Wait, So He’s Your Dad, Too? – Tavi Gevinson Interviews George Saunders
One of the five ways I’m most like Tavi Gevinson, who founded the online fashion/arts/culture magazine Rookie in 2011 when she was 15 years old, is that we both seek out George Saunders interviews when we’re feeling sad. I finally caught up with her own May 16 interview with Saunders from the Rookie podcast, and it didn’t disappoint. Here are a few gems from their conversation, during which they discuss the craft of writing, meditation, and turning the flaws of your own work into opportunities to innovate:
SAUNDERS: When I thought of myself as a “writer,” I kind of stunk the place up a little bit, and when I thought of myself as an entertainer, then I could access all that childhood stuff that was about […] kind of impure urges, I mean, to hold the room.
SAUNDERS: Somebody said, “a novel is a longer work of prose with something wrong with it.” When I was a younger writer I thought, any time I hit a problem in a story, I was screwed. And it was me: I was no good. But now, I’m—when you hit a problem in a story, it’s the story trying to tell you, “Please don’t think so lowly of me. I actually have bigger plans than you have for me.” There’s this beautiful quote Einstein said: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.” So that means, your story, you have an idea for it, and for a while it’s kind of docile, it goes along, and at some point, it gets a little pride and it’s like, you know, “I actually would like to be beautiful.”
GEVINSON: How do you decide on a character you know you’re going to want to spend all that time with?
SAUNDERS: Hmm, that’s a good question. […] You know how when you’re really in a book, you know, everything, every comma, has meaning. The arrangement of the words on the page has meaning. Even character names can sort of give off a little bit of scent. So, my theory is, if I’m writing correctly, I’m in a kind of a—I don’t want it to sound too New Age-y—but it’s sort of a quiet mind, intuitive thing, where all I’m doing is reading the text and letting it fire energy back at me, and I’m trying to receive all of it. [...] The difference between our best self and our crummy self is in that split second of what I would call intuition. In the moment of truth, it’s just coming from some weird, magical, but reliable, place.
I hadn’t made Gevinson’s podcast a regular part of my weekly listening, but I’m all in now. I really enjoyed her inaugural episode from April 4 wherein she discussed songwriting and artistic growth with her friend Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor (aka Lorde), and her May 23 conversation with actress and producer Alia Shawkat. She’s a thoughtful, candid interviewer with a voice that I can only describe as charmingly congested. And what’s more, the affection and interest she feels for the people she interviews infects me as a listener and motivates me to be a better, more engaged consumer of interviewee’s own work. Each episode also includes a “life skills” segment on subjects like how to feel good about saying “no” to things you don’t want to do, and a segment first popularized on the Rookie website, Ask A Grown, wherein Gevinson brings on someone she admires to dispense advice to Rookie readers.
For such a new-ish podcast, Rookie has its shit together in so many appealing ways, and is a great way to spend an hour each week.
What It Must Feel Like – SZA’s Ctrl
I’m 30, so I’ve been a guy for like, 27 or 28 years. I’ve been someone who writes occasionally about music for fewer than 28 weeks, but I need to get some effusive stuff about SZA off my chest. A co-worker turned me on to her new album, Ctrl, earlier this month, and I’ve been trying it out in the intervening weeks. Bumping it in the car doesn’t exactly do it justice, because not only is SZA a talented pop-oriented songwriter, she has a rich and interesting voice that makes her a true genre bender. A lot of these tracks, especially “Prom,” demand a headphone listen. You need to let yourself get caught up in it.
Her music is R&B, it’s hip hop, it’s neo-soul, it’s disco-pop, it’s indielectronica. It’s also deeply black, and deeply feminine.
Which brings me back to my first point. I’ve been a guy for fucking ages, and with that, most pop culture I consume is oriented towards me at least in that way. I’ve been imprinting myself onto male heroes and villains and singers and dancers and artists for as long as I can remember. And I’ve happily imprinted onto women in pop culture, too, whether it was Buffy or Amelie or Korra or Janet Jackson or whomever. But for reasons I’m still thinking through, I never felt like I needed to take that far of a step to reach further across the gender spectrum until listening to “Prom.” I came in to work and found the co-worker who recommended the album to me and told her, “I’m trying to find the right words to express this, but listening to her is the closest I’ve ever come to feeling what it’s like to be a woman.”
We hashed it up a little bit more after that. And I gave the caveat that obviously no one album can capture all of womanhood, so really, I must be having this strong sense of what it feels like to be SZA and not just a random woman, but I stand by the point that her music feels transporting in a way that is rare for me. In the case of “Prom,” it largely comes down to certain vocal choices SZA makes. It’s the first time she sings the word “please” in the chorus of the song, which she stretches into three syllables, and layers at least one vocal dub of herself over it, with each one going opposite ways towards different octaves and meeting briefly in the middle. I love the whole song, but that word did me in. The song makes me nostalgic both for being 17 in 2004 and for what I imagine being 17 might feel like right now.
Part of SZA’s gift is that she is talented enough that she earns critics’ frequent comparisons to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Rihanna, Robyn, and the Queen Bey. There are flashes of all those vocal inflections just in “Broken Clocks,” the third and most recent single from this album. And in “Drew Barrymore,” she courts comparisons with Amy Winehouse both visually and vocally.
Ctrl is so much better than a debut album has any right to be. For fans who’ve been with her since the mixtape days in 2012, they know it isn’t an overnight success story. But for the rest of us, we’re just glad she’s here now. We see you.
above image: "Tavi Gevinson at MAKERS event," jauretsi / flickr
 I call this the Terry Gross Effect, because Gross has an uncanny ability to convey vocally the depth of her interest and affection for the people she talks to, and it’s similarly contagious when I listen to her show, Fresh Air.