John Pareles graduated from Yale in 1974, and in the last four decades has established himself as one of the country’s premier music critics. In his time at Yale, he was a musical person, DJing for WYBC, playing the Harkness Tower carillon and writing the occasional music piece for the News. After graduating, he started his career at the Village Voice, then moved to Rolling Stone, where he wrote the reviews for such albums as U2’s “October” and Rush’s “Exit Stage…Left.” He joined the New York Times as the chief pop music critic in 1982, and this September reviewed U2’s newest album, “Songs of Innocence.”
Pareles returned to Yale on Tuesday for a Master’s Tea at Jonathan Edwards College, where he spoke about his four years at Yale, his career and his routines as a music critic and his concerns about the state of modern music writing. He writes three to four reviews a week for the New York Times, of live shows and records alike, and his name has been a mainstay in the Arts section for over thirty years.
With a slight figure and an unassuming presence, Pareles might not come across as an authority on modern pop. But when he begins to speak, names of contemporary bands roll of his tongue—the Flaming Lips, Flying Lotus, Regina Spektor. His mind contains a great wealth of musical knowledge, and his tea gave Yale students a chance to glimpse the life of a music critic behind the bylines.
Q: When you write a review of a show, how do you start, what’s your process?
A: Panic — because I have to write it fast. It’s due the next day; we’re a daily newspaper. I’m there standing at a show scrawling in a spiral-bound notebook writing down everything that occurs to me as I’m listening, hoping that a lightbulb will pop over my head saying “This is the lede!” Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe I’ll have to think about it overnight. But at this point I just do it. It’s kind of like a reflex. I know it has to be done by a certain hour, and it will be done.
Q: What about for records, like your review of “The New Basement Tapes” in the paper today?
A: I listen, I think. I always ask for lyrics and credits though I usually don’t look at them until I’ve decided that I like the music, and then I go back and figure out who’s doing what and what they’re saying. Music hits you in so many ways and so many different angles that I’ll take whatever angle appeals to me for that record. If I’m listening to a singer-songwriter, I’ll probably pay more attention to lyrics. If I’m listening to African music, where I can’t understand the lyrics, then the sound of it and the rhythm of it is probably going to get to me. It really depends, and it probably depends on my mood that day, and on how much sleep I got. It’s being human — there are so many ways to respond to music, and I’ve probably tried them all.
Q: You spoke in your Master’s Tea about modern pop culture as a “celebrity sideshow.” What do you make of the whole Taylor Swift phenomenon right now?
A: I was being a little polemical, because music still reaches a lot of people. People care a lot more about branding themselves now than they used to. There’s a lot more science of branding; there’s a lot more advertising and fashion. Taylor Swift is a really smart woman. I admire her wordplay, particularly on her earlier albums. I think she’s actually in a transitional phase at the moment, because for a while she was that non-urban girl speaking to the teenage experience of falling in love and breaking up and feeling resentful and pulling yourself back together and being an outsider — she was really talking directly to teenage girls. And now she’s trying to be a grownup in New York, and to me it’s not quite as interesting, because for one thing she’s collaborating with the same people that everyone else is collaborating with, and it’s all just more clichéd. But she’s so smart, and she might come out the other end.
Q: Do you think the focus on branding crowds out the focus on music itself?
A: Short answer: Probably yes, but the music has to be there for the brand to work. In the end you’re listening to a song, and you can love Taylor Swift’s celebrity and her persona and the way she looks and her videos, but are you going to come back to that song? It’s the longevity of the music that governs the longevity of the career. You can have a novelty hit, but you can wear out your welcome with a novelty hit.
Q: You’ve listened to a lot of music over the years — do you find that there are certain constants, certain artists or albums, that you come back to?
A: (Laughs) I don’t really have time to go back, usually. I’m dealing with so much new stuff. There are people with long careers I’ve heard a lot of — Bono, U2, Radiohead, Springsteen. I don’t really look back that much, because I’d rather hear what the new thing is, even the new thing of someone I’m familiar with. It might not be that good, and they might have worn out their welcome too, but as a journalist I’m looking for news and as a music fan, I’m looking for new thrills.
Q: Have there been certain albums that have really changed your perception of what pop music can do?
A: Oh, yeah — sure. How far back do you want to go?
Q: As far back as you want.
A: Well, there’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” There’s Stevie Wonder’s early albums. There’s Prince’s albums — both examples of how you can have the entire song in your head and you can make it piece by piece and have it be astonishing. There’s Public Enemy’s first couple of albums, which are all about noise and rhythm and deep thinking and politics and passion. Those are the ones that come to mind, but there have also been bits and pieces where you think “Oh, that fits together” — Talking Heads albums, “Speaking in Tongues,” “Fear of Music,” which is really funky, really smart, really cerebral, doing everything at once. And I’d have a different list for you tomorrow. I’m always looking for that thing that knocks me off my perch and makes me dance.
Q: Something I’ve heard pretty often is that rock is dead now. Do you think there’s any merit to that?
A: People love “is dead.” The headline “is dead” is clickbait: Music is dead, fashion is dead, theater is dead. It depends on where you’re holding the funeral — rock does not appear to be doing as well as Top 40 radio music, but Top 40 radio music may not be interested in the audience that listens to rock. I still think that people love playing guitars and hearing guitars, and I still think that people love 4/4. So I would not declare rock dead.
Q: Do you think the ’60s and early ’70s are still relevant today?
A: People are still sampling them! But the ’50s are still relevant today. Bach is still relevant today. I don’t think that music today will or should sound like music made in the 1960s or 1970s. Then again, I go to CMJ [a music festival] and hear these psychedelic bands, and they’re trying to sound like 1968 — a certain date in late 1968. So it’s relevant to somebody. There’s a lot of revivalism, particularly in rock, as people are trying to look back and figure out what part of it we can resurrect and carry forward. That’s what’s going on a lot in rock — excavating the past, looking for that magic elixir. Whether they’ll find it, I don’t know.
Q: Do you think the presence of people who have been around forever — Dylan, Springsteen, U2 — is holding rock back a bit?
A: No, I don’t think so, because Dylan and Springsteen are reaching their loyal audience. I don’t think they’re crowding out anybody, because I don’t think that young people are that interested in Dylan and Springsteen. I don’t think they’re holding rock back. They’re showing that you can persist in it, but younger rock fans are probably listening to the Foo Fighters, or My Morning Jacket. There’s room for a lot. On the concert circuit, geezers are still raking in the major concert grosses, but there’s more vitality in a little band you can see at a club. It may have always been that way — I don’t know.
Q: Do you think that modern trends point us toward the future of music? More electronic, maybe?
A: It’s always tempting to think that the future is an extension of the present, but then a disruption arrives. So it’s always hard to say. What is it that the stock market says — past performance does not predict future returns? That’s what I like about music. Someone’s going to surprise you. Someone’s going to knock you off your complacency, send you on a detour. And that’s what makes it interesting. If I thought everything was going to sound like it does now, why would I go on? I want to be surprised. And I think we want to be surprised; I think we as a species want to be surprised by music. I think the science of pop says we like some familiarity but some unfamiliarity. I may like more unfamiliarity than most people, but we still want something that can fire up the neurons.