Super Powers

How a move to East Nashville invigorated NPR’s lead music critic Ann Powers

“Have you met Ann Powers yet?” The New York Times lead music critic Jon Pareles asked me over lunch in the early ’90s. “You’re going to really like her.”
     I was skeptical. Between the overly analytic critics who pinched all the life and passion out of the music they covered — theoretically music for actual people who loved music — and a new trend of writers using music criticism as a way of gaining access to celebrities’ lives, I was becoming cynical about the kind of life force music coverage I’d grown up on, the kind that captured your imagination and spun whole people through their stories where distanced artists had formerly existed on a plane miles from the rest of us, those people listening wherever life had put them.
     The Russian Tea Room, all red leather banquettes with expensively papered walls covered almost completely with art in heavy gilded frames, seemed the antithesis of a place to discuss a young woman coming from the San Francisco Weekly by way of Seattle’s indie music weekly The Rocket. Yet, as the courses arrived, the notoriously persnickety — and at times, prickly — critic assured me Powers was curious and open to understanding things in 
their context.
     Had Pareles and I not been friends since my own days as a music critic writing for Rolling Stone and The Los Angeles Times, I would’ve thought he was palming me off. He was a busy man, expected to cull and dissect the best of all types of popular music. There was only so much he could do.
     When I finally met the red curly-haired, bespectacled Powers, the man many considered the most powerful pop music critic in America had actually sold her short. Her eyes sparkled with delight talking about the scenes she’d covered and intrigue in the world of current mainstream country music that she had never considered.
     Sitting in a diner near Union Square, Ann Powers was urbane, witty, passionate. She wanted to know not just how or where or why music happened, but the way it held and reflected communities. Not just how she felt about the various works, but how it represented segments of the population that embraced it.
     Powers started covering music in high school, writing for The Rocket where she eventually came into her voice under legendary editor Charles Cross. She was at ground zero of the grunge explosion, then went on to San Francisco Weekly, where she honed her chops writing a weekly club column and covering as diverse a music scene as existed anywhere in America.
     That she would go on to be the music editor at The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times, the director of the Experience Music Project, and later NPR’s lead music critic, never crossed my mind. But had someone showed me a crystal ball with her career trajectory, I would’ve responded, “Of course.”
     Ann Powers is singular in how she approaches music and culture, global in seeking connections, fervent in her response. A devotee of pioneering critic Ellen Willis, she — along with Evelyn McDonnell — would co-edit a female compendium Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap and her own Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.
     This was also a woman on the move. Her husband is the equally well-published social and music critic Eric Weisbard, who succeeded Powers as the director of Seattle’s Experience Music Project. An odd career trajectory landed the critic power couple in Tuscaloosa, Ala.  — by way of Weisbard’s tenure track in the University of Alabama’s American Studies program. Suddenly, they 
were in the heart of the South. It was 2009.
     No one could’ve guessed, or anticipated, its impact on Powers. But the shift in living dynamic led to — after several years — the family relocating to Nashville, with Weisbard commuting to his professorship. If their arrival seems like it’s more of the sudden 6-1-5 hipness boom, it’s anything but.
     Still, however she got here, America — and Music City — is in many ways the richer for her presence in our city.
Having lived in San Francisco’s Mission District in the ’80s, Brooklyn in the ’90s, Seattle’s Fremont Ballard in the 2000s, as well as Los Angeles’ Mount Washington adjacent to Eagle Rock neighborhood, she is no stranger to cities on the verge. In that, she recognizes the pulse that draws people in and the inherent danger that comes with becoming the epicenter of cool.
     “I started coming to Nashville for Americana Fest four years ago,” Powers recalls over breakfast. “And it was instant. I started to realize there were all these growing scenes here. Country music is based here, but there’s all kinds of singer-songwriters, punk rock, alternative things — and a rock scene that supports Jack White, the Black Keys, and Kings of Leon.
     “All the people who are the blood and bones of what you hear — it’s a place where they’re visible and their stuff matters. People are going out and hearing music at night. And there’s a layer of creative people who are behind the scenes — producers, engineers, songwriters, session players — that contribute to the energy that’s here.
     “This is how popular music gets made,” she continues. “At NPR Music, we’re very interested in the process and the working lives of artists. Those are stories we want to tell, and not just the people you know.”
Also, weighing Atlanta and New Orleans, both 3- to 4 1/2-hour commutes from Tuscaloosa, Nashville won out. After five years in a college town built on “the University, Greek life, and football,” it was time for Powers to return to what fed her.
     “Most of the venues (near her Tuscaloosa home) hosted cover bands, so for me to see what was happening on a national scene, I had to drive an hour to Birmingham. That isn’t easy when you’re a mother of a school age child.”
Noting that most nationally touring acts play Nashville, she’s also aware of the diversity in Nashville — and the opportunity for artist residencies. “I saw Dave and Phil Alvin (founders of California blues/roots punk band The Blasters) play City Winery; saw Aaron Lee Tashjan in a small room like The 5 Spot,” she says. “Then that same night, Eric went to the Mercy Lounge to see Destroyer.
     “You could’ve gone to any number of shows, all different kinds of music. And there’s this aspect of residency, too. You have groups like The Time Jumpers every Monday night at 3rd & Lindsley, the very best of the best — and you can see them.”
Ann Powers is unusual. She’s been invited to Prince’s house — at the Purple One’s behest — to preview music from an upcoming album. She’s been courted by Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, U2. In part because of the publications she’s written for, but also for her acumen in analysis on political, sexual, gender, and cultural planes as well as her unabashed love of music.
     Beyond that, she admits, “Nothing is better than being in a crowd dancing and feeling joy as musicians give it their all — whether that’s at a landmark venue like the Hollywood Bowl or some dingy club on the — no longer dingy, I guess —  Lower East Side. This is what I now find so invigorating about being in Nashville. Live music every night, every day!”
     The Bachelor of Arts in poetry and the master’s degree in American literature she earned also provide a far broader perspective than even “knowing” the details of music. And it is by embracing a vast path that she’s been able to make some of the connections that give her writing and reporting such resonance.
     “I haven’t had one breakthrough,” she begins, trying to ground her path. “Every step taught me something different. I guess I think I’m still breaking through — everything.
     “Getting my master’s in American literature at UC Berkeley taught me so much about criticism, about how theoretical frameworks shape art and can deepen critical readings of a work, about the history of popular culture, and the ways in which the art world operates beyond the simple dichotomy of ‘artist’ and ‘critic.’
     “Since I started writing music journalism in high school, that was always central to my identity as a writer. I somehow was able to understand, fairly early, that I’d only get better the more tools I acquired to help me think more clearly and know more widely what others have thought about culture.”
     For Powers, beyond the obvious curatorial take on the world around her, there is the investment in communities and being part of where she lives. Already conversant on stores like Fond Objects and the food court at Nashville Farmer’s Market, she was drawn to East Nashville for the neighborhood feel that is rooted in generations.
     “When we were moving to town, we always hoped we’d call East Nashville home because those neighborhoods are connected to where artists and creative people and young families have been able to move and live in harmony with people who were already there,” she says.
     “We were able to find a historic home and moved to a block with a community we could be part of. There’s nothing more irritating than someone who moves to town and considers themselves an expert. I’m a newbie here, and I love everything about where we live.”
     Knowing the stakes that come with the influx, Powers pauses, weighing the reality communities like this face. “I hope these neighborhoods can maintain sustainability,” she says. “I’ve seen most of those neighborhoods tip past the point of sustainability for most people because one thing I’ve noticed about young creative people whom I encounter is the anxiety of being able to have a stable paycheck and a career to be able to afford a reasonable residence [like this].”
 
Bohemianism has shaped — and at times, challenged — her take on music, criticism, even where she’s lived. Looking back on her career, she muses about her two stints at The New York Times with The Village Voice in the middle: “I’d left graduate school to be a stringer there after having been recruited by the great Jon Pareles — but I wasn’t ready for that platform yet.
     “I was relatively young and very passionate about my beliefs and I needed to be in an environment where others who shared my values were doing work that I found deeply meaningful. I needed to be among my own when I went to The Voice. There I was constantly challenged to refine my sense of politics and of how culture connects to social movements and political change.
     “When I went back to The Times, I was ready, I think, to translate my ideas to a more general readership. That was a huge step for me, to learn to put my own passions aside somewhat and think about how people unlike myself [in terms of being a bohemian, basically] connected to music and to popular culture in general. In the midst of that shift I wrote my first book, Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, which was an attempt to tell my own story of living in the ‘alternative’ world in a way that also spoke to those who might not be otherwise connected to it.”
     Powers still has the twinkle in her eyes, the smile on her lips, when she talks about the realm of bohemianism. “When your main concern isn’t, ‘Will I be able to pay my rent?’ but more, ‘Will I have an amazing conversation with my friends tonight when I go out, about relativism and politics, punk rock, gender stuff?’ — that is everything, and there are so many holes in the safety nets now. It’s not so easy to dedicate yourself to that old-school bohemian life. Foolishly, perhaps, I didn’t think about where I’d be at 35 — and with our changing economy, the things have shifted, too. But people like myself today — and my 20-year-old self who’s worked at Tower and had five roommates and thought twice before I got the special chow mein at the Chinese restaurant because it cost more.”
     Powers both understands and rues the reality. Half-joking, she offers, “It’s like ‘Plan Your Career in Five Easy Steps — and Take Your Anxiety Meds.’ ” But as a student, a curator, a critic, and an editor, she also realizes that in some ways, experience remains the one thing that can’t be taught — only learned through practice and engagement.
     “I wish every young music writer could have this opportunity [Powers is having in Nashville] — watching the music every night,” she begins. “It’s easy for people to live on the web, get the music virtually. They can absorb the music through the cloud, but I don’t think you really get the essence of it. Being in a crowd, absorbing what the audience is giving, what the players are giving — that’s a big 
piece of it.
     “Live music has been something I’ve done my whole career. I’ve sacrificed quite a bit of my hearing and possibly some of my skeletal system standing in clubs since I was 15 — being in a city where seeing live music every night is rejuvenating.”
     Being alive is part of why people lean into music, why they come home from work and go out. Just as powerful as it is keeping one vital, it can often be a form of generational binding. For Powers, who was the bright high school kid a local band manager once vouched for to The Rocket, the identity one forges “in the scene” can also lead to growing up outside the obvious and beyond the expected.
     With a 12-year-old daughter, both wicked smart and precocious, the need to create a world “where there were more kids like she was” created an onramp into Powers’ new community. Looking to situate her daughter amongst peers, the family’s spring arrival allowed for enrollment in Nashville’s pioneering Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp on the MTSU campus in Murfreesboro.
     Ten years into being, many of the former students are now returning to teach — and lifetime friendships are being formed. When you’re almost a teenager, it’s a place that can truly be your own.
     “My daughter is a young rocker who plays the drums,” Powers explains. “I wanted her to be in a place where there were other girls like her. Girls who are into the Black Veil Brides, who care about punk rock and are different in many ways — because that’s how you become who you really are.
     “Through the Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp, not only did she meet other kids like her, but we met an amazing community of people who are invested in the kids and education. These people are progressive, cool, feminist, and really fun!”
     Powers’ enthusiasm is palpable. “A great example of that is Jessi Wariner, who goes by Jessi Zazu,” she continues. “She’s an incredible person, but she’s also a painter, a feminist, an activist, as well as part of Those Darlins. Knowing there are people like Jessi out there, that makes me feel good because I know my tween isn’t going to be interested in going to 3rd & Lindsley to see The Time Jumpers or the Ryman to see a roots music icon.”
     Having been supported by her own parents when Powers announced she wanted to be a poet, she realizes the value of differentiation and identification in girls growing up. And even if Mom is the lead music critic for NPR, someone who can grok the music you’re rocking at 12, that doesn’t mean you don’t need your own music — or a place to put the angst, aggression, and beyond.
     “When I look at Nashville, there is so much great here! Infinity Cat is here. Dan Pujol. Daddy Issues is an all-girl band for someone like my daughter. A lot of the stuff coming out of East Nashville — or wherever the next East Nashville is — there’s plenty for someone young and defining themselves.
     “So many young people are coming here to not only try to throw their hat in the ring, to maybe be a rising music star, but also to make the best kolache, the best hand-tooled leather belt. That creative energy is exciting — a real spirit of craft and, to use a far overused term, artisanal focus.
     “Young people are making great stuff, whether it’s food or coffee or a yoga studio,” Powers says. “That energy is being produced and offered on a local level, produced for the community they’re a part of.”
     Connections. It’s why Ann Powers does it, the way she sorts and orders her creativity and her world. As a woman who once wrote a cover story for The Village Voice headlined “Queer in the Streets, Straight in the Sheets,” she is working on a new book about “the intersection of music and sexuality as it’s unfolded over more than a century of popular music.”
     But more than friction, for Powers, so much of what she does is delving into how people come together and forge bonds, about creative combustion and how tribes find themselves. It is also — as she’s already noted — about the process of how creativity emerges and manifests, something being inside a place like East Nashville affords.
     “The most important thing for a creative person to hang onto is the ability to mess up, to get it half right and right in a way they didn’t expect,” she says. “I wish there was more focus in our conversations about craft, more fostering original expression.
     “So many people here are devoted to making things. That creative energy is exciting, and I hope it will continue to grow.”