Chatting up Kimberly Chun
Sitting in a dimly lit coffee shop in the Mission on a Friday afternoon, Kimberly Chun recalls her early post-college days in San Francisco working at Tower Records, drifting around, and working on DIY zines. “I was just out of college, and didn’t know what I wanted to do yet,” Chun said as she remembers the early 90s. (Written in feature style using scene setting and dialogue. That’s fine. Also, the writer immediately starts asking about how the critic began her career.)
It’s been almost two decades since Chun graduated from the University of Hawaii and made her way east to San Francisco. Since then, Chun has made a name for herself among the pop art junkies of San Francisco, (Generous background on exactly where the critic publishes. Also, the writer characterizes the critic’s style. Writer could ‘add value’ to her interview by quoting illustrative example from critic’s work. ) writing snarky and smart music and film reviews for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Her expertise is music criticism, particularly reviewing local Bay Area bands and musicians. Her official title at the SF Bay Guardian is Senior Editor of Arts and Entertainment. Considering that the Bay Guardian is known for its arts and culture, Chun arguably has the most important job at the weekly paper, where she has been writing for over seven years.
(Nice. The writer understands a critic’s ‘voice’ or on-page persona may not be her own.) Chun’s in-person demeanor is different from her critic personality. On paper, she is sassy, wisecracking, and hilarious. In person, Chun is more reserved, insightful, and soft-spoken. She doesn’t look like someone who spends three days a week at rock shows in slimy smoke-filled dive bars. Instead, Chun looks like she has showered, has brushed her hair, and has immaculately clean fingernails. In some ways, she’s not your typical music critic, and in other ways she is the ideal music critic.
(Summary of characteristics of a good critic.) “You have to have a certain credibility for people to listen to you. You have to be a good writer, know your music history, and make references that people understand,” Chun said, “A lot of criticism is about trust.” (Could keep going and ask about how critic loses trust.)
(More specifics about how critic got into reviewing.) Chun did not start out as a music critic. It wasn’t until years after working traditional journalism jobs and getting her masters in writing did Chun get (At some point ask how much the critic makes. In many cases, the critic will be a freelancer and will be paid per item. Remember: You get full credit for asking the question even if the critic declines to answer. You get extra credit if you try the old trick of making a low-ball guess or a high-ball guess: I’d think you make about $20,000 a year/I’d think you make about $80,000 a year. Sometimes that will elicit further response.) paid to review music and film. She always had a passion for music and writing. “ I remember as a teenager just going to the library and checking out old issues of Cream and Rolling Stone, and just reading them cover to cover.” Chun said. She played in Hawaii’s first all-girl punk band and worked as a college radio DJ.
(We are getting lots of personal history.) After working at Tower Records and trying to write about music, Chun said she needed more motivation and structure. She packed her bags and moved to Iowa City where she received her masters at the prestigious University of Iowa Writing Program. While living in Iowa City, Chun worked on the college newspaper as an arts editor and started working on zines with her friends and classmates. “It was the first time I got paid to write,” Chun recalls. (Nice detail would be how much for that first review and what she reviewed.) She said she learned a lot about voice, writing style, and working with others to create a paper.
She returned to San Francisco with a better understanding of what she wanted to do. She started working at the San Francisco Chronicle as a features writer, where she learned about the structure of being in a newsroom. Though she wrote features stories, she found the job of being in a traditional newsroom limiting. (I like this. The critic is explaining how she likes to write by characterizing how she doesn’t like to write.)“Even though I was writing fun fluffy stories, I still had to follow this structure-the inverted pyramid, which is stupid.” Chun wrote some reviews while she was at the Chronicle, but was never allowed to take her voice as far she wanted to.
After five years at the Chronicle, Chun switched over to work at the newly formed SF Gate, an online version of the newspaper. “At the time, no one at the Chronicle took the Gate seriously. They were just like ‘Oh, it’s so cute. It’s the little sister,’ which now is funny because the Gate is huge-bigger than the Chronicle.” After being at SF Gate for a year, September 11th happened and the economy went under. Chun lost her job and continued to freelance. SF Gate asked her to come back to work for them, but by that time she started writing full time for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
“I didn’t want to come back to them. Writing for the Guardian was just more fun. There weren’t as many rules, and it wasn’t so limiting. I had more freedom and creativity,” Chun said. As an arts writer and a music editor, Chun was able to do what she really likes-“covering the underground, the stuff that is off the radar.” (Why? Examples?)
Chun also likes working for the Guardian, because she said it is unlike any other newspaper. “It’s the last, true, independent paper,” Chun said. The Guardian is still owned by its founder and publisher, Bruce Brugmann, a man Chun describes as the ultimate leftist who still wears his hair in a long gray ponytail, who has a huge poster of Trotsky in the office.
“The Guardian is the artifact of counter-culture,” Chun said. She also said that it seems like the more out there she is with her writing, the better it is. (A question I enjoy: What is a typical day in your life like?) As the senior arts and entertainment editor, she spends most of her time preparing to write- listening to bands, going to shows and movies, and going through emails. (Good detail: What parts of a critic’s life will surprise us? What part of a critic’s life bores the critic?) One of the challenges, Chun said, is that she is just inundated with information from emails from publicists and record companies to fans and critics of Chun’s column. She spends a good part of her workday responding to email and editing other writers’ stories.
(Writer is now indirectly approaching one of our basic questions: How do you become a critic?) To improve herself as a critic, Chun said she reads a lot of criticism, especially music criticism from the 70’s. (Who?) She learns a lot about bands, music history, film history, and film directors in order to give her work more credibility. She said the best thing for an aspiring critic is to develop a voice, learn how to write well, and brush up on their history. “Journalism school isn’t necessary unless you want to be a part of the Old Boys Network. (Put this on your question list: What critics do you admire and why?) Some of the best critics didn’t even go to college,” Chun adds. She likes critics who know their music and film history, and who have strong voices. In the early 90s, she said she disliked most stuff that (Who is now teaching at USF. Next fall she’s doing a 400-level music seminar for Media Studies. She’s a candidate for interviewing.) rock critic Gina Arnold (who was known for interviewing Nirvana) wrote, because she never judged the music, only the musicians.
“She was so judgmental. She would be like Sonic Youth-oh, they’re bunch a junkies. Nirvana-a bunch of junkies. She was weirdly uptight and dismissive of a lot of good music based on the performers,” Chun recalls.
Chun stands out as a critic, because her voice is so hers. (Very good. Writer gives something specific from a recent review.) In a film review for the movie, Memoirs of a Geisha, Chun writes, “ I guess Asians and Asian Americans should feel fortune that, at the very least, Asian actresses had the central roles of Memoirs, rather than, oh, Christina Ricci kitted out with the fake Japanese accent she “perfected” for the last Beck album.” The reason so many people read Chun is because they trust her opinion, and that she can make them laugh. She is a familiar voice of authority on arts and culture. Her commentary is largely culture based, making references to politics and history, rather than just critiquing the art piece. (Good point: How does the critic’s work – style and choice of subject – reflect her audience? Get your critic to describe his/her audience.) Chun’s writing and popularity relies on her audience, she said. “The Guardian has a more city audience. They are younger, hipper, more culturally aware as opposed to the Chronicle, where you are really writing for old people living in San Mateo.”
(Now the critic is indirectly addressing the issue of whether or not there’s a future in being a critic. I’d like even more on that topic.) Chun thinks people still enjoy reading about music criticism in magazines and papers, even if there are hundreds of blogs and music sites online. She said she reads some blogs, but find that most blogs are too promotional of a band. “There’s no journalism involved. It’s like a big PR thing.” Chun also zones out the bloggers, because she feels that there is too much opinion and not enough credibility online. She is aware though that there might be a day where she solely works online.
“It’s very possible that the Guardian will be an online only thing one day. With this economy, people are really changing how journalism and papers work,” she said.
It is obvious Chun enjoys her job. “I get paid to go to shows and write about music,” she said incredulously. Chun also adds that she likes the freedom of working from home and coming into the office at her own time. For now, Chun doesn’t have to worry about money, which is unusual for most journalists and critics. She does a lot of freelance work, has some side project, and says she is lucky enough to have a partner with a secure job. It wasn’t always this way though. (Dynamite kicker. She says there is no future in music criticism.) Chun said that music critics can only work if they expect not to get paid.
“If you want to do criticism or write, you don’t do it for the money, because you’re not going to make any. Do it for free and write for anyone. Create a body of work, and get yourself out there,” she advises.
Basic questions you might ask:
- Do you think music (or whatever the critic reviews) is art? What is the critic’s personal definition of art? The critic may not engage on the topic, but I still want you to ask it. Throw in a statement like, “In class we’ve talked about xxxxxxxx and yyyyyyyy as being possible ways to talk about art.”
- The best thing you ever reviewed and the worst – and why you thought so?
- What specific advice do you give to someone who wants to be a critic?
- Do you recommend it as a career?
- Age!!!! Which leads into: Will you still be a critic in 5/10 years? If not, why not?
- Define an ethical critic. Give examples of ethical/unethical conduct.
- Who are your favorite critics? Who are your biggest influences? (Sometimes the answers aren’t the same.)