The online squeeze for highbrow scribes

by Jason Gross

3 July 2006


You’d be hard pressed to find two more polar pieces about arts scribing that these: Jeff Chang and Simon Reyolds co-interview at Beatirce and a Boston Globe article on Ain’t It Cool News. While it’s easy to praise the former and damn the subject of the later, in this turmoil-filled media environment, it would be a mistake to totally dismiss AICN.
In the Chang/Reynolds article, two of the most thoughtful dance music writers… scratch that and let’s just say two of the most thoughtful music journalists period talk up their new books and each other’s work but also try to delve deeper into their subjects (Chang on rap history, Reynolds on post-punk music). They find a lot of common ground and areas that still need exploring. Though it’s two pages long, you sense that if they were in the same room, the conversation could go on for hours and a lot of worthwhile ideas would come up.

Encouraging as it is to see that there’s sharp minds like their in the music scribe business, you can’t help but notice where their primary work lies. While both of them have and continue to do freelance work for numerous publications, the bulk of their memorable writing is now found in two formats that allow them to think and expand on ideas: books and blogs. Unlike print periodicals where space is getting squeezed more and more for column, reviews, etc., writers like Chang and Reynolds find more freedom to expound on their thoughts, philosophy and grand ideas elsewhere.

Even though the Boston Globe article dismisses AICN (as most self-respecting writers do), it misses an important point about the writing there. Harry Knowles has built AICN into a journalistic phenom. Don’t believe it? Just look at almost any big-budget ad nowadays and you’ll see a quote of his there. His own reviews get ink because they’re geared towards being quotable (as a former Pitchfork reviews editor said about that publication). Being thoughtful or inquisitive isn’t the guy’s M.O. but because he’s found a lively, punchy style that one-up’s any Maxim brand, he’s also found not only a large public audience on the Net but also a Hollywood audience of ad-execs who scour his reviews for tidbits to use, thus adding more clout to his brand name.

The fact of the matter is that with word counts shrinking more and more as well as Maxim pubs becoming more and more of a template of what the vaunted and much courted under 25 demographic wants, writing like AICN seems to be ideal for the critic marketplace nowadays, much more so than the work of Reynolds or Chang. That’s no reflection on the quality of the later (as if they needed defending) or that Knowles work is necessarily better- AICN is just better suited to the demands of the media biz nowadays. Expect to see a lot more of it. Some of the imitators will make Knowles look like Greil Marcus but I suspect that there’ll be others who also mess around with the style enough to make it more engaging.

For those of us who want a little meatier and smarter fare nowadays, thank God there’s the blogs and the occasion book to feed our appetite… Funny and curious that the same Net-space that launched AICN is the same place where writers like Reynolds and Chang can find refuge for their thoughts also.

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