It takes more than a little chutzpah to borrow the title of one of the most famous pieces of magazine journalism ever published, but the long David Samuels article “Justin Timberlake Has a Cold” in the new issue of n + 1 is a terrific example of fly-on-the-wall reporting.
Gay Talese earned a place in non-fiction writing history with his April, 1966, Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” in which he reported and wrote his way around a seemingly impossible challenge — delivering a profile of the great singer without ever having access to the man himself.
Talese reported what went on in the world of Frank Sinatra in such detail — talking to as many people as he could line up and hanging out where they would let him — that his piece was better than most of what had been written about the star up to that point in time. It wasn’t a hatchet job by any means — Talese was a longtime admirer of Sinatra’s music — but not meeting the star freed the writer from any sense of obligation to his subject. As Talese demonstrated, what happens around a star is often more interesting than the carefully composed quotes he or she might share with an interviewer.
David Samuels takes a broader view of the music industry in his n + 1 piece than Talese did in Esquire, but he opens with Justin Timberlake doing a Grammy Awards rehearsal in Los Angeles last year despite battling a cold.
The main point of the article is that the whole notion of pop music stardom — and pop music itself — is endangered by the technical advancements of recent years that have left recording companies without the mechanisms they used in former eras to launch and maintain new stars. Now there are a handful of superstars like Timberlake and Beyonce who can still make a bundle from their downloaded singles, but everyone else is scrambling for the live bookings that now constitute the core of a music star’s business (the days of a recording-only superstar like the famously stage shy Carly Simon are over).
Samuels writes: “…maybe the age of instant communication that killed off the rock stars is all one big misunderstanding. What the techies missed was that the person Mick Jagger was just a contributor to the invented character of Mick Jagger, rock star, who represented a collective investment of x amount of imaginative capital and hard cash by record companies, art directors, and fans. Mick Jagger, the person, could hardly have created Mick Jagger, the rock star, alone in his bedroom using Instagram and ProTools, let alone programmed the contingent and chaotic human and creative interactions with Keef and the late great junkie producer Jimmy Miller that went into the recording of ‘Exile on Main Street’ and ‘Let it Bleed.’”
Samuels’ very presence at the Grammy Awards — an invitation to attend the annual Clive Davis party — is a sign of drastic changes in the music industry. In the old days, this sort of perk would have been restricted to writers like Talese from mass circulation magazines with millions of readers. Now in the chaos of sorting through the remaining “major” publications, music business types like Clive Davis have to open their doors to unaffiliated freelancers, bloggers and writers from small-circulation, non-profit publications such as n + 1:
“The collapse of the so-called creative industries has happened with such blinding speed that people outside New York are not entirely aware that glossy magazines are dead. This, as far as I can figure out, is why I was invited to the most fabulous party of the year. Clive Davis’s sense of hospitality was also evidenced by the invitation he sent to Cissy Houston, the gospel legend and mother of Whitney Houston, who died in a bathtub on the fourth floor of the Beverly Hilton in 2012, directly above the ballroom where Davis’s party continued on without her. ‘I got an invitation to the party, which is the most obscene thing,’ Cissy Houston told a reporter — ‘I don’t know why they would want me to come to the party in which she died, you know?’”
David Samuels used his odd invitation well — he has given us a great dispatch from inside a collapsing culture.