When Rob Sheffield ’88 arrived at Yale in the 1980s, he found a vibrant and creative music community packed with talent awaiting him.
Sheffield, now a contributing editor at Rolling Stone Magazine, returned to his alma mater on Tuesday afternoon to share his passion for music journalism to an audience of more than 50 students at an Ezra Stiles Master’s Tea. In the talk, Sheffield — who lived in Ezra Stiles as an undergraduate — discussed how his experiences at Yale propelled him into an eventual career in music criticism.
“When I was an undergraduate, the music scene was so dynamic,” he recalled.
Sheffield’s first taste of music criticism came from his time as both an English major and a writer for Nadine, an undergraduate Yale publication in the ’80s and ’90s that aimed to spread an appreciation for rock and pop music on campus. Nadine offered music aficionados an open space for students to debate and argue vastly different opinions, Sheffield said.
When asked by Ezra Stiles Master Stephen Pitti ’91 to list the writers he most admired and sought to emulate, Sheffield named music critics such as Griel Marcus, an American author known for placing rock music into the broader framework of culture and politics. Rolling Stone, where Sheffield works today, covers a blend of both popular culture and politics, fostering the same spirit of intellectualism that Sheffield admired when he was younger.
“I loved the writers who could apply rigorous intellectual standards to music that may otherwise be easily dismissed,” he said. “Like [to] Cyndi Lauper and Madonna in the ’80s — when they were still thought of as insignificant, interchangeable pop artists.”
Audience members were intrigued by Sheffield’s nostalgic descriptions of the music scene during his time at Yale, asking several questions about the changes that took place between the ’80s and the recent rise of digital media.
Although he will always love record stores and boom boxes, Sheffield said, he has no frustrations with the rise of digital music, adding that the “urge to share good music continues, despite all these technological permutations.”
“In the ’80s we listened to music on the radio, 10 years ago it was Limewire, and now we’re using Pandora and Spotify,” he said. “The principle stays the same.”
But Sheffield admitted that the rise of Internet journalism has created “an obsession with being early.” Whereas Rolling Stone magazine used to come out every two weeks with content lags in between, he said, he is now able to write about events such as Miley Cyrus’s MTV Video Music Awards within hours of it happening.
Alongside the developments in music, media and pop culture, Sheffield’s own musical interests have continued to change and adapt. Throughout the talk, he shared his thoughts on an electic mix of artists, from Bon Jovi to The Clash to Kanye West.
Students in the audience said they found his talk funny and engaging.
“It was great to be able to pick the brain of someone with such an expansive understanding of music culture,” said Dan Michelson ’17.
Isabelle Taft ’17 said she loved hearing Sheffield “wax nostalgic about his days at Yale” and take the audience through the trajectory of his career.
Rob Sheffield is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and an author of several books, including “Turn Around Bright Eyes: Love & The Rituals of Karaoke” and “Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut.”