Totally and Brutally Honest: Talking with Amanda Petrusich

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Amanda Petrusich is the author of Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records. A staff writer for the New Yorker, her writing has appeared many other publications including the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, Pitchfork, SPIN, and The Oxford American, where she was a contributing editor. The album notes she wrote to accompany Bob Dylan’s Trouble No More box set earned her a 2019 Grammy nomination.

Born and raised in the New York Area, Petrusich has never strayed far from home. Petrusich holds an MFA from Columbia University, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Humanities, and the MacDowell Colony. As an assistant professor in the writing program at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, she teaches advanced courses on criticism and musical subcultures. She lives in Brooklyn, but just bought a little cottage in the Catskills—her version of a ready-made writing retreat, replete with an endless supply of peace and quiet.

Petrusich and I recently spoke about how mountain writing changed her life, the state of music criticism in the age of democratic listening, what it’s like to work in a male-dominated field, and how she came to celebrate her Grammy nomination with a donut at a gas station in the middle of nowhere.

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The Rumpus: Why did you make the decision to buy a little house in the Catskill Mountains?

Amanda Petrusich: It started at the MacDowell Colony, where I was lucky enough to have an eight-week residency that totally changed my life. MacDowell is a rarified, privileged experience where people are making you lunch and you are living in this beautiful cottage in the forest. But none of the studios have Wi-Fi, and I have the world’s worst cell phone, so I couldn’t get online at all. At first I was kind of frustrated; for a journalist or anyone who does nonfiction it’s a paralyzing thought—what if I need to look up the year something happened? But it turned out I could just make a list of things I needed to check and do it later.

Being away from the Internet—and not only the social media hamster wheel but also being away from other people’s opinions on things—I felt like my writing got really interior. It was like I couldn’t necessarily look outward. As a writer I do that a lot; I will look for something outside of myself to push against, like some little thing to rail against. But absent that I felt like the work got really idea-driven. I had to think more, I had to read more, and my process got a little smaller and a little more intimate. I liked that.

Rumpus: It’s really nice to find an idea on its own terms instead of having to discover it by what it’s not. Rare these days, but nice.

Petrusich: Totally. And as reporters, I feel like we are taught to come at a thing from every angle and when I was denied the ability to do that, I had to really rely on my own kind of consciousness in a way, my own way of arriving at a conclusion about something without researching it to death or without having to think about all the ways it had been approached before.

Rumpus: It reminds me of the first chapters of your book, Do Not Sell at Any Price, when you came prepared for interviews with questions looking for specific answers, I think you call it a “reportorial” style. But it didn’t work. And it’s only been a few years since that experience, but already your writing feels different, and it sounds like your process is different, too. To read you now feels like we are thinking right along side of you, like we are invited into your thought process. Has that been a natural evolution?

Petrusich: It’s interesting because for me, I came up as a critic in the mid-2000s, during that era of criticism right before the rise of more democratic listening experiences, back when critics were gatekeepers. The idea was to be sort of snobbish and superior and a lot of the writing that I loved, and still love, came from that almost antagonistic relationship with the reader. And even early Pitchfork reviewers were like that—the classic sort of music snob archetype—and I think that has gotten in me somehow, even though I don’t know if I ever felt that way, that I was entitled to any sort of authority or omniscience. But I had figured out the way people wrote about music, which was showing that you know more than anyone else and in there is a thinly veiled disdain embedded into every sentence.

So for me, my growth as a writer was unlearning that snobbishness and trying to cultivate more of a rawness in my relationship with the people who were reading me, if I was lucky enough to have anyone reading me, and I think I liked that. I think it made me as a writer feel less alone, it made me feel like I was in conversation with a lot of other people in a way that I found really comforting and nice. But it was a shift in the way that I thought music criticism was supposed to be, which was “I’m gonna tell you what’s good because I’m smarter than you.”

Which is also very male, frankly, which is how this industry was for so long.

Rumpus: Was it even more male-dominated than than it is today? What was that like?

Petrusich: I think I was the only female reviewer at Pitchfork for a really long time. That was my first real kind of criticism gig, and there just weren’t other women. There were a few, I certainly don’t want to erase anyone from history, there were a few other female writers for the site, but there were definitely long stretches where I was the only one writing record reviews and other women would kind of come and go. I became hyperaware of myself as the only woman in the room, which is not anything I wanted.

And then, with the book, Do Not Sell at Any Price, with that world of 78 collectors being so male—so aggressively male—in a kind of suspicious and aggressive way, I had a lot to overcome and navigate.

Rumpus: But demographics aside, what would be the opposite approach, the feminine approach, if that’s fair to say. Like, if you’re not aiming to be an expert or aggressive in tone, what are you aiming for instead?

Petrusich: I hesitate to call it the feminine approach because I don’t want to be reductive and I know every woman hears and listens in a different way, but for me it was giving validity and real value to my emotional reactions to music and learning to find those things as legitimate fodder for criticism. What does this song make me feel? What experiences does it remind me of? What does it evoke in me, on a physical, intellectual, and emotional level? That, as opposed to coming at it with a lot of facts and figures and trivia about how and when it was made or how it relates to other records in the artist’s discography. That stuff is important and I think it has a place in criticism but for me, favoring the emotional experience in music, that was the shift. It felt more genuine to who I was and also felt like a little bit of an anecdote to that kind of aggressive and masculine approach.

Rumpus: One idea that’s talked about a lot in the literary community is citizenship, so I’m curious if you feel like you have a sense duty in your work as a critic, especially in this, the age of crowdsourced reviews?

Petrusich: I talk about this a lot with my students at NYU where I teach criticism, this sort of idea of what is the critic’s job? What is your responsibility to your readers? What is your responsibility to citizens in the world?

It’s interesting and it shifts all the time. Like lately, I feel like a lot of writers have been having this really heavy reckoning with [the allegations against] R. Kelly, and so with the legacy of R. Kelly in light of all the awful things R. Kelly did that everyone just kind of comfortably ignored in a way that now feels really gross and kind of hideous and embarrassing. So I think there is something to make sense of between, how do I unpack music and contextualize music for my readers in a way that is useful?, and then also, how do I take the moral temperature of this thing?.

It’s such an uncomfortable thing to talk about because no critic, and probably no writer, feels like a moral authority on anything, but it’s beginning to feel like a more important part of our job to parse those things, or at least take them into account. I haven’t quite figured out how I feel about it yet, but I am feeling the pressure of it, trying to be a better interrogator of difficult things.

Rumpus: It does seem like there is a shift, especially in criticism, in which writers are rethinking the idea of their role as being a decisive voice and evolving to one in which they are expected to embrace and articulate confusion, as if we now expect critics to provide a public reckoning on moral conflicts. But it comes with a risk, which I’m not sure writers have had to deal with before.

Petrusich: Oh yeah, there’s definitely a risk. There was an op-ed in the New York Times a couple of days ago, “Must Writers Be Moral? Their Contracts May Require It,” about the morality clause that’s now in all the Condé Nast contracts, and it’s popping up in many publishing contracts, which is basically, “if the Twitter mobs come for you in such a way that your reputation is irreparably damaged then we can terminate our agreement.”

So not only is there this fear of standing up against or for a thing, or of raising an issue at all, but now you have to wonder about how that will affect your career and livelihood. It used to be that critics who had a bad reputation, well, it was just a part of the gig, and now it feels like there is a lot more at stake. And the Twitter mob is often nonsensical and random anyway. I mean, some people totally deserve it, but I’ve seen a critic write something kind of lukewarm about Beyoncé, whose fans are so intense and so vocal that they just… yeah.

Rumpus: Speaking of pop culture stars, I’m curious about the trajectory of your career, from a self-described “good kid with rebellious ambitions” who was covering everything underground and niche, to staff writer at the New Yorker writing about music everyone can see, like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Bob Dylan. What’s it been like to make the jump from writing about subculture to writing about pop culture?

Petrusich: Writing about pop culture is new for me. I came of age at Pitchfork which, back then, was an indie-focused publication, we mostly covered underground music and super weird stuff which is what I loved and listened to as a kid. So now, this move toward writing about stuff that’s on Top 40 radio, stuff that I hated in high school because I was a brat—it’s been, well, interesting.

For me it’s kind of a fun, almost anthropological experiment in which I am hovering above this thing like, “what’s going on here? What is the deal with this?” And as I’m writing I’m trying to figure out the emotional connection people are making to these songs, what they mean, what they represent, what they might enable for a listener.

It’s sometimes almost more fun and more rewarding to do that work when it’s not obvious right away, when it’s not music that I love or necessarily connect to. I feel like the work of figuring it out, or at least trying to figure it out, is more fun. At the end of it you have a brand-new understanding of something that was previously really alien. Which is really satisfying because I feel like every writer thinks of writing like a practice of sense-making, like I am going to sit down, write though this, and then by the end I will understand it better. That feels especially acute and powerful for me with pop music because it’s not the thing I would turn to listen to naturally.

Rumpus: And then there’s Bob Dylan, which falls somewhere in the middle of underground and pop, and about whom you’ve written about comprehensively. But so much has already been said about Dylan, it’s almost as if he has his own cannon. How do you say anything new?

Petrusich: It’s so hard. There is even a book about Dylanology called The Dylanologist, which is sort of an examination of the obsessive fandom that he has inspired, and more, this almost academic, intellectual excavation and exhaustive annotation of his work. So the question of how to add something new to the conversation was very real.

Also, Dylan is a trickster in that none of us can really put our finger on him or hold him down. Who knows? There are so few answers and a lot of interpretive leaps. It’s hard, but I think this is not a problem unique to Dylan but a challenge to a critic writing about anything: how do you give yourself permission to write about this? Maybe I’m not the foremost expert on this and maybe a lot has already been said, but I am just going to give myself the okay to do this and see how it goes. I have a unique set of ears, just like everyone else on this planet does, so I will use those, and talk about what this means to me.

For the liner notes I wrote for Trouble No More: The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981, I felt lucky in that it was an under-discussed period of Dylan’s career, an era a lot of people preferred to think never happened. In some ways it wasn’t as written to death as Blood on the Tracks or Highway 61, so it felt like there was a little meat left on the bone, to use a gross metaphor.

But it’s hard to find a new way into something. Where is your purchase? How do you start climbing the cliff face? How do you get in there? You just get in there. You fail a lot. You repeat yourself and you repeat things other people have said. Eventually, maybe you land on something that feels new or fresh.

Rumpus: Or maybe you get a Grammy nomination for the liner notes you wrote for the Trouble No More box set?

Petrusich: Haha. Exactly. Maybe you are very, very lucky.

Rumpus: So you found out about your Grammy nomination while eating a donut at a gas station, which feels like a moment you of all people would appreciate. What was that like for you, in that moment, and now, reflecting back on its significance?

Petrusich: Yeah! I was on my way up to the Catskills having just bought this house and you know, I was driving so I wasn’t looking at my phone, and I stopped and grabbed a cup of coffee. I was just gonna get a cup of coffee, and then when I saw I’d been nominated I was like, oh—this is donut time. If there is ever a donut time, it’s now.

This is the corny thing everyone says, but there are so many wonderful writers nominated in that category, including my dear friend and colleague Ben Ratliff [nominated for The 1960 Time Sessions by the Sony Clark Trio] who I have known for a long time and have been reading forever. So you know, you just can’t believe you’re in that kind of company.

But also, the Grammys are ridiculous. I myself have written about the Grammys being ridiculous and out of touch and then you get a nomination and you are like, “oh my God it’s the most important award that has ever existed.” Still, it’s exciting to be able to call your parents and tell them and they actually know what you’re talking about.

Rumpus: To wind it down, I want to ask you to reflect a little bit. If you could go back to the girl you once were, that “good kid with rebellious aspirations,” if you could talk to her, what kind of conversation would you have?

Petrusich: Such a good question. I think I would be like, “Holy shit. We have this job?”

I still to this day kind of can’t believe it. When I was little I loved books and I loved music and the idea that I was able to turn that into a job still astounds me. I am proud and shocked and grateful.

But also, I think I was lucky early on, to have a sense of what I wanted to do and what I really loved. My students struggle with that a lot, saying, “I just don’t know. Everyone is telling me to follow my dreams and do what I love and I just don’t know what that is yet.” I was so fortunate to know that early on.

So what would I say? It would be some version of, “hang in there,” which is probably what everyone would say to their younger self. And I would tell her to trust her instincts. And to be who you are. I don’t know… I feel like I sound like a greeting card.

Rumpus: I guess we’re all reduced to greeting cards when we have to think about the profound, even Grammy-nominated writers.

Petrusich: Haha. Well, I think it’s just so easy, as a writer, or just a person in the world, to constantly second-guess your instincts, your taste, what you like and how you feel about it, especially in this line of work, always wondering if you’re wrong, but to just not worry about that and to put all those anxieties aside and really trust whatever my feeling is about something—to really trust my instinct. Like, just don’t worry about the cool thing or the right thing, but just be totally and brutally honest.


Sarah Haas is a journalist, critic, essayist, columnist, and picture book author living in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Find her work at sarahrosehaas.com. Sarah is on Twitter @haassr. More from this author →