Jenn Pelly is a music critic and Contributing Editor at Pitchfork. Pelly has written for SPIN, Nylon, and The Village Voice and online at Rolling Stone and The New York Times and recently released a book on feminist punk band, The Raincoats.
What inspired you to be a critic?
Growing up it was my dream to be a journalist. I decided that I was going to be a writer when I was five years old (thank you to the author who came to my Daisy’s meeting for giving me the idea) and in middle school I started to become exposed to the local post-Taking Back Sunday-style music scene on Long Island, where I’m from. My friends were the type of kids would would skate under the train tracks, play shows in backyards and driveways and VFW halls, and hang out at Tower Records. So one day I was flipping through a copy of AP at Tower Records and it occurred to me that maybe I could fuse my two obsessions: music and writing. I’ve more or less been working at that nonstop ever since. More than anything, music itself inspired me. I could see how music was like glue for outsiders and medicine for people experiencing pain and how it pressed a magnifying glass onto the world.
I have a fairly traditional journalism background (my first print bylines were in my local alt-weekly when I was 16) but I don’t think the role of “critic” really occurred to me until the end of college. In my final month at NYU there was a symposium on Ellen Willis, who was a feminist activist and the first pop critic for The New Yorker. It was enormously inspiring, and I still think the Willis anthology Out of the Vinyl Deeps is the most important book of criticism I’ve read. I am so grateful that Out of the Vinyl Deeps existed when I was 21.
I always want to be doing more reporting—I still love uncovering stories and interviewing a dozen people and fitting the pieces together, like sculpture—but at a certain point I realized that criticism isn’t that different from reporting, you’re just posing the big questions onto yourself. I think as a person I’m always trying to find a balance between my deep-seated skepticism and some optimism, which are important qualities for music critics. You want to interrogate something while acknowledging that it matters.
Why do different critical voices matter?
A diversity of voices matters everywhere. It’s necessary in criticism and journalism because, ideally, our writing is a reflection of what the world is really like. It can’t be accurate if it’s not representing a diversity of voices. Life has never been more complicated, which makes music complicated, and criticism helps us process it all. It’s like that feeling after you see a really heavy movie or an amazing show and you just want to go sit with your friends somewhere and talk about what just happened—and that moment of reflection adds a whole other layer of depth to the experience.
What music are you excited about right now?
It’s so hard to answer this question in a succinct way! I’m constantly excited about new music. Some of my favorite artists of recent years are Jenny Hval, Moor Mother, SZA, Frank Ocean, Angel Olsen, Priests, and Palberta. I recently reviewed an EP by a violinist called Sudan Archives, which was exciting, especially the song “Nont for Sale.” I love the 2017 albums from Spellling, an artist from Oakland, and Girlsperm, which is Tobi Vail from Bikini Kill’s new band. I’m also really excited by my sister’s band Privacy Issues and a band called Table Sugar who played a reading I did for my book on The Raincoats in Olympia. They have a 12” coming out soon.
What “hidden gem” do you think deserves more attention?
I spent much of the past four years of my life writing a book about The Raincoats, and throughout that process I came across a ton of inspiring music that’s been lost to history. The 2005 solo album by Ana da Silva (singer and guitarist of The Raincoats) is definitely a hidden gem, it’s called The Lighthouse.