drake vs public enemy

A day in the life of an NPR Music intern

Every now and again, the sector of the music internet I follow on Twitter gets real, real snippy about who’s allowed and who’s not allowed to write about music. At the risk of getting all reductive, this is like the third dumbest thing in music ever, behind the Microsoft Zune and that one time The Killers made a song with Lou Reed, but in front of Kanye West’s DJ career. Recently, this debate has reared its ugly head because of the glorious people at NPR, who realized that if they made their “impossibly young” interns write about music they knew nothing about, they could rack up the page views. This is called “trolling,” and people on the internet are very good at it.

Is it problematic and irresponsible on the part of NPR? Yes. These kids want to have careers writing about music, and by making them admit they don’t know what they’re talking about, they’re potentially torpedoing those budding music writing careers. Consider the poor NPR intern who admitted she’d practically never paid for music in her life, which is a totally valid thing—you think she’s the only one who figured out how Kazaa worked when she was 14? Noisey’s own Sasha Hecht instituted an “ad hoc internet takedown” of the NPR intern, saying, “Claiming that you’re entitled to get whatever you want because you’ve always gotten whatever you want is a childish argument, and it doesn’t cut it.” While that’s definitely true, it was totally irresponsible to let someone who had no idea what they’re talking about take the keys to the big truck, so to speak. Essentially, what NPR did constituted as throwing the intern to the lions (and Sasha). 

Another hullaballoo erupted when they let some other fucking kid write about how he didn’t really know about Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. He thought it was “disorienting.” Chuck D’s flow was too straight-ahead. Not enough like Drake. As a youngish person, albeit one who really enjoys It Takes A Nation Of Millions…, I totally sort of understand where he’s coming from. One of the great things about Public Enemy’s early work is how politically and ideologically charged it was. It was packaged as “hip-hop,” but it still managed to read “punk”—think of Terminator X’s scratches, which fit into the songs much in the same way that guitar solos did. Or consider how The Bomb Squad billed their beats as “anti-musical” and made a point of stacking samples on top of each other to the point of abrasion. It takes context to enjoy Public Enemy. When the NPR intern said he enjoyed stuff like Drake and Rick Ross, he was basically saying he liked pop music. That’s fine. Pop music is designed to hook you in immediately, that’s why it’s pop music. It Take A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is not. Chuck D and Flava Flav couldn’t give a shit about John Wayne, and some intern at NPR couldn’t give a shit about Chuck D and Flava Flav. In twenty years, some Robot Intern for NPR is probably going to write an editorial about how Take Care was the corniest album ever. This is just the way music works. Cycles, Jerry. Cycles!

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Getting old sucks, and for a music writer, the worst thing in the universe is having a fucking child remind you that you’re getting old admitting they don’t understand some album you hold dear. There’s a difference between being a “music writer,” which denotes a certain mastery of the concept of musical context, and being “someone who is writing about music,” which means that a flesh-and-blood human being is typing their thoughts and feelings about how they process music into a computer, and then publishing it. Some people are going to like certain albums. Others are not, and they certainly cannot be punished for saying they dislike them, even on a pretty high platform such as NPR.

There is no such thing as a “correct” opinion. We learned this because of the standardized tests we all had to take in elementary school. When music writers get mad at people writing about music even though they’re blindly ignorant of context, that’s unfair. In A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain joked that the best swordsman in the world could swordfight the shit out of the second-best swordsman in the world, but they’d be royally fucked if they had to go up against someone who had no idea what they were doing. His point was this: people who have no idea what they’re talking about are capable of insight, even if everyone thinks they’re wrong. If you go into a record completely blind, it’s just you and your experiences versus the record. I’d love to play a Merzbow record for a five-year-old and transcribe their reaction to it; it’d be a hell of a lot more interesting than the thoughts of some 34-year-old barricaded somewhere in upper Greenpoint. So you go, NPR interns! Go ahead and be wrong. You’ll figure it out eventually, or maybe you’ll just end up getting a job in PR. Either way everything is going to be okay, I promise.