A Conversation with Local Music Critic Stephen Deusner
Stephen Deusner is a music critic who lives here in Bloomington. He’s written for Pitchfork, Salon, and Stereogum–to name just a few. We met at Hopscotch Coffee on a Saturday afternoon and ended up talking for nearly two hours. Not all of our conversation is below, as the unabridged transcription is over 7,000 words long. I’ve left out the part where he says Car Seat Headrest’s Will Toledo is one of the best songwriters working today, and also the part where he confesses to being weirdly invested in Matt Berninger and Carin Besser’s marriage. But okay. Here you go.
You’ve sort of signed up to spend a lot of time thinking about music. Is there a way for you to explain why you’ve let music take up this place in your life?
I think partly ‘cause I’m not qualified to do much else. I’m not good at a whole lot, but I think I’m good at listening. I’m pretty obsessed with it. And I find that that obsession is fairly all-consuming because there’s never an end to it. I mean, even with a single artist, you can always dig deeper and further into their catalogue, so you’re never finished. And so their stories are never completed. Their stories are ongoing. And I think, like a lot of people, I want to know how these stories end. So I think that’s part of it. There’s also the reality of being married to an academic. My wife teaches art history, and because of that field, we’ve moved around a lot. We’ve lived in a lot of different places, and we would live in them for like a year. We lived in New York for just a year. It’s hard to find a job–like a real job–for that short a time. So it was easier for me to concentrate on this. I could make some money and I could sort of entertain this obsession. And I could kind of get around having to keep applying for real jobs every year or two.
Nice. One artist it was evident to me you got deep into is Elliott Smith, with that review you wrote of the new tribute record. In it you claim that “Pictures of Me” speaks for Amanda Palmer, and then you imply that maybe one reason everyone listens to music is to find songs that speak for us. Do you think music is a particularly useful medium for understanding and expressing ourselves?
Most definitely. Most definitely. And I think that works for listeners maybe even more than for artists. I’m always fascinated by when a song gets out into the world, and it can open up and mean something different to everybody. And it means different things at different times. You know, somebody might hear an Elliott Smith song to be about fame, or somebody could also hear it to be about a break-up. It can mean all these different things. So yeah, I would definitely say that listening becomes a very expressive thing. And that maybe isn’t consistent among every art form, but I could be wrong on that. I’d have to think about that some more.
What are some functions of music criticism?
Get me paid. I think that’s a good one. No, um… There are a lot, I guess. There’s the gate-keeper function. So, you know, we’re at a time when almost every song ever created is accessible through streaming services, downloads, and various forms. And even for somebody like me, that’s daunting. Where do you start? Where do you go? What are the directions? What are the pathways? And I think criticism does a good job of directing people, or providing useful maps so that people can direct themselves. I think you can read, say, Pitchfork a lot. You’re going to have a roadmap to what is going to be worthwhile to listen to and expose yourself to. And the more places you read, the more criticism you read, the more detailed that map becomes, I guess? The bigger it becomes as well. And then I think there’s also sort of–this is not my term; I can’t remember who came up with it–cultural narration. Like, all of this culture is happening, and I think criticism allows us to narrate it and tell a larger story and sort of make it something that is, um, at least somewhat organized? I think it’s also got a kind of preservative quality. I love going back and reading stuff from the ‘90s and ‘80s, older criticism that has such a different attitude or different approach to certain artists or certain trends or whatever.
How is the attitude different?
Somebody like Leonard Cohen. I’ve been listening to a lot of his stuff lately. I mean, his first three albums are kind of considered to be canon. They’re supposed to be like, amazing stuff. They’re a little too dire for me. I’m not a huge fan. But they’re so well-regarded. At the time, though, they were not. At the time, the New York Times had some snarky headline about: “Sad Young Man Makes Miserable Music.” Or something like that. And it sort of suggests that these things aren’t as subtle as they are now.
Are you ever concerned that someone will read a review you wrote on an album by an artist they’re already into before they’ve formed their own thoughts on the album? Are you ever concerned that you are helping people not think for themselves?
I mean, in a perfect world, I would do all the thinking for everybody.
I will be sure to note that you’re being serious.
I guess I don’t really care when they read it. ‘Cause on a certain level it’s a consumer guide. It’s like, with that Elliott Smith tribute album, for instance–if you read that before you put down fifteen dollars for the CD, and you can buy something else with that money, and you’re not disappointed, that’s a good thing. It’s a function of service journalism. When I write, I make the assumptions that my readers are gonna be open-minded and that they might not agree with me. In fact, I don’t want everybody to agree with me. I used to want consensus and agreement and empirical fact. But now I like the idea that people might disagree. I think that’s fun. I think that’s a useful thing. I just hope that, whenever they read it, they will be open-minded and allow a range of ideas, and maybe use what I’ve written as the foundation for deeper thinking or even more complex ideas of their own.
When did you shift from wanting consensus to maybe wanting to challenge people?
You know, I don’t know. I think it happened around the time that I realized that nobody can ever be an expert on everything that’s ever been recorded, and I stopped having hang-ups about being an authority all the time. Like, I can research and I can prepare for a review, but I don’t have to walk around town knowing every last thing. I think once I sort of let go of certain insecurities, I kind of let go of this need for empirical truth about albums. There wasn’t a eureka moment. It was just a gradual shedding of insecurities, an appreciation of the fact that there’s a lot of variety of opinion and experience. Which is something I’ve always thought in regards to society at large. I love the fact that there are so many different experiences in the world, that nobody lives life the same way. I think that’s an amazing thing. It took me a while to sort of apply that to music.
That was actually one thing I thought about when I read that line in your review of Say Yes! Something I enjoy about music is hearing other people’s experiences, not necessarily finding how theirs mirror my own.
Exactly. But yeah, I’m much more interested in how people live with songs than with how songs were created. I’m not a songwriter, and I’m not a musician. That’s how I connect–as a listener. Appreciating the experience of going back after a year or two and seeing: “Okay, does this hold up? Does this mean the same thing it meant to me when I was 21?”
Is this one reason you like [R.E.M.’s] Murmur a lot? The lyrics are so…vague, it’s easy to construct your own meaning?
Yeah? The vocals are pretty vague, too.
I actually just listened to an episode of a podcast with Michael Stipe in which he says he wasn’t confident in his voice when they recorded Murmur.
Which is weird ‘cause they had been a live band around Athens for a couple years by then. It wasn’t like they just formed a band and went into the studio the next day. I’m taking that with a grain of salt. I think he’s just being…
Modest or something?
Well, evasive. I think he’s trying to be mysterious, you know? I think he understands the attraction of mystery, especially Southern mystery.
Speaking of mysterious figures, do you think Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize is deserved?
I do. Do I think it’s more deserved than it would be for Haruki Murakami, or Philip Roth, or somebody like that? Not necessarily. But I do think that the man changed the way people write lyrics, write popular music. And in doing so, he elevated lyrics. Whether that elevation is always good is a different matter. But I think he’s had an enormous impact on literature and on words. So yeah, I think he’s definitely a worthy honoree. He’s not necessarily at the top of my list.
Are there other lyricists you would nominate for the Nobel Prize?
Maybe Michael Stipe, I guess. But then the last like twenty years of R.E.M. albums have argued against that. He became very declarative in his songwriting. Plus, you know, Dylan’s been around and active for more than fifty years. I can’t think of too many other songwriters who have that body of work. I mean, maybe Leonard Cohen? But hmm, I don’t know.
Are there artists with not such an extensive body of work whom you think maybe one day, if they continue with their current level of merit, could deserve the Nobel Prize?
I think Lori McKenna. Do you know her?
She’s a country singer-songwriter. She…It’s very…Okay, so look: Springsteen. That’s who I should have said earlier. He’s deserving. McKenna writes a lot like him. Full of very vivid details and very strong storylines. Her songwriting, it just…I don’t know how she does it. She’s just one of those artists…It’s just magical. I don’t know where it comes from. It’s kind of fun to think about it like that–not as a written thing, but as a magic trick or something. I love her stuff. It’s so earthy and…In fact, I’d say my favorite song of the year is her song “Humble and Kind,” which she wrote as lessons to her kids. Tim McGraw had a hit with it at the beginning of the year, but then she released it on an album I think back in July. And her version is just like, so beautiful. It’s amazing.
Are there any other artists you want to recommend?
[Smiles] Yes. Lydia Loveless. I saw her in Los Angeles last month, and I liked her to begin with, but seeing her live knocked my socks off. Real is one of my favorite albums of the year. Just a really gutsy, bold, smart songwriter.
Have you heard of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever?
They just signed with Sub Pop. They’re an Australian band. They’re one of my favorite indie rock bands right now. They’re so much fun. They’re amazing. They’ve got a new EP coming out in March, but they’ve got an old EP that is stupendous. It’s called Talk Tight. It’s so good. It’s like that band Real Estate, but if they were more punk and catchier and had backbone.
Have you listened to LVL UP’s new album?
They recently signed with Sub Pop. It sorta just makes me want to listen to Neutral Milk Hotel. It’s got that indie ‘90s thing going on, and nasal vocals. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is probably my favorite album of all time. We were talking about constructing meaning out of vague lyrics. Something that’s really fun about listening to Neutral Milk Hotel, and also Joanna Newsom, is getting very specific details and fitting them together to construct a narrative. I don’t know, there’s more collaboration in that, between the artist and the listener. It’s easier for me to develop an attachment to albums like that.
Yeah. I think that’s a really good point, especially considering the themes of that album. You almost kind of want to have not everybody in the world get it, to have like a less communal relationship with it.
I bought that album when it came out, and I liked it. It did not mean a thing to me beyond, “Oh, this is a pretty good album” until my dad died. And then it became very important to me. And I think what that album has to say about grief, and how we experience grief, and how we get over loss, is phenomenal. I mean, there’s never been anything like it in pop music that I can think of off the top of my head. I just think it’s remarkable. That whole mythology–in the music, not around the record; in the music and in the lyrics–is amazing. It’s an amazing record.
Something that I love about Aeroplane is that it’s very uncool. Like, “I love you, Jesus Christ” is not a cool sentiment. I think one way the narrator’s dealing with grief is by holding Heaven as a place of reunion. It’s a source of comfort for him, I think.
Yeah. I think it is kind of a Christian album in that regard. I remember when my dad passed away, the idea that, “Oh, he’s in a better place now,” or, “You’ll see him again someday”–those kind of sentiments made me angry. Because they seemed to be dismissing the reality of my loss. But I don’t ever get that from that album. Which is odd.
I think there are so many things thrown at you, so many details, you get to pick and choose.
Yeah. But I think maybe he’s using Heaven as a destination. If you can show your work to get to Heaven, that’s one thing. But if you just start with the assumption that Heaven exists, that’s another thing. I don’t know if that makes sense even to me.
Yeah, I kind of lost you.
To put it a different way, I don’t think that album offers easy answers, or answers at all. Whereas I think the people who say, “Oh, he’s in a better place”–that’s an easy answer. That’s a pat response from people who don’t know or can’t face the magnitude of what you’re dealing with. And I think that he can face that magnitude. That’s what makes that record so amazing. This is all off the top of my head.
I think that album’s become a classic. I think it took a while to grow into that status. I remember when I was in college, there was this canon that everybody seemed to be familiar with, that you felt you needed to be able to talk about. Unfortunately, it was a lot of bullshit. A lot of Eric Clapton. And so I always wonder, like, for people like you, what are those canonical albums that you have to be familiar with? Is Aeroplane one of them? Or does it just sort of speak to you? I mean, obviously it speaks to you. I don’t know, I’m fascinated by generations, especially young generations, coming by and picking what they want out of the stuff my generation had. And I think a lot of people are insecure about that, but I love it.
Insecure about it?
I think people don’t want to admit that they don’t write the rules anymore, that they don’t determine pop culture. And so when you hear people say, “Oh, they don’t write ‘em like they used to anymore,” or, “Music’s just not as good as it used to be,” or something like that, I always think that’s bullshit. It’s just a different generation coming along and saying, “Yeah, you like this, but this doesn’t really translate.” Like Joy Division wasn’t popular. New Order was really a cult band until the ‘90s. But, you know, around the millennium, people got really into those bands and found them to be a lot more meaningful at that time than maybe they had been 30 years, 20 years earlier. Or however long, I don’t know. So I always love that. I love that process of people going back through the culture of previous generations and finding stuff that they either disregard or treasure. And I’m always kind of curious about how the people who are determining rock culture, kids in their teens and early twenties–kids to me, obviously not to you–see the music of my generation and of previous generations. There’s so much history that you have, almost too much history.
I want to ask you about something that some people think music can’t do, which is affect people’s political opinions. We had a lot of songs come out this year that are anti-groupthink, anti-Trump. Do you think it’s possible for music to reach people who don’t already agree with its message and change what they think?
Part of me just wants to say “yes,” that part of me that’s very hopeful about my profession, about the art form, about people in general, about the political sphere. But honestly right now I’m not feeling hopeful in the least. I’m feeling really really beat down. I think that it can. I think. But it seems that it would have to take new approaches. It can’t be the same approach we’ve always used. Like, Tom Morello has that Nightwatchman character, and during the Occupy Movement, he was walking through the crowd singing Woody Guthrie songs. And to me it looked like the most ineffective tool ever. I love Woody Guthrie. But I don’t know that Woody Guthrie is gonna speak to this time we’re in. I don’t think you can use the same strategies, politically, that you might have at an earlier moment. I think about somebody like Kendrick Lamar, and “Alright” being probably the most effective political song of probably my lifetime. Except for probably “We Are the World,” which is not a good song. But, you know, people were chanting, “We gon’ be alright” during demonstrations. It was such a short and catchy and meaningful refrain. And that, to me, is effective. I think one of the most powerful and reassuring moments that I’ve had professionally was watching clips of demonstrators in Ferguson chanting that. It literally gave me chills. And I thought, That is something that is effective. It’s not trying to speak specifically. It’s trying to speak communally. It’s also supposed to be something that people participate in and that people shout along with and that becomes something that is not Kendrick. It’s Ferguson. Or it’s whoever is yelling it. “We gon’ be alright” is not in itself political. But as a political statement, it’s extremely powerful. So I think [these new approaches] would require people to let go of the past and let go of their heroes, especially white people’s, and to write and think about these things in different ways. 30 Days, 30 Songs–that is really preaching to the choir.
As somebody who writes a lot about country music, lately it’s been really hard to defend music that is so closely associated with an audience that right now I am extraordinarily angry with, music that I think represents values that are anathema to what I think America should be. So it’s really hard to get excited about, for instance, the new Kenny Chesney album (which is actually pretty good). I know the people who are going to buy that album. They don’t agree with me on much. And so I’ve been trying to figure out how to separate the artist and the audience, how to separate artists and the sort of cultural associations that come bundled with genres. It’s been a really intense experience. But it got me thinking about the country artists I admire, who are almost all women and who are almost all writing about issues that go against what I perceive to be the political beliefs of people who like country music. Kasey Musgraves or Miranda Lambert or the Dixie Chicks. Those people are writing about getting free of certain things, about asserting identities. And I find that very powerful. And I find that that might be a more effective political commentary than 30 songs against Trump. You know, having Death Cab for Cutie tell me that Trump’s not a good person is not effective. But having Kacey Musgraves write a country song about smoking weed or even just being gay–that to me is pretty powerful. Does that make sense?
I think it makes sense. In a time when we are so politically polarized, I think songs that are inclusive, and like you said are communal, are almost necessary.
I think that’s a very good way to put it. Obviously I’ve been thinking about this a lot. My internal monologue has turned into a rant. And occasionally it gets around to music.
Do you take issue with music that’s intended to entertain people?
No. I think escapism is a noble end goal. I listen to music all the time to escape and to be entertained. That takes a lot of craft. Have you heard of a band called Mud?
They’re from the ‘70s. They should by all accounts be a horrible, horrible band. They’re sort of post-glam, pre-pub rock. They have these ridiculous choreographed routines. But man, I get so much joy out of them. If you google “Mud ‘Dynamite,’” there’s a video I’ve watched probably a hundred times in the last six months. I just get so much joy out of it. I’m starting to think that fun and joy in pop music are subversive concepts and that a little bit less self-seriousness is a good thing.
Why do you think fun is subversive?
It might be rebelling against my own generation. I think Nirvana came long and sort of suggested that rock music could be this intense expression of your deepest, darkest fears. And they got really self-serious. It became something that was almost exclusively about art and self-expression. It was supposed to be anti-hair metal music, to eradicate hair metal. I go back and listen to some of that hair metal stuff, and it’s fun. People dancing in the videos and things like that, and it’s like, it looks like it’s fun to be in the crowd at a Bon Jovi concert. It looks like it’s a lot of fun. And then you get to Nirvana, and it’s just like everybody’s kind of closed off with miserable looks on their faces. It’s like, “This is my misery and my angst.” That does not look like fun at all. And I think that became the whole of pop music for a while. I think if you make something fun, it becomes more communal, I guess. I’m kind of losing the thread of the conversation as I’m saying this.
I think fun as communal, though–that gets back to the communal as necessary. Maybe fun is at least sometimes necessary.
Yeah! It can’t all be serious. It needs to be sometimes. But community as a political mission or whatever, I think that’s a worthy goal. And fun is a big part of that. I mean, if you listen to Woody Guthrie, he was a fun guy. He was writing funny songs. So yeah, I think one of the most radical songs of this decade is “Call Me Maybe.” I love that song.
It was really weird at this year’s Pitchfork Fest. It was absurd seeing people at Pitchfork singing “Call Me Maybe.”
[Laughs] That song is remarkable. It just transcends everything. I mean, it’s like, people you went to high school with who don’t know the National are singing that song. People at Pitchfork Fest are singing that song. Everybody’s singing that song. That’s great. That’s amazing. We can find common ground about that song. It’s kind of a beautiful thing.