Record Everything: Hanif Abdurraqib, Jessica Hopper and Rob Sheffield in conversation at the Brooklyn Book Festival
From the Beatles to David Bowie to Carly Rae Jepsen — as the Brooklyn Book Festival wound down, the writers on one of the last panels of the day, “Writing About Music and the Self,” sat on an outdoor stage on Cadman Plaza to talk influences, album covers and the concert experience.
Rob Sheffield (“Dreaming of the Beatles”) read a passage from his newest book about the Beatles song “It Won’t Be Long” the song with the highest number of “yeahs” in the band’s whole repertoire.
Jessica Hopper (“Night Moves”) read an excerpt from an essay called “There Is a Light on My Bike and it Never Goes Out” about biking around Chicago from show to show, avoiding ex-boyfriends working the doors and passing out candy to familiar faces in the venues.
Hanif Abdurraqib (“They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,”) read a piece about Michael Jackson’s moonwalking from a forthcoming book of essays that he said “reads kind of like a poem — but what doesn’t, if you write it well enough?”
On Place and Identity in Music Writing
The three writers, interviewed by moderator Laura Singara Dolan, each write music criticism with a highly personal tone. Responding to a question about this aspect of his writing, Abdurraqib talked about going to a Bruce Springsteen concert, where the artist sings extensively about the alienation of labor, and noticing that he was the only black person in the venue that wasn’t performing some type of labor — passing out drinks, acting as security or working backstage. “It would be irresponsible,” he said, “to not point that out.”
The personal experience of music was a consistent theme throughout the panel. “Everybody’s entry point [to a song] is different,” said Sheffield. He said he could listen to a song twice in the same day, three times even, and have a different experience with it each time.
Hopper spoke about the importance of place to her, the deep ties between her relationship with music and her relationship with her Chicagoan and Minnesotan roots. “I am fundamentally Midwestern,” she said, then jokingly added, “I don’t want it fancy.”
On YouTube, Smartphones at Concerts and Living in the Now
When Dolan asked the panelists if they kept journals to reflect on music, a discussion started about the record of concerts and performances readily available to music fans because of YouTube. Abdurraqib described YouTube as a sort of “diary” of a life where “days were spent rooted in consumption of pop culture.” He pointed out that if he wants to see if a concert really happened as he remembered it, he can look up the footage.
Sheffield noted how strange it was to go to a concert recently and not see any iPhone recording the performance, to see people “living in the now.”
“I’m actually mad when people are living in the now,” Andurraqib said. He talked about a recent Carly Rae Jepsen concert he went to where the audience was asked to put their phones away, and how he kept thinking to himself as the show went on, “Somebody better be recording this.”
“Record literally everything,” he said. “Especially the police.”
On Criticism and Loyalty
As the panel was opened up to audience questions, a young woman in the front row raised her hand. “This is a question for Jessica,” she said. She asked Hopper about how, in her passion for music and performance, she deals with negative feedback and condescension from men.
“I review their bands,” said Hopper, to laughter from the crowd.
Another audience member asked the panel, who had just finished a conversation about Carly Rae Jepsen, a question about standing by artists that others have “written off.” The general consensus was that in music criticism, you have to keep writing about the artists you love, even if they aren’t making record-topping hits or selling out venues.
“Criticism is an act of love,” Abdurraqib said, “cause I don’t have the [expletive] time.”
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