The end’s not near, it’s here
So as all of you (or all of you that would care, at least) probably know by now, today is the last day of new content to be offered by the website for which I’ve written for the last four and a half years (and which has generously hosted and nursed this blog for the last nine months). Stylus editor Todd Burns has decided that after a half-decade of running the site, for much of the time with little or no assistance, he’s hanging up his spurs, and rather than choose a successor (who would almost definitely end up losing interest in and squandering the site within a year’s time), he decided to pack up the whole thing. Truly, nothing could be scarier this Halloween than the prospect of an internet without it’s best music magazine.
But I’m going to try to restrain most of my writerly impulses to be as sentimental and melodramatic as possible in eugooglizing Stylus here. ‘Coz to be totally honest, this doesn’t really affect my day-to-day life that much, and to be even more honest, I might as well have stopped writing for Stylus years ago. While co-writer workhorses like friends of IITS Ian Mathers and Tal Rosenberg have continued to crank out review after review every week, I’d be surprised if I contributed an article a month this last year. What’s more, I’ve only written one actual review of a new album in the last 18 months (dNTEL’s Dumb Luck), and it was a truly miserable experience and probably a truly shitty review.
Fact is, I don’t belong at Stylus, and I haven’t for a long time now. Which isn’t to say I’ve had some humongous ideological breach with the site, or that it’s somehow worsened over the years of my writing for it, or that the Stylus community has in any way made me feel like I didn’t deserve to be a part of it. It’s just that Stylus is, at heart, a magazine for music writers, and I guess I should accept that that’s not really what I am–at least anymore, at least not in that way. I barely listen to 20 new albums a year, and the great majority of those I cram in come November-December just so I’ll have a decent list to submit for year-end compilations. But even that wasn’t enough of a draw for me this year, and out of a combination of embarrassment and deadline confusion, I didn’t even submit a ’07 year-end list for Stylus–something that the me of four years ago would’ve seen as the ultimate in heresy.
And to submit one last piece of semi-brutal honesty, I haven’t really read the site in ages. I mean, I browse–if there’s a new album I have a passing interest in, I might look for the grade and skim the beginning and ending paragraphs, and if there’s a non-review article written on a band, song or album I actually do care about, I’ll probably read most of it, and in some cases, even the whole thing. But ultimately, I’m the kind of reader that music writers (especially those at Stylus) hate, and for good reason. So what business could I possibly have posing as one myself?
It’s also hard to get too misty-eyed about the site’s demise when I spent my entire Stylus career in perpetual fear of being fired. This was largely due to the editorial genius of Todd Burns–a man who, whether he realized he was doing it or not, was positively brilliant in getting results from his writers by being almost unceasingly ice-cold to them. For 95% of article and review submissions, the only comments you’d get from the man was “received.” When he made announcements on the staff board, they were terse and to-the-point. Even when he engaged in board conversations on the subjects he was most passionate about, you still felt like he was laying his opinions down as executive statements and memos.
As such, writers such as myself felt an unending craving for his near-parental approval, and when possible, worked to reflect it. When you failed him, he never actually called you out on it, but you just knew that secretly he was making note of the disappointment in his great mental Stylus file cabinet. The guilt and shame was unbearable, consequently, while I might have fucked up a whole lot over the course of my Stylus career, I’m pretty sure at least that I never fucked up twice in a row.
What made the man a truly prodigious editor, though, was how he gave you just enough encouragement to stop you from ever throwing up your hands and firebombing the whole site. I don’t know how he did it, but it seemed like whenever I was reaching my tipping point, he’d respond to one of my articles with an actual “good job on this,” or “thanks for putting in the effort,” or something like that. And that one piece of approval was enough to fuel tolerance for another six months of “received” responses.
Still, I always figured that eventually he’d reach a tipping point of his own. I’d miss one deadline too many, I’d try a little too hard to push the site towards the pop-centric agenda I’d always basically been trying to propagate and make enemies out of one too many of the album-centric senior writers, I’d make one too many snarky comments to make him realize he never liked me as a person or a writer and hey, he could boot me whenever he felt like it. Whenever he IMed me or e-mailed me or called me or in any way attempted to convey that he wished for some communication between the two of us, I was like Redd Foxx in Sanford and Son–this was gonna be it, the big one, PopMatters, I’m comin’! But somehow, it never happened. The fact that Stylus is meeting its demise while I’m still in board is something I never could’ve guessed four years ago, and in a perverse way, I feel like I’ve won some sort of endurance contest, probably at Todd’s expense. (For the record, Todd Burns in person is an extremely nice, friendly, welcoming, funny, and not-at-all ice-cold person, though I still secretly suspect that he hates me, and I likely always will–I’d almost be disappointed to find out otherwise at this point).
Now that I’ve gotten all that other stuff out of the way, though, I’m still going to get a little sentimental here. Because, despite our falling out over the last few years, without Stylus Magazine, I simply wouldn’t be here right now. And I mean that on several levels, obviously. First and most literally, I wouldn’t be at this blog–something which I’ve fantasized about doing for years of increasingly less satisfying Stylus writing, and which I have to credit Todd for finally giving me the impetus and motivation to actually start. Though I’ve been slacking off a little more than I should recently, and though sometimes writing articles at 3:00 in the morning after a night’s drinking isn’t always something I really want to be doing, this blog is everything that I’ve always wanted and hoped for in my career as a music writer (minus, y’know, the getting paid part)–a place where I can talk about whatever I want in the way I want to do it without worrying about schedule conflicts, article guidelines or editorial expectations, and a place where I still feel like I have even better and more passionate readers than I did on Stylus. If my four years at Stylus result in nothing else, its leading to the creation of this blog would automatically make it time well spent.
On another level, I have no idea if I’d be doing internet writing at all if not for Stylus. I can’t imagine who else besides Stylus (and Todd, specifically) would’ve been willing to take a chance on a 16-year-old indie kid with no writing experience, just on the reccomendation of a different 16-year-old indie kid with no writing experience (Long Story Short of how I got to Stylus: me and my friend Kareem tried out in HS, he got in but I didn’t, but he re-reccomended me and I ended up staying at the site twice as long as he did). Stylus allowed me to experiment with and work out my writing style that, say, the NYU newspaper never could have, to a point where I actually feel relatively comfortable with myself as a writer, a claim I definitely couldn’t have made back in 2003.
And on the furthest level, I have no idea if I’d even be here at NYU, or if I’d have made it to college at all without Stylus. Without having that sort of music-writer identity, and a place where I could confirm that identity to myself and the world on a weekly basis, I have no clue what would have been driving me career and goal-wise at all. My interests are disturbingly narrow, my skill set somehow even narrower–if I hadn’t become a music writer, I can’t imagine what there would have been left for me to get into (drugs? dental hygeine? promiscuity?) It’s sort of a scary thought, really.
But it’s not just what it did for me, my career and my identity that made my time at Stylus so worthwhile. I made a casual mention of it up there a little while back, but I do really mean it–Stylus is, by far, the best music writing site on the internet right now. The depth and diversity of the quality writers for the site is simply staggering–writers that can cover everything from Norwegian death metal to pre-teen chart pop with thoroughness, insight and clarity, on a regular basis. You’ve got countless series of creative, unusual, non-review-related columns (several of which for whom I’m proud to have had a part in the creation), a constant willingness to try out new ideas without neglecting the old ones, even a layout that just kept getting cooler. We even had Dom Passantino, fer chrisssake. However diminsihed my part in it might have become, I couldn’t be prouder to have played a part in it at all.
The fact that it never was, and in all reality, never possibly could be, as widely viewed and as influential as Pitchfork is more about editorial ideological differences than any actual superiority in quality. Todd Burns and Pitchfork mastermind Ryan Schrieber were likely just as skilled and hard-working at their respective jobs, but what they wanted out of their sites were totally different. Schrieber, despite what he might say to the contrary, was all about singularity. His brilliance was (and is) in how he managed a series of writers almost as diverse as Stylus’s cast and made it seem like the entire site was always speaking with one voice. Consequently, when they give an album a positve review, it feels like the whole site–not just the entire staff, but the entire site’s history and track record–is behind it. This is the main reason why Pitchfork doesn’t give new albums 10.0’s anymore–because the review isn’t just one man’s opinion, but the unanimous voice of the whole staff, and who wants to reccomend an album so thoroughly whole-heartedly when a lot of people might disagree, or the album might not sound so great a few months later?
Todd, on the other hand, was all about plurality. He used to publish multiple reviews of the same album from writers with differing viewpoints just so it wouldn’t seem like we were handing pronouncements from on high. Similarly, one of Stylus’s best regular articles was the On Second Thought column, in which writers would defend or put down albums in an against-the-grain manner, often when we had previously published reviews or blurbs that the OST would directly oppose. Even on the best of all-time lists we’d publish (many of which were the result of my constant prodding for more, more, ALWAYS MORE LISTAGE) he’d always take the time to make some “this is just our opinion, if you agree, cool, if not, whatever” type qualification. With so little attempt to claim authority, it’s no surprise the site had barely a fraction of Pitchfork’s influence–after all, it was always only one man’s opinion.
That’s not to say that Pitchfork’s model is a bad or in any way cheap or immoral one–there was an available and necessary-to-fill niche in internet music criticism, Schrieber was brilliant to be the first to jump into it, and I have nothing but respect for him for it (though I do wish he’d own up to his site’s self-created-and-perpetuated identity a little more). But if you ask me which model I’d rather read, or rather write for, it’s gotta be Stylus’s–a site which tolerated even the most outlandish opinions as just as worthy as those that toed the party line, and which did so totally unapologetically.
I do wish I could still feel the connection with the site in its last days that I did at the beginning. When I first heard, several months ago, that the site’s folding was imminent, I only felt a twinge or two of sadness, and even less of surprise. Stylus’s readership has, I believe, plateaued some time ago, and Todd was doing way too much work for way too little financial reward to make the site feasible for too much longer. Frankly, lasting as long as he did is something I consider a Herculean achievement. But as the rest of the staff writes dolorous farewells and shares stories about breaking down crying while reading our final day’s pieces, I can barely even bring myself to browse through them. Maybe I should consider myself lucky that this isn’t affecting me so much, but I feel like with all it’s given me, Stylus deserves more than just a conflicted blog post. So to our readers, to the rest of the staff, and of course, to Todd, I’m sorry that there was more that I could’ve done for the site that I didn’t, I’m sorry that I pushed the site in a direction it didn’t always want to go in, I’m sorry that I didn’t do more of my part in at least upping the site’s hit count by visiting 20 times a day, and most of all, I’m really sorry that I’m not sorrier now that it’s all over.
At least I’m getting a chance to do my part to send the site off properly this weekend. Stylus writers are coming from all over the country (and even a couple from different ones) to give Stylus the New Orleans-style alochol-and-karaoke-soaked funeral that it so richly deserves. I can’t remember the last (non-trivia-related) weekend I was so excited for–it might even date back to the last great Stylus meet-up in 2005, a similarly alcohol-and-karaoke-soaked celebration that the site so richly deserved. It’s all coming full circle, and I just hope my voice recovers from last night’s KOing by then. In the meantime, time to begin the long and arduous search for a new home page.
(Stay tuned the next few days for stories about some of my favorite contributions to the site, and maybe even a couple written by other dudes)