A music critic shares her story of nights spent dodging dribbled beer and would-be writers while seeking out the perfect metaphor 10 minutes before deadline.
I count the concerts I’ve attended in items I’ve lost.
Pepper spray at St. Vincent. Earplugs at Fleetwood Mac. My phone at Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band. (I found it in a snow drift on top of an Arena District parking garage at 2 a.m.) And, at Ed Sheeran, my entire concert review.
Writing about bands for a living means my party trick is explaining my job. People lean in at the words “music reporter,” beer glass paused halfway to their lips.
I smile, picking the stems from my green grapes, selecting the juiciest bits of story to feed them: the one where Jay-Z had more costume changes than Beyoncé, or when I hit “cut” instead of “copy” on my Sheeran review, deleting it entirely and then miraculously retrieving it from a word-counting website moments before security kicked me out of Nationwide Arena.
I don’t tell them about all the beers that were dribbled on my head by overzealous classic rock fans. Or the photographers’ gross comments about the women dancing in tutus and top hats while electronic dance music artist Dillon Francis bopped behind his DJ booth at Breakaway Music Festival.
They can’t feel my panic over a rain forecast at an outdoor show where umbrellas are banned. (Good luck writing anything legible in a soggy notebook.) Editors don’t care about waterlogged copy, drunk carousers or deleted reviews. As long as the story is in by 10:30 p.m. (11:30 p.m. when I first started, and as late as 1 a.m. back in the day, I’m told), free from error and somewhere between 450 and 550 words, they move on with their evening.
I, on the other hand, come home after midnight, pulsing with adrenaline and terror that I spelled something wrong, and eat ice cream on my kitchen floor while brainlessly scrolling through Instagram. Sleep doesn’t come until 2 a.m., and even then I drift off reciting the names of Fleetwood Mac’s band members.
Three years ago, I started as a music and features reporter at The Columbus Dispatch one week after graduating from college. I was 21—barely legal—stepping into a male-dominated industry that treated ’90s alt-rock bands like gods and record collecting like an Olympic sport.
My adolescent music diet consisted of Mozart, midcentury jazz and Bruce Springsteen, plus a heavy serving of hymns thanks to my parents’ careful oversight, and I gulped up the new sounds, textures and personalities on my plate.
Breakaway Music Festival, an annual hip-hop/electronic dance music hybrid, was my first chance to pretend I knew what I was doing. On a sweaty Saturday in mid-September, I stood 2 feet from rap duo Rae Sremmurd as sticky-sweet juice from the pineapple they used as a stage prop launched onto my face and yellow notebook.
Security tossed water bottles into the dehydrated audience inside the Ohio Expo Center, but a stream of people crowd-surfed, unconscious, to the edges anyway, carried to safety by their fellow revelers.
A high school student crossed the room to where I hunched against a wall, sorting my notes, to ask for my number. A photographer gave me his card with the promise of sending photos for use, smarminess rolling off him like unleaded gasoline. He never sent me photos.
Chicago hip-hop artist/choir boy Chance the Rapper redeemed the evening, and I allowed myself a forbidden dance in the bleachers before buckling down and writing a review that, in a later journalism contest, earned me the opaque compliment “fun and flavor served fresh.”
My list of unsavory run-ins with unsavory men at shows is almost as long as the list of items I’ve misplaced. The drunk one who offered me his girlfriend’s beer while she used the restroom. The other drunk one who shoved his body against me like a car in a fender bender. Several have tried to feed me sentences to use in my stories.
I bury my head in my notes. I would block my ears, if only I hadn’t lost my earplugs somewhere in Nationwide.
Unlike sports writers, who have cushy seats and special access inside arenas, I am a woman of the people. I stand next to middle-aged moms and their teenage girls in crop tops and platforms, shivering in the security line on late October nights, while I wear an old college hoodie with a kangaroo pocket for my two pens (one black, one blue), notebook, phone charger, wallet and ID.
My review tickets usually place me somewhere between sections 105 and 110—in seats that go for $100 and up—and within range of waving hands, uncontrolled drink cups and concert sweat.
I’m not cleared to bring a laptop into most shows, meaning writing duty falls to my iPhone 6S and its Notes app, plus a battered notebook I use to jot down preliminary thoughts. As soon as the first snare hits, I tune out all but the show, writing descriptions, scraps of lyrics and crowd reactions in the dark, hoping my handwriting is legible enough to translate to typed words.
I learned the hard way that if I make a mistake, I will hear about it. During former Columbus resident Lydia Loveless’ set at Ace of Cups, I misheard the name of her hairdresser, whom she credited from the stage, and received at least one frustrated email from a reader the next morning.
John Mayer’s show earned me enough (deserved) vitriol to end my career 40 years prematurely. I spelled several of his band members’ names incorrectly—the cardinal sin of journalism and a source of many subsequent sleepless nights. I have yet to make the same mistake.
Better are the messages from apoplectic readers who disagree with my takes.
“Blake Shelton concert. The only time I snoozed is reading your article,” read one message from a country music fan. “Terrible review. What a huge slap in the face for Columbus Blake fans!! Embarrassing!!” read another.
I always hope to eke out something meaningful in the 45 to 60 minutes allotted to write the reviews. But I like to think I’ve done my job well if someone pushes against what I say.
While 13-year-olds scream at Ariana Grande, I am as expressionless as the Downtown statue of Christopher Columbus. I do not cheer, clap or sing along. (Apologies if you ever sit next to me.)
If there are no seats at the venue, I hold my elbows at awkward angles, trying not to make contact with anyone in the pit. At Express Live and the Newport Music Hall, I pray to get there before concertgoers snag the standing spots behind the rich corporate sponsor section in the balconies.
When Twenty One Pilots performed at the 300-person-capacity Basement in June 2017, I stood on a 6-inch segment of blue velvet couch, undulating whenever two malodorous middle school boys bounced next to me. Liquid of some kind dripped from the ceiling.
By my bedtime, my wrists ache, my feet are swollen, and I still have a story to write while cleaning crews sweep up empty beer cups and limp pieces of confetti. My brain has learned to filter out the noise, constructing metaphors over the clinking of stage equipment wheeling out of the building. When time is precious, there’s no chance to meditate on word choice or poetic device.
I’ve compared country sets to the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, rock singers to salmon leaping up waterfalls and Radiohead’s songs to dandelion fluff.
When I finally look up, eyes glazed, adrenal glands working overtime, I almost forget where I am. I address an email to the copy desk and web editor and paste in my words, praying I heard the lyrics correctly. All is quiet when I hit “send” and leave the building.
Security personnel droop against concession stand counters, waiting for the bus. Merchandise booth employees sit on the concrete floor folding $50 tees for the next tour stop. Occasionally someone nods goodnight, but mostly we’re all sleepy specters waiting to go home.
I leave that part out when someone gets googly-eyed over my line of work. I also leave out the 80,000 potential critics. Hearing loss. Unsympathetic security.
They don’t want the moment where my dad came with me to the Eagles and sang every word, or when I wore a cheetah-print shirt to Rock on the Range, hoping to blend in, and looked like a fool among the black, chrome and “Where’s Waldo” costumes.
No one wants that. They want “Almost Famous.”
And so do readers. They want the glamour, not the gritty floors of the Newport after Noel Gallagher comes through.
So in 60 minutes and 475 words, I give them my own show.
One they can attend through their internet browsers or newspaper pages.
One that doesn’t cost $35 plus Ticketmaster fees.
One that reminds me, the next morning, why I find a way to write through 120 decibels of noise.
That said, maybe it’s time to order a new pair of earplugs.