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by Rob Trucks

October 1, 2012

Chris Hayes: The Rhapsody Interview

by Rob Trucks  |  October 1, 2012

Every two weeks, genius-level Q&A artist Rob Trucks, whose work has appeared everywhere from McSweeney's to the Village Voice to Deadspin, will interview a public person of interest -- authors, actors, athletes, political wonks, etc. -- about their relationship with music. Today, we've got author and MSNBC host Chris Hayes; listen along to this post with Hayes' very own Rhapsody playlist, which he has subtitled "Brooklyn/Bluegrass." Enjoy.

In case you didn't feel like an underachiever before, know that Chris Hayes, 33, graduated from Brown with a B.A. in Philosophy in 2001, and since 2002 has written about political culture for The New York Times Magazine, Time, The New Republic, The Guardian, The Chicago Reader and The Nation, where he remains Editor at Large. He's also served as a Fellow at In These Times, the New America Foundation and Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. His first book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, was published this past summer, and his early-morning weekend show on MSNBC, Up w/ Chris Hayes, celebrated its first anniversary last month. Hayes, who can also "sing or hum every single note" of Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, lives with his wife and young daughter in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Music has often been used as a signifier. It can be a kind of personal branding (think young kids in the East Village wearing Ramones T-shirts). Would your audience -- whether your TV audience or readers -- learn anything about Chris Hayes from the music you listen to?

Oh, I think in the same way if you go to someone's house and you kind of peruse their books. Or if you have your iTunes open or you're on a shared network with other people and you can see their iTunes collections. There's always a tense, sort of snooping desire to look through it. It doesn't turn out that I have a massive collection of, you know, early 20th-century polka or some unexpected, intense musical taste that I think would be shocking. But yeah, there's something kind of, I think, fascinating and revealing about looking through someone's music collection.

I understand that there's no vintage polka, but is there anything that might be surprising? Is there anything that, you know, if the TV audience got to peek into your musical medicine cabinet, might make them say, "Hmm. Gregorian chants, I would never have guessed"?

I deeply love bluegrass music, like old country and sort of Southern hill music, that kind of stuff. Doc Watson. And banjo and dobro and three-part harmony and fiddle. I love that stuff.

Let's get back to signifiers for a second. At one time Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, counted Rage Against the Machine as one of his favorite bands. This summer he walked onstage at the convention to Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town," and then talked about his playlist beginning with AC/DC and ending in Zeppelin. Do you get the sense that those selections are honest choices, or do they seem more like political branding?

It's so hard to tell. Rage Against the Machine seemed to be honest, because why would you open yourself up to the obvious retort unless you actually, genuinely like them? [Laughs.] AC/DC to Zeppelin seems like an old person's conception of what a young person might listen to. That seemed definitely contrived, and this whole playing up his youthfulness, you know, as a way to make old people like him. That struck me as much more contrived.

Is there music attached to President Obama? Is his musical taste a part of how we might view him?

Yeah. I think the Al Green moment, singing Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" at the Apollo, was iconic. He [also] just did a fundraiser here in New York with Jay-Z at the 40/40 Club. And he's referenced him before -- you know, the trajectory of Jay-Z's career, and particularly his lyrics, increasingly, are like, "We've put the street behind us, we're not into street stuff, we now are donning suits and we're gonna go to the White House. We're not, like, popping bottles at clubs." So I feel like there's a kind of association between the two of them.

It sounds like you could almost write a chapter on that relationship.

Yeah, there's a lot there.

You attended Hunter College High School here in New York, which is highly competitive, and then you did your undergraduate work at an Ivy League school. Where does your musical education come from?

I don't know. That's a good question. I think all of us have friends, particularly when we were teenagers, who are intense, diehard music lovers. And I was never the person who was intense, kind of cutting-edge, like finding new bands, but I had a few good friends in my life who were, and so I drafted quite a bit off them. And I've tried really hard, particularly the last few years, not falling into the cliché of people as they, you know, age out of their youth and approach middle age [laughs], that their musical tastes are trapped in the period of time between when they were 16 and 26. And so what I've been doing is I read a bunch of blogs. I use a music service. I will occasionally just say on Twitter, "What album should I be listening to?" People like responding to that, and they give me a million suggestions, and then that's kind of fun to like go through and find stuff.

And so I've tried to find a bunch of ways to continue to keep listening to and finding new music, because it is funny how much, just without noticing it, you're like, "Oh, right." Like on Saturdays, when we're in the office. You know, we're working on a Saturday. We've all been up since five in the morning, and it's beautiful out and people are all outside, and we're there prepping the show. So I'll put on music to kind of ease the burden of that a little bit. Like the song "Regulate" by Nate Dogg and Warren G, which is like circa-1998 hip-hop, which is basically right in the neural circuits that all got fused together when I was 18 years old, they'll all trigger [laughs]. It's amazing how easy and comfortable it is to just keep replaying the same 10 years of music as you go on through your life.

Well, I'm sure you're a busy guy. Your television show is a year old, you have a daughter who's almost a year old and you just published your first book. I imagine that the effort to stay up-to-date with new music is actually an effort with everything else you've got going on.

Yeah, but I'm actually kind of fascinated. It seems like we're right now in this transition period between the hard-drive music collection and the kind of permanent cloud. With all of those models, you don't have to assemble this music you have in your collection. You can kind of just follow people, take other people's playlists. And actually there's a convenience to that. But then the problem is you don't take the care to learn about and sort of find out what you're listening to. And it's kind of a bummer, because I listen to a lot of music. I haven't [listened] any less, but that outsourcing is so tempting. And it's so convenient. Like a song will come up on a Pandora station that I like, and I'll keep telling myself like to look up who this artist is [laughs]. And I'll have no idea, you know? And that's sort of an interesting turn. I wonder how that's going to affect a current 14-year-old's music consumption. Obviously people used to go and get their record collections, and they would get their CDs or tapes, and then there was just accumulating MP3 files on your hard drive, and once that's all gone, [when] at any moment you can have any music, anywhere, at any time, instantaneously, from the cloud, how do you know what you want?

Were you working in silence or did you listen to music while you were writing Twilight of the Elites?

Almost always with music, and there are two albums that were the key albums. One was this sort of instrumental album by the band Emancipator called Safe in the Steep Cliffs, and the other was Girl Talk, All Day.

And how did you choose those two in particular?

I don't know. For some reason those were just the two that I could listen to and write at the same time. Because All Day, even though it's so collaged that it sort of runs together, I couldn't listen to stuff with really strong lyrics because I would focus on it. But for some reason Girl Talk and Emancipator were the two.

The full title is Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Do you think the music business operates as a meritocracy?

My instinct is to say no. I haven't reported the music business enough to say definitively, or even have a particularly informed opinion, but I do know a lot of people who have been in bands and been in the music business, and I know their perception of it is that it is fundamentally no different than a roulette wheel or a lottery. I remember my friend saying, you know, Arcade Fire -- who's a great band, who my friends really love, who I love, I think they're a great band -- there's literally 30 other Arcade Fires who were around at the same time who didn't become Arcade Fire. And I definitely think that's true. That's certainly true with a lot of things. I think that's probably true in television. I think there's, you know, probably literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people that could do my job [laughs], [but] I happened to be in the right place at the right time. So I don't think it's fundamentally different in that way.

Again, I'm talking about people who went through it, you know, by firsthand experience as opposed to reporting. But one thing that's really interesting is, if I'm not mistaken, a guy at Columbia named Duncan Watts is a sociologist who specialized in network effects, and he did this really interesting experiment. The way I recall it is that he had four different groups. And each group is like its own little social network. And you give them libraries of, say, 100 songs. So if you're in Group A, you can see what all the other people in Group A are listening to, Group B and Group C and Group D. And you listen to songs and then you recommend or like them in a social network. And what ended up happening was that in all the networks you had this huge hit emerge where a tiny percentage of the songs became massively popular through this kind of viral peer thing. But it was a different song in each of the networks [laughs]. Which suggests that it actually is a random process. And I remember reading about that study, and it having a big effect on my thinking. I would sort of quickly add that I'm not sure that I'm properly characterizing it. But I think it probably isn't really particularly meritocratic at all. You know, to be totally honest, I'm not even sure meritocracy is the right model [for thinking] about art.

It may not be. But the lottery metaphor seems apt. And it seems as if it would be hard to take on that kind of career, to invest one's life in such a business, if that's the case.

Right. Exactly. It's very dispiriting, right? We all want to have some conception in our heads that there's a connection between effort and reward. And that how hard we work on something and how good we are at it is going be the biggest determinant in the outcome. So one of the themes of the book is that that's much less the case than we want to tell ourselves. But I think in areas in which it's manifestly, obviously not the case, it's very dispiriting. I think that dynamic extends far more widely than people are comfortable admitting.

You know, there's a lot of randomness. There's just a tremendous amount of random chance and fortune in any story of success. Or in any story of failure. There's a lot of randomness in it. And it's that element of randomness, that element of happenstance and/or a set of previous conditions that have changed prior to the undertaking that, you know, determine the outcome or push the outcome in a certain direction. That pertains in all areas of human endeavor and it pertains far more deeply and broadly, and is far more ubiquitous, than I think we want to tell ourselves. You know, how much our human endeavors, and specifically our successes, might be the product solely of our --

-- Of who our father was?

Right. Well, I mean, that's a perfect example [laughs].

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