A&R, my novel about the record business, has started landing in the bookstores. Yesterday I got to the office at 6:30 a.m. and did 22 five- to ten-minute phone interviews with drive-time radio shows around the country. The way that works is that a woman hired by the book company comes on the phone and acts as a sort of air traffic controller. She tells me where we’re going next (“Here comes Lisa and Tread in Albany for nine minutes and then you go to Bubba the Love Sponge out of Tampa. If you go long we lose Omaha so I WILL cut you off.”) and keeps the clock. At one point I was taking too long to wrap up with one city—I ignored both the warning beeps—and by the time I finished talking I was on the air in another town—who had no idea what I was talking about.
Everyone I spoke with was pretty good (although a couple were under the impression that I was a former A&R man who had written a book about my experiences). What’s wild was to switch from talking to a Zoo Crew comedy team who wanted to ask questions about groupies, to a thoughtful type who’d read the novel and wanted to discuss the issues in it, to a drive-time jock who just wanted to ask how we got the phrase “jack off” past the censors on the Go-Go’s Behind the Music.
You’d think doing interview after interview so quickly would wear you down, but you pick up steam as you go. At first you’re self-conscious about talking to thousands of people and you try to be real diplomatic. Fifteen interviews later you’re mouthing off like a drunk in a bar. What’s genuinely strange is that you often keep the same train of thought going as you jump from station to station, leaving only fragments in each place.
Here’s what I mean: One theme of A&R that a lot of disc jockeys wanted to talk about was the suggestion in the book that we’re seeing a sort of meltdown of the rock record business that rose in the sixties. The idea put forward by the most cynical character in the novel is that the rock culture that started with the Beatles ended with Nirvana, and the record business has returned to its pre-rock shape—an assembly line of cute, replaceable singers with no ambitions toward art, performing catchy songs supplied by professional hit-makers. In other words—the music business that came attached to the counterculture has finally died. Make way for the Stepford Singers.
That’s a provocative argument, and many radio people have strong feelings about it. I was struck by how many of the DJs I spoke with were full of contempt for Britney and Christina, ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. Those pop acts represent the devil to a whole generation of broadcasters who got into radio because they love rock and who can’t believe they are now stuck playing the children of Fabian.
So I’d start talking with the DJ from, say, Boulder about this idea, and he would tear into the teen pop singers. I’d say, “Yeah, right,” and roll along with my rap.
But in fairness, I wanted to say that I have nothing against those pop acts, my kids love some of them, and at least one of them will probably turn out to have real talent, in the great kid idol tradition of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. However, by the time I got to that point, Boulder was gone and I was talking to Baton Rouge. So Baton Rouge would get me defending ‘N Sync—which would lead to the DJ suggesting that each generation of kids needs a way into music, and there have always been Monkees or New Kids … and by now we’re talking to New Haven and it’s become a discussion of teen idols through the years. The announcer says, “Hey, at the height of the Beatles we also had Herman’s Hermits,” and I say, “Right, but the difference was, you still had the Beatles. Now we’ve ONLY got Herman’s Hermits.”
By the time that leaves my mouth I’m out of New Haven and talking to Portland, where I rush to say that there are lots of great rock bands out there, from Travis to Wilco to the Roots, but you wouldn’t know it from the radio …
You get the idea. By the end of four hours I felt I had finally articulated what I really thought about the weird state of the pop music biz in 2000—but I had articulated it in fragments spread across the country.
Here’s what made the situation stranger. A reporter from New York magazine was listening to my half of all these conversations for an article he is writing about me. To sit here and write a Slate posting about a reporter doing a story on me talking to a stream of interviewers seems more than confusing—it seems ridiculous. (I don’t even want to get into how goofy it will be if the reporter incorporates this posting into his article.)
I’m very proud of A&R, and I’m very proud of the shows VH1 makes and I am grateful for the chance to plug them. But to spend so much time talking about yourself is flat-out embarrassing.
It makes me think about another big trend that—like the rock business—caught fire in the sixties and expanded with each new decade: the proliferation of information media. It began because of the public’s appetite for coverage of huge events—the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the race to the moon, the war in Vietnam, the sexual revolution, riots in the streets, assassinations. In the nineties we ran out of big news, but we kept coming up with new news media, and we have to keep filling it with something.
I really appreciate the folks at Slate inviting me to do this diary, but I’m sure glad it’s over. If we don’t find some real subjects to write about, the media is not going to self-destruct—it’s going to self-absorb.