In Defense of Chrissie Hynde: Why NPR Needs to Change and Why David Greene is a Sexist Fool

Twitter isn’t always the best yardstick when it comes to pinpointing the vox populi’s whims and anxieties, but given the way that the digital horde reacted to Chrissie Hynde’s interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, you’d think that it had just survived the Battle of Stalingrad or an unscheduled viewing of The Human Centipede 3:

“Not for the faint of heart,” “still recovering,” “gamely soldiering.” These are not the phrases one typically associates with a junket interview. But the Pretenders founder adroitly decided that she didn’t enjoy being subjected to David Greene’s insipid questions. Greene, a man apparently terrified of a woman with an independent mind and a fuddy fuss who muttered “bleeping’ instead of “fucking” when quoting a passage from Hynde’s new memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, made several mistakes. Instead of asking Hynde for the story behind her 1979 rock anthem “Brass in Pocket,” Greene wrongly assumed that Hynde would subscribe to his reductionist thesis that this was “a song that empowers women”:

Hynde: You know, it’s just a three minute rock song. It’s…I don’t think it’s as loaded as that.

As someone who has interviewed close to a thousand authors, filmmakers, and other celebrated minds and who fully cops to an exuberance involving overly analytical takes on an artist’s work, I’ve seen plenty of moments like this unfold before me. What you do in a situation like this is backtrack from your prerigged thesis and let the subject talk. The whole purpose of a conversation is to listen very carefully to what someone else is saying and ask questions that specifically follow up on the other person’s remarks. There was an opportunity here to get Hynde talking about how her music had been appropriated by ideological groups or whether a three minute rock song could ever have any real cultural stakes. But Greene, with an almost total lack of social awareness, could not read Hynde’s clear cues and sustained his foppish interlocutory thrust to the bitter end:

Greene: People certainly thought in its day [sic] as being very different and really emboldening women.
Hynde: Okay, well I’m not here to embolden anyone.

From here, the NPR producer cuts away in aloof and hilarious fashion to a lengthy clip of “Brass in Pocket” to pad out time, leaving the listener wondering what embarrassing (and possibly more interesting) bits were left on the cutting room floor. Perhaps there were many minutes in which David Greene, a man who seems incapable of improvisation, was left with his tongue capsized in a Gordian knot. Greene tells us that “Chrissie Hynde is a really tough interview,” even though Hynde sounded perfectly relaxed with Marc Maron last December and, most recently, with Tig Notaro.

Nice try, David. The fault here is clearly with the stiff interviewer and NPR’s despicably antiseptic culture, which is all about soothing the listener with pat platitudes easily forgotten in a morning commute haze. It’s telling that Greene speaks of Hynde “sharing her story,” as if the rock and roller’s rough life was akin to a child showing off a hastily composed watercolor painting at nursery school. Greene condescends to Hynde by calling this 64-year-old music veteran “a Midwestern girl” and trying to use her Ohio roots to presumably appeal to NPR’s easily shocked demographic. If Greene had truly been interested in Hynde, he might have described her in less innocuous and truer terms. Moreover, Greene can’t even deign to praise the Pretenders. Instead, he gushes over the Rolling Stones rather than the band that Hynde has been a member of:

Greene: And the Rolling Stones. They came — I mean, I, I loved reading about how you sort of took some of the staging off to take it with you, almost as a souvenir.
Hynde: Yeah. Do you want me to repeat the story?
Greene: I’d love you to.
Hynde: Is that the question?
Greene: No. I’d love you to.
Hynde: Can I just not repeat the stories that I’ve already said in the book? Can we talk about things outside of that? Is that possible? I don’t want to do a book reading, as it were.

Let’s unpack why this is terribly insulting to Hynde and why Hynde, much as any woman should, might react as hostilely as she did. Here is someone who has been creating music for many decades. She’s not a neophyte. She’s an accomplished rock performer. Instead of talking to her about The Pretenders, Greene has opted to paint Hynde as some Rolling Stones groupie plucking staging as souvenirs. Hynde has given Greene a big clue, pointing out that she’s not some automatic doll who performs book readings.

Compare this with Greene’s fawning treatment of Stones guitarist Keith Richards back in September. Not only was Richards permitted the courtesy to smoke inside the studio, but Greene gushed about Richards’s considerable accomplishments (children’s book author, raconteur, solo artist) in a manner so obsequious that you’d think he was the Pope. It would never occur to a sycophantic sexist like Greene to ask Richards what he thought of the Pretenders, much less paint him as some febrile fanboy.

Instead of recognizing his clear mistake, Greene digs in the dirk further, demanding that Hynde, presumably because she is a woman, express her “emotions” about an experience that is nowhere nearly as germane as her rugged life:

Greene: No, I would just like to hear some of the emotions of why you love the Rolling Stones so much. I mean, you were — you were taking some of the notes that people had written for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and taking them home with you. I mean, what was driving you?
Hynde: Well, well, I just loved the bands. That’s what drove me all my life is that I just loved the bands. Back in those days, nobody thought I wanted to grow up and be a rock star. Nobody thought about fame. Nobody thought about making a lot of money. I just liked music and I really liked rock guitar. I didn’t think I was going to be a rock guitar player because I was a girl. I would have been too shy to play with, you know, guys.

It’s bad enough that we have to suffer though NPR’s crass abridgements of complex emotion into superficial seven minute segments, but it’s hard for any progressive-minded listener to hear a talented and interesting woman, one who emerged from an uncertain blue-collar existence to a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, reduced to something akin to a toy.

If Hynde were a man, this interview wouldn’t be a controversy. One would think that the Twitter crowd, so eager to denounce such demoralizing portraits of women, would have glommed onto an autonomous voice being diminished by an incurious and inattentive fool. But instead the shock is with an interview departing from mealy-mouthed form. The time has come for more women to stop letting “nice guys” like Greene diminish their accomplishments and for all radio producers to be committed to organic conversations. If NPR insists on being a forum for gutless toadies and the celebrities who tolerate them, then perhaps the cure involves opening up the floodgates to every voice on the spectrum with thought and compassion. Of course, podcasting has been doing all this quite wonderfully for years. So if Greene cannot adjust his timid mien to the 21st century, then perhaps his stature should perish.

Ed’s Rules for Interviewing

1. Listen. I can’t stress that enough. It’s amazing how few journalists do this. Watch body language, the face, and especially the eyes. Pay very close attention. This will also tell you when the other person is getting tired and when you need to wrap things up. Keep within the time you have (unless the other person really wants to talk). Choose an interview location where the other person feels comfortable. Try to avoid sterile environments such as recording studios and boardrooms. (Cafes and restaurants work very well.) Be absolutely sure that the interviewee has eaten. Publicists sometimes forget about the human need to eat. So if the other person is famished, be sure get her fed before you talk. Buy the other person a drink if he really needs to loosen up, but don’t drink yourself. Unless the other person is a bit nervous and the conversational environment calls for social solidarity or minor debauchery. Be sure to tie your questions into what the person has already said, particularly on subjects that the other person gets very excited about, so that you can maintain a continuous thread.

2. Be genuinely excited and interested in what the other person has to say. I’m not talking fake excited. You’re not a fucking brand. You’re doing this because you like to do it. You really want to talk with this person. So you’d better be curious. If you’re not, you’re a charlatan. Don’t conduct an interview if you can’t stand the author or if you didn’t care for the latest book. (It took me about 150 shows to figure that last point out.) If you don’t care for the person you’re talking with, then the only reason you should be there is because you are immensely curious and interested in that person’s perspective or the ideas she is promulgating. If you’re writing the interview up for an outlet, avoid those hackneyed personal details (“He downed a beer when the conversation shifted to Spinoza”) unless the moment is really interesting and specifically relates to the conversation.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions, but present them in the friendliest possible manner. Civil disagreement is possible. Be familiar with the Socratic method. Don’t be afraid to be a little theatrical. (The other person may very well be theatrical with you, and some very fun silliness will ensue.) If the person doesn’t want to answer the question, move quickly to the next one. Maintain conversational momentum, no matter what.

4. You cannot plan a conversation in advance. Learn how to improvise. Improvisation often results in the best conversational moments. (See Dick Cavett’s moment with Norman Mailer.) Make the interview a conversation. Become highly familiar with the following interviewers: Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder, Mike Wallace, Terry Gross, Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, Michael Silverblatt, Bob Costas (Later segments), et al. Study what makes these conversations work (or not) and what makes these interviews interesting. But don’t emulate these people. Learn from these folks. Be yourself. David Letterman, contrary to popular belief, is not your role model. You’re having a conversation, not participating in a junket.

5. Maintain eye contact when you ask those pivotal first few questions. Don’t look down at your question list during the opening minutes. You’re a talker, not a reader. You want to communicate to the other person very early on that you’re intimately familiar with her work and that you’re very much interested in being there.

6. Read and listen to other interviews with the person you’ll be talking with. Note the questions asked. Strike the commonly asked questions off your list. You want a unique interview, right? Find several angles that nobody else has thought to bring up. These angles exist. You just have to do the work. Do serious preparation and research, and you’ll be ahead of 90% of other interviewers. Don’t rely on a research team.

7. When someone’s been on the interviewing circuit a very long time, she’s going to have a certain boilerplate. Learn how to recognize boilerplate in conversation and learn how to steer the other person off boilerplate with highly specific queries. Encourage the person to be thoughtful, goofy, and spontaneous. Also keep in mind that your questions may not be as unique as you think they are. Keep in mind that these folks have heard it all. Don’t try to be special. Don’t strive to do the “ultimate” interview. Great interviews happen by accident. Just do the best job you can and stay relaxed. Serious preparation and practice will stand you in good stead.

8. Don’t do too many interviews. You’ll burn out quick. And don’t just do interviews. Have at least four other fun things that you’re doing. One of the reasons why so many great interviewers fizzle out is because they are asked to do five or more interviews a week. Don’t do this. Try not to do more than one or two interviews a week. Take long breaks from time to time. Interviews require energy. Make sure that you do plenty of other activities that have nothing to do with interviewing and that have nothing to do with your expertise.

9. Have fun and, for goodness sake, don’t take yourself so seriously. Even when you’re having a conversation about a serious subject. Don’t be humorless. Humor goes a long way in making a conversation fun — both for the interviewee and the people who read or listen to the interview. Also, don’t make any assumptions about how the conversation is going to go. It may go well. It may be okay. It may not go well. Your job is to do the best that you can with the time and the resources you have at your disposal. And if you’re having fun, you’ll be more relaxed. And you’re going to want to be relaxed so that the other person will feel relaxed. Remember that fun can be quite contagious.

10. If the interview fails, it’s your fault. Not the other person’s. Yours. You failed to attract interest. You failed to read the cues. You failed to engage the other person. And you’re going to fail sometimes. No matter how good you are, you’re going to have a few stinkers. (Case in point: There are four interviews I’ve conducted that I never posted.) If the interview fails, don’t dwell on it. Pick yourself off the ground and kick some ass on the next one.

The State of American Literacy As Represented by Talk Show Hosts

From The Leonard Lopate Show, September 22, 2004, at the 14:04 mark on the RealAudio file, from a conversation with Terry Gross:

LOPATE: The question that people ask me the most is, “Do you read all of those books?” And I don’t know what to say. I do get help. And I usually say, “I get help.” But they don’t want to hear that. They want to believe that all I do, day and night, even on the air, is read books for tomorrow’s show.

GROSS: Well, what I say is that I read all the books. But I put — use my fingers to put quotation marks around the word “read.” ‘Cause what I do when I read the book is probably a closer approximation to skimming. ‘Cause I’m reading really fast and then slowing down for parts that I think will be relevant to the interview. And then taking notes on what I read.

LOPATE: Have you discovered that it’s ruined your personal reading? It’s hard for me to read a novel today or anything else just for pleasure. Because questions are always from it. I want to ask, “Well, Mr. Dostoevsky, why did you have Raskolnikov do that in Chapter 6?”

GROSS: That’s a really good question. You know, often, on vacations, I read — I intentionally read — a dead author. So that I’m not doing what you just said. So that I’m off the hook. So I can just read it. But this summer was one of the first vacations in a long time I did not read a whole novel. I read part of a novel. And then I found myself reading newspapers. It’s so hard not to read the newspaper right now. The newspaper itself is so interesting. And I feel like I can’t go a day without reading the newspaper. There are magazines that I wanted to catch up on. And I had to — I had to not read. I went to see one or two movies, or a movie and a concert, every day that I was on vacation. And I really felt I needed to spend a little bit of time not reading. Because I read so much.

LOPATE: When you’re putting together the questions you’re to ask, do you ever rely on those press kits? Their favorite question, which is, “Why did you write this book?”

GROSS: The part that I usually — I usually read the press releases because it’s a nice kind of frame before you start the book. When you’re reading at my pace, it’s nice to have a kind of brief overview of the book. So I’ll read reviews also. But I will intentionally not read the questions that the publisher gives. Because some of those questions are going to be good. Some of those questions are going to be questions that I would have asked anyways. But if I see those questions, it will make me think, “Well, I can’t ask that question.” Because that question has been put before me by a publicist and I’ll feel like I’m asking it because they told me to. So I feel like I can’t afford to look at it. So I’ll just, you know, do you know what I mean?

LOPATE: I know perfectly well. It’s almost a perversity, their pride that I have to do it all by myself. If I don’t want to rely on the publicity machine to tell me what to do —

GROSS: Well, you want to expect that your questions are independent of that. And yet a lot of the publicists are really smart. And they’re coming out with really good questions. So…

LOPATE: Well, they try to intrigue you into having the guest.

GROSS: Yes. So my technique is don’t read it.