Alexis Petridis: ‘ I used to dream about owning every record in the world’

The Guardians head rock and pop critic, and presenter of the Music Weekly podcast, reflects on 17 years in the job

How did you start writing about music? Why?

Theres an oft-trotted-out line that most music journalists are failed musicians, but Im honestly not. I grew up wanting to be a writer for Smash Hits, not to be on its cover. By the time I was in my early 20s, I really wanted to write specifically about dance music, so I pestered Mixmag for work experience, which turned out to be a far better idea than I thought. It was an independent magazine, and there were a lot of talented people there, but it was a relatively new music scene they were covering, with rules and standards very different from conventional rock music, so everyone was sort of busking it, making it up as they went along, which made it a very good environment to start your career in. I eventually ended up as deputy editor. Then I freelanced for a while, got asked to do some reviews for the Guardian which went down well, and they offered me the (vacant) post of rock critic in 2001.

How has the job of a rock critic changed over the period youve been at the Guardian?

When I started, there were no iPods, no smartphones, broadband was in its infancy, no YouTube, no streaming: everyone knows what kind of impact those things have had on rock and pop music. It was inconceivable that artists would put out an album without sending copies out for review in advance, but that happens virtually every week now. Ive got completely used to writing first-take reviews, where you only have a few hours to listen to something, formulate your thoughts and write a review. You get the feeling that the music industry wishes music critics would go away theres no desire to hear anything other than blanket praise, and they try and exert control in order to get that.

But I think good writing about music still has a role. I love the idea that it might introduce readers to something they havent heard before anyone who loves music obviously has an urge to share the music they love with people although Im not sure it has that much effect on what music people buy. If anyone listened to what music journalists think, the charts would look very different. But if its entertaining, people obviously still want to read it: a strong music feature can outperform everything else on the Guardian website in terms of hits, and the subject doesnt always have to be a big star. A couple of years ago, I wrote about Marilyn, who had two hit singles 34 years ago, but his story was fascinating, and when the piece came out it was the most-read thing on the Guardian website.

Alexis in 2002, tired and emotional after listening to Throbbing Gristle for 23 hours. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

Whats the best thing about your job?

First, it exposes you to a phenomenal amount of music, and that, Im afraid, is about as far as my ambitions for life extended: when I was a kid, I used to daydream about owning every record in the world, and thats not really left me. I hate feeling ignorant about music, not knowing who an artist is, never having heard a genre. Its like going to a foreign country and not being able to speak the language. I feel as though Im somehow lacking. I love the sensation of hearing something for the first time and being absolutely wrongfooted by it, that feeling that youre listening to something really striking and unprecedented the first time I heard Dizzee Rascal was like that or digging up some weird, forgotten bit of musical history. A couple of years ago, there was a piece about radical architecture in Italian discos of the 1970s, architects whod been inspired by the tumult of 1968, with all these theories about the systematic exploitation of capitalism, and who had designed these insane-looking nightclubs. I find stuff like that fascinating.

Tell us about some of the more memorable moments

Its obviously an incredible privilege to be paid to spend time listening to and thinking about music. Moreover, it seems to continually place me in completely ridiculous, intriguing situations, with extraordinary people. Ive had my testicles flicked by Marilyn Manson and sat at Princes feet while he tried to get me to sing Sign o the Times to him. Ive talked to a student mental health nurse called Millie who spends her evenings throwing entrails around onstage and performing serial killing snuff grind metal in a band called Basement Torture Killings. I lead a pretty boring life outside of music, but if your day job involves Marilyn Manson flicking your testicles then you dont really need to go bungee jumping at the weekend to add colour to your life.

Alexis sings along with a holographic version of the band at ABBAWorld, an exhibition devoted to the pop band Abba, in Earls Court, London. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

What do you think readers want out of music journalism?

For all the technological changes in recent years, Im not sure that what readers want out of music journalism has actually altered that much at heart. Its clearly not the same as the days when the music press would write about an album and that would be all fans had to go on for weeks until it was released, but Im pretty sure they want something entertaining in its own right. Its not just a consumer guide: at its best, writing about music should engage people regardless of whether theyre interested in the artist being discussed or not. They want something thats insightful and that brings a degree of wider knowledge to bear on its subject. They want something they either find illuminating or that they can argue with if they disagree: Id hope that people dont just want to read stuff that confirms what they already think about an artist. Im a big believer in the writer Anthony Lanes line about a review being just the first line of an argument.

Have the recent high-profile deaths of prominent musicians left you with serious reflections?

I somehow didnt expect to write as many obituaries and posthumous appreciations as I have done in recent years, but in some cases theyve been the biggest stories Ive covered: the deaths of Michael Jackson and David Bowie.

Theres a really gloomy view that sees the death of artists like Bowie and Prince as symbolic of something bigger, the end of an era when pop music was absolutely central to culture, the means by which everything from fashion to politics was disseminated to a mass youth audience. But a couple of nights ago, I went to see a load of British rappers performing at The Haunt in Brighton. The audience was really young largely too young to get served at the bar; the rappers were pretty underground figures: Loski, SL. The place was going nuts, everyone there knew every word of every track. You see something like that and you think that reports of pops lack of relevance to latter-day youth culture might be a bit premature. Or you see how something like Kendrick Lamars To Pimp A Butterfly completely chimes with the times, seems to sum up the moment that were living through and you think. No, music definitely still has the capacity to be potent and important, to really touch peoples lives.

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Marissa SafontAlexis Petridis: ‘ I used to dream about owning every record in the world’

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