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We Are Better Than This: 'Distinct Pleasures' and Canadian Music Journalism
How not to cover women during NXNE

Metric (Photo: Natalie Zina Walschots

I’m tired already. I can feel it in my joints, but mostly in the slowness of my synapses. On a good day, when I sit down to write, my brain crackles and leaps, whirring happily, putting the words in front of me before I can type them down. This morning I seem to have a lot more cobwebs and molasses up there than I’d like, waiting for the needle of caffeine to hit my brain and shock things to wakefulness, a cattle prod against the rump of an exhausted mind.

Over the next few days, it’s only going to get worse. For NXNE is happening in Toronto, that magical time of year when last call is at 4 a.m. and music journalists attempt impossible marathon coverage of the literally hundreds of music events happening throughout the city (not to mention the film screenings, gallery exhibits, NXNEi panels, and, oh, the parties). Our mornings and early afternoons will be spend labouring away in the word mines, trying to produce the most timely coverage possible, getting up previews and live reviews before guzzling energy drinks, popping in our earplugs and spending another night jetting from venue to venue staring up at writhing bodies and blue lights.

There are worse gigs, of course. But in the pressure to keep to schedule and the hustle of making all our deadlines, things can still get pretty hairy during the week of NXNE. Typos will be made. Facts will not be checked. Harried editors will merely glance at reviews before popping them up online. Errors in judgment may very well occur.

With this in mind, as the festival gets properly underway and the madness descends, I implore you, from those representing grand national magazines to the smallest ‘zine, monolithic multi-author websites or passionate personal blogs: pause for just a moment before you hit send, and ask yourselves, “Am I proud of this writing? Is this worthy of me and my publication? Will I be happy to have this forever attached to my name?”

This week a piece on Metric authored by Ben Kaplan went up on the National Post‘s site, one of the most repugnant pieces of music writing I’ve read in a while. It opens with the line: “One of the distinct pleasures of being a male Canadian music journalist is the opportunity every few years to interview Emily Haines,” and gets worse from there. He leeringly describes the pleasure he derives from hugging Haines; he reduces the talented lyricist, composer and synth player to guitarist Jimmy Shaw’s “muse.” He regards the opportunity to interview Haines as a personal indulgence, and revels in what he sees as his absolute right to ignore her talent in favour of ogling her. The piece is lazy and ill-structured too, with typos and factual errors. It’s bad journalism from start to finish.

Kaplan isn’t the only one to blame, of course. As James Keast, editor of Exclaim! Magazine, pointed out on his Twitter feed: “Ben Kaplan exercised poor judgment in his National Post Metric piece. But it’s his editor who failed him, the paper and readers.” As much as the piece should never have been written the way that it was, it should also never have ran in the state that it was in. The piece was posted on June 12, the day that Metric’s newest album, Synthetica, was officially released. There is not doubt in my mind that Kaplan filed the piece at the last minute, and that the National Post‘s arts editor elected to put it up in the terrible state that it was in, choosing to run a poorly written example of sexist drivel rather than miss he opportunity to have some sort of coverage of the band up on the day of the album’s release. That is, if the editor in question even read the piece at all.

In this case, the writer failed and the editor failed, and it resulted in an embarrassing, offensive piece being published in a national publication with a huge circulation and web presence, much to the horror of every thinking person with an internet connection. It’s also a damning indictment of Postmedia’s current editorial health as they prepare to cut even more positions and overburden the ones that remain further still. In the wake of these cuts, gross mistakes like this will only become more frequent.

The breakdown of the writing and editorial process in this case is as transparent as it is worrisome. It’s so easy to see what went wrong here: the ego and entitlement of the writer, putting the piece off until the last second and then tossing off garbage; the pressure to get the piece out on time, allowing it to get past any real editorial assessment; the complete lack of a response from the National Post when other music writers reacted in horror, turning the phrase “one of the distinct pleasures of being a male Canadian music journalist” into a running joke (we laugh instead of weeping). 

Kaplan and the National Post have been roasted on social media, and Melissa Martin of the Winnipeg Free Press wrote an excellent response on her site Nothing In Winnipeg. Her analysis is bang-on, systematically calling out the way Kaplan denies Haines any real presence and agency in his article, aside from her being regarded as a coveted sex object whose personal space he invades. She also pulls no punches calling out the larger culture of harassment and sexual violence that the piece evokes. The work of examining exactly why Kaplan’s piece is repulsive has been done, and well.

The next step is to learn, as a culture, from this article and its ilk, ugly wastes of space and words that add nothing of value to the conversation about music. Especially with NXNE looming above us all, and the resultant pressure of deadlines and due-yesterday live reviews, it’s important that we all take a breath, consider our words and make sure that they are worthy of us.

Back in February, Maura Johnston wrote a brilliant post for the Village Voice‘s Sound of the City blog entitled “How Not To Write About Female Musicians.” Revisit this piece, fellow writers and journalists. Question your vocabulary and frame of reference. Get better at talking about female performers — and women in general — in a way that is respectful and intelligent, that honours their talent while also providing genuine critique. Take the time and the brain space to learn to write about women better. Editors, do the same. Learn to recognize when your writers have made an error and call them out on their bullshit. Demand rewrites of offensive material, pressure to publish be damned. It is your fucking job, your absolute responsibility, to understand the power of language and how to use that power for awesome rather than lazy evil, to offer real cultural criticism instead of pageview-motivated linkbait vomit. It is your responsibility to choose to be a good writer (or a good editor) and not a hack.

Johnston’s piece was motivated in part by an awful piece by Tom Junod, published in Esquire in January. Ostensibly about Lana Del Rey, “The State of the Female Singer” is a reductive, puerile (and hopelessly awkwardly written) article that manages to completely dismiss the artists’ music in favour of examining whether or not they do it for him. As fellow Toronto Standard-ist Chris Randle summed up in his response to the piece: “Sorry, Beyoncé! You may have erroneously thought that your music is ‘about’ hard-won female independence…but you’re a silly girl with a trashy name. The real theme of those albums was demonstrating your fuckability for Tom Junod.”

Here is another moment to take a long, hard look at what we are writing and publishing, and question whether what we’re putting out there is worthy of being read, or whether you just wrote it to make you hard, and as a result it should be relegated to fervent scribbles in a diary. The physical attractiveness of a performer, in your estimation, is not news. Whether or not you want to fuck a performer is not news. Coming up with a ranked list of performers you would like to fuck, or at least ogle, is not news. Look at the work you are creating, and ask yourself: could this piece be reduced to “X artist is hot?” If so, delete and start again. Stop writing these pieces, and stop publishing them.

The pressure to write and to publish is only going to get more intense. As NXNE rolls on, and the industry continues to change, we’re only going to get more tired and more worn. As fewer and fewer editors and staff writers are employed, and more and more publications turn to freelance work and do away with their editors entirely, the potential for more awful, irresponsible pieces of writing ending up in the world is only going to increase. Make sure, writers and journalists, that what you are making is better than that.


Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.

For more, follow us on Twitter at @torontostandard, and subscribe to our newsletter.

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