More Talk, Less Rock
Minnesota Public Radio (KNOW-FM 91.1)
A few months ago, National Public Radio ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin wrote a column for the network's website complaining that the music reviews on NPR's All Things Considered were "too hip." Some listeners, he wrote, thought the music (Wilco, the Magnetic Fields, and Morrissey) "harsh," the accompanying commentary "incomprehensible." For him, these segments raised a poignant question: "How does NPR reach out to a younger group of listeners without irritating its older core?"
As if in answer, that very month, writer Kate Sullivan was busy taping an episode of her new weekly talk show about popular music, Pop Vultures, at the Prairie Home Productions studio in St. Paul.
"I hate Evanescence," began Hillary Churchill, Sullivan's guest and longtime cohort. "I hate all bands that are, like, quasi-Christian."
"They are quasi-Christian, aren't they," said Sullivan.
"Oh, for sure. Their lyrics are like: Is she talking about a guy? Is she talking about Jesus? I don't know! ...You could kind of go: 'Did she just have her first orgasm? Or did she see Jesus?'"
Sullivan went on to describe the "vibe" of the Evanescence song "Wake Me Up Inside" as follows: "vaguely spiritual...potentially Wiccan...And then there's the whole Enya influence, which is somehow druidical, if that's a word. Very Ren Fair, I'd have to say, but not. Not in a real way, but in sort of a McDonald's way. Like a McRen Fair vibe."
What would NPR's ombudsman make of these two female voices, so conspiratorial and casual, sharing the suppressed giggles of old friends? Sullivan and Churchill were backup singers in the short-lived but legendary Minneapolis glam-punk band the Odd. They know from trash. Now Sullivan commutes from L.A. to St. Paul, recording in both cities to host Pop Vultures, which airs on eight NPR affiliates and premieres in the Twin Cities area Sunday at 10:00 p.m. on Minnesota Public Radio (KNOW-FM 91.1). (To listen to the show online, visit popvultures.publicradio.org.) A longtime contributor to City Pages, and (I should say) somebody I've gotten drunk with, Sullivan seems like the perfect Wayne for her revolving cast of Garths--which includes Churchill; members of the Minneapolis joke band Vinnie and the Stardüsters; Sullivan's dad; and Jeff Whalen of West Coast glam-rockers Tsar. ("We just got dropped from Hollywood Records," he says, speaking over the phone from L.A. "So we're pretty excited about that.")
Sullivan sounds like a teenager in her 30s and doesn't mind explaining slang or unpacking her opinions so anyone can understand them. You can see why A Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor, who conceived the show with his son Jason Keillor and producer Kathryn Slusher, might consider Sullivan to be perfect for a sort of rock 'n' roll This American Life--and someone who could captivate rather than irritate NPR's graying audience.
"The motive for starting Pop Vultures was my own ignorance," admits 62-year-old Keillor, speaking via e-mail. "I know nothing about pop music after about 1975, and thought there should be a show for people like me."
Minnesota Public Radio wasn't always so receptive to the idea. Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis pitched a similar show after relocating to Minneapolis in 1996. He had already launched Sound Opinions, his rock-critic-centered gabfest, in Chicago and moved it to a local station, KSTP-AM (1500). Today he's back in Chicago, and recently celebrated the program's 300th episode on Chicago's WXRT-FM (93.1). But when it came to bringing Sound Opinions to MPR, they turned him down.
"We had some kids at MPR who really believed in this show," DeRogatis says. "So we had this big meeting with some of these MPR people around a conference table, and talk about your stuffed shirts. They were just like, 'Well, I don't think anybody will ever understand this. I don't think you understand our listeners.' And that's a problem. Look, eventually the people who listen to Lake Wobegon are all going to fucking die, and there's going to be nothing left for people on public radio."
In more recent years, MPR has approached something like the cutting edge of pop music criticism within mainstream public radio--highlighting unusual artists while staying true to the ideal of engaging a non-hip audience. Reporter Chris Roberts can somehow make a segment about a guy who records raindrops sound interesting. (To be fair, the musician in question, Mike Merz, is a great interview.)
The leap forward in Pop Vultures is the tone, which is conversational to the point of free association. When Sullivan gets together with filmmaker Garth Belcon (another regular on the show) to talk about Mary J. Blige, they topic-veer from the singer's vocal identity (Sullivan: "Unlike a lot of other women that are on the radio right now...she doesn't try to sound pretty") to her abundant assets:
Sullivan: She looks great, but she used to have kind of like a normal body.
Belcon: I see what you're saying. I think she just did her crunches and the Atkins, because the booty's there...I used to date a girl not too long ago who had buttocks. She went on a diet...and lost buttocks. Very, very tragic. That's why we're not together anymore.
Sullivan: You are such a pig. Oh my God. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, in booty and in bony...
Belcon: Till booty do us part, baby. Till booty do us part.
This kind of banter is a staple of college and community radio, of course: If the hosts of Radio K's Cosmic Slop (KUOM-AM 770) didn't careen wildly off topic, you'd be disappointed. Yet outside the tiny space corporate FM makes for local-music shows, such dorm-couch gushing is rare in rock talk.
In fact, rock talk on the radio is rare, period. Maybe that's because people who love music, like people who love sports or sex or God, eventually get around to talking about the things they hate--a favorite subject on Pop Vultures and Sound Opinions. "The programmer who's playing Dave Matthews once every hour, he doesn't want to hear two people talking about Dave Matthews sucking," says Jim DeRogatis.
This is a shame, because radio is the ideal medium for pop music criticism--for the very obvious reason that critics can actually play you the music they're talking about. There is also the less obvious reason that talk short-circuits the literary conceits, anxious wordplay, and other flowery bullshit clogging so many reviews. Radio captures that awkward moment, experienced by everyone who writes about music for a living, when a reader confronts you in person with the question: "So, what do you really think?"
"On this show," says Jeff Whalen, "people discuss music in a way in which people actually discuss it in actual life."
Pop Vultures might be slightly behind the times in this department: On the internet, MP3 weblogs such as Fluxblog (newflux.blogspot.com) have opened up the possibility of hearing music while reading about it, and writing about it in a way that's closer to the startling rhythms of human speech. The proliferation of this kind of media might even represent a new, more participatory form of music journalism. Sullivan herself is the author of a hyper-passionate personal weblog, Kate Sullivan's Rockblog (katesullivan.blogspot.com). And her approach to talk radio seems more rooted in the manic, saturated atmosphere of the web than in the strict mechanics of radio.
"My only background in radio is that I started to notice a few years ago that I was obsessed with it," she says, speaking over the phone from L.A. "Starting from age 12, I looked to radio as some kind of emotional crutch and balm and alternate world that I could be a part of."
Having taken her early inspiration from the freeform FM radio of her L.A. childhood, Sullivan now sees an analog to Pop Vultures in the democratic nature of contemporary sports opinion. "I love the way that everyday people can be experts, in a sense," she says. "I just feel like there is this ocean of everyday people all around you that know a lot about music, too, and have thought a lot about it, and feel a lot about it. I was going to a Prince concert on the subway with my friend, and a lot of people around us were wearing purple and started talking about Prince. It was amazing. I wish I'd had a tape recorder."
Not everybody likes this approach, of course. "They don't know what they're talking about," says DeRogatis. "What I've heard of [Pop Vultures], there's a lot of pride of ignorance. Of course, that could change."
And it's still an open question whether Sullivan's inclusiveness will extend to longtime NPR listeners. But one piece of fan e-mail from Huntsville, Alabama, suggests it might:
Whether or not NPR admits it, some of their listeners also listen to mainstream radio (when it's tolerable) and watch mainstream television. Your discussions of pop culture in the past eight years are realistic, articulate, and entertaining.
Of course, arguing with the show is part of the fun: "No," the same listener continues, "I didn't agree with every opinion stated (I don't think that everything Britney Spears touches turns to fairy dust)."
Everyone's a critic.
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