City Pages, the Alt-Weekly where musical writing reigned supreme

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When a young music journalist moved to New York City in 2006 in search of a job, she didn’t quite grasp the power of her resume.

Noting that her most recent job was as a music editor for the Minneapolis Alternative Weekly City Pages, the editor interviewing Lindsey Thomas for a position at MTV News dropped a line she had never heard: “So you’re part of the music critics mafia in Minnesota, eh?”

She got the job.

From the days Prince rose to fame and Replacements and Hüsker Dü set the gold standard for raw indie rock, Minneapolis has always struck above its weight, musically. And City Pages, the free weekly that documented these artists, has developed an outsized reputation of its own.

While it has outlived many of its loved ones, including the Village Voice, City Pages was suddenly shut down last Wednesday by its current owner, the Minneapolis daily the Star Tribune, who said challenges posed by the pandemic have made the paper “Economically unsustainable”.

Throughout its four decades, a disproportionate number of City Pages alumni worked in national music magazines, published music history and criticism books, and fostered an envied and emulated tone throughout the world. industry. Even the City Pages readership has proven to be influential.

“It was absolutely essential as a local roadmap to artistic culture,” said Ryan Schreiber, founder of music website Pitchfork, who grew up in the suburb of Twin Cities. “City Pages took me to weird places where I made weird friends, and it taught us all the weird art that brought us together. His 2006 cover story on Pitchfork is the only press that has ever mattered enough to me to have framed.

Before the web made every post instantly accessible to every reader, one newspaper assumed its audience was mostly local. But the media on the coasts kept an eye on City Pages – especially its music section. The pioneer of rock critic Greil Marcus, who published his “Top 10 in real life” column in City Pages from 2003 to 2004, once called it “America’s Best Alternative Weekly”. Talented writers from out of town sought to contribute (a young Ta-Nehisi Coates half-heartedly examined Ghostface Killah’s ‘Supreme Clientele’ in 2000) and even moved across the country to work there. (I moved to Minneapolis in the late ’90s and was the music editor from 2000 to 2001 and then again from 2017 until they turned the lights off.)

“Reading City Pages, I realized for the first time that music review doesn’t have to be, ‘Is this album good or bad? Spin and Rolling Stone. “The writing can be a little experimental, almost romantic, and it can be funny or conceptual.”

The history of City Pages began in 1979, a decade after the birth of the music magazines Rolling Stone and Creem, when publisher Tom Bartel launched a music journal called Sweet Potato which was written almost exclusively (and often under a pseudonym) by publisher Martin Keller. Renamed City Pages, the publication added artistic and media coverage, but its main draw remained its reporting and music reviews, including some of the early published stories about Replacements and Hüsker Dü – and, of course, Prince, which Keller has already casually mentioned. as “His Royal Badness” in a column, an epithet he was shocked to hear VJ Mark Goodman use on MTV soon after.

City Pages’ local connections have given it an unexpected head start over its competitors. After Keller wrote an article about Bob Dylan’s childhood friend Larry Kegan in 1983, the grateful Minnesota-born rock legend is said to have asked Kegan, “What could we do right for Marty?” ? The answer: a long interview.

Music critic Steve Perry took over as editor in the late ’80s. “All I ever wanted to do was surround myself with smart and interesting people,” a- he declared. To handle the musical and artistic coverage, Perry brought in Jim Walsh and Terri Sutton, two writers whose styles focused on their personal reactions to the music they were listening to, and he gave them carte blanche.

“We were let go to follow the passion that we wanted to follow,” Sutton said, although Bartel had one request: “He asked if I could just swear less.” (She could not.)

In the early ’90s, Sutton wrote the first positive stories about Babes in Toyland, at a time when the all-female trio were mostly mocked by the local male-dominated scene, and she also both documented and inspired the movement. riot grrrl. “Reading Terri Sutton as a burgeoning teenage music fan and feminist has indeed given me a path in life,” said Jessica Hopper, writer and book series editor who has contributed to the journal over the years. “Because City Pages had a feminist review, I mistakenly and happily assumed in the pre-Internet era that every city had a feminist rock review in their journal. “

Will Hermes, a transplanted New Yorker who helped solidify City Pages’ reputation as a hotbed of great musical writing when he became editor of the arts in 1993, said: “Minneapolis was such a hot musical city. that you could almost justify focusing on what was going on. locally, but they were ambitious. (As Perry said, “We thought of music criticism as a community having a bunch of conversations, and even though we were # 2 newspaper in a # 15 market, we wanted to be a part of that conversation. “)

In the 90s, the newspaper paid attention to alternative country bands like local band the Jayhawks and frequent visitors to Minnesota Wilco before the mainstream media caught it, and also charted the rise of indie rap label Rhymesayers. , which would have a national impact. .

The Village Voice was the model of Hermès, now a contributor to Rolling Stone and NPR. “But The Voice could turn into critics writing for each other,” he said. “You couldn’t really get away with it, you had to communicate with a larger readership. My ideal was to write something super smart but try to hook someone up who might not even be interested in reading to music.

Hermes highlighted a cover dedicated to Kurt Cobain after the death of the Nirvana frontman that collected thoughts and memories from Twin Cities musicians who knew Cobain, but also local fans. “It was basically Facebook before Facebook,” he said.

Under Hermès, City Pages established a rigorous publishing culture that continued after his departure. “Publishers had standards,” said Jon Dolan, a City Pages music publisher in the late ’90s who now works at Rolling Stone. “There was no Midshipman Lester Bangs going on crazy rants.” Michaelangelo Matos, a regular contributor whose work included vital documentation of the Midwestern electronic music scene, said, “You couldn’t get an unnecessary phrase in this article.”

There was also always the feeling that Minneapolis’ most famous artist was looking over your shoulder. Maybe it was just a legend that Prince read everything that was written about him in town. But you never knew when he might respond to criticism – as Maerz found out when, shortly after becoming a music writer in 2001, she criticized some of his backward statements about gender roles. Maerz, 22, has been summoned to Paisley Park for an unofficial one-on-one with the angry star. “We had a pretty heated debate that ended with his leaving the room,” Maerz said. “I was terrified, but also a little thrilled.”

The music section has tried to balance the demands of web publishing with the standards of its publishing tradition in recent years. “Every week felt like such a fight to keep some kind of integrity in what we were doing,” said Andrea Swensson, who was a music editor when The New Times acquired the newspaper in 2006 and instituted digital publishing quotas. .

Over the next several years, City Pages documented the rise of Bon Iver (from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, almost local) and helped introduce the aspiring pop star Lizzo to the world, 2013 Picked to Click winner, the best new music artist survey Walsh launched in 1991.

And until the very end, City Pages strove to remain a musical author’s journal where, as Walsh said, an enthusiastic hobbyist could walk in the door and say to a publisher, “I’d love to write this. would like to use first person and I would like it to sound smart. Help me.”


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