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Get To Know A Critic: Amanda Petrusich

In the age of blogging, when so many of the fundamentals of music criticism have changed (Are critics important any more? How can you tell?), Amanda Petrusich is making the job work for her. The field may be fractured, but there's not a part of it that the 30-year-old Brooklyn-based critic doesn't have a solid foothold on. She's a presence in the mainstream media (The New York Times), on the web (Pitchfork), and whatever's in between (Paste). She's also written two books: the entry on Nick Drake's album Pink Moon in the 33 1/3 series, and It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways and the Search for the Next American Music.

Want a taste? This month you can read Petrusich writing about the British punk band Male Bonding in Pitchfork's year-end wrap-up, Odetta in the Oxford American's annual Southern Music issue, and her picks for the best live pop and rock music in New York City each week in the Friday issue of The New York Times.

Read one of Petrusich's books, and you'll get a sense of what she's like as a person as well as a critic: someone who cares about the place, and they way, music is made, and who holds the music she loves very close to her.

With so many outlets, we wanted to know both how she manages to keep everything straight, and how she approaches a 30-word blurb differently from a 300 page book.

1. What's your ideal way to listen to a record? (headphones, stereo, alone, with other people?) How do you actually listen most of the time?
There's this great passage towards the end of Let's Talk About Love, Carl Wilson's 33 1/3 book about Celine Dion, where he talks about how certain kinds of music (like, say, Sonic Youth) are especially good for making aesthetic judgments to, and that's why, traditionally, a band like Sonic Youth is so universally lauded by critics, even though they don't sell that many records. Or at least it's one of the reasons.

And it's true — some music is easier to type to, and some music rewards repeat listens in different ways. My knee-jerk tendency is to want to listen to music on vinyl, through headphones (no earbuds, never earbuds), all alone, with the lights turned off (in other words, the way I listened to music when I was fifteen), but I fight that whenever possible, because it's really not fair. Music doesn't function that way; it needs to breathe.

If I'm stuck on a record review, I'll put something on my iPod and ride around on the subway for an hour, listening on my headphones. I think almost all music sounds better on the subway or in a moving car with the windows rolled down. Or I'll go for a run with it — there's no better way to get inside the rhythm section of a song than by running to it. It's not always practical to implement, but I do at least try to think about where and when something was meant to be heard.

2. How many publications do you write for? How many pieces do you write each week? How long is each piece?
This varies from month to month. I'm usually in cahoots with at least 4-5 different publications at any given time. Every week I write the pop and rock concert previews for The New York Times, which run about 2,000 words — they're little blurbs about the best upcoming shows in the city. I file those every Friday morning. I'm usually working on two or three record reviews, and those range from short (90 words in Spin), or longer (maybe 400-600 words at Pitchfork). I just finished a long essay about Odetta for the Oxford American's music issue — I've contributed to the music issue before, and it's a dream assignment, really, because there aren't any rules or predetermined angles or promotional concerns, it's just writing from the heart.

I'm also working on a 2000-word piece about Loretta Lynn for eMusic, and I've been chipping away at a feature about Iron and Wine since last March; I just got back from a trip to Chicago where I watched them rehearse for a few days. And I'm doing a reported piece for the Times about a group called Kidrockers — it hosts indie-rock shows for parents and their young children. Freelancing is a bit of grab bag, which keeps it fun.

3. Do you have a listening routine for music that you write about? How many times do you need to listen to an album?
It varies — sometimes I need to listen to a record 45 times before I have a single usable idea about what's going on with it. Sometimes I get halfway through a track and the review starts writing itself.

4. Do you feel a responsibility to listen to music you don't like? How quickly do you dismiss things you don't like?
I mean, no one wants to sit around listening to records they hate. It's a critic's responsibility to be as honest as possible, but the longer I do this, the less likely I am to take an assignment for a record or genre or artist that I'm naturally, instinctively predisposed to dislike. Maybe that makes me a s***tier critic, but I think it makes me a happier human being. Overall, I don't think you end up with this job unless you like — or, better, love — many different kinds of music. And I do feel a responsibility to maintain a vocabulary — if people are talking about something, if it's having a cultural impact of some kind, I'll give it a few good, honest listens at the very least.

5. Was there someone who pushed you to become a music critic, a mentor or an influence?
Music writing is not coal mining, obviously, but it's a hustle, and I think it needs to be a self-directed one — I made my own bed, is what I'm saying. But there are a bunch of writers whose work really deeply touched and inspired me — Joan Didion, Ellen Willis, Nick Tosches. When I was a kid, reading David Fricke in Rolling Stone and Charles Aaron in Spin. Ann Powers is always an inspiration. Chuck Eddy (then at the Village Voice) was one of my first real editors, and I learned a huge amount from him. He's always been really supportive of young critics.

6. What are the perks of your job? Can you accept free concert tickets/gifts/box sets/swag/lunch? What do you do with CDs you get sent in the mail that you don't want?
I've been trying my best to curtail the amount of promotional material that comes my way — this is a ridiculous thing to complain about, but I do feel horribly guilty about all the time/money/plastic involved in this process, which feels very inefficient on both ends. I prefer digital downloads of new records, because that way if I can't write about something (and really, I can't write about 99% of the CDs that get sent to me), at least it didn't cost the band any additional money, and it's not filling up another landfill with padded envelopes and jewel cases.

A couple times a year I'll take a bunch of boxes to my local Salvation Army, but I feel guilty about that, too, because then they have to deal with it. A lot of the publicists I work with are really fantastic about learning writers' tastes and tailoring their pitches and mailings to suit that, which helps, but the truth is that there are a lot more records being released than column inches available. But beyond CDs — the bulk of which are unsolicited — I don't get much swag!

7. Do you remember the first piece of music you wrote about?
I wish I did.

8. Have you ever changed your mind about a piece of music you wrote about?
This happens, but not as often as you might think (maybe because I don't have time to revisit too many old records). Of course, there are times when I've gotten something totally wrong — but it was still an honest reaction, so I try to stand by it. I started teaching undergraduate creative writing at NYU this year (my class is called Writing About Popular Music) and more than anything else, I've tried to teach my students how important it is for a critic to trust her instincts. I have way more regrets about some genuinely terrible writing that's been published.

9. How hard is your job? What are the parts of your job that you don't like?
I don't know why anyone would do this if they didn't love it — the pay is generally horrific, but I still can't believe how lucky I am to have this job. There are times when I feel like a s***head for being honest about not liking something (I don't especially delight in writing negative reviews), and I wish that all writers were paid better (or at least on time). But I get to write about music all day long, which is the only thing I've ever wanted to do, and 99% of the time, that's just as fun as it sounds.

10. Are there days when you just don't want to listen to music? What happens on those days?
Oh, definitely. And there are lots of albums that I've ruined by over-listening (and over-listening in a critical way, analyzing every last little thing) that I wish I could go back and hear again with virgin ears, just get back to that guttural, honest place, that first connection. There are days where I don't feel like listening to music and I don't feel like writing, and I do them both anyway.

11. All different types of music can be good, but is there a quality that good music shares? I guess this is a way of asking if you have an operating philosophy for determining what you like.
Personally, I tend to be drawn to music that feels really tenuous and scrappy — like it could fall apart at any second. For me, that could mean garage-rock, it could mean Hank Williams. Like any art, you just want it to be honest. You just want it to make you feel something.

12. I'm interested in the weekly work you do for the Times. Who picks the concerts you write about, and do you mostly write about musicians you're already familiar with? For the ones you don't know as well, what kind of preparation do you do before writing?
I pick the shows that get previewed. I really do try to represent a range of styles, because at the Times, pop and rock includes almost all genres that aren't classical or jazz — so everything from world music to classic rock to new age to cabaret to blues to R&B. It's been a fantastic (and edifying!) challenge, and my tastes have grown much broader in the almost three years I've been doing the column.

One thing I have learned — and this is going to sound silly — is that music is music, and whether it's rap or indie-rock or pop, the circuitry that makes you react to a melody or a backbeat is the same. So it turns out that I know a good zydeco song when I hear it! But I do quite a bit of research and listening, and occasionally I'll consult another critic or writer who has more specialized knowledge.

13. Your books mix some very in-depth criticism with reporting in different amounts. How does writing a longer piece — a book, say — change the way you think about music?
It really is a luxury to be able to write long-form music criticism. There are almost infinite ways to riff on a piece of music or a genre or a movement or a place, whether you're approaching it as a piece of reportage or a personal essay. I hope that writing books has helped me develop a more comprehensive and multi-dimensional way of thinking about music — for instance, now I think more about where a record came from, who made it, where they lived, what they were eating.

For better or worse, I've become less interested in objective, academic criticism, and more interested in the personal parts of songwriting — what it means to the author and what it means to the listener. I used to feel like those opinions were less valid and had no place in criticism. Now I'm beginning to think that they're the only parts that matter.

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Jacob Ganz