As a professor at NYU’s Gallatin School, a prominent critical voice in The New Yorker and Pitchfork, and the author of a book about rare records, Do Not Sell At Any Price, Amanda Petrusich is a towering force of grace and encouragement in New York music and criticism circles. Between mentoring emerging voices and writing with discernment about music’s most important figures, Petrusich is helping shape Brooklyn culture from the ground up.
When did you first begin writing about music and culture, and what drew you to it?
I’ve always thought of writing as a kind of sense-making process–it’s how I untangle experiences, feelings, everything. Like most writers, I don’t know what anything really means to me until I sit down and write my way through it. Music was such a big deal to me as a kid. I started writing about it as a way of unpacking all the strange, overwhelming feelings I had regarding certain songs or records. Just constantly asking myself: What’s going on here? Why does this song undo me completely?
Can you talk a little bit about your role as a professor, when that started and how, and what some of the day-to-day looks like?
I joined the full-time faculty at NYU in the fall of 2015, although I’ve been teaching there in some capacity since 2010. Like a lot of writers, I’m perhaps a bit constitutionally prone to solitude–long, endless bouts of solitude!–and the social part of teaching, of getting to be a part of an academic community, appealed to me as a kind of corrective to my weirdo lifestyle. I am also a giant nerd–so having a legitimate reason to be, like, hobnobbing with a gang of world-class scholars was and remains thrilling. Gallatin is an interdisciplinary program; we don’t have “departments” the way a more traditional school might. That means I get to work directly alongside astrophysicists and historians and musicians and all sorts of disparate geniuses. I learn so much from my colleagues. I am so stoked to be in their presence.
What do you enjoy the most about teaching? How does it inform your own work?
It sounds corny to say, but I am intensely grateful to be in this position. My parents were both public school teachers, and I’ve always thought of teaching as a noble fucking job. Watching a young writer come into her own voice, getting to play some small but crucial part in that transaction, having the chance to help someone learn how to capably and confidently express themselves and become a smarter and more thoughtful consumer of culture–that is a thrill unlike anything else I know. I teach four classes a year–two seminars (one on Musical Subcultures, one on Road Trips) and two advanced writing workshops (Writing About Popular Music and Pop Culture Criticism)–and every semester is wildly different, depending on what my students bring to the table and what’s happening outside the classroom. We laugh a lot; we work hard. They challenge and energize me, without a doubt. After they graduate, I follow their careers with a sort of manic pride. I should also say that teaching is an extraordinarily difficult and taxing thing to do well, and I’m still learning how to do it better.
What is your favorite kind of cultural writing to engage in? (For example, a review, essay, or profile etc.)
Oh essays, for sure. One of the wonderful things about writing regularly for The New Yorker‘s culture desk has been the opportunity to do a lot more work in that vein–I’d describe most of the pieces I do for them as short essays or critical riffs, little exploratory things that start with an idea and then question, question, question. So much of my evolution as a writer has just been learning how to ask bigger and better questions.
Since you are often working with new and younger writers, do you have any advice directed specifically to young culture writers?
Everyone tells young writers to read everything–to read as much as possible–and that remains the very, very best advice. In my criticism classes, I also talk a lot about this idea of opening the doors and windows — of letting the outside in a little. This is a harder practice, and takes time, but I think just being a curious, engaged citizen of the world is enormously helpful when you’re trying to write effectively about culture, which is, at its essence, a human story. This maybe sounds dumb, or glib, but: be a person who has experiences, who has thought a little about what it’s really like to be alive. Also: be patient, and focus your energy only on producing good work.
You often write about country & folk music, areas that are sometimes neglected in the larger cultural critical context (in this interviewer’s opinion), what do you find valuable about those genres in particular?
I’ve always been drawn to those kinds of sounds–songs that are tied to a particular landscape, songs that feel especially singular and human. Of course, those qualities exist in other genres, too, but I like little, weird things. Folk allows for that. I like that there’s always room for imperfection. I suppose I also like to have my own imperfection externally validated.
Speaking of valuable, let’s talk about your book, Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records. How did you embark on this topic of rare records, and what was the most important thing you learned while writing it?
In 2010 or so, I’d written a shorter, front-of-book piece for SPIN about the commercial resurgence of vinyl, and in the course of reporting that story, I was introduced to a 78 collector here in New York named John Heneghan. I was immediately enthralled not just by the extraordinary records on his shelves, but by the high-stakes nature of his particular quest–there often aren’t surviving recording masters for pre-war material, meaning that if collectors weren’t fervently (some might say maniacally) hunting down and preserving these records, an entire chunk of the American songbook would be lost. Do Not Sell At Any Price is a book about music, but it’s also about obsession and time and, in a fairly major and literal way, love. I learned so much while researching and writing it. But to return to what we were saying earlier about the spiritual utility of writing, the biggest lessons for any writer are always the unexpected things you unlock about yourself in the process.
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