I haven’t written a newsletter in a couple of months because I’ve been busy with freelancing and other writing projects, which I am grateful for even as I keep on coming up with and then abandoning post concepts. The flipside of “having enough time to blog” is “not having enough time to blog,” and while I’d rather have the latter than the former, I’m hoping 2021 will bring a resurgence in effort. Until then, I wanted to gather the pieces I wrote this year that I’m most proud of, along with a little commentary. Thank you for your support, truly.
Watch now: These people’s lives are ruined (The Outline)
Time has stretched and fractured in ways everyone is grappling with all of the time, and one of those startling “wow, that was this year?” realizations arises when I remember that not only did Tiger King come out in 2020, but it came out during that precise two-week period during lockdown where The Outline still existed. This ended up being the last piece of writing I ever published there, which feels as appropriate as anything given the pairing of two of my favorite subjects: viral bullshit and professional wrestling.
Rap Soundtracks the Michael Jordan Doc. The N.B.A. Wasn’t Always That Way (The New York Times)
Run the Jewels Is Rewriting Rap’s Rules (The New York Times)
My first two pieces for the Times required talking to older rappers with some perspective on how fickle the music industry can be. The Michael Jordan story is probably my favorite piece I wrote this year, because it led me down so many corridors — at first I was writing about the music in this documentary, and before long I was talking to LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee about how rap became stitched into the mainstream, and how their careers were affected along the way. Similarly, it was fascinating to hear El-P and Killer Mike reflect on how they’d accepted their career might be grading out at “underground fave who pays the bills by touring” before they started Run the Jewels.
For Years, He Was Spank Rock. He’s Always Been Naeem. (The New York Times)
Secret Machines Are Back. So Much Has Changed. (The New York Times)
Along those lines, I loved talking to Naeem (fka Spank Rock) and Secret Machines, two acts who were popular-ish in the mid-’00s before taking a long, winding road to the present. For Naeem, that meant shedding his Spank Rock name, falling in with the Bon Iver gang, and metamorphosing into a different kind of artist; for Secret Machines, that meant bearing witness to the death of a member (and brother), and clawing out a new musical identity in the wake of that grief. I get a little sentimental when I think about what it takes to keep pushing forward when you doubt yourself, so hearing these artists thoughtfully opine on how they did it was very nice.
Fraternity is a very charming book that I tried not to be hard on, because I couldn’t shake the feeling that Nugent’s attempt to survey the fascinating world of fraternities tilted more toward wish fulfillment than reality. I realize that’s what fiction literally is, but it’s such rich terrain that the total package left me feeling underwhelmed, even though I laughed a lot while reading it and underlined a lot of passages. I continue to believe Greek life is something that writers really struggle to understand, because it’s both dumber and smarter than can be easily summed up.
Two friends pointed out that I tried to get them to take my place in this apartment after I moved out, without mentioning the fact I believed it was haunted. Look, with New York real estate you sometimes just have to accept the flaws.
Probably the hardest piece to write this year, given the necessity of adjusting for Pitchfork’s institutional perspective and the fact that straight white men making puerile, occasionally misogynist brat rock is difficult to retroactively reappraise without scolding the reader for something they already knew (that blink-182 were not politically enlightened) or veering into gauzy “that was just how guys were dudes” nostalgia peddling. This is why I believe Pitchfork should retain the option to grade an album as a “classic if you were 11 when you first heard it” instead of ruining the vibe with a numerical score.
It wasn’t easy to describe The Outline. That’s what made it great (Columbia Journalism Review)
I still miss The Outline, though I try not to talk about it too much because it’s not December, and the site ended in April, and pretty soon it will be April again and lingering on the life and death of a website more than a year out from its demise feels inappropriate. But it’s very touching to hear from other people how much they miss it, too, because while The Outline was never a world-beating enterprise, it did occupy a specific publishing niche that hasn’t been replicated since, and may not be for a while given the financial idiocy of launching a quirky boutique editorial enterprise while a pandemic is still going on. I’m grateful to everyone who ever read it.
Is There a Cure for Burnout? (The Nation)
I did not care for Anne Helen Petersen’s viral burnout article when it dropped in 2019, and its expansion into a book-length text didn’t fix my issue with how she recurrently pathologizes gigantic swaths of the population based on her personal experience. That’s a way to write a viral essay, but not a supposedly academic-leaning text.
The Year in Cats (Hazlitt)
A bit I love now is when Jen and I have finished watching something on HBO Max, and are wondering what to do next, and while she’s not paying attention I hit play on Cats and hold the controller away when she realizes what’s going on. We’ve made it halfway through “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” the song that opens the movie.
Dave Grohl, 10-Year-Old Nandi Bushell and One Very Epic Drum Battle (The New York Times)
Conor Oberst’s Week: Listening to ‘Moby-Dick’ and Watching Not-So-Dark TV (The New York Times)
It’s hard to write a feel good story, at least for me, but I appreciated the opportunity to push past my natural cynicism for a saga that actually did make me feel good. Talking to Dave Grohl and Conor Oberst is one of those “I can’t believe it” things that would’ve humbled me to learn when I was 14 and reading Spin in the school library.
This was the first freelance assignment I booked after The Outline ended, and the only interview I conducted over FaceTime. Probably the band whose music I enjoyed most this year, if I’m being honest.
England and Texas are very different places, but in talking to Steve McQueen about the Lovers Rock installment of his Small Axe anthology, and the photographer Pat Blashill about his book chronicling the ’80s Texas punk scene, I observed an slight parallel in how lovers rock incubated partly as a response to the racism of the Thatcher years, and Texas punk incubated partly as a response to the conservatism of the Reagan years. Every time I felt completely insane about living in Trump’s America, I tried to think about what it would’ve been like to live in Reagan’s America, and specifically in Texas. To quote Craig Finn, singing in 2004, from 2020: “I survived the ’80s once already, and I don’t recall them all that fondly.”
Favorite song: The 1975 - “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)”
Favorite album: Waxahatchee - St. Cloud
Favorite book: Yoko Ogawa - The Memory Police
Favorite movie: Weird year because I saw no new movies in theater besides Cats, but the two best movies I watched for the first time at home (at least, off the top of my head) were Everybody Wants Some!! and Cabaret
Favorite TV show: My Brilliant Friend
Favorite video game: Ghost of Tsushima
Favorite wrestling match: Kazuchika Okada vs. Kota Ibushi, Wrestle Kingdom 14
Favorite thing I ate: a mushroom ragu Jen cooked, twice; the pork ribs at Ham Ji Park
Favorite animal I saw in real life: red panda, at the Prospect Park zoo
Favorite color: mustard
Favorite viral video: “Shout out to his family”
Favorite article: The Saddening (The Outline)
Favorite article, non-Outline: recency bias, but David Fincher’s Impossible Eye (The New York Times)
Favorite thing I bought: a new rice cooker
Until next time, friends.