Rene Spencer Saller: Music Criticism Without the Testosterone

Editor’s Note: This is the 26th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

"If they were born with vaginas, most music journalists would probably be groupies," says Rene Spencer Saller with her trademark bluntness and humor. The winner of a first-place AltWeekly Award for Music Criticism, Saller writes a weekly column, Sound Patrol, in the Illinois Times. Her three winning pieces reviewed CDs by Ike Turner, Wilco and Eminen.

A self-described feminist rock critic (which she says is "kind of like being a Log Cabin Republican, or a black Klansman"), Saller calls on her distinctive perspective to illuminate her criticism. The St. Louis, Mo., freelance writer was, however, a little perplexed about how to respond to the implicit question in the title of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ series, "How I Got That Story." "I don’t know — they sent me the record in the mail?" More seriously, she continued: "I wish that every review I wrote could be some ‘prizewinning essay.’ But a lot of the time, it’s some combination of chance, or a series of felicitous accidents, that leads you to write about something in a more compelling way than you might otherwise."

So you began by writing for a fanzine, right?

When I was 15, I started getting into punk rock. My friends had this fanzine, Jet Lag, and I just fell into it naturally. It seemed like a way to scam records and get into shows when I was underage. Then I kind of fell out of it by the time I got to college.

In the late 90s, my friend Randall Roberts, the music editor of the Riverfront Times, saw a concert review that I wrote about a somewhat obscure SST band, Nig Heist, when I was 16. It came out because an indie label was reissuing all their ’80s stuff, and they compiled a press kit that included all these early reviews. Randy recognized that I had written one of them. I really respected Randy’s music writing a lot, and I guess his encouragement gave me the boost I needed to get back into writing about music.

So I freelanced for him for about four years and took his job when he was promoted to be associate editor. I was music editor for a little more than two years, and then I quit. Maybe two months later, the managing editor, Roland Klose, quit. So he invited me to write for him at the Illinois Times. I like to think of it as a kind of sanctuary or refugee camp, because several of my former Riverfront Times co-workers are also writing for the paper now, thanks to Roland.

Does writing for an independent alt let you go places you couldn’t otherwise?

Illinois Times is still independent. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write for them, and I feel really lucky to have the chance to contribute to a paper whose policies and politics I can feel good about. When I quit New Times, I was like, "Fuck you people: fuck your whole chain."

It’s just ridiculous: New Times’ idea of youth culture that is perpetuated by 57-year-old men. They kowtow to this demographic that exists primarily in their own minds, getting their idea of what their demographic wants from Maxim magazine. Rock criticism in general is a boys’ club, but New Times upped the testosterone content by 150 percent.

At Illinois Times, I’m lucky. I have 600 words a week, and I can write about whatever I want. I’m not allowed to use the F-word every few sentences like I used to — that was the one luxury I enjoyed at the Riverfront Times.

Your writing often seems like a balancing act. For instance, your review of Wilco’s  "A Ghost is Born" discusses and deconstructs the group’s mythos and success. How do you balance writing about the actual music with writing about the larger cultural issues surrounding a band?

For me, it’s a lie to suggest that you have this transparent relationship with music, that it’s sounds in the air you pick up on, and you get exactly that and nothing else. Your response is really a mixture of other cultural, sociological and historical components, some of which you might not even be aware of.

It’s important not to pretend you have this absolute relationship with music, that you’re the expert that can determine what makes it good or bad. Maybe having a healthy bit of skepticism about your own authority is a quality of honest music journalism.

Do you ever have trouble just appreciating music because your response has become overly analytical?

I did worry that having music and writing as my job would make listening to music unpleasant. Maybe that happened more when I was music editor, and it was a full-time thing. But now I’m a freelancer, and I just balance it among the other things I do. I do it for the love of it and also for sort of evangelical reasons. The fanzine spirit — you hear something, you love it, you want to go up to people and force it on them, make them listen to it. I’m a fan of a lot of bands that I feel don’t get much attention.

It reminds me of a "how-to" Lester Bangs article on rock criticism. He suggests picking a really obscure band and saying they’re the best group ever. And in some ways, I think he really meant it, because there’s so much great, undiscovered music.

There is definitely that impulse. I’ve noticed that among a lot of guys, not just aspiring rock critics, but rock dudes that work in record stores. They want to always be more esoteric and eclectic, existing in this rarefied hipster realm. I guess I could be accused of something like that to a certain degree. A snob, basically.

But, ideally, music journalism should be more than that. Because a lot of critics that I like take somebody that isn’t cool, that doesn’t appear to have a lot going on, and help you understand what that person might have that you wouldn’t have recognized otherwise. Anybody can go on about how cool Henry Cow is, but when somebody takes the same time and interpretive rigor discussing Christina Aguilera, or ABBA, or someone like that, it makes me think, "Hmm, maybe it’s snobbery that’s kept me from appreciating them."

You assess a popular group in your review of the hip-hop duo Ying Yang Twins. You took them to task for their misogyny in a very funny way.

Well, I have a weakness for crunk. The Ying Yang Twins was a weird review because when I heard "The Whisper Song" on the radio, it sounded cool. But I hadn’t really examined it. When I did, I got angry. [The unedited chorus includes the lines: "Hey bitch! wait ’til you see my dick; I’m a beat that pussy up."]

Why do I go through these elaborate hoops to try and celebrate, or defend, some guys who think I’m a piece of meat? Fuck them. I didn’t edit myself in the usual way on that review, and I think it was because I’d read all these other critics who were glossing over the misogyny, acting as if it was no big deal.

But I come out of the rock ‘n’ roll tradition. When I start thinking about the myriad ways in which the Rolling Stones probably fucked up my sexuality, it boggles the mind. People are all outraged about the misogyny of rap, and they totally disregard the misogyny of classic rock.

Sometimes something can be great and also philosophically horrendous. I mean, I love the Stones, and I like "The Whisper Song" when I hear it. If you don’t have a brain, it’s a really great song.

So I guess a lot of writing about music, for me, has to do with a struggle. A struggle to understand and to make finer distinctions among my own impressions.

How many times do you have to listen to an album before you can accurately gauge it?

It’s hard to say. The great myth of rock criticism is that you can listen to something, and the impressions you have are the ones that anyone would have and that you’re going to have throughout time for eternity. That’s not the case. There are so many CDs that I didn’t like at first, and then one day I just got them. And there are CDs I think are incredible. Then they’ll just lose their luster until it’s like, "God, what was I thinking? Was I a victim of this mass hallucination, where these other writers that I respected liked this person, so I felt like I had to, and I made myself do it?"

I think there’s more of that going around than most rock critics care to admit. People talk a lot about guilty pleasures — what you like that you’re not supposed to like. It’s all such a lie, because I’ve never met anyone that doesn’t love to divulge their guilty pleasures. "Oh, look at me, I’m so cool. Not only do I like Bjork, I’m also really into obscure bubblegum girl groups from the ’60s!" They’re proud of it because it distinguishes them from the other little consumers that are out there, loading these cool bands onto their iPods.

There’s another side: The counterpart to the guilty pleasure is the disciplined appreciation. Somebody that doesn’t really grab you or do much for you, but these other people that you like and respect are always touting them as the Second Coming. So you feel like, "God, I really need to work to get this band." And sometimes that works. Sometimes I really do overcome my initial impressions, and that can be gratifying.

But, too often, people just run with the crowd. Like right now it’s really cool to like the hipster electronic-noise group Black Dice. That’s the band they’re going to give an 8 out of 10 to. But the Fiona Apple album might be a lot fucking weirder, but they don’t want to be in the Fiona Apple crew, so they give her a 4.

Your reviews don’t award ratings or stars. I assume that’s a decision on your part.

I don’t like those. I don’t even like end-of-the-year lists. There’s part of me that feels really uncomfortable when I try to rank things in that rigid way. Like I said, sometimes things can be really great and really awful simultaneously. For me, a lot of crunk is that way. Completely reprehensible, but there’s something about it that’s immediate, visceral, and honest. Those are the same things that I responded to as a teenager with punk rock.

Returning to the ratings system, one of the biggest offenders is Pitchfork Media. You could say it has democratized music criticism.

Interestingly, though, it’s still mainly white guys. That was the case in the fanzine world and seems like it still is. There are a lot more voices out there now, but they’re still mostly the same. You look at Pitchfork — it’s a lot of white guys. Just like most of the weekly papers.

How could you achieve a greater diversity of voices?

I don’t know. I tried to recruit people from beyond that tight little circle of record-store guys when I was music editor, and I failed. For some reason — I don’t know what is, and hopefully it’s changing — they aren’t there. I wouldn’t say that it’s discrimination, exactly. A lot of women aren’t inspired to write about music. I don’t think there’s any organized conspiracy going on at Pitchfork, where 90 percent of their writers have to be white guys with glasses and a great love of the Arcade Fire. That’s just the way it happens. Maybe it’s self-selecting or on the Y chromosome — I don’t know.

Wells Dunbar is a staff writer covering news and politics for the Austin Chronicle. He also wrote for the AAN Convention Daily in San Antonio and San Diego.

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