Joining us on this episode of the n+1 podcast are David Samuels and Frank Guan. First, David Samuels discusses his article in Issue 20 “Justin Timberlake has a Cold” about rock stars, the nine rules of hit songwriting, and the collapse of creative industries. Then, Frank Guan talks about the work of author Tao Lin and his reception from the literary community.
Hosted by Aaron Braun, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen.
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson.
Produced by Elisa Wouk Almino, Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen.
Music from Ludacris, INXS, The Rolling Stones, The Roches, and Fleetwood Mac.
Original Music by The Westerlies featuring Andrew Mulherkar, Luke Sellick, and Sammy Miller.
Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, subscribe via RSS, or download the episode (102.6 MB).
Aaron Braun: You’re listening to the n+1 podcast. My name is Aaron and I’m a new member of the podcast team. Today we talk to David Samuels and Frank Guan, two contributors to Survival—the most recent and twentieth issue of n+1 magazine. First is David Samuels. He is a contributing editor to Harper’s magazine, as well as a regular contributor to The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Here’s Eric.
Segment 1: Interview with David Samuels
Eric Wen: The music industry, according to David Samuels, is sick. The title of his essay in n+1 issue 20, “Justin Timberlake Has a Cold”, is both an allusion to the famous Gay Talese 1966 article in Esquire magazine, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”, and also Samuels’s diagnosis of the business itself. In our interview, we talked about what it means to be a rock star or a pop star in today’s age, the professionals who write the songs we hear on the radio, and the collapse of the music industry and all creative industries.
EW: David, thank you for joining us.
David Samuels: Thank you so much.
EW: So you mentioned early on in the piece that you think rock stars or pop stars are kind of a dying breed. So how do you think that the pop/rock star paradigm or the public image has changed in the last fifty years or so?
DS: You know, I always loved rock stars. They were my heroes. I loved them, I think more because they were rock stars than necessarily any of the music that they produced. I think that lots of people can write great songs, but very few people can really be rock stars. And then there’s people like Bob Dylan who might’ve been one of the greatest rock stars of all time who couldn’t really sing a lick or play an instrument and yet everything that he wrote was filled with this genius of his presence, which had all this wit and contradiction in it. But the truth is for all the books that are written about Bob Dylan, if you read most Bob Dylan songs, even the famous ones, they’re really bad poetry. They’re terrible. And the same is true of “goo-goo-g’joob, I am the Walrus”. Like, why does that make you a big genius? What makes you a genius is the ability to sustain this kind of presence and it’s that presence that I love. There was a combination of radical vulnerability and radical self-indulgence and of course being indulged by others, by everyone around you. I think that was always my fantasy. I think it was a commonly shared fantasy. And of course being up on the wall of masturbating teenage girls and boys alike, it’s really quite the life, but at the same time it’s a very isolated kind of position. The lives of rock stars are always sad. They’re always really hard because you can’t live up to the image of the thing that you are portraying. No one’s that brilliant and no one’s that witty and no one’s that admired. And the gap is enormous and inside it you’re also radically alone and you have to deal with that isolation and that sense of failure until you write the next hit song. And to me there was just something emotionally very gripping about the position of the rock star watching the different ways that people dealt with that.
EW: So do you think that being a rock star the same way that Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, or Jimi Hendrix or someone is still possible in today’s day and age?
DS: No. I mean, not in the music business, in the way it’s configured. I think that energy moves around in a culture. Byron and Shelley and Keats, they were the rock stars of their day. It wasn’t the minstrels or troubadours who played on some corner in London. It was these poets who could move people and lead these sort of representative and exemplary lives that opened up emotional space that people could feel and think in. It was people who played music in a certain moment because of the way the music business was able to both package and sell those people and also provide them with enough money and enough space that they could create in a sustained way over time. They could put out three, four, five albums before they achieved a sound, like bands like Pink Floyd or the Stones, or whatever certainly did. They could have these careers and you could look and sign a band and have an idea of what they could become and have them within a structure. And there’s a balance, obviously, between whoring those people out and allowing them to maintain that shred of integrity that makes anyone want to fuck them and the music business did allow them that shred and paid for some studio time in the south of France and whatever. I think that’s been pretty ruthlessly stamped out. You certainly don’t make that from 99-cent or $1.29 downloads on iTunes, and even that’s a thing of the past now. If you’re getting that one-quarter-of-a-penny per ten-thousand plays on Spotify or whatever it is that sure makes 99-cents look like a fuck-load of money and I don’t think that artists can have anything like the kind of careers and the kind of space that they enjoyed by selling recorded music.
EW: Do you think there’s another creative profession that has filled this void vacated by musicians as far as rock stars go?
DS: You know, I don’t know. I’d say the thing I feel sure about is that it really isn’t people who design apps. I think that’s the lie that people have been sold. It’s like, “yeah, all the music you have to listen to now is shitty and the books are crappy.” It’s because we don’t pay for these things in America anymore. And so there might be some saint who decides to devote themselves to doing something very hard and getting paid nothing as a public benefit, but generally even highly creative people don’t do that because they’re smart and smart people generally don’t want to starve, if they can avoid it. But it’s not people who design apps and it’s not people who write code for Microsoft and it’s not people who dream up some crappy gizmo as a way of stealing more of people’s cash. It’s not those people. I don’t know who it is, though.
EW: You wrote about a lot of these songwriters for pop musicians. Who are some of them?
DS: My favorite one was this woman Julie Frost who writes a lot of Katy Perry–style stuff and she was a chick who liked writing songs and playing her guitar and she was a local coffeehouse fixture in Chicago. She’d won a few songwriting contests and everyone agreed that her songs were really great and she’d bring her self-made CDs to the record stores in Chicago and collect her $17 in royalties at the end of the month, but people really liked her music. And at a certain point she, again, being a smart person, made the smart-person decision, which is, “I decide not to starve to death. If I have an actual talent, I decide to use my talent in a way that at least affords me a shot at health care and decent cuts of meat.” [Laughs] So she went to Atlanta and started hanging out in the hip-hop scene there. And she’s kind of a sweet New England girl—pretty but kind of chubby-faced, blond hair—and she’s there with all these Ludacris-style dudes who were talking about hoes and smoking blunts and whatever, but those people tend also beneath that, if they survive, to be exceptionally talented songwriters and to really understand their craft and they liked her and she liked them. They liked her because she could write melodies in addition to being able to write lyrics. She’s one of those people when there’s, you know, whatever there is, thirty or forty of them sitting around LA who make a lot of money writing songs going from room to room and studio to studio looking for that hit and working with this artist or that producer or whatever it is and it’s very much a hired-gun world. And there are cool performances to watch. It’s what you don’t see when a song gets written, but there’s someone who walks into that room with two or three or five other professionals at a high level and has to just do it on command and see what comes out and also be open to whoever else in that room might be really on fire that day and have a great idea because in the end the goal is for everybody to make money and write that hit. It’s sort of emotionally pretty gripping to watch and watch the ways that people are nice to each other or selfish, or different roles that people take on in the back and forth of the creative process. And you know, I was familiar with it—I guess LA is a city of writers’ rooms, but the ones I’m used to are the TV rooms, and the thing about the TV rooms is most of those people sitting in that room, they’re all on the show. They may come and go, but they know each other so these are relationships that unfold over a season or over a year. The music business is much more like you walk into that room, you open up your battered traveling case, and you pull out your wares and get it on.
EW: I was kind of struck by your descriptions of this and it seemed a common narrative for a lot of the songwriters that you described was they kind of gave up wanting to be a creative artist and instead decided they wanted to pursue this commercial career of wanting to be a songwriter. And the way you described it just seemed kind of banal like they’re copywriters for an ad agency or something.
DS: They are. On the other hand, they’re writing the songs that make the whole world sing. We know that so many great songwriters, whether it was a Diane Warren or Carly Simon or Lou Reed, they came out of those rooms in a previous generation in the ’50s. So it’s not like there’s a divide between being the hack that writes the song and the genius that performs it. I think in part what you’re seeing is this back-to-the-future thing where we’ve gone back to the idea that these functions are separate. You know, Flo Rida, he may rap about ass, but someone has to give him that script so his ass rap is going to really seem original that summer, so every part of that is sort of parceled out to a different pro who’s good at writing about ass or doing the bounce hook or whatever they’re supposed to do. As opposed to the figure of the rock star, there’s a reason—what made rock stars in the age of the rock star was that they wrote their own shit. The songs were written by Jagger and Richards. They wrote them together. It was those guys who were up there performing, singing, or playing the guitar. They came up with those songs. Those were their songs. Lennon and McCartney: they wrote The Beatles songs. The Beatles weren’t some, you know, they weren’t The Monkees. They came up with the aesthetic that defined them and then defined music in that sphere in that era.
Segment 2: Interview with Frank Guan
AB: And now you’ll hear again from Eric, this time with Frank Guan, a young writer and regular contributor to n+1, about the writer Tao Lin. Here’s Eric.
EW: Our guest today is Frank Guan. He wrote about the author Tao Lin for n+1 issue 20.
Frank Guan: This is correct.
EW: And he’s here today to talk about Tao Lin and other things that may arise.
FG: Sure, absolutely. I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
EW: So just for our listeners who might not know Tao Lin, do you want to describe briefly who Tao Lin is?
FG: Sure. I’d be glad to. Tao is a poet, he’s a novelist; he’s just a writer basically. He was born in 1983 and he is Asian. And he is probably the only young Asian writer anybody really knows out there. Nobody’s really pointed out why that’s important and how it’s kind of affected his writing but also the reception to it in the literary world. I’d heard of Tao vaguely. I would say the first I heard of him was when I was still in college, and that was when I was reading Gawker fairly—well, semi-regularly. He got mentioned there as this writer who was selling shares of his novel, is what they were saying. I didn’t really hear much more about him after that because—I mean, if I’d gone to New York after I graduated, I would’ve heard a lot about him; all of it negative, pretty much. Like he was pretty loathed five years ago for his attempts to get his book sold and to get his name known as a writer. But the way things turned out, I only learned about, really got into Tao when I first came here two years ago and I only really got very interested in him when I bought a copy of his most recent novel Taipei which came out about a year ago. Something really strange happened while I was reading it. Like certain ideas that I had had which I’d never bothered to put into fictional form or entire situations were reproduced within that book, so it was a very shocking book to come across when you’re—to see your life mirrored in that way, like aspects of your life you did not know could be registered in fiction before, and so naturally I became very intrigued after finishing and enjoying that book very much. Even while I was reading it I was already thinking about this is a book I had to review, and I don’t say that about a lot of books and most books I’d be happy not to review. But this one was special.
EW: When you were describing Tao earlier, one of the main things you mentioned was that he’s Asian.
EW: And that seems to be the first thing most people mention when they talk about Tao Lin-
EW: Well do you think so?
FG: I have not really read much. I mean, I read one essay that tried to talk about his Asianness, but it didn’t really get anywhere.
EW: Well I mean maybe more in just the superficial way; the way that someone says like so-and-so is a Jewish writer or a black writer. Do you think that’s the case?
FG: I think people are aware of it, but not in a very conscious or intentional sense. Like they know that he’s Asian, obviously, like his name is very Asian and he looks pretty Asian, but because he doesn’t—he’s not like an identity politics kind of ethnic writer. He doesn’t make a big deal out of it. That’s one reason why people don’t really talk about it—haven’t really talked about it before my essay. And the other reason is that Tao himself is—well, no, the other reason is just that Tao…how can I say this…well, because he’s Asian and because Asians don’t really have a well-defined role both in society at large and in the literary world, people didn’t really know what to make of him. Like they knew he was Asian, but they didn’t know what it quote “meant”.
EW: Right. So it seems a lot of the criticism about him kind of supersedes just the literature and it’s about a lot of the ancillary parts of his career as a writer. Why do you think that is?
FG: Tao is an early-adopter of internet publicity. Like he was doing it, like in terms of literature, he was doing it at a time when writers were—they were more like Jonathan Franzen, people who could just look down their noses at the idea that a writer would have to put himself out there online in order to grow an audience and sell books and so on and so forth. And so that earned him his reputation as just somebody who was putting himself out there, who wasn’t a disciplined writer or a writer with anything to say, but someone who wanted to get his name out there. And part of that is connected to Tao’s writing, which is very—I mean, I won’t say it’s unprecedented because it’s clearly influenced by a lot of ’80s minimalist writers, but that kind of writing was out of fashion and the writing world definitely has a short memory so people didn’t really know what to make of his work. They just kind of…he put himself out there in a way that was kind of aggressive and very indifferent to how he came off.
EW: So in your essay you describe him as an “Asian author of American descent.”
EW: And I actually thought this was an interesting syntactic construction. Was it intentional? Because usually it’s “American of Asian descent,” but this implies that even though he was raised American, he is still an Other in American society.
FG: OK, so to answer the question, it is very intentional. They tried to untangle it in editing and I had to make the point that it was on purpose. There were at least two reasons for phrasing it as such. The first is that for an Asian to come to America, it does entail a certain loss of identity or privilege. They’re descending in a certain way by coming to America. As immigrants they lose the right to consider themselves and their experiences normal. And that’s the kind of second meaning behind it. But also American descent simply is lineage, as in you’re an Asian and you’re raised in America, which basically means on American television and in American schools, to a lesser extent. And there’s also a third meaning that, like, it’s a more contemporary meaning in that this present wave of Asian immigrants is entering the country at a time when American everything is in decline, like the economy, like the government, the military, everything, and so on and so forth. It kind of reflects, my sense at least, like we kind of showed up very late to the party. Like when there’s a lot of puke to clean up, but there’s not a lot of dancing to do.
EW: Well there’s that kind of racist book, the Tiger Mom book-
FG: Oh yeah, that’s extremely racist.
EW: Yeah, well I was just trying to diplomatic, I guess. I guess in the cultural context of Asianness in mainstream American culture, people don’t really see Asians in creative professions that often.
FG: They don’t see Asians at all, basically. It’s a kind of cultural invisibility. Like Asians can’t be denigrated in the way that other minorities are—falsely denigrated, I should add—as being of lower intelligence, or as not hard working, basically. These things are fairly obvious and we have to be given credit for that, but at the same time we can’t be given too much credit. Other minorities are basically seen from the white perspective as bodies without minds. Whereas Asians, certain Asians anyway, are seen as smart, but not strong, so minds without bodies. But the kind of paradox here is that they don’t think we’re very smart at all, basically. Everything machine-like in American culture, the Asian becomes—especially the Asian male—becomes a kind of scapegoat for. Like this country worships numbers and machines and all these things, but it doesn’t like to admit that. So the Asian becomes a useful scapegoat. So even if they’re smart, they’re not really smart. They’re just mechanically smart. And you see this in Tao’s criticism, where his stylistic power basically and his creativity are regularly disparaged as the product of mathematics or geometry. Like, it’s upgraded to geometry from arithmetic or whatever, and so on and so forth. Or his characters would be referred to as impotent, you know, like bodiless, powerless, but also dickless, right? So there’s this kind of like, casual, subtle racism that Asians I guess don’t point out very much themselves which kind of gets perpetuated. So metaphorically speaking, Tao rear-ended, or a lot of people felt rear-ended by Tao, basically. And they immediately reverted to the kind of negative stereotypes that are omnipresent in our culture, even though they’re not always blatant.
EW: Right. So do you think there’s a tacit or even explicit racism or racial element in the criticism of Tao’s work?
FG: There’s a kind of blithe ignorance to a lot of the reception. I mean, there are variants, obviously. There are gradients to the whole thing. But it does seem to me that a lot of the, I mean I wrote an essay about it, so it does seem to me that a lot of critics are just not careful readers in general. Like, I’ve read their other criticism or their books even and it just seems to me that they haven’t put in the kind of work with it. And it’s not…I mean, it is intensive, but it’s not impossible to put in this amount of work to read a writer. It’s simply what you’re supposed to do as a critic. And they just can’t do it. I mean I wish there were a more diplomatic way to say it, but these people just can’t do it. Some of it might have to do with class, just the idea that these reviewers are just so immured in their particular idea of what art should be and what literary art should do, and how it should appear itself, and how the author should present him or herself, that they’re not really open to new perspectives or to anything original, and that’s unfortunate.
EW: Well, Frank, thanks so much for coming.
FG: No, thank you. This was great.
Segment 3: Interview with David Samuels Part II
AB: Now to close out this program, here’s David Samuels with the nine rules of hit songwriting.
EW: You talked about one producer Mike Caren who had the nine rules of hit songwriting. So do you want to talk about those rules?
DS: I think that you should read them aloud because I really can’t do—you know, there are some things you hear. Most of the time I find that life really has to be transfigured by art. You can’t just take something from your tape recorder and write it down and expect it to have any valence on the page at all no matter how hilarious or true it seemed when someone said it. But then every six or seven or eight years you just hear something and you’re just like, “I can’t do any better that that.” You can read his words; I don’t want to presume to speak for him.
EW: Sure, how about, let’s read some of the rules and then we’ll play some of the music just to illustrate the point. OK, so his first rule, he says, is it starts with an expression of “hey,” “oops,” “excuse me.” His second rule is a personal statement, such as “I’m a hustler, baby,” “I want you to love you,” or “I need you tonight.” And his third is telling you what to do, such as, “Put your hands up,” “Give me all your love,” “Jump.” The fourth is asking a question, like, “Will you love me tomorrow,” “Where have you been all my life,” or “Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?” I feel like I’m reading such a stunted NPR-reading of this.
DS: No, I was about to say I actually love the combination of the NPR voice with these rules. I think they’re made for it.
EW: Well I remember reading these and just thinking that they were kind of shallow rules about music. Like, they don’t say anything about writing good poetry or writing good musical structures or song structures or music theory.
DS: Well that’s one of the differences. It’s why all of—you know, there was a book I think written by Richard Goldstein at the height of counter-culture enthusiasm called The Poetry of Rock and I think it’s in every decent high school library—it certainly was in mine. And you had this guy Richard Goldstein who had been writing for The Village Voice sort of gushing in this like adolescent masturbatory way that he was way too old for, obviously, about the “genius” of different rock lyrics and he would quote them “’cause they were like poetry, man.” And then you’d be like, “If they’re like poetry, they’re really bad poetry.” [Laughs] It was actually, it’s repeating “sad-eyed lady of the lowlands” eleven times really just isn’t the height of poetic achievement and it really doesn’t look good put next to Robert Lowell. But in a way it was because people like Richard Goldstein—just to beat up on him for no reason—missed the point, which was that these weren’t poems. These were songs and songs were fundamentally different than poems. Poems are meant, generally in our culture now, to be read by people alone having a cup of tea or crying softly in their bedroom. Songs are meant to be shared in public. You as the listener are being acted on. You’re being commanded, you’re being told to do something as part of a group and your desire in some part of you in part of that instruction manual is that you’re merging with the group. You’re one of the people who’s being spoken to and told to do stuff. And so they’re kinetic. They’re asking you to move. They’re engaging you with a question. It’s all happening in a big open space whether that’s an arena or a bar. Different songwriters adopt different personas in the music and they make you feel like you’re in a different space. Maybe it’s the guy at the end of the night in a crowded bar telling you his troubles or whatever it is, but you’re still in a bar. You’re not by yourself. It’s not taking place in your head. So that’s why a lot of those instructions both are shallow and incredibly accurate.
DS: They work. He’s just talking about what works.
EW: Right, of course. So Mike Caren’s fifth rule is what he calls “logic,” which could be counting, or it could be spelling, or phonetics, such as “1, 2, 3, 4,” “Let the bodies hit the floor,” “Or California is complicated.” Sorry, I didn’t read that well because I think part of that rule is saying it with the right intonation.
DS: That’s right. It makes you feel smart. Part of the thing Mike was pointing out, which I thought was right, was that most songs, many songs assume a listener who’s functionally impaired in one way or another. They’re drunk or they’re stoned. And so if you can give them the achievement of being able to count to four along with the singer that makes them feel really good. It’s very engaging, and then they’re with you.
EW: So the sixth rule would be “catchphrases that roll of the tip of your tongue because you know them,” such as, “Never say never,” “Rain on my parade.” Seven would be “what we call ‘stutter,’” these are Caren’s rules, or Caren’s words, and that’s just repetition like repeating, “Will the real Slim Shady please stand up? Please stand up? Please stand up?” The eighth rule is “going back to logic,” says Caren, “again, like, ‘Hot or cold,’ ‘Heaven or hell,’ ‘Head to toe,’ all these things.” And his ninth rule of hit songwriting is silence. OK, so do you want to play some tracks and see how these rules work?
DS: Sure, go ahead.
EW: OK, so you said that Mike Caren’s favorite song that fits this paradigm is “What’s Your Fantasy” by Ludacris, so we’re going to play that.
[Ludacris “What’s Your Fantasy”]
EW: OK, so we got the idea.
DS: Right? I mean this was a huge hit and his ability to pack so many of these tropes, or gimmicks if you prefer, into such a small space is astounding. On the other hand, it’s an app, right? That’s like a musical app. It kind of looks good, you can press on it, and it has this Swiss-army-knife functionality to it, but it really doesn’t say anything about anything and in the end it’s incredibly depressing to imagine it as art. It’s an application of craft and that’s impressive, but that’s something very different than what a rock star does or what an artist who’s trying to convey some real emotion does. On the other hand, if you listen to Eminem or Kanye, I think those are both, if you look at popular artists in America today, I’d say Eminem and Kanye are the height of achievement in that area. And they’re both incredibly—you know, Kanye is like this magpie; he worries over every three-second passage of every track and you can feel just this tremendous amount of attention and insanity and rule-following behavior sort of applied to this stuff. And the last album was terrible from beginning to end, but you felt that same attention applied to it. It just went awry. And then there are albums that are—and that’s rock star too. The Rolling Stones also made entire albums that are basically unlistenable except for one song. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to Goat’s Head Soup or Their Satanic Majesties Request, but they’re really filled with really horrible songs. It’s hard to think of a Beatles album that was terrible.
EW: They got out early. They weren’t still making music in their forties.
DS: Right, I guess there are Wings albums. Certainly John Lennon wrote awful song after awful song, but I think he was really on drugs so he can’t entirely be held to account.
EW: So let’s just show that this isn’t—these rules aren’t limited to just contemporary-ish hip-hop such as Ludacris, so here’s an eighties band, INXS, with the song “Need You Tonight.”
[INXS “Need You Tonight”]
EW: So did you recognize any of the song rules in that snippet that we listened to?
DS: I mean, I have to tell you that any ability to sort of analyze that song technically is blown away by the sort of hot shame I feel at the—the memories are all so horrible that I have that I associate with that song. Dancing really badly and being drunk, doing coke with women that I didn’t want to be doing coke with. Like that song I think is nothing but trouble. [Laughs] If you want to analyze now how it produced those effects by following Mike Caren’s rules of songwriting, I’m still too embarrassed by these ancient memories to speak.
EW: It is almost a universal rule as far as successful pop music goes, because even songs by rock stars like The Rolling Stones from the Sixties kind of fit this if you look under the microscope a little bit.
DS: Yeah, no, they are reasonably universal rules because the three-minute pop song or rock song is a very, very formal mode of address. One of the things that made rap music so revolutionary when it comes to songwriting is that there were ten times as many words in every song and it just gives you a very, very different kind of expressive palette when you have that much space. Rock songs, with a few exceptions—Dylan found a way of cramming more words in there, but generally you’re looking at a form that’s very classic. It’s like the sestina, or a haiku, or something and that’s why it’s possible to be able to describe the nine rules, or the seven rules, or the thirteen rules of hit songwriting because it’s a very, very tight form.
EW: I don’t remember if it was written in the piece in these words or if it was just in an email, but you said that the record business is kind of a window into the collapse of all creative industries.
DS: You know, what I feel is this: I feel people of the world, you’ve been sold a bill of goods. A bunch of people from Silicon Valley came and in the name of democracy built multi-billion-dollar fortunes for themselves by sucking out all of the money and the profit from these older industries that they derided as hopelessly sclerotic and high-bound and anti-democratic. And they were going to open up this bright new future where everyone would be Lou Reed and all bands would be the Rolling Stones and it would be so exciting and you would be able to play with all these brightly colored gadgets and life would be amazing. Every man a Shakespeare. And of course it didn’t turn out that way. What happened was that they destroyed the structures—as sclerotic and old and unfair as they were, because all structures are unfair and exclude some people and reward others for no particular reason. But by destroying all that, what they destroyed was the ability of most people who spent a lot of time mastering a difficult craft and people who had particular talents and capacities. They destroyed the ability of those people to make a living and threw them out on the street while taking all the money for themselves. Needless to say, none of those people—the people who own Google or the people who own YouTube, none of those, who are the same people who own Apple, while they were busy making all of their ads and putting up all this cute little iconic design that convinced you that something really creative and fun was going to be happening—they didn’t actually produce any music. They didn’t produce any literature. They didn’t produce any art. They just destroyed the structures that made it possible for other people to do those things and also pay the rent on their apartments. And so if you look profession by profession, you’ve seen these sort of old media industries sort of drive off a cliff along with their busloads of middle managers, editors, creative performers, publicists, and the like, and all the wealth transfer to the balance sheets of these other people. I think the result in terms of the creative product in the popular arts has been really pretty bad. I think a smaller and smaller number of really good artists have the space in which to create stuff and I think the field in which it can be meaningful, meaning a limited field where you have thirty-one examples of something good and you can reasonably see them together and choose among them and make distinctions among them, those frames have been shattered as well. So there’s this endless slush pile of millions of things and some random examples of something will rise to the top and sometimes those things are good and sometimes they’re bad. But the filter is now kind of randomness and more importantly the ability for anybody to get paid for doing that kind of work has been sort of drastically crunched. And so, I think a lot of smart people who have these kinds of gifts, it’s not like they go away and cry. They do other things with their lives and they find other ways to apply their talents. I think if you like the particular forms, whether it was really good long-form journalism, or whether it was really good rock and roll albums, I think that those forms have really badly decayed. I think that there’s just less of it and what there is of it is worse. And I think that to wantonly kind of destroy all of that and leave nothing in its place except for the vague promise that, “Oh, if people want to write a great song, they could just put it on YouTube!” really is idiotic. But I should also say here that I think that the technologists, while I’ll stress that they are not actually creating wonderful works of art that future generations are going to value very much, I don’t think that they’re to blame for this. They were just working on their gizmos and doing their thing. The people who are to blame are the people who ran these industries into the ground and were fundamentally unable to understand the dynamics of the new pathways by which information and creative products were going to move. And I think that to be that irresponsible and that stupid and to put the livelihoods of so many people at risk, that was really criminal. And while I’m happy to go to Silicon Valley and hang out with my friends there, I really do have a chip on my shoulder about the people who ran my business, the magazine business, and let it go off that cliff. And they really are responsible for what they did. And fuck them.
AB: Thanks for listening, guys. This has been the n+1 podcast. I’m Aaron, your host. Thank you to the rest of the podcast team, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, Eric Wen, and of course thank you to Frank Guan and David Samuels.