How (Not) to Build a Rock Critic

Catilin Moran is a clever and entertaining English newspaper columnist, novelist and broadcaster. I grabbed one of her books off a slush pile at work in 2012 and enjoyed a lot of laughs as well as my first inkling of the existence of Benedict Cumberbatch.

A few year later, I stumbled across her autobiographical British sitcom Raised by Wolves and watched both seasons twice. The story — her nominal character is a reckless, deluded, self-important teen named Germaine (her sisters are called Yoko, Aretha and Mariah) growing up in a desperately poor, single-mother household in Slade’s hometown of Wolverhampton — diverges a good bit from reality but the promise of a resourceful, wacky kid with endless ambition and dreams seems right on the authorial money.

In 2014, Moran published a novel called How to Build a Girl that largely tracks her meteoric teenage career as a rock writer for Melody Maker (where, among other things, she met her future husband, journalist Peter Paphides). Last year, it was made into a film — one of the day’s worth of diversions about my profession (Almost Famous, of course, being the star attraction, but there are others, including Lucky Them with Toni Collette and, I suppose, Velvet Goldmine). I am always fascinated by how scribblers fare as the subject of a story rather than as its chronicler.

In this case, not so well. The film is good, uplifting you-can-do-it-girl-power fun with some brilliant details and a lovely cast, but viewers would be forgiven if they never wanted to read another word published in the music press after meeting this particular sausage maker: a starry-eyed amateur with little to no actual interest in contemporary music beyond the visceral thrill of being in the crowd at a rock show for the first time. (Indeed, the unsolicited mss. that gets her a go-see with the hip kids down in London is, almost randomly, about “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” from Annie.)

The depiction of a London rock paper office circa 1990 is wickedly right; dorm room casualness crossed with a potent sense of mission. And then there’s the competition, clubbiness, territoriality and insecurity. I’m sure a lot of other name-brand writers got their starts young with little more ceremony than our heroine.

But Moran’s stand-in, Johanna Morrigan, swans into her career oblivious to what journalism is, or how to practice it. Worse, she falls in love with her first interview subject, thereby promoting a common accusation women in the business have had to hear. That’s not very kind to all of the responsible professionals who battled their way into jobs (that no longer exist) so they could spend every waking hour thinking, hearing and writing about the music and musicians that mean everything to them. I know it’s only a story, and I mean no disrespect to Moran, who clearly had the talent and drive to emerge from her rock press dalliance to become a serious, respected and significant writer.

Interview published a 2014 Q&A with Moran on the book that glosses over some of the issues the film raises. Alexandria Symonds brings up a scene in which an editor gives Johanna “that very wanky speech: ‘You’re not a fan, you’re a critic.’ The idea that to be an effective critic, you have to have no joy in what you’re consuming, is really endemic to pretentious professions.”

Moran’s stand-in, Johanna Morrigan, swans into her career oblivious to what journalism is or how to practice it. Worse, she falls in love with her first interview subject, thereby promoting a common accusation women in the business have had to hear.

In fact, what the film shows is a clueless teenager being given the full weight of a highly influential, established publication and, for better or worse, committing her excitable thoughts to print. No one reading her work knows who she is or what she knows, which means she is nominally on a par with the bylines of other contributors who may be far more serious about their work. Her writing here is shown to be clever and imaginative and original, but in effect she’s a future blast of the blogosphere, where every opinion — informed or not, considered or rash, accurate or misguided, objective or ethically compromised — is equally right. Or wrong. Far from being the rejection of joy, criticism is the careful consideration of it.

No doubt there are teenagers who get that — rock criticism started as the province of youth and, despite the old-timers who keep at it, the field is steadily being repopulated by kids, thank goodness — but every editor with a modicum of self-respect and professionalism would care enough about the publication of their employ to insist on some basics before turning any new recruit loose on a nation. (Julie Burchill, who started at 17 and became much the fearsome grenade-lobber Johanna reinvents herself as, comes to mind.)

It’s offensive to imply that it’s so easy to write about music for money that virtually anyone with basic language skills can do it. I’ve edited hundreds of writers, and that is absolutely not the case. Implicit in the film is an element of the specious poptimism view — that it’s all about how you feel, and that popularity, if it doesn’t simply trump quality, should strongly inform it — that has its roots in the accusation (also endorsed by in the film) that laddishness and mistreatment of women is the original sin of rock journalism. True enough, it was largely a boys club in the early days and women have never made up half its population, but the suggestion that women were excluded from participating is not as true as some would have you believe. (No doubt there were and are subtler discouraging gender-bias forces in play; also, like every workplace, sexual harassment has surely been an issue.) Trouser Press was co-founded by a woman and published a long list of female writers. I wrote for female editors at Creem, Circus, Rolling Stone, the New York Post and Newsday. Before and during my early years in the field, I knew of women music writers or editors at The New York Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, The New Yorker, Village Voice, New York Daily News, Austin Chronicle, Rock, Rock Scene, Melody Maker, Hit Parader and the New Musical Express.

And another thing: her brother puts out a fanzine (in which she initially evinces no interest whatever), but when the opportunity to audition for the big time arises — actually, he’s the one who spots it and pushes Johanna to pursue it — his ethical principles bar him from doing the same. (As it happens, the British music weeklies of the late ’70s and early ’80s, a good decade before this is set, recruited many of their writers from fanzines, so that mindset seems especially off.)

As the story progresses, our intrepid young hero (played with great gusto by Beanie Feldstein; I would have hired Germaine to have another whack) becomes a vicious attack dog, laying waste to one band after the next on her way to runaway celebrity status. I won’t go further; suffice to say there is a certain inevitability to what transpires, and all’s well that ends well.

Again, more power to Moran. She got on with it and proved any naysayers wrong. Rock journalism wasn’t the right fit for her, but it led her to a better place. And I get it — a film has to have an arc, and that arc often has to be about winning and losing and then winning in a different way. Growing up, wising up, trading up. There’s a moment in the film that conveys just how unimaginably exciting it must have been to be 15 and diving feet first into the world of big league rock journalism. So let me say hurrah for the eminently likable How to Build a Girl and only note that it also illustrates how not to build a music journalist.

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