How I Got That Story: Rob Harvilla

Village Voice music editor Rob Harvilla remembers it very succinctly: He was reading old Rolling Stone issues in the waiting room of his orthodontist’s office when he got hooked on music criticism.

Fast forward a few years later: He majored in magazine journalism at Ohio University, cut his teeth doing arts and music writing at a string of alt-weeklies, then became the music editor of the East Bay Express in California.

Harvilla is serious about music, but doesn’t take himself — or the industry — too seriously. True to form, his three winning articles in the Music Criticism category gleefully examine some of the strangest, most surreal aspects of contemporary music.

How have you seen your style of music criticism evolve over the years?

Oh, I’d like to think I’ve improved. Honestly, it’s pretty frivolous. I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way, but you know.

Something I’ve noticed in your reviews is that you do more than just evaluate how a band sounds; you also try to entertain the reader.

I think that most people, like my parents, don’t have much experience or interest in music criticism. For people like that, who just like music, they don’t react so much to me saying, “It was fiery; it was energetic.” They’re not persuaded by adjectives. It’s more engaging to them if you can describe the people, the atmosphere, and even the weather; if you can sort of set the scene. So I think it’s more important to do that than straight criticism.

How do you describe sound?

I think over time rock critics have come up with their own lexicon. There are words we use that no other person in any other profession uses. “Angular” is always a good one. Most of the time, what you do is just draw an outlandish analogy to some actual physical objects. It’s a really strange form of creative writing, and it definitely lends itself to overwriting. It’s a weird way to make a living.

Do you think that the descriptions get a little more outlandish with every generation of music critics? Reading music reviews growing up, that was my impression. Everyone is trying to outdo the other.

I think that’s definitely true. Certainly the biggest influence on music criticism now is the internet, places like Pitchfork and blogs. It’s definitely given rise to a different style of writing, one that’s more personal, more literary — and even faux-literary. These thousand-word meaty reviews include tangents about your girlfriend and dog and stuff like that. It’s a more personal and flowery style.

When I read your review on Sufjan Stevens’ symphony, I could tell that you were kind of torn between how precious and cutesy the performance was and how much you enjoyed it at the same time.

Yeah, I really like a lot of his music. It’s really emotionally effecting, but when I kind of step back from it a bit, there are five people on stage hula-hooping. You step back and say, “This is kind of weird.”

But there are plenty of people like that. Whenever the Alanis Morrissette song “Ironic” comes on the radio — and it’s actually kind of a bad song — I always remember in high school, a friend of mine died who really liked that song, so now I associate that song with her. It’s a very subjective thing. It has more to do with you personally almost, than the music.

Regarding the “Hot Hot Heat” piece, how did you come up with the concept of breaking down the hip-hop lyric with mathematical logic and Venn diagrams?

I can remember very specifically. It was written during a bit of turmoil that the company was going through, where we were changing editors. The editor we’d had for awhile was fired that Friday. I was emailing with my copyeditor, and I was trying to explain the song “This is Why I’m Hot” to him.

I think I had the idea just sitting around my apartment the next day with my fiancée. She was watching TV, and I was doodling a Venn diagram. It was that weird, tenuous I-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen feeling. So I said, “Well, fuck it.” And that’s what happened. On Monday, I brought all those sketches in to our designer, and he formatted everything.

As a music critic, do you have a lot of groupies?

No. It’s a great job and I love it, but I don’t think women are generally attracted to rock critics on the basis of them being rock critics. It’s usually in spite of that fact.

Read the stories that garnered Harvilla a first-place finish in Music Criticism (circulation 55,000 and over):

Hot Hot Heat
The Disorientation of Lauryn Hill
The Fey Highwayman

Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.

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