Month: June 2014

What I learned from being a music journalist

In 2012, I left my job at a rehab center teaching creative writing to pursue freelancing full time. It was a hard decision, because I loved the kids and the people I worked with, but it was the only move that made sense for my career. I wanted to be a writer, and I was just going to give it a shot instead of waiting for the magic publication or the letter from an agent that declared me one. During the beginning parts of freelancing, I would write on any subject for any any publication. I ended up writing about everything from video games to profiles on lame congressmen to strikes to music.

Friends With You
Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin

Music felt like a natural fit for me. I went to college for music as a percussionist, and I played drums in the jazz band at Stetson University. I had a foundation of music theory, and I taught many of my friends how to play the guitar. When I was in the jazz band, I was always so frustrated because the leader of the band was a 70-year old trombone player who thought drummers should be more like metronomes and not be heard or seen. For the style of music we were playing, he was right, but I wanted to play with more gusto, more energy. I loved to use the bass drum, and I would hit that thing so loud eventually the band leader told me I couldn’t play it anymore. While I’m not a professional musician now, there was a time when I thought I could be, but I was more interested in rock ‘n’ roll: Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, etc. Even though now I’m just as interested in elaborate compositions or piano sonatas by Philip Glass.

I started to pitch publications for music journalism. I had a background in music, and I thought writing about music would be a natural fit. I started landing some assignments, and I attended concerts and wrote about my experience. I was writing about music mainly for the OC Weekly. One day, I received an email from Nate Jackson, the music editor at the OC Weekly who is also a great poet, and he asked me to attend a K-Pop event at the Honda Center. At the moment, K-Pop was gigantic. You couldn’t leave your house without hearing Gangnam Style or seeing some spoof of the music video on Youtube. It was a similar movement to the Latin music explosion with Shakira, Ricky Martin, and Enrique Iglesias in 1999. So I agreed to cover the concert, and I brought my wife as a photographer.

The band was called Big Bang. I was researching them before the concert, and what I learned was that they were a boy band, and there were five members: G-Dragon, T.O.P, Taeyang, Daesung, and Seungri. From what I was reading, they were as big as NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys in America, but they had much more of a hip hop feel, and they were heavily influenced by American rappers. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect, but I went to the event with an open mind and my notebook and my wife set to take some photos.

When we arrive at the Honda Center, I realized that I was one of the few males at the show, and most of the people there are young girls in groups squealing with excitement even before they walked into the venue. We took our seats in the 20,000 person Honda Center, and it was packed to the brim. People were singing Big Bang’s songs even before they were on the stage. And then suddenly it happened.

The lights were turned off, and the crowd turned on these yellow lights that looked like electrified lotus flowers, and then a flash of fire exploded on the stage, and these pods started emerging out of the ground, where Big Bang eventually emerged from like aliens. The scream that emanated from the young girls in the audience must have been similar to what Edvard Munch heard when he was inspired to paint “The Scream.” Once Big Bang came on the stage, the crowd went bananas. They were screaming and crying, and it was such an intense reaction I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Beatles at Shea Stadium.

The show was filled with pyrotechnics, and I danced in the aisles with my wife. It was a great show. I was entertained. It reminded me of Bad Boy records and the mix of hip hop with a smooth R&B sound that echoed the 90s. So I went home that night and wrote about the show, and I gave it a great review…at least that’s how I thought about it. You can read the review here: OC Weekly Big Bang.

But the next morning I woke up and took a look at my twitter feed, and it was filled with angry Big Bang fans demanding an apology. I couldn’t understand. I thought I gave them a great review. It turned out that one of the heads of the fan club read my review and was outraged that I had called the group manufactured and superficial. Big Bang is a major production with pyrotechnics and backup dancers and a gigantic band that should have been playing behind P Funk. Of course they’re manufactured to some exctent and put together by a production company. Of course they’re somewhat superficial, because they are all about the glitz. That didn’t take away from the show. It was just me editorializing a bit.

Well, the fans did NOT like this at all. They were demanding that I recant my statements and issue an apology on behalf of all the Big Bang fans, a.k.a. VIPs, and they would not stop hassling me until I made a statement. So here’s the truth about freelancing for the first time: You really have no idea what the fuck you’re doing, and you have no one to ask what do. There really isn’t much contact with the editor, and if you hassle them too much, then you’re worried they might not ever give you another article. At the moment, I had no idea what I should do. In fact, there was a part of me that even thought about apologizing to these fans. Maybe that would get me off their shit list.

But that’s when I sat down and watched the tweets keep on coming in, and I realized I was learning a great lesson as a writer and a journalist. No matter how people react to your work, no matter how people interpret what you say, you can only control your own reaction, and if you believe your words are true and honest, then you MUST stand by them. I never apologized, and in the end, I realized that the controversy was good for my writing: it meant more people were reading my work.


I’m not sure how people are going to react to Big Bang in the future, but when I was Googling to find my original article, I came across a book by Stuart A. Kallen called K-Pop: Korea’s Musical Explosion, and my article is used as a source. I would love to see the book one day. So I did learn a lot from being a music journalist, and if you’re interested in reading about some of my other experiences in this genre, check out “The Unforeseen Journey of a Blog Post.

World War and the World Cup: Looking back 100 Years

As you might have read last week I’m starting a weekly column on this blog, and in order to figure out what to write about this Sunday, I asked twitter. @John_OB1 tweeted I should write about Monday. Lol! Funny. @contentnet said I should write about this:  “How do we create a poetic world in the midst of such emphasis on war and technology?” Well, I loved the idea from @contentnet. However, I find that sometimes the best poetry originates from war time, but the idea put war on my mind. Plus, I was thinking about the World Cup, so I suddenly saw the connection.

I picked up my weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal and flipped to the “Review” section. On the front page, there was an article titled, “World War 1 A Century Later,” by Dr. MacMillan, the warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, and the author of “The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.” In the essay, Dr. MacMillan pointed out that this coming week will mark the 100-year anniversary of the assassination of “the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife” and the spark that would eventually ignite World War 1.

War has always been devastating (no shit!), and the images of medieval warfare are so  primitive and disturbing that history books have seared illustrations of Dark Ages bloodshed into my mind with such intensity I can almost hear the historic screams of the wounded and the dead, but World War I brought on destruction never before seen from the hands of human beings based on scale that even the Dark Ages paled in comparison. As Dr. MacMillan points out: “more than  9 million men dead and twice as many again wounded–a loss of sons, husbands, and fathers.” The advances in warfare technology contributed to these atrocities. The author goes on to point out that World War 1 was responsible for the spread of influenza as soldiers returned home from war, and it also started the concept of being shell-shocked. A major point made by Dr. MacMillan’s is that looking at World War 1, even 100 years later, can explain the geopolitical circumstances of today, the origins of relatively new countries, and how war-torn countries can stabilize by analyzing past mistakes. By looking at the outcomes of war, we can then learn to improve our world.

Enter Iraq and the ISIS. Currently ISIS is taking over more towns in Iraq, and the stability of that country (if there ever was true stability) has been threatened so much that Time just released a cover design with “The End of Iraq” burned into a map of the Middle East. Clearly it’s important to think about the mistakes we have made historically with other countries after war, and I think we’re failing as a country, as a global community, in so many complicated ways that I’m not qualified to address. But we need to continue to find alternatives to war to solve conflicts — from the psychological to the cultural to the diplomatic to the technological. Yes, we should find a way to end wars…period, and even though that is far away, we should at least acknowledge that 100 years later we have made leaps and bounds in terms of World War and the prevention of genocide. Even though the threat of World War III has been propagated by fear mongers, the global destruction we have seen in World I and World II has not been replicated.


Of course, war is still waging in many countries, and there are many oppressed people. Yes, Americans are not exposed to the daily  violence that people in Syria and other countries face. The world confronts violence still at an unacceptable level. But we have really come so far since the days of World War 1, where men were sent into trenches to fight over inches of borders. We have come such a long way since the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. We have come such a long way since the League of Nations appeased Hitler. We have come such a long way since the draft in Vietnam. We have come a long way since the winners of war were thought of as takers of spoils. We still have a long way to go, but I think there have been many social, cultural, and technological advances in our world that have helped us try to eradicate war from our lives.

For example, the World Cup. Right now, it’s half time in the United States vs. Portugal game, and I’m writing this blog post in anxious anticipation of the outcome of the game. And it’s clear to me that soccer and international sport have a role to play in lessening the impact on war. The World Cup, where men and women and children from all around the world come to watch their team dominate the global sports world with their colors and logos brandishing into the sky like the knights presenting their coat of arms before battle, is an opportunity for catharsis. It’s an opportunity for each country to let off steam. It’s an opportunity for a country to claim suprmecy without the loss of life and exercise war-like behavior.

Countries and leaders are like little kids or dogs in a dog park when it comes to war. They need to feel that they are top; they need to feel that they are in charge; they need to feel like they are in control. Yes, this is an oversimplification of global politics and complicated balance of powers, but from outside, conflicts over power struggles is are childish responses to conflict that have cost the lives of so many men and women from the beginning of time; it’s a Game of Thrones still; and an international competition can serve as a way to take the place of bloodshed and pissing contests.

At the same time, because sports are also about narratives as well as technical skill, we learn more and more about people from all around the world. We hear the stories of their trials — like the floods in Bosnia. We’re given access into the lives of people from around the world — like the poverty in Brazil — and by seeing their struggles, we empathize and we understand that there is enough problems in the world today that jeopardize our quality of life.

In addition to competitive sports, technology has a major impact on the way we think about war. Social media and the access of video have given us insight into some of the most horrific and shocking circumstances in the world. We’re able to see the Syrian cities turned to rubble where woman and children live; we’re able to witness the bloodshed in Kiev; and we’re able to read the thoughts of individuals living within war-torn countries via twitter and Facebook.We’re making progress. For those who are dying, it’s not enough. But it’s been a 100 years since World War I. One day it will be a 100 years since World War II. A 100 years since Hitler. A 100 years since the atomic bomb. And if we can get to that point without another world war, haven’t we done something special?

Perhaps one day we will settle our global disputes over video games — or virtual versions of war — where war doesn’t cost the loss of lives. Perhaps one day our sporting events could serve to end a diplomatic crisis. Perhaps I’m naive. But the very concept of warfare is changing — cyber, drone, economic — and who knows what it will be like in the future. Maybe it will change so drastically we can’t even recognize it.

Since I wrote a draft of this blog post, the United States scored two goals and Ronaldo broke our dreams — at least temporarily — with this cross:

The New Digital Media Artist: Finding a Balance to Create

It’s Father’s Day, and I’m in San Diego at my brother in law’s house, drinking Gatorade to rehydrate after a night of celebration. Truthfully, I’ve been neglecting this blog for a bit, and I’ve recommitted to a weekly Sunday blog post. So from now on, every Sunday, I’ll be writing a new blog post about what’s going on with my writing or just providing commentary on issues I find important.

Friends with You. Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin
Friends with You. Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin

Over the last couple of months, there have been a lot of changes in my personal journey. I’ve become the creative director of Circa Interactive; I started an Internet/television show called The Working Poet Radio Show sponsored by the Los Angeles Public Library; and I’ve been trying to chronicle the New Americana at Rockwell’s Camera Phone. On top of that, I’ve been trying to write essays and profiles while keeping up three different social media accounts. It’s been extremely hard to manage, and I’m at a point where I need to think about what’s important in life to focus on. Well, they all are important. This has become quite a balancing act, and I would say that some project management tools like Evernote and Trello have saved me from certain mental exhaustion. What I find is that some people don’t understand how to harness the power of a program like Evernote. Clayton Dean, co-founder of Circa Interactive, introduced me to this: The Secret Weapon.

Blog Post pic 2
The Working Poet Radio Show. Photo Credit: Clayton Dean

But that’s not the only thing that’s changing. I’ve been monitoring trends in digital and social media for some time now, and it’s clear to me that as an artist, as a writer, as a journalist, as an author, I need to change the way that I create and work because the ways that art and content are being consumed and communicated have changed drastically. Now, I don’t think creatives should change their approach based on trends, but I do think that the early part of the 21st century has provided an enormous amount of opportunities to expand creation in general.

For example, cutting video is easier than ever, and I’m actively trying to turn the profiles I write for print journalism into video. By using the same approach to print journalism, I believe that I can transfer over the skills I’ve learned as a journalist to video and audio story telling. There has been a learning curve, however, and I’ve had to learn to cut, transition, and film to seem like a professional. I have to think about lighting and sound and many other aspects of recording that I wasn’t entirely familiar with. I’ve been cutting on Adobe Premier, and I have the Adobe Creative Suite.

Photo Credit: Alan Muszynski
Photo Credit: Alan Muszynski

Now, I have just started learning Illustrator and After Effects, and this is a whole different territory that feels a bit overwhelming, but I see that there are limitless opportunities with text and, of course, special effects that can take my journalism, poetry, and art to a whole different level, but mastering this type of programming takes time and patience. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been staring at one of these programs for hours and I can’t figure out how to do a basic function. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scoured through YouTube looking for a video to explain a certain function. Adobe certainly has made the suite easy to understand, but there is still a certain element of patience and understanding that it takes time to master these programs.

Here is a poster I designed.
Here is a poster I designed.

I’ve also started taking photography more seriously, and I’ve been going on photo shoots with my new Nikon D7100, which is also what I’ve been using to film. As a journalist and a creative director, it seems essential for me to learn photography. What has become expected of creatives in order to produce has changed dramatically, and the only way for a young creative like me to stay on the cutting edge is to adapt and learn everything in order to tell better stories and create better art and work for clients.

Photo credit: Joseph Lapin
Photo credit: Joseph Lapin

What I’m trying to say is that the 21st century is introducing a whole new type of artist/creative: the one who doesn’t accept the silly distinctions between the mediums; the one who fails to accept that he or she is only limited to one medium; the one who is incorporating every new piece of technology to create new forms and mediums. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and I feel that I’m on the verge of an explosion of new forms and projects. Some will probably be failures as I learn new technologies, but I can’t concern myself with failing. I can only concern myself with finding the best ways to create.




Roxane Gay, author of “An Untamed State” (Grove Atlantic), co-editor of PANK, and essays editor for The Rumpus, was in Los Angeles recently, and she stopped to talk to The Working Poet Radio Show before her reading at Skylight Books. Listen to Roxane discuss her “An Untamed State,” Channing Tatum, and why she is so fascinated with stories about survival. If you liked this podcast, you might also enjoy our interviews with Daniel Halpern, editor of Ecco Press, or Richard Blanco. Thanks to the Los Angeles Public Library.

Roxane Gay’s writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy culture blog, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK and essays editor for The Rumpus. She teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University. Her novel, An Untamed State, will be published by Grove Atlantic and her essay collection, Bad Feminist, will be published by Harper Perennial, both in 2014. She is at work on both fiction and nonfiction projects.