Just as older writers have to be on guard to make sure their references don't alienate young readers, young writers also have to make sure that their references make sense to a wider audience. Sasha Frere-Jones is a music critic who writes online and in the pages of the New Yorker. He says that he explains things differently depending on the medium he's using.
Sasha Frere Jones is The New Yorker’s pop critic, and he may be one of those slang using whippersnappers that Keyes referred to. Of course, in the pages of the magazine, he’s a master explainer, charting the currents of pop culture for a broad audience.
But when he blogs or Twitters, he employs a lexicon that oldsters may find as tough to crack as the enigma code — along the lines of “Holy narc basket on a Wasa cracker,” or “We got caught in that ambient desk jazz traffic jam and then broke up just as indie got its dance card back." Oh, yeah.
But Frere Jones is always mindful of the medium when he chooses his words. For instance, at The New Yorker he pays attention when the editor raises a question about a given cultural allusion, like the day he was writing about the band, Arcade Fire. SASHA FRERE JONES: And there are several moments in their music where they sound pretty much exactly like Echo and the Bunnymen, and it’s not super important but it felt weird to not mention it, the way it would be strange to talk about, let's say, Lady Gaga and not have a reference to Madonna. So anyway BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I have no idea who Lady Gaga is, so there you go. SASHA FRERE JONES: Well, there you go. You can't win. [BROOKE LAUGHS] There was a moment where an editor actually said to the room in general — and people don't generally address everyone in the room at The New Yorker — but he said, how many people here know Echo and the Bunny Band? He didn't call them Echo and the Bunnymen. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And enough people raised their hands. He said, okay, go ahead.
But I understood his impulse was, like, let's not alienate our readers. And in principle I agree with him. I've got no stake in dropping a lot of names. Who cares? It’s got to make sense, got to help you.
And in this case I thought, the sound is really there, and the voice. It’s an unusual male voice, so I thought, you know, I should mention this. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when conveying something that’s art, the first impulse, it seems to me, would be to reach for a metaphor SASHA FRERE JONES: Sure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: or an analogy, and this is precisely where you run up against this reference issue. SASHA FRERE JONES: Right. I can't say, you know, M is like early Pharoahe Monch cut with a little bit of Chino XL. It’s not going to help anybody. [BROOKE LAUGHS] You’re writing hopefully for not just a wide audience, but hopefully in a hundred years if somebody comes back and finds this article from the ashes of civilization, where it’s like Wall E - [BROOKE LAUGHS] - it may crush all my work into a little box and somebody decodes it with a new infrared text reader BROOKE GLADSTONE: And we all know the Wall E reference. SASHA FRERE JONES: Wall E. [LAUGHTER] I just watched Star Wars yesterday with my very sick child, and it’s just amazing how Wall E is R2 D2. [BROOKE LAUGHS] Everyone knows - wait a minute, there we go. Okay, there’s a reference. Totally unplanned, I swear to God.
But that would be an instance where not mentioning R2 D2 feels like I would not be doing my job. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we can't wipe out our culture. SASHA FRERE JONES: We don't want to alienate people. On the other hand, let me not coddle the reader. Like, get up. You know, use the Internet. If you don't know what it is, figure out what it is. Bad writing is one thing, but a couple of references you don't know, well, maybe that’s how you find out about that thing.
Maybe it’s that you love George Pelecanos or Richard Price. Well, if there’s someone who is just as good as they are and really obscure, well, I'd kind of like to know who that is. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. SASHA FRERE JONES: I might want to go to that person. And, or if people don't know that George Simenon was one of the first people to write the policier, okay. If you really love crime novels, maybe you should go check out this French dude. You might like him. You might not. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you have this voice for The New Yorker SASHA FRERE JONES: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: but you also have a couple of other writing voices. You've kept a personal blog since 2003. SASHA FRERE JONES: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've started Tweeting. And in those outlets you write in a way that’s very different from your New Yorker style. It’s dense — to me —with obscure references. Here’s a posting from a couple of years ago I think you got a little flak [LAUGHS] from, called It’s Off Tonight.
“Anyone expecting some kind of ‘Lyrical Gangbangs Keep Falling On My Head’ must take a quick sprint around the block, get some frogurt and find a new dream. Mr. Warwick’s new album is dire bougie make out piffle, and all Dr. Mr. Dre does is contribute three drum loops that I swear come off a sample CD.” SASHA FRERE JONES: Um — [BROOKE LAUGHS] — I wonder what record I was talking about? [LAUGHTER] Somebody responded to me last night and just said, I don't get your Tweets. And I thought, that’s an interesting thing to say because, I mean, with something like Twitter or the Web, you know, like a blog, I really do feel like, look, man, [LAUGHS] you don't have to look at it. And, you know, if it confuses you, stop reading it. Unfollow. Do whatever you want to do. It’s fine. I'm not offended, because I'm interested in what these things do, almost like instruments, which sounds a little bit corny, but
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean this new technology. SASHA FRERE JONES: Yeah. I want to see what they do. The only way I'm able to figure out what they do is by using them. The Web uses links intensely, which you can't do in print. You've got images. Twitter has this built in limit, which affects the voice in an interesting way. Why not take it for a spin?
I'm not going to get anywhere with my writing. It’s not going to help me if I'm duplicating something I'm doing during the day. If I'm not letting the technology take me somewhere, then why am I using it? BROOKE GLADSTONE: But getting back to your paid gig SASHA FRERE JONES: Sure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: has there ever been a moment, then, where a cultural or a musical reference or a historical reference that is exactly right —it should be there — you had to leave on the floor, and it still bothers you? SASHA FRERE JONES: No. I hope I don't lean on them too much. But language, that’s a whole different thing. There are times when I might want to be more figurative or metaphorical or I might want to use a certain rhythm or a certain joke. You often think, boy, I [LAUGHS] — whoah, that was funny, and the editor usually — who’s on the side of reason — says – [BROOKE LAUGHS] - yeah, it’s — no, it’s just confusing. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And, you know, you go home all rack em and frack em, right? And the next day you realize, wow, that was — yeah, see, I'm glad we didn't use that one. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Thank you very much. SASHA FRERE JONES: Oh, thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sasha Frere Jones is The New Yorker’s pop music critic. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from Ethan Chiel and Kara Gionfriddo. This is Kara’s last week with us, so thank you for everything, and good luck.
OTM is edited by me. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh. Our
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