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Albert Gallatin Lecture: Rob Sheffield

Music critic and author explores the dizzying pace of pop music's evolution

May 6, 2013

Rob Sheffield

Contact: Jean Dykstra
(212) 992-9825
jmd7@nyu.edu

Music critic and author Rob Sheffield played a number of video clips during his Albert Gallatin Lecture on April 23, but the best one may have been the first: it showed David Bowie and Cher singing a mashup of songs (ranging from Bowie’s Young Americans to Wedding Bell Blues,better known as Wll You Marry Me, Bill? made popular by the 5th Dimension) on Cher’s 1975 television variety show. The clip, said Sheffield, showed “two of the most iconic pop icons of the 1970s trying to capture a history of pop music.”

That was a time, said Sheffield, when pop songs “used to have an implicit expiration date. It’s a cultural cliché that pop music is a mirror of the moment.” But that has changed with the Internet, and anyone can get access to music from any time period by typing a song into YouTube. “These changes are weird to me,” he said. “If you wanted to fund the New York Dolls in the 1980s, you had to really scrounge around. Now you can just type them into your computer.”

A columnist for Rolling Stone, Sheffield is the author of Love Is a Mix Tape and Talking to Girls about Duran Duran. He has written for the New York Times, the Village Voice and Spin, among other publications. During his talk, he explored the way the availability of popular music has changed the way we listen to music and write about music.

When Sheffield began writing music criticism, he said, he would buy an album that was already out, take it home and listen to it, type up a review and print it out on his dot matrix printer, put it in an envelope and mail it to the magazine. Then the review would come out six weeks later.

Now, he said, reviews are sometimes written even before the album has been completely finished, and the criticism has to be instantaneous. He dubbed the phenomenon “flib:” first listen blather. “Really good writing,” he said, “often doesn’t appear until later. It takes time to unfold."

In some ways, this unparalleled access to music from any era is a terrific thing, he said, but it's also harder for pop music to define itself against the past. "Processing music takes time," he said, "and our challenge is to figure out how to let music change over time and to let our response change over time.”



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