Jim DeRogatis: Music Critic & Journalism Professor

“Investigative Criticism” and Reimagining the Role and Responsibility of Today’s Cultural Critics

In the midst of the #MeToo movement, cultural critics, scholars and fans have found themselves more frequently confronting the daunting question of what it means to love and consume art created by bad actors. While there have been shifts in coverage and scholarship to more directly acknowledge the complicated allegations against some of the most celebrated and canonized contributors in arts and entertainment—from Woody Allen to Roman Polanski, Picasso to Carl Andre and Ryan Adams to R. Kelly—cultural criticism remains poised for a much-needed intervention to better address how such coverage might at once critically review the cultural, aesthetic and professional contributions of bad actors while also grappling with the often-storied and problematic personal histories of those same prominent creators. Jim DeRogatis has been at the forefront of this dilemma for nearly three-decades. As the journalist most responsible for holding the infamous R&B singer R. Kelly to account for his decades of misconduct against young Black women and girls under the guise of musical mentorship, he has traced closely the music industry’s and music media’s negligence in such cases. In response to media failures in this case and others, DeRogatis calls for an investment in “investigative criticism,” a reimagining of what journalism can and should be that transcends the boundaries that separate—both in discipline and practice—investigative journalism from artistic criticism. For this installment of the Reflections series, I interview DeRogatis about “investigative criticism,” discuss the dilemmas of fandom and the shifting terrain of music journalism today and break down what makes good criticism.

Perry B. Johnson, Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Media at Risk

Q. The question, “Should we continue to consume and engage with the art of bad actors?” has become commonplace across vast spheres of culture as individuals and communities contend with a rapid increase in public allegations against some of the world’s most celebrated figures. Can you share with me how you see the role of music journalists and music critics in covering music and musicians, particularly when those artists are embroiled in allegations of misconduct?

Jim: I’m sad to say that, in my beloved profession of music criticism, there are no norms. And there’s been precious little discussion of when we should separate the art from the artist. Now, I think that’s a noble ideal. A lot of despicable people make fantastic art, and a lot of wonderful people make thoroughly mediocre art. And if we were to parse with some sort of moral litmus test every artist we’re about to write about, there would be no art, and there certainly would be no criticism about it. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. I don’t think there is a norm. I think there’s going to be my answer to this question, and you’re going to have yours. And every single person who truly cares about art is going to wrestle with those things.

Oscar Wilde, one of my favorite philosophers of criticism—whose essay “The Critic As Artist”reflects upon this very dilemma—argued that criticism is more important than art, because any fool can make art, but criticism puts art in context. Context, then, is about explaining the art. Wilde was exaggerating for comic effect, but he said at one point that, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. It is merely good or bad.” But Wilde also said that “No piece of art doesn’t contain the soul of the artist.” So, for me, the dividing line has come down to when the art is about the misdeeds.

Lou Reed, one of the most empathetic people in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, wrote movingly about the transgender actress Candy Darling in his song “Walk on the Wild Side.” Candy says, “I’ve come to hate my body and all that it requires in this world.” Reed condensed that sentiment in his lyrics, singing “Candy came from out on the Island/In the back room she was everybody’s darling/But she never lost her head/Even when she was giving head.” Reed was an awful person, foul-tempered and just horrible. But in the art, the best of him as a human being and his empathy for people—about whom, as veteran music journalist Lester Bangs said, no one else in society gave a shit at the time, including drug addicts, homosexuals, trans folks and prostitutes—came through his music.

I can listen to James Brown. I can listen to Led Zeppelin. I can listen to Iggy Pop. And, although those artists did some despicable things, it is not in the art. The art stands on its own. I can still watch Midnight in Paris. Love it. I’m a Francophile. But it helps that Woody Allen is not in it. I cannot watch Manhattan. It is about a middle-aged comic chasing a high school girl, and this is what he has credibly been accused of by his daughter, his son and his ex-wife. I believe them. More than 100 people worked on the production of any film he did. Is it right to tar all the work and their contributions outright? But someone else may have a different answer.

I can still listen and take joy from the Jackson 5. And Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall is a masterpiece. However, the last two albums of Jackson’s career, HIStory (1995) and Invincible (2001), are full of protestations against the media and particular individuals in the wake of child sexual abuse allegations that were first waged against him in 1993. In “Tabloid Junkie,” he is essentially saying, “Media, do your job. You’re trying to crucify me like you crucified the Lord.” And he takes on the Santa Barbara County District Attorney, Tom Sneddon, who oversaw those allegations in the song “D.S.” He is talking about what he has been accused of in this music and I believe his accusers. I cannot separate the art and the artist on those two albums.

R. Kelly’s entire canon is unique. He’s unique in so many ways and many people still have not gotten it. In the history of popular music, where men have been mistreating women since before the era of the bobbysoxers, no one has been convicted of the width and breadth of crimes of Robert Sylvester Kelly. No one has received a sentence of decades like Kelly, and no one has left a toll of bodies in their wake like Kelly—69 women whose names I know. And I believe that it’s well over a hundred, considering the many who did not come forward. His canon is either espousing and bragging of an unfettered view of hedonism that says, “I will take my pleasure where I so desire without regard to my partner”—and we now know his partners were often underage girls—and/or his songs are about dropping to his knees and begging for forgiveness from heaven for unnamed sins. And I always wanted to say, “Mr. Kelly, what sin was that?” And now we know. Now we know. So, Kelly really is a unique case, but there are others.

Q. The #MuteRKelly movement emerged in 2017 in an attempt to end the artist’s career—in effect to mute, to cancel Kelly—in the wake of decades of egregious allegations against him and in reaction to his career continuing largely unfettered in spite of those accusations and in spite of your decades of reporting about his misdeeds in great detail. This movement is at-times held up as an example of contemporary “cancel culture,” a term which has become increasingly politicized and weaponized across America’s political and cultural landscapes. You’ve noted the distinctiveness of Kelly’s case, but I’d love to hear from you about if and how this notion, of cancelling, has factored into your criticism, your teaching and your perception of music journalism today—is such a binary approach effective or productive?

Jim: I’ve seen very few people “canceled” that haven’t deserved it, but I do understand cancel culture as being perhaps overzealous. I also think it’s framed in the wrong way. It’s framed morally, but it’s a capitalist argument. I’m not going to give my dollars to people I don’t agree with. But many people don’t like the answer because the answer is that you have to think about it. And it’s complicated, because if you cancel R. Kelly, does that mean you are also canceling the artists he’s produced and worked with—Aaliyah, Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, Whitney Houston, Justin Bieber? He may have been convicted and sentenced, but his music is still on Spotify. So, you have to not only think about it, but you have to be aware in the same way that you should be aware of what you put in your body. That’s just being responsible in a society if you care about art. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything more important. I’ve devoted my life to writing about music. That’s my form. But it might be film, it might be visual art, it might be something else. In the art is everything in society. There’s sex, religion and politics. There’s any issue we want to grapple with. To come together and have these discussions about art is vital, because when we’re talking about art, we’re really talking about the world.

Q. Journalist Douglas Greenwood has written that, “In the music industry, a man’s bad behaviour [sic] is seen as the perfect opportunity to orchestrate his re-brand as an artist…[but] it’s almost a reverse action for women. Being embroiled in tabloid controversy spells career suicide, and they’re expected to redeem themselves in order to move on and make music again.” You’ve spoken on your podcast, Sound Opinions, about how singer Sinead O’Connor was canceled in the wake of her performance at a Bob Dylan tribute in 1992. In your years of music journalism, have you seen gender operate as a determining factor in who gets canceled and how?

Jim: Women always pay a higher price for daring to speak out, for daring to raise any issue. When I started my reporting on R. Kelly, Anita Hill was on Capitol Hill giving testimony, a very believable testimony—I certainly believe it—of sexual harassment by a very powerful man, Clarence Thomas. Thomas still sits on the Supreme Court and just took away women’s right to control their body. As the R. Kelly case is coming to a crescendo in 2018, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is on Capitol Hill giving testimony about her experience of rape. And the man she accused, Brett Kavanaugh, now sits on the Supreme Court next to Thomas. Women are not believed. Women are going to be canceled. Courtney Love, a brilliant, brilliant woman, and also a very troubled woman, was talking about Harvey Weinstein 25 to 30 years ago. She was not believed and is, for all intents and purposes, canceled. At the very least, she’s been significantly marginalized, written off as “crazy,” just like Sinead O’Connor. Sinead is able to make albums still, but the machinery of fame and pop stardom abandoned her literally overnight. Men don’t face the same consequences.

Q. You introduce the concept of “investigative criticism” in your book, Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly (Abrams, 2019), which has stuck with me since I first read it. As I understand it, you are calling for a reimagining of what journalism can and should be in a way that transcends the boundaries that separate investigative journalism from artistic criticism. Can you share more about this and how you conceive it both in theory and in practice?

I was an investigative reporter in New Jersey for the first five years of my career. I brought that with me to covering the music beat, which I didn’t see as any less important than political corruption, or writing about overcrowded prisons, or any of the things that I covered as a straight news reporter. There are not that many people writing in the realms of cultural criticism, arts criticism, music, movies and visual art and, of those, there’s not many people that have investigative reportorial skills. I’m not the greatest reporter in the world, but I had a lot of help from police beat reporters and experts on filing FOIA requests, because I knew where to turn from my investigative experience, and I became an expert at those things when I couldn’t get help. There’s not many people in music criticism, in particular, that have that, but also there’s not that many people that care.

The saddest part of writing Soulless for me, and on reflecting on my time as a music critic, was to see so many in the media—from feminist platforms like Bitch to news outlets like the New York Times—giving R. Kelly a pass, essentially communicating, “Despite all that controversy, he’s a genius.” Especially when that’s the only mention of the case: “Controversy?” He was tried and wrongly acquitted for making child pornography, for raping a 14-year-old girl for half an hour on videotape. How can we not consider that when he is putting out an album called Black Panties and the cover depicts him playing a woman as an instrument? That killed me. And I later heard from all of those peers, “I should’ve listened to you.” But I was a fat, old, white, pompous, moralistic rock critic. And now I’m right. But that took two and a half decades to get there. And is that debilitating? Is that dispiriting? Is that cynicism-making? Yeah, you bet.

Q. I want to pick up on your comment that “there are no norms in music journalism.” In my years of research, I’ve noticed a consistent thread shared by music journalists, like yourself, who are doing really in-depth investigative research in your reporting and criticism, which is that you have a shared background in alternative media. And it seems like alternative media don’t exist in the same ways they did previously, but that it is those of you who come out of that tradition, which is at its core anti-establishment and oppositional, who are doing this work. Can you speak a bit more about how your experience in alternative media informs your journalistic practice and discuss if you see this as instrumental in how you approach your criticism today?

Jim: It’s true. Specifically, the impact of alternative weeklies—the rigor of the editing process, the fact-checking process, the standards of alternative weeklies stays with all of us. And the fact that there is no objectivity—this is what we learned from the New Journalism that emerged in the 1960s and 70s. For example, every reporter who was on the campaign trail following the presidency of Donald Trump, thought he was a despicable liar and an asshole. But the New York Times cannot lead with “Trump, that despicable liar and asshole, today did X.” Right? There’s a fake sort of objectivity. So, let’s not pretend about objectivity but let us also hold ourselves to the standards of the most rigorous journalism. After publishing seventeen articles in The New Yorker, I would compare their editing process to a root canal sans anesthesia, but that is what fact checking by The New Yorker is like. And I’ve embraced it. I love it, to be that thoroughly positive. And, in a quarter-century reporting on R. Kelly, there’s not been a single retraction, correction or clarification for any of my work, much less a lawsuit. My work stands. So, there is that alternative mindset.

Now, the problem is that even at the alt weeklies, which were always funded at a fraction of what the daily newspapers were, there were resources for this kind of reporting. You need fact checking. You need the lawyer ready to fight for you. You need the editors, top-tier copy editors and line editors. And a lot of online media do not have that. When my article “Inside the Pied Piper of R&B’s ‘Cult” broke in 2017, Buzzfeed’s team was top-notch, but all of those people were gone within a year, and Buzzfeed today is a shadow of what it was- so those sorts of platforms are disappearing.* And this notion that it has become easier to tell these stories today, post-#MeToo, is a fallacy. There are many stories that are still not being told, because the resources are not there for the reporters. That scares me, and it should scare everyone. I had the resources of the big old daily newspaper. I had the resources of Buzzfeed. I had the resources of The New Yorker. I couldn’t have done this reporting without any of that.

Q. Resources are clearly a key hurdle to doing this type of in-depth investigative reporting, particularly for those whose beats are situated “outside” of what might be traditionally understood as investigative journalism. Are there other challenges that you have identified that have kept investigative criticism from being more widely adopted as a practice and approach in arts and music criticism?

I think censorship is self-imposed. No one is told, “Don’t bring up these issues in your review.” Critics are told, “This is a lead review of 1200 words.” Usually, you only get 600 words, so critics think, “This is important to the publication” and then regulate what they put in their reviews. I don’t see it stopping. I also see this addressed differently across musical genres. In 1991, the second album by NWA came out and I despised the homophobia and misogyny on it, with songs like “Findum, Fuckum & Flee” and “To Kill a Hooker.” And some of the other critics wrote me off for my review based on my identity, “You’re a fat, white rock critic. You don’t understand hip hop.” And so, it was implied that it was ok for me, as a rock critic, to point out the blatant sexism in Warrant’s “Cherry Pie,” but not in a hip hop act. Another example is Kendrick Lamar’s last album. Now, Kendrick Lamar is a brilliant artist. He’s got the Nobel Prize in poetry. And his last album is full of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny. And I said that in my review on the podcast. I don’t think anybody gets a pass. I think it behooves us as cultural critics and as human beings to call out this stuff when we see it, because to just ignore it or to give it a pass and say, “It was a brilliant album, despite the stuff he says about trans folks,” that’s not good enough. You’re not doing your job as a critic. And so, by “investigative criticism,” I don’t mean that everybody has or needs to have the tools or the fortitude to spend two and a half decades on a story like I did with R. Kelly, but what I am saying is that you not only have to but you are required to  listen to the album that you’re reviewing. And if Kendrick Lamar is being misogynist and homophobic, say it. Because you certainly would say it if you were reviewing Toby Keith.

Q: One of my enduring frustrations with media coverage of misconduct in the music industry is that alleged perpetrators are often framed and villainized in a way that distances or vindicates the industry from any accountability. R. Kelly is the problem. Ryan Adams in the problem. Russell Simmons is the problem. But it’s never meaningfully about the music industry—and its many sectors—from and in which such behavior occurs. You are one of the few I’ve seen attend consistently and in-depth to this issue. Do you see the structures and hierarchies of the industry as a crucial part of its history of misconduct?

Jim: When people ask me about the R. Kelly case, specifically, and want to know how this happened, the answer is the institutions—institutions in the music industry, in the media and in the communities that supported and glorified Kelly for decades. It’s the many, many despicable, immoral lawyers I have dealt with over 25 years (though there were also a handful of heroes). It was the schools and the press and the music industry and the Black church and the justice system. The fact that the federal government failed in its second trial to convict the two enablers who were specifically named in the Kelly case, despite thousands of pages of court documents, or that it failed to hold accountable dozens of other people who were also named, is a failure of institutions. The list of enablers is a long one and a sad one. This did not happen alone.

Q: The legal system (initially) failed Kelly’s victims, the music industry repeatedly failed his victims and much of the media failed his victims, particularly music media, so one could argue that there was no alternative course for justice for his victims and their families than for them to entrust you with their stories. There certainly was no effective, reliable institutional or procedural route that would protect these women and girls or bring them recourse within the industry itself. So, your impact on the R. Kelly case is significant and indisputable. But it also raises larger questions about responsibility and accountability for harms that occur in the music industry and presents an opportunity to think more broadly about the role of media coverage in systems of justice (or injustice). Can you speak a bit more about how you view your role, or power, as a music critic in the larger question of justice?

Jim: It was the women who trusted me to tell their story. Without the women who were brave enough to tell this story, I would have had no story. Now me, I’m just thickheaded and stubborn, and I have this chronic thing that no matter how bad a movie is, my wife and I have to watch it to the end because we have to know how it ends. I never figured it would take 25 years for an ending on this one, but I had to figure out how it ended. And the women never stopped calling. It’s a really important point. I don’t know how many reporters have that stubborn gene to stay with the story. And look who’s got the Pulitzer Prize. It’s Megan Twohey, Jodi Kantor and Ronan Farrow for their coverage of Harvey Weinstein. Harvey has now been sentenced in two federal trials to 39 years in prison. R. Kelly has been sentenced to 31. Now, I do not in any way want to minimize the victims of Weinstein, but, for the most part, they were beautiful white actresses. Kelly’s victims are far more numerous and the crimes far more despicable because of the underage and the videotaping. And how do you even talk about these things? Kelly got less time, but his victims were all women of color. All women and girls of color.

It hurts me that so few cultural critics think about this stuff. And Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor and Ronan Farrow aren’t critics. And Weinstein wasn’t a creator, he was a money guy. What are we going to do about Woody Allen? What are we going to do about Roman Polanski? There aren’t any great film critics that have weighed in on that, including Siskel and Ebert while we had them. If Pauline Kael was alive, what would she say? What would Lester Bangs say? But to predict what Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs would say just does those great intellects a disservice.

I think there’s a dichotomy with the problems in criticism. Critics are afraid to attack somebody on moral grounds, because then you’re instantly not hip and not in touch with the culture anymore, and probably should be put out to pasture. There’s the race thing, a white critic attacking a Black artist, or vice versa. And there’s the publications’ reluctance. When I was at Rolling Stone, there was literally a sign in the copy department on a five-star scale, “Three and a half stars is never having to say you’re sorry.” Essentially, don’t impede the flow of commerce. You can put a bad review to rock band Dinosaur Jr., but don’t give one to Hootie and the Blowfish—not when they’re selling eight and a half million records, as I learned infamously in my career. So, there’s all these things conspiring against this. Somebody can say whatever they want and be fearless and be brave on Substack and there are some people out there doing that. There’s not nearly enough, and they’re doing it just as criticism. They’re not doing it as investigative reporting. But I’ll settle for investigative criticism. Investigative reporting is not a problem you or I are going to solve without resources. So, I don’t know what the answer for journalism is. I do know the answer is if you’re going to sit down and review an artist, you better deal with what their saying. You’re not putting words in their mouth. There’s the lyric sheet. Look at it.

Q: I want to follow-up by asking a related question about accountability, which is who should be accountable for holding perpetrators to account? Clearly, it should not rest on the dogged pursuits of an individual reporter. But how do we learn from this in a way that allows us to implement tangible changes—in the media and in the music industry—to make new inroads so that this does not happen again? How do we ensure that the saga of R. Kelly does not become a one-off case study that is framed both as an anomaly of the industry and as a “success story” for justice now that Kelly has been convicted and sentenced?

Jim: I’m not optimistic. Resources in journalism are dwindling all the time. It is far easier to sit down and have lunch with somebody and write the feature, or just listen to the record and write the review. At least on the media end of it. And for the music industry end, it’s always been horribly corrupt. The music industry is absolutely amoral. And what’s unique, I think, in popular music, is that some people like the music, not despite the acts of the artist, but because of them. The bottom line is the almighty dollar, always, and that’s the only thing that matters. Especially with R. Kelly, there were instances of people who knew better. I refuse to believe Lady Gaga was not fully aware of who she was collaborating with. When she films a video of her unconscious on an operating table and Dr. Kelly’s operating on her while she sings “Do what you want with my body.” She was pushing the transgressive button. And in popular music that button generates cash. That button generates buzz. And buzz is cash. Everybody’s got to see it. Transgression sells and that’s always been the case. But there’s nothing cheaper in popular music than shock.

Odd Future is a really fascinating case study to me because of the two most talented people to come out of that crew, Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean. Tyler it is now talking very frankly and with great empathy about being bisexual. Frank Ocean is out as gay. And yet they were on Odd Future albums talking about how much fun it was to rape old women in the nursing home because they couldn’t get away in their wheelchair and other horrible, misogynistic, homophobic crap. It got them on the map. It got the attention they wanted. I always think of that cartoon of Calvin and Hobbes wiping his snot on the blackboard. It’s juvenile. It’s cheap. It’s not good art, but it sells. I don’t think the mainstream entertainment machine is ever going to change. And I don’t think journalism at this moment, without a literal revolution in journalism, which has, let’s face it, far bigger problems, is going to change. Something like Fox’s propaganda machine is even more troubling than the lack of people digging deep into people who are hurting other people. These eruptions happen, but there is not a shift. And I don’t think it should be institutional. I think it should be on the part of people who write about pop culture to be aware of the context and to not exclude these crucial details.

Q. Your comments are making me think about the recent open letter to the New York Times, signed by more than 1000 Times’ contributors, that called out “editorial bias” and alleged transphobia in the Times’ reporting and coverage of trans folks and gender non-conforming and non-binary individuals. This demonstrated a groundswell from within that pushed against the establishment to advocate for better editorial judgement and adherence to the unbiased standards the Times purports to maintain. I raise this, because it seems that in the contemporary moment, pushing up against establishment norms has been contorted as a politicized or political move, rather than understood as a question of accountability and rigor. Investigative criticism is, at its core, about accountability and rigor. How do you view journalism in the contemporary moment and do you see investigative criticism as an ideological and practical shift that will be swimming upstream against established (and perhaps outdated) journalistic practices that might perceive such a shift as an unwelcome disruption rather than as progress?

Jim: I think it’s old-fashioned fear: “Don’t offend anybody.” The cliché, which is attributed to different people, that “journalism is here to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” may be true, but not every editor or publication thinks that way. The Buzzfeed story I did was rock-solid, it had nine months of reporting and it had been at two publications where it was slated to run before I wound up at Buzzfeed. And I had pitched it to two others before that. Together, four of the biggest news organizations in this country. Yet despite months of reporting, the piece having been fact-checked and gone through legal several times, help from additional reporters, transcriptions paid for, and photographs taken, it took five tries to get that in print. And it wasn’t even in print, it was online. And I don’t think it was a lack of caring about the issue and I don’t think it was a lack of faith in my reporting, because everybody said that to me, “No, it’s not you, Jim. Take it. You’re free to run with it. Here’s a kill fee. In fact, we’ll pay you the full fee, but we’re not going to be able to publish it.” I think, it was strictly corporate fear of alienating anyone. And likely some measure of “We might get sued,” but outlets get sued by people all the time.

PBJ: In researching misconduct in the music industry, one case that stands out is that of Jackie Fuchs (aka Jackie Fox) of the all-girl rock group The Runaways, who came forward in 2015 to disclose that she had been raped by the band’s manager, Kim Fowley, in 1975 when she was 15. The story was written by Jason Cherkis and published by The Huffington Post. Following the story’s publication, Fuchs shared that she sought-out Cherkis to tell her story precisely because he is not a music journalist (he’s a science reporter). Her reasoning was that she didn’t trust a music reporter to cover her story objectively; that she was afraid it would frame her through the lens of rock ‘n’ roll first, rather than as a victim and, as such, would not be rigorous in its reporting of the incident and disclosure. I’m curious about how you read this choice as a music journalist who was very much entrusted to tell the story of Kelly’s victims?

This is something that journalism has not looked at since the era of literary journalism, the New Journalism. One tangible example: Timothy Crouse’s Boys on the Bus, which is about his experience being on the Nixon-McGovern campaign plane. Crouse, along with Hunter Thompson, were sent by Rolling Stone to cover the Nixon-McGovern campaign. The book is a classic look at why the Washington press corps does not really deliver the stories that they could. And they don’t tell the stories they could because they don’t want to get kicked off the bus.If you tell the story, you’re kicked off the press train. So, it’s not the people regularly on the beat that are often times able or willing to tell the most revealing stories. Jackie Fox was absolutely right. I was on the music beat, and I think that gave me an advantage, because I could speak the language and people trusted me because I understood the cultural context. But Kelly was so bad that anyone with conscience wanted this stopped. There was never hatred, though. There was never, “That motherfucker needs to be destroyed.” It was always, “Kelly has a problem, Kelly needs help.” As I’ve said a million times, it was never with hate. It was with wide-eyed horror that this is being allowed to continue.

Q. The landscape is complex and certainly grim, but I’d love to make a more optimistic turn for my final question today to hear from you about what, to you, makes good criticism?

I’ve spent my life as a teacher and a critic thinking about this question, what is good criticism?I think there are two ingredients for any great criticism—head and heart—and this notion is passed down to me by two heroes of mine, veteran music journalist Lester Bangs and long-time film critic Roger Ebert (and, by extension, the great journalists who influenced them, like Pauline Kael). Criticism is your emotional reaction to a piece of art and your intellectual analysis, and that’s hard to deliver. But we have three tools. In context, where does this come from? Where does it fit in? What is the evidence? And to cut out that major factor of context is just wrong. Critics need to be aware of context and with something like the case of R. Kelly, which has been public record for 30 years, for a critic to ignore that in their review, what the fuck is wrong with you?

I will tell you that I’m usually optimistic teaching 18 to 20-something college kids, undergrads in the arts. Columbia College Chicago is an idiosyncratic art school. They’re not going to let media get away with that shit. They’re thinking deeply about art. It’s not going to fly anymore. I think we have a generation that has been raised in the trauma of the Trump, white supremacist, misogynist era, and they’re not going to put up with it. They’re going to demand more. Whether they’ll get paid or whether they’ll just be writing for Substack while working at Starbucks, I can’t say. But if they’ve got something to say, they’re going to say it.

*Since this interview was initially recorded, Buzzfeed has decided to completely shutter its news division.