Here's a question: Does it matter whether the Los Angeles Times pop music critic actually lives in Los Angeles? What if she lived in Alabama?
It's an issue that the newspaper is having to address now that Ann Powers has filed her first piece from her new home in Tuscaloosa. Last month Powers and her husband, Eric Weisbard, relocated from LA after he received an assistant professorship in the American Studies department at the University of Alabama. (Weisbard is a former editor at both the Village Voice and Spin, and organizes, along with Powers, the annual Experience Music Project Pop Conference.)
When news of her departure started spreading, the music writing world was abuzz. Seldom do peach gigs like the pop criticism chair at the Times open up, and writers started quietly updating their resumes. But then the paper did something unusual. It decided to keep her on as its chief pop music critic.
Powers is one of the most respected music critics in the country; her thoughtful writing tackles mass-market genres of music -- pop, rock and country music -- that many indie and rap-centric writers snobbishly ignore. More than once she's cracked open a seemingly superficial song to reveal a depth that otherwise would have gone unnoticed, and her writing on American Idol has been consistently insightful.
But, still, one of the main roles of a daily newspaper pop critic has been to address music for a local readership from the perspective of someone who lives in the same place. How will she know what LA bands or artists are buzzing? How will it sit with readers to know that the newspaper of record's chief music critic has more experience with the Tuscaloosa music scene than the Los Angeles one? Powers declined to answer specific questions about her new zip code, though she did offer a statement to West Coast Sound, which we're reprinting in its entirety:
I am grateful and honored that The Times is allowing me to continue my job in this new way. As was announced internally, the plan is to keep doing just what I have been and the expectation is that I'll travel as needed to accomplish that - with datelines alerting readers where I'm "reporting from" when germane to the reporting. I will be back in LA on a regular basis, and being where I am also gives me increased access to other music cities like Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta, New Orleans and even New York. Local coverage of music won't diminish at The Times -- we have a bunch of great writers covering the city and its music. The goal is to deliver my voice, my experience and my ideas to Times readers, and those travel with me everywhere.
The Times' Arts & Entertainment editor, Craig Turner, offered some context in a phone conversation earlier this afternoon. "When the issue of her relocation came up," he says, "our concern was that we think Ann is the best pop music critic in the country, and we thought it was important to try and retain her voice in the LA Times for our readers. We feel that she has unique insight and perspective on the world of pop music and celebrity, and we wanted to keep that if at all possible."
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The criterion that led to the Times seeking to retain her was simple, he says: "What's available to our readers? That's more important than where she lives. So our feeling is, even though this is unusual, we're going to try and have her continue to work as our pop music critic. We think that we can do this without diminishing our coverage at all. We will still be paying attention to local concerts and the local music scene, and we will periodically review it to make sure it's working best for our readers."
Turner adds that the Times has a number of staff writers and freelancers who cover music, and they will continue to report on LA's scene. Plus, he stresses, the ultimate test is what lands on the page and the screen. "What's more important than where she is," he says, "is what appears on the website and in the newspaper. That's how we measure her effectiveness as a pop critic, not by her home address."
It is incredibly unorthodox, though, and Turner says that he knows of no other instance in the paper's history in which a staff critic has lived outside of the Southern California area. The Times, of course, does have staff writers who live outside of Los Angeles; it retains a Washington bureau, and one of its national political reporters lives in San Francisco. "It's unusual," he acknowledges, "but not unprecedented."
Powers will commute to Los Angeles from time to time to cover notable concerts, and will travel to other cities to offer advance peeks of upcoming Los Angeles gigs. When she does so, the paper will include a "dateline" heading identifying where Powers is reporting from. The Times will not, however, include such a dateline on her reviews and essays (no "Reporting from Tuscaloosa, Alabama"). Says Turner: "For example, when she covers a concert in New Orleans, we'll have a New Orleans dateline on it. But when you do an essay in which the location is not that relevant -- like the one she had today -- I don't think it's necessary to put a dateline on it."