Orla Foster

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Payback with Nadine Shah

"Backstage is just a bunch of musicians drinking herbal teas or kombucha, swapping stories about Latitude and facetiming their children," sighs Nadine Shah. Even before lockdown began, the singer-songwriter was wearying of the sensible state of rock. What better moment to dial up the people tasked with chronicling its messier, more chaotic heyday  ― and feast off their anecdotes?

Cue Payback. Back in May, while most of us were still coming to terms with being shuttered into our homes, Shah was assembling a fleet of ten veteran music journalists and streaming interviews with each one over Instagram. After years of being grilled for quotes, finally she was seizing the opportunity to put her interrogators under the spotlight. After all, she reasoned, they're the ones with the stories.

And this time they weren't stories about kombucha. The majority of Shah's interviewees cut their teeth during the 90s and 00s, when music journalism was a different beast: histrionic, dogmatic and opinionated, but rarely dull. The more outrageous the writing, the better it landed. Caitlin Moran reflects on her years in the game as though she'd been granted a divine mission to destroy dreams, her remorse tempered by a palpable glee at the put-downs she got away with.

She recalls how being chastised for a glowing write-up about an artist -- while still a teen fan herself  ― strengthened her resolve to write scathing copy instead. Not that this approach necessarily put up a wall between her and musicians: on the contrary, she also talks about going out drinking with her idols to the point of being sick on them.

John Doran's stories are equally dramatic: he recounts being punched and even stabbed as he trashed bad demo tapes and doled out zero star reviews like confetti. There's also lots of discussion about how fiercely tribal people used to get about music, an approach at odds with the eclectic genre-hopping we're more used to today. At one point, James McMahon recalls his Kerrang! colleagues yanking headphones from his computer to reveal that he was listening to Teenage Fanclub  ― as though this somehow outed him as a fraud.

Throughout it all, Shah is the perfect listener, chuckling warmly and delving for details, her mouth a pinprick of disbelief when the revelations get spicy. She probes the writers for context, not letting them rest until she has the whole story. And she's there with tea and sympathy when the artists turn nasty; offering a supportive ear to Laura Snapes' disturbing anecdote about Mark Kozelek calling her a bitch on stage post-interview.

Though Shah claims to have been a terrible interviewer during a past radio stint, it's her relaxed, off-the-cuff approach which makes Payback peak comfort viewing for lockdown. It helps that the pared-down, unfussy format was immediately relatable to those of us camped out in our bedrooms. Fluctuating wifi, hastily reordered bookshelves. Shah occasionally tilting a glass of chilled white wine to the camera, glint in eye.

Kozelek aside, the main takeway of Payback seems to be that before social media, the power of representation lay with the writer. Back in the 90s particularly, trenchant outbursts could go uncontested, and set a band's reputation in stone. Writers could have the last word, not having to engage in follow-up spats over Twitter or cringe at below-the-line bile. It was a good time to wield a poison pen.

So is music journalism missing its hatchet credentials, its impulse to tear musicians down? It's true the modern version can read sometimes like an anaemic press release, terrified to offend. You can practically smell the cologne of the overbearing publicist scanning his eagle eye across every last line before approving it to go to print. I've been guilty of this reticence myself, my interviews so often taking the form of nervous phone calls: never bonding over shots, much less calling for a band to be shot. There have been times I've had to ask myself who I'm writing the piece for, myself or the artist's mum.

But this hardly seems the moment to rekindle old diatribes, with so many musicians and writers struggling to make ends meet in the first place. Who wants to kick a band when they're down? Who wants to be flayed on Twitter for a piece they wrote for free?

Ultimately, Shah's deep-dive into the caustic world of music criticism makes for some welcome nostalgia. The confessional set-up feels a perfect vehicle to revisit how and why people write about music, revealing the passion and partisanship behind the byline. The last thing anybody thought they wanted to do was sit in on another Zoom meeting, but somehow Shah has twisted the medium to her advantage, at last turning music journalism into a two-way conversation.

2020. Unpublished.