Chrissie Hynde and Nicki Minaj made news recently for interviews they had given. While you expect interviews to be newsworthy, this time the discussion involved how the interviews were done.
Remember this: An interview is either explicitly or implicitly a negotiation. Both reporter and subject want something, the former looking for a good story, the latter for a favorable presentation about a person, a project or an issue. Each wants a measure of control over the conversation. Even before the interview begins, there may be discussions about what can and cannot be discussed; the interview itself can find reporter and subject steering the talk, and afterward there may be attempts to rephrase, reconfigure or simply erase something that was said.
There's an art, then, both to being a good interviewer and to giving a good interview. But both parties have to understand that even a small misstep can send an interview off the rails, as Hynde, Minaj and their respective interviewers demonstrated.
Akron's own Hynde, founder of the Pretenders, has been promoting her memoir Reckless; My Life as a Pretender through a limited number of interviews and appearances. She did one with CBS News Sunday Morning which proved to be gentle, with Hynde showing CBS's Tracy Smith around the Akron area. But Smith told me that, while Hynde was nice for their interview, Smith had fully expected to encounter the “tough chick” Hynde is reputed to be.
David Greene of NPR ran right into the tough Hynde.
In a seven-minute report that aired Tuesday on NPR's Morning Edition, Greene began with a clip from the Pretenders' hit Brass in Pocket, and Hynde's insistence that the song isn't about empowering women, but “just a three-minute rock song.”
Greene then declares Hynde “a really tough interview” and underscores it with her combative answers. Even though the interview was tied to the release of her book, when asked about part of her narrative Hynde replies, “Could I not repeat stories that I've already said in the book? ... I don't want to do a book reading.” When asked about one of the most controversial sections — her description of an apparent rape — Hynde at first repeats, “I'm not gonna tell you stories that are in the book. I know it's a drag, but I'm not going to tell you stories that I've written in the book, that I've already written about.”
She did point out that she did not say she was raped in the book, but that she was stupid to put herself in that position. But when Greene brought up an interview she did in which she suggested some women were to blame for being raped, Hynde again argued: “What are you getting at? Why are you asking me this? ... I'm not here as a spokesperson for anyone. I'm just telling my story.”
That was at least more enlightening. But it took some doing to get that and other comments because, in her determination to control the conversation, Hynde broke some basic compacts that come with this sort of interview.
First, if you have generated controversy, you can't be offended when asked about it. It may be that your only answer is that you don't want to talk about it (and Hynde at least offered more than that) — but you sound worse if you suggest the question's not worth asking.
Even more fundamentally, if you're being interviewed about a book, you have to talk about the book. Hynde's refusal to recap passages sounded willful and stubborn — two words which, as admirable as her music is, can easily be applied to her.
But none of this is meant to suggest that only an interview subject can go wrong. Minaj's interview with Vanessa Grigoriadis for the New York Times magazine shows when a reporter can make a wrong turn.
While it tries to put Minaj in the context of current pop, the piece is not great. it offers inside details which seem unnecessary (“sitting in a small, straight-backed chair upholstered in the light gray fabric ubiquitous in luxury hotels”) and one fabulously stuffy Times explanation of how Miley Cyrus “introduced the mainstream to 'twerking,' a dance originating in black circles in the South that involves shaking your buttocks.”
But what has had people talking is not Minaj's observations as much as her reaction to one of Grigoriadis's questions — a reaction that found Minaj ending the interview and Grigoriadis being ushered out.
Grigoriadis first asked Minaj about conflicts involving people Minaj knows and works with: Lil' Wayne, Birdman, Drake and Minaj's boyfriend, Meek Mill. Minaj said those issues were between the men, and that “I just want it to be over.”
Having said that “interviews in the social-media era are about being adored, not interrogated,” Grigoriadis set herself apart by pressing Minaj: “Is there a part of you that thrives on drama, or is it no, just pain and unpleasantness ...”
Reporter regrets question
Minaj called the question “disrespectful,” and Grigoriadis admits in the profile that “as soon as I said the words, I wished I could dissolve them on my tongue.”
Minaj has found herself in the middle of drama; Grigoriadis could easily have brought up her duels with Mariah Carey when they both judged American Idol. But it was a weird leap from drama about other people to suggesting Minaj liked such upheaval. And she told the reporter, “Women blame women for things that have nothing to do with them.”
Out went the reporter, admitting that Minaj “was right to call me out.” I'm not convinced she was right to end the interview then. But — as the profile notes — it was a way to maintain control, just as Minaj had done when deflecting another question, and even before the finale calling one of Grigoriadis' queries dumb.
And, unlike Hynde, Minaj found a way to assert control from higher ground. Anyone looking at both pieces can find plenty about the ways of interviewers and the interviewed.
Contact Rich Heldenfels at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.