Zorn and Britney: The strange dance between artist and press

When composer/saxist John Zorn invited journalists to a pair of weekend shows, his one request was that they would not write about it. Of course, the next thing that happened was that a flurry of angry exchanges were unleashed with some defending Zorn and others calling him crazy and conceited. I was there for one of the shows but I paid for my ticket and wrote about it. Later though, I wondered again about the strange relationships that develop between artists and writers.

A mentor of mine warned me that it was never a good idea to get chummy with musicians. He occasionally broke the rule himself but tried to maintain it in general. My batting average is about the same but I know the reasoning behind this idea — you don’t wanna have to call your friend out on a bad album in print. Even it’s constructive, it can still sting. Unfortunately, I’ve found the same thing with other writers — most of the time when you’re asked ‘what do you think of my article,’ they’re really asking ‘could you please find something nice to say about it?’

It doesn’t necessarily get less complicated when the writer and the subject aren’t directly chummy. In the case of Zorn, his detractors were wondering ‘who the hell does he think he is?’ and ‘what nerve!’ His supporters responded ‘well, if you don’t like the idea, then don’t accept the ticket.’ Others pointed out that at this stage, he has enough artistic clout that he doesn’t have to play the traditional press game and that he was still making a sort of magnanimous gesture. Zorn’s hardly the first artist to have unconventional ideas about the media and he’s also had a long-time distrust of the press, sometimes warranted. He doesn’t give many interviews and feels that he’s often been misquoted or misrepresented in print.

I interviewed Zorn a few years ago about guitarist Robert Quine, a longtime friend and collaborator of his. Knowing Zorn’s history, I was surprised that he would agree to an interview but he did because this was a special subject. I had known Quine also but for a much shorter time, specifically the last few years of his life. And yes, he’d been one of the people I’d broken my rule about being chummy with musicians. I broke that rule because he was such a criminally underrated talent and he didn’t have much of a career anymore that could be bruised by bad press. He himself had sparred with Lester Bangs for years about music. When Quine died of an overdose, I was so distraught that I almost didn’t begin a budding relationship with the wonderful woman that I’m with now. Zorn was also broken up by Quine’s death, appearing teary-eyed at a small tribute gathering for him at a music store. I was there too and so goddamn overcome with emotion that I could barely speak to anyone there. Maybe that’s why he was OK to speak with me.

Contrary to the image of him as a hard-ass, I found Zorn to be a very likable and funny interview subject. As I put together a group of other interviews that I did about Quine, I heard back from Zorn again. It turns out that he didn’t want me to publish the interview that we did. “I’m sorry but I was saying too many personal things that maybe I shouldn’t have.” Of course I was disappointed by this but I also understood what he meant and told him that I wouldn’t put out the article. Towards the end, Quine had a rough time and got into bad straights where none his friends could help him out of his rut. I decided that I had to honor my promise and not publish Zorn’s interview even though I also knew that I might never get that opportunity again. Maybe at some level, I’d let my emotions get in the way of my journalistic work and duty but if I had to make an exception, this was one that I could live with.

Other than this brush with Zorn, his odd request for non-reviews also made me think of the even stranger, scarier relationship that one Britney Spears has with the press. Her downward spiral had become so tragic that even late night comics started laying off her, saying that she was in such bad shape that it wasn’t something to laugh at anymore. Nevertheless, the Britney industry marches on, as chronicled in a new cover story at, of all places, the Atlantic. It took a lot of soul-searching and explaining about this to justify the story but whether you like her as an artist or not (I’m in the later camp), her personal life and the coverage of it is newsworthy, though it’s questionable as to how much.

The latest twist in the drama is how the press itself is now wondering how much they’ve contributed to Britney’s downfall. There were articles from Newswatch and USA Today which took the rest of the media to task for preying on her and minting money from it (which the Atlantic article will also cover) while giving little thought to her deteriorating condition. While there’s definitely truth to the fact that there’s now a predatory relationship (albeit one that Spears had cultivated for a long time), I also agree with the saner commentators who’ve said that it’s pretty damn presumptuous to think that if the press did lay off, she would automatically straighten out her life.

Her recent lack of headlines have shown that just the opposite is true — with her living under the conservatorship of her father, she’s on a tight financial leash and less likely to go out and indulge in bizarre social behavior. The end result was that she’s stopped being tabloid fodder for the time being. Though she’s craved attention before, this is definitely something positive. Like Zorn, she might learn or come to believe that having some distance from the press isn’t always necessarily a bad thing.