The realities of rock journalism

Neil Strauss (photo by Justin Hoch)

For my last semester in the Goldring Arts Journalism program at Newhouse I’m required to write a paper on a particular journalist in my field (music). I chose Neil Strauss, for reasons outlined below. My research and reading has led me to a number of conclusions. Below is one such conclusion that I can’t exactly include in the thesis, so I’ve decided to share here. Enjoy…

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Last spring, shortly after being accepted to Newhouse, I bought Neil Strauss’s Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead. I brought that book–and that book alone–with me on a 3-week trek through Europe. I read it once on the plane to Italy, again between Italy and London, and twice during my week and a half lazing about Paris (I was in no condition to be reading during most of my time in Amsterdam). I was fascinated by Strauss’s interviews and anecdotes, primarily because, as a future arts journalism student at SU, I aspired to be like Neil Strauss.

Since that summer spent trolloping across Europe I’ve read nearly every other book and article Strauss has written. I blew through Emergency and The Dirt as well as his other books and bios. I browsed old New York Times pages for articles about Eric Clapton, Wal Mart, and lost wax figures. I dug up past issues of Rolling Stone to re-read his features.

My compulsive reading led me into journalism with ridiculously romanticized expectations. I imagined a career spent hanging out backstage at concerts or riding tour buses with rock stars asking deep, probing questions. My Almost Famous bubble was burst within a few short weeks of music reporting. Journalism quickly turned concerts into work and rock stars into media machinations. My time now is spent shmoozing publicists via email or scouring the Internet for old articles and research. Most of my journalism is done from a laptop in my bedroom or my desk at the New Times. My “celebrity” interviews are typically 15-minute PR pieces preceding a show where a tight-lipped artist gives me canned answers under the watchful eye of a band manager (with the exception of the lovely Rachael Yamagata with whom I spent an hour and a half drinking wine and talking about love, loss, twins and government spies).

Reality never seems to match our expectations. Just as I expected music journalism to be a Lester Bangs-esque romp fueled by sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, I expected my idol, Strauss, to be a sophisticated, wisdom-laden journalist with a scornful, cynical view of modern pop culture ala Dr. Thompson. After weeks of research on the former Times-er, however, I realized he’s exactly what I should have expected: a music geek. He spent most of his teenage years terrified of women; he went into rock journalism because he thought it would get him laid; and he laughs nervously at people’s jokes when he doesn’t know what else to do (see Jimmy Kimmel). He’s known outside the journalism community not for his pieces of rock criticism or his award-winning profiles, but for his ability to pick up hunnies in a bar (see The Game).

Rather than being disappointed at the incongruity of Strauss the writer and Strauss the pickup artist, however, I’m encouraged. He, too, had exaggerated expectations for his journalistic career (though it did eventually get him laid. A lot.) He’s not some brooding hipster smoking cigarettes in a dark coffee shop while pumping out pages of prose (and neither am I). Despite his fame and success, he’s a normal guy. He worked hard and made a career writing for some of the best titles in the business. If he can do it, why not me?

Hero worship, I’ve learned, can be a dangerous thing. The worst part about studying your heroes is realizing they’re not so heroic after all. But when all is said and done, I realized I don’t give a damn about heroism. I just want to be a good journalist. And until that happens, I’ll continue to admire anyone whose writing has inspired or influenced me along the way.

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