the print edition, but only a little. I regard the annual release date of the Oxford American music issue as a national holiday; a good article in Paste was like finding five dollars on the sidewalk — something that makes you happy, but only rarely an extraordinary occurrence.

And let’s consider Paste’s tagline: Signs of life in music, film, and culture. The tagline assumes that music, film, and culture are largely lifeless — and I don’t think that’s true in the slightest. The cynical reading of the line suggests that since we’d like to think we have good taste, we want to know where the signs of life are, so of course we’d pick up the magazine. But that doesn’t seem to have worked very well for them.

And who says they get to be the judges of what constitutes liveliness, anyhow? The answer is, of course, that they say they do. But the secret that’s becoming less and less of a secret every day is that everybody can say that. We’re all starting to figure that out for ourselves.

It makes me glad to see it. While I’d certainly like more intellectual rigor in writing about pop music, I’m more interested in what people think about what they listen to, and why they like or don’t like it, and what it means to them. Paste played a large role in helping me figure that out, though, and I will always be grateful for that.

Happy weekend, everybody. Go listen to something you love.