@ZackTeibloom Last week, a co-worker walked by my cubicle and said, “I have some questions for you,” when he saw a copy of Courtney E. Smith’s new book “Record Collecting for Girls” on my desk. What I should have said was, “Shut your ignorant mouth. It’s not like I have The Babysitters Club’s “Boy-Crazy Stacey” paperback* dog-eared. This is a book for music nerds and it is by no means for girls only. Also, you proudly own a signed copy of a Sarah Palin book, so really, who are you to say?” Instead, all I could muster was “Oh, I’m interviewing the author. And it’s a really great book.” The subhead for “Record Collecting for Girls” is probably more accurate than the title itself. “Unleashing Your Inner Music Nerd One Album at a Time” really cuts to the heart of the book. Having worked at MTV, breaking bands like The Shins and Vampire Weekend, Smith is a huge music nerd and a bit of an Internet snob**, and this is coming from one of the snobbiest nerds ever unleashed upon The Internet.
As I read, I found myself either in a constant state of nodding along in agreement or nerding out so hard in disagreement that it made the author nervous. After we couldn’t find a time to talk record collecting over an in-person digging trip in Austin, we decided to avoid the awkwardness of two writers on Skype and just have an e-mail interview. It turned into this: “Hey @ZackTeibloom do you realize the interview questions you sent me total up 1,816 words? #nervouslaughter #wow.” To be fair, a couple of them weren’t even questions. It was just me ranting about why I didn’t get her snobbery over The Shins getting big, when that was her intent and then a stupid-long non-question rant about vinyl that led to her just saying “Thanks for sharing.” I’d like to offer a far less sarcastic “Thank you for sharing” to Courtney for opening up in this wonderful book. She spills her guts on how music has been integral for her in everything from sitting around, arguing over top-5 lists, how to judge someone before you date them and how to deal with your feelings after you date them. In between, we find out why Britney couldn’t be the next Madonna, why The Rolling Stones need to stop and why Yacht rock is cool.
Watch the book trailer here:
I highly recommend that you stop everything and read this book now (BUY IT HERE or your local bookstore) and then join in the discussion.
Zachary Hirsch Teibloom: What do you think about the current direction of MTV? Is it even harder for you to see what used to be the outlet for new music turn into “Jersey Shore” and “16 and Pregnant” than it is for the average music fan? If you were in charge of programming, which bands would you be pushing hard? What kinds of shows? It seems like Young the Giant was the only “indie rock” band they pushed at the VMA’s. Who would you have showcased and what do you think about the awards?
Courtney E. Smith: MTV proper has been a channel for TV shows since at least the launch of the original Real World in 1992. In the entire time I worked there every idea we launched to put music back on the channel was met with dismal ratings. The people have spoken and, in spite of press acclaim to the contrary, they do not give a crap about watching videos on TV. They want to watch them online whenever they feel like it and in the order they program for themselves. And that’s just fine because MTV isn’t just MTV — it’s the 20+ platforms they program music on, including several 24 hour music channels.
I worked a lot on mtvU, the college music channel, and it was so much fun. They were just expanding to some cable providers in major college markets in 2007 by popular demand — it had been available only on campuses, but we were finding a lot of people wanted to keep watching it after the graduated. It’s a fun, experimental channel and they let me talk them into putting on all kinds of videos for no reason other than I liked them a lot. They let me make up programming ideas like the mtvU Woodie awards, which I stole (with permission and all due credit) from something Saddle Creek and Sub Pop did when Bright Eyes and the Shins sold 100K records for the first time.
So to see MTV and think just MTV or just The Jersey Shore is a misnomer.
On Top 5 lists
ZHT: You talk shit about “greatest hits” albums, but then advise getting Elvis Costello’s. Do you think it’s genuinely a good way to get into an artist or would you suggest starting with their best album? Or first? Or would you rather hand-select your personal greatest from an artist’s catalog to introduce someone to them? Personally when making my list, I have trouble differentiating between which artist has meant the most to me and which I know in my heart is “the best.” Like, I was an obsessive Weezer fan in jr. high and high school (OK, even freshman year of college) and swore off them for a few years only to find I still loved them live years later. Does that mean I should rank them above someone like The Who or Led Zeppelin who obviously have a far deeper, better catalog and are immensely better musicians? I only loved them in college when I took a ton of history of rock classes and they were both clearly well before my time. Ditto Ween. Loved them hard for 10 years and see them live any chance I get, but I know they don’t compare to the legends of rock. Currently I only have Jack White as a modern inclusion in my top 5. Weezer and Ween didn’t crack my top 20, even though they’ve had top 5 relevance for me.
CES: I think when it comes to greatest hits it depends on the listener. They’re a great jumping in point for most artists. Let’s face it, most people aren’t going to go research a band, read about all their albums to figure out the best starting point, and then delve into their catalog. It’s a hell of a lot easier to start with the greatest hits and see if you want to commit yourself further. That said, I took my aunt and cousin with me to see Elvis Costello this summer. They liked it but didn’t know most of his songs. I still owe both of them a playlist of my handpicked Elvis Costello greatest hits to get them started. On the question of your heart vs. critically “best”: always go with your heart or you’re just making someone else’s Top Five list. What part of dare to be uncool did you not understand?
On Girl Bands
ZHT: What current girl bands do you watch/root for or are there really not any worth touting? I see bands like Austin’s Schmillion and want them to be good and find myself disappointed and try not to think that they’re getting press and getting to open for Arcade Fire because they’re a girl band, despite their obvious lack of experience and my perception that only the lead guitarist has real talent. Is it an all dressing-the-same-gimmicky-thing? (Don’t hate me.) I want there to be a girl band I can root for.
CES: Honest to God, I think the forthcoming Dum Dum Girls album is going to be their break out. Did you hear that “Coming Down” song? It’s on par with some Mazzy Star stuff, but less detached. If you didn’t hear it stop reading this and go download it right now. I also love the Vivian Girls, although I didn’t at first, and Katy Goodman’s solo project Le Sera. In fact that Le Sera album is probably going on my top ten albums for the year list. If you can’t root for any of those bands then something is wrong with you.
ZHT: No questions about the soundtracks themselves, but it made me think…why isn’t Courtney picking the songs for commercials and films instead of working for Clear Channel? On that note, I wasn’t clear on if you think it is selling out for artists to have their songs in commercials (I mean, clearly it is, but does it bug you?) And do you personally feel like it’s selling out more to be at Clear Channel or to be working on music for commercials? What is your dream job to utilize your musical knowledge? Are you able to plug certain bands at Clear Channel or is it the factory we’re all led to believe?
CES: I thought about getting into music supervision for awhile, but that job is largely making compromises to people with bad taste in music and doing licensing paperwork. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Honestly, I’d rather be working at one of those companies that program the music in stores and restaurants. The psychology that goes into that fascinates me.
I don’t do any music programming in my current job, it’s all digital strategy. I have to stay very on top of pop culture and music to do that, but it’s a relief to just enjoy the music I enjoy for awhile and not make it part of my work goals.
On Guilty Pleasures
ZHT: I’m most certainly a music snob and I still find myself wrapped up in not understanding the urge to have your favorite underground band not blow up. I have to imagine you loved that moment when Natalie Portman has JD, sorry, Zach Braff listen to “New Slang” so hard when you first saw it. It was exactly what you had been trying to do with this band one person at a time. And now Natalie Portman was doing it for you in a somewhat decent movie (until the ending.) I guess it’s the paradox: you want everyone to know this band, but then…don’t? Because when everyone hates it, a big part of “everyone” sucks and you have to watch your friend slow dance to Colin Hay at his wedding (Am I the only one who hates him?) I guess I just want another explanation. I felt nothing but pride for every single band that I loved before they were big when they blew up. Even if they had to use commercials to get there. From The Black Keys and Los Campesinos! to Vampire Weekend to the eventual big blow up of Local Natives and Young the Giant. Is it just that you have to deal w/ people with average tastes in music getting on board? Can’t you just use that as a springboard to say…well if you’d listened to me years ago, we’d have been listening to them again. My next suggestion is…and trust me on this one.
CES: Ha, there was no question in this question.
ZHT: “What bugged you about The Shins getting so big? Isn’t that what you wanted when you handed their CD’s to everyone?”
CES: When it happened to The Shins, there was something different about it. It’s one thing for a band to be passed around and discovered, which was a big part of how people found the Shins pre Garden State. It’s quite another to have someone say to the camera, “this band will change your life.” And in the time since then it’s become more and more acceptable for bands to use commercials and music syncs in TV shows and movies for exposure. I don’t think that’s a bad thing — but there’s still something different about being the house band in a movie and having a character insist you have to listen to a band.
On The Smiths
ZHT: I’d like to extend it to so many different fan bases. Do you just give up immediately on a Phish fan or a Dave fan or a Juggalo? What other fan bases are immediate no-nos for you?
CES: So ultimately the idea of “don’t date boys who like the Smiths too much” is for each person to think of what their dealbreaker band might be. Obviously people who aren’t in the Phish or Dave Matthews or ICP lifestyle are unlikely to date their fans. Those people have a different kind of social life than me, I’m not going to bump into them at the bar. It’s way too easy to dismiss those people, what’s hard is when you dismiss someone who is in your social sphere. But, in honor of Pearl Jam’s anniversary stuff happening now, I’d like to officially say no to dating anyone who is indulging in Pearl Jam nostalgia.
ZHT: It did surprise me how long it took you to get into Arcade Fire and is leaving me thinking … do you go to enough live shows? I get the feeling you don’t, especially living in San Antonio. I found the lack of live music discussions rather surprising. Maybe it’s just because I’m so far on the other end. Are you a backstage/press pass or nothing person and what’s your experience with seeing live music/festivals and how has it changed based on where you’ve lived.
CES: When I was working at MTV I went to shows 6 days a week. I’ve seen every band, twice. Now I’m old and I want to stay home. I hate festivals. I AM OLD. I don’t want to stand outside all day. It will be nighttime, cool, and there will be a bar with reasonably priced drinks or I’m out.
On Relationships and Breaking up
ZHT: Did you ever consider revealing the famous band member you had the brief affair with? If not, why? Are the other names of ex’s in the book true or changed? Do you think listening to sad/angry/kiss-off music actually makes you feel better or does it make you wallow in it longer? Is that healthier? You seem to think you need to wallow in that musical grief. Do you write (things that aren’t e-mails to the ex) in that period? Or is music the only way through it?
CES: If you really want to ruin my life, break up with me. Except when I am asked by a book editor to add an essay to the book I’m currently writing on break ups, that is a bad time to break up with me because I will use that experience. All the other guys in my book are people I dated in my 20s, but the break up chapter literally happened a month before I wrote it. Makes me feel bad for that guy (yes his named was changed, yes he’s seen it and given his okay). If I’m trying to do anything else though, break ups totally derail me. I need to wallow and I need the right music to do it to. Is it healthier? Debatable. Does it happen anyway? Oh yes.
No, I would never reveal the rock star because his identity isn’t important in the context of what I wrote. Some other exes had their names changed and some didn’t, depending on if we’re still on speaking terms or not.
On the Next Madonna
ZHT: So how do you think Gaga’s career will pan out? Will she develop the song catalogue? Will she find enough ways to re-invent herself? Will we care? Personally, I’ve seen her live and didn’t buy into it for a second, but do think she gets it far more than Britney ever did.
CES: I think on last year’s VMAs when MTV had Cher introduce Gaga that was just about perfect. I predict she’s headed for Cher-dom.
ZHT: I was surprised to read that you don’t enjoy the sound of vinyl on new albums. I agree that your parents’ warped records have a special appeal and the pops and hisses make it sound all the more authentic, but I argue against your assertion that they don’t master new albums for vinyl. Most vinyl collectors I know who are indie-rock snobs listen to everything digitally and then buy everything that will be on their top 10 end of the year list that no one else cares to read. And I think with good reason. The purple vinyl of High Violet, the white 45s of “Conquest” with insert posters and Jack and Meg playing cards. I know a lot of people keep their tri-colored special edition wrapped like comic books, but I do think there’s a solid middle ground who play with their toys. Specifically, you mention Vampire Weekend. I listened to Contra three times in the last 48 hours on vinyl, with that giant picture of the vapid girl on the cover of my vinyl propped up next to my record player. Sometimes I’d listen to one side three times because I was too lazy to turn it. You address that you have to listen to it all the way through, but so many other elements come into play. The record player in my bedroom automatically starts the album side over when it’s done and pauses when you flip the switch to off, and the one in my living room stops at the end of a side and doesn’t pause, but stops completely if you flip the switch. Also, like I said, I have zero interest in Gaga, but I do think there is a point to having artists like her on vinyl. DJing. I feel like that’s a big segment of the vinyl community to gloss over.
CES: Thank you for sharing.
On Second Life
ZHT: Are you still doing it? If not, when did you stop and why? How would you compare it to Turntable.fm?Just curious b/c I spend about 6 hours a day in there every morning at work.
CES: I’ll be doing a reading from my book in Second Life on 9/18. You should come and see what you think of it vs. Turntable. A lot of the people I met in SL don’t do it anymore, I don’t do it anymore either, but some of us have become addicted to Turntable instead. It’s hard to stop wanting to impress virtual strangers on the Internet with your great taste in music. It’s really hard.
On Beatles vs. Stones
ZHT: I happened to love “Shine a Light” (No, not only b/c Jack White was in it) and maybe it’s because I haven’t had an opportunity to see the Stones yet, but I’m not offended by them still playing. It’s unfortunate they can’t manage to write good music in the last 25+ years while Neil Young still can, but what’s all that different about Paul Mc. touring still, playing almost exclusively Beatles/Wings material with a few things from the last 20 years sprinkled in? Is it just that we love Paul so much more? (I know I do.) I know a lot of it is that it’s gross to see Mick shaking his old man dick around, but they sound great (relatively) and still have most original core members. Even as a dude, I completely identify with the Stones/Beatles argument. I’m a Beatles guy and my best friend is a stones guy. I’m a serial dater and he won’t admit the woman he’s clearly with is his girlfriend unless he’s drunk. And even then…OK a question, why is it universally OK for Paul to go on in his late 60s, but not Mick/Keith? The sexuality?
CES: It’s the sexuality. Paul isn’t, and never was, out there throwing his wang around. The songs he trots out today are age appropriate. I mean, you don’t see him doing “Live and Let Die” even. It’s a little more sophisticated. If you take songs about screwing away from the Stones catalog, do they even have enough material to tour on?
Thanks again to Courtney for the interview and for the book. It sits proudly on my shelf between “High Fidelity” and “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.”
*Yes, I totally read all my sister’s Babysitters Club books and remember Boy Crazy Stacey as my favorite.
**When The Internet Snob was active, Courtney responded more than anyone. Also, she’ll follow all my Twitter accounts, but won’t accept my Facebook friendship. Because I’m not her friend in real life (Or she finds me annoying.)