Tastemaker: Ann Powers

NPR’s foremost pop music writer and correspondent talks landing her first paid writing gig and the skills needed by today’s journalists.

Ann Powers has written for a who’s who of respected publications. The Seattle native began her career at The Rocket, one of the first magazines to help break grunge acts like Nirvana. She went on to become editor and columnist for San Francisco Weekly, and pop music critic at The New York Times as well the Los Angeles Times. However, since 2011 she has curated NPR music blog, The Record, making music predictions on everything from R&B and pop to dance music and rock.

Working remotely from her home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., a typical day will have Ann catching up on “whatever new music is out that week—not just albums, but mixtapes, what’s on Soundcloud, [and] stuff that’s causing a sensation on YouTube.” Here, she chats about her first writing gig, the appeal of talking about music day-in and day-out, career advice for new music writers, and her favorite artist interviews over the years.

Get In Media: When was your first paid writing gig? What was the subject?

Ann Powers: I grew up in Seattle and started out writing about local bands for my high school paper. This is pre-grunge! I covered New Wave and punk bands. I was approached by an editor for the Rocket, the legendary Seattle music magazine that later helped break artists like Nirvana and Mudhoney. My first article was about a band called Fred—my cousin and my boyfriend were both in the band, so I had some things to learn about conflict of interest! The first rock star I interviewed in person was Joan Jett. Her brilliance, attitude, and eyeliner techniques changed my life.

GIM: Why music, why talk about song, craft, musicianship? What’s the appeal?

AP: Since I was 10 or so, I’ve looked to music to help me understand my own emotions and the ways people treat each other in relationships. It’s my map of the human heart. Later I learned to read music and understand that it’s also this endlessly complicated language. And of course, it can help us understand the history of our nation—jazz, rock, soul, funk … those are the American art forms.

GIM: Describe an average day as an NPR music critic.

AP: I live in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where my family moved when my husband [rock critic Eric Weisbard] became a professor of American Studies at UA in 2009. So, obviously, I work remotely. An average day involves trying to catch up on whatever new music is out that week—not just albums, but mixtapes, what’s on Soundcloud, stuff that’s causing a sensation on YouTube. I read other music websites like The Wondering Sound and Soulbounce, and aggregators like The Daily Swarm, to see what’s happening. There’s always something new to contemplate and comment on. 

I do travel a lot and see as much live music as I can. This summer I’ll be in Nashville for a while, and then Los Angeles. When I’m in a bigger city I spend a lot of time checking out music and movies, too—all the popular arts are related.

GIM: What has changed about music criticism in the 90s versus music journalism in 2014?

AP: The huge difference is that we’re all online now. The move away from print destroyed the conventional careers my peers and I could once pursue. You can’t get paid the way you once did for a music feature, and staff jobs are few and far between. I am really very lucky to have been able to sustain myself doing what I do, considering this transition.

On the up side, the infinite expandability of the Web means that so many more voices are out there participating in the critical conversation. And I love the ongoing conversations made possible by social media. I do wish we would all take a collective breath sometimes, though. Snap judgments and the perceived need to weigh in on everything diminish criticism’s depth.

GIM: For someone looking to enter the field of music journalism, what career advice would you give them?

AP: Learn multimedia. That’s obvious. At the same time, hone your skills as a writer by reading a lot of books, not just blogs and Tumblrs. And spend time really listening to music. See as much live music as you can. But wear earplugs! I’ve lost a good amount of my hearing because I stuffed napkins in my ears at too many shows when I was younger.

GIM: As with any job, there are pros and cons to it, what are yours?

AP: Music writing isn’t always respected as its own pursuit. A music writer has never won a Pulitzer. I think many other journalists feel that anyone can do it—everybody likes music, right? But it does demand a strong self-education and the development of an ear, as well as a critical vision. What’s the pro? Well, you get to think about music all the time! That’s unbeatable.

GIM: You’ve been at NPR for three years now, culminating in (dare I say) a 30-year career as a journalist. Have you had a “pinch me” moment yet, like this is my life? I talk, write, and debate about music all day and I love it.

AP: Sure, but it is work, too. Most of my time I’m sitting at a computer, alone. I’m not complaining though.

GIM: Interviewing your favorite artists has to be one of the true perks of music writing. That being said, who has been your most favorite to chat with? Have you ever been star struck? And who was it?

AP: I always say interviewing Prince was the high point. And doing the book with Tori Amos—Tori Amos: Piece by Piece. I’ve been able to meet many people I admire so much, and engage in serious conversation with them. The Pearl Jam guys are special to me. I’m glad I met Bono and the rest of U2. Bruce Springsteen! Bonnie Raitt! I found Garth Brooks fascinating. I was lucky to interview Amy Winehouse before she passed. The list goes on. Right now I’m excited about younger artists I get to help out as they rise, great songwriters like Alynda Lee Segarra from Hurray For the Riff Raff or Sturgill Simpson.

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