So, here’s the thing about writers. We do a lot of writing and analyzing and intellectualizing about everybody else’s offerings to art and culture, but who writes about the writers? Who’s the real person behind the byline? Chris Kelly is constantly in search of a deep, emotional connection with music, art, and his community. His impetus to write is driven by politics, artwork of all types — whether it be music videos or pro wrestling — and how it all ties together to create something compelling, immersive, and meaningful. And to him, writing is more than just throwing words together on paper or crafting a clever headline for some retweets. It’s more about showcasing something that moves him with hopes that maybe it will move you too.
When I first met you in 2011, you were writing about television for your blog, Postcultural. Now, you’re mostly writing about music for FACT Magazine, Washington Post, and Washington City Paper. How did your writing journey begin?
When I moved back to D.C. from Florida in 2007, I was working in democratic politics doing direct mail — you know, the oversized postcards you get in the mail — but I had no passion for it. I was trying to go out and meet people, but I had no idea what I was doing.
In 2009, Marcus Dowling used to write a weekly article about electronic music in D.C. on BYT, and I liked his stuff. That summer, my brother was 21 and going to Electric Zoo by himself (laughs). He had an extra ticket, so I went with him to make sure he got to Governor’s Island without dying. I saw Marcus Dowling in the Benny Benassi tent wearing a gold chain and a tight t-shirt — the only dude who looks like Marcus at Electric Zoo. I went up to him and told him I dug his stuff and then we became friends.
In the fall of 2009, Marcus hosted this party All Killer, No Filler with Starks and Nacey, Trevor Martin, RAtheMC, and CamJus. He asked me if I wanted to write about it for his blog at the time, True Genius Requires Insanity, so I said sure. I used to write all the time growing up and I edited a teen page called Next Generation in Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, but I hadn’t written for years. I eventually started running the blog with him for about a year. It was a lot of fun and I was meeting a lot of people in D.C.
Then, in 2011, I started a blog called Postcultural, but I was still working full-time and hating my job. And then in 2012, FACT was extended to the U.S. and I was lucky enough to get hired there, so I finally left my job to write full-time.
Were you nervous about leaving your job to write full-time?
Yeah! I joke that I moved to the highly lucrative world of online freelance journalism (laughs). I wasn’t making super money in politics, but I was doing alright. I knew with writing there was going to be a cut and had to deal with that. But I didn’t have any passion left for working in politics and these types of opportunities don’t come around often, so I needed to go for it.
D.C.’s dance music scene is unique in that it’s not only a means for music discovery but also a way to bolster social capital. How did you learn to navigate this culture when you moved back to D.C.?
I’m late to electronic dance music. In 2008 I went to a DJ night in Wisconsin and saw DJ Rekha and that was one of the first times I realized I actually liked dancing. And then moving to D.C., the social life that I wanted to be a part of was DJ-based. So we’d come down to Liberation Dance Party on Fridays at DC9, which in the late 2000s, was all indie dance type stuff. (The song of that era for me was Thunderheist’s ‘Jerk It’.) DC9 also hosted KIDS and Feedback. And at that point, Tittsworth and Nadastrom were blowing up, so we started following them around. Figuring out that scene was how I figured out the kind of social world I wanted to be a part of.
“I’m late to electronic dance music. In 2008 I went to a DJ night in Wisconsin and saw DJ Rekha and that was one of the first times I realized I actually liked dancing. And then moving to D.C., the social life that I wanted to be a part of was DJ-based.”
How do you think D.C.’s dance music scene has evolved since you moved here?
I feel like it mirrors the growth and acceptance of electronic dance music and the whole range of it. There’s more clubs, more promoters, and more DJs. It’s fractured but also fragmented in interesting ways. A lot of people have gotten into it for the right reasons. From house, techno, club, rap, R&B — there’s a whole new variety to it. Now there’s so much stuff happening every single night and there are different groups of interlocking people who could be out. It’s a cool community.
FACT Magazine covers a myriad of musical genres from all over the world. How have your roots in D.C. affected your contributions to a worldwide platform? And how have you seen D.C.’s dance music culture assert its presence in global electronic music?
I think FACT has always been good about discovering and sharing new music, especially more experimental electronic music. And being a latecomer to a lot of electronic music, I’ve been playing catch-up and voraciously consuming as much as possible. Music from the Future Times and 1432 R labels would be on my radar at FACT but also because I was here in D.C.
Over the years, we also wrote plenty about moombahton. I remember being at KIDS when Dave Nada first played a moombahton track as the lights were coming up. Then, in the past couple of years I’ve seen dancehall and dembow influence in pop music from producers like Diplo, Skrillex, and Major Lazer and started connecting the dots. There’s always the question of appropriation with these genres that reconfigure global sounds, but it was interesting to see something that started like that and grow into an influence of music I hear when I turn on the radio, whether it’s pop, R&B, rap, or electronic.
I love reading your concert reviews on the Washington Post, even if I’m not familiar with the artist. What do you think makes a great live performance?
For somebody like me, and maybe for other people who don’t have religion or spirituality in their life, there’s the ecstasy of that connection with an artist and the people around you in a moment. So many concerts are just kind of perfunctory — an artist is here to play certain songs in a certain order and that’s just part of the transaction. For whatever reason, some artists aren’t putting themselves out there enough because it’s just a job and people are just there because it’s a thing to do on a Friday night.
It’s when you get beyond the bullshit of live concerts — bad sound, expensive drinks, uninspired performances, disengaged audiences, the “it’s great to be here in [insert city]!” trope. The logic of going to a concert is so counter-intuitive. Why would I want to listen to an album that I can hear in perfect quality in my house, in my chair, with my beer? Why would I want to go stand with a bunch of people I don’t like, the set time is not the set time, and there’s a bunch of openers?
I’ve seen a lot of shows and there are things that are actually positive. But the worst show I went to in 2016 was the Tory Lanez show. Here’s a guy who I’ve been covering since he’s been coming up — we filmed a freestyle with him in a parking garage in Austin a few years ago — and now he’s all over the radio. I think he’s a really interesting artist and I like the record in parts. But the show did everything wrong and everyone was there for the wrong reasons. And I wondered, why are we going through this charade?
But the best show I saw was Chance the Rapper. And this wasn’t a stylistic preference, like because he makes ‘nice, suburban rap.’ The reason you go to that show on that tour with Chance is because you can’t have that experience at home with your good stereo system. He elevated the art and made it into a live show that you can only experience by being there in that moment with those songs. And if those songs touched you before, the show just magnified it. You’re with people and you’re all cheering and singing and crying at all the same points. There is a community that’s formed just for that concert, that one experience. And that’s the height of what a concert should be — this shared experience.
“For somebody like me, and maybe for other people who don’t have religion or spirituality in their life, there’s the ecstasy of that connection with an artist and the people around you in a moment.”
You’re also the only person I know who has a genuine affinity for music videos. What is it about music videos that captivates you?
I was born in 1984 and came up on the tail end of MTV watching Total Request Live (TRL). I mean, yeah it was the teenybopper era pre-9/11, but TRL did the world premiere for ‘We’re In It Together’ by Nine Inch Nails. They would do that kind of stuff when the release of a music video was a cultural event in a way that is very rare now.
But there are people who still do it. One of my best music memories of 2016 was when Kanye West debuted the ‘Famous’ video and projected it in places around the world. When it came to D.C., a friend and I ran to 11th and Vermont where we waited with hundreds of people to see a video that was already publicly available and watched it projected on a wall in much worse quality. Once again, it’s like the concert thing. It’s a worse experience — and it should be by all means. This should be the worst way to watch a music video — projected on the street by Kanye West with shitty speakers.
But people were milling around at the eastern U Street metro area and no one knew what was going on. Once we saw where they were setting up the projection — caddy corner off Vermont — a couple hundred people ran across U Street and stopped traffic. What the fuck? I mean, when was the last time a Taylor Swift video stopped traffic? (laughs)
Seeing those two eras of music videos — the race home to see what was getting premiered and now in the last few years watching that energy return — has been exciting. Especially with the democratizing of it — the fact that you can shoot a major motion picture on your iPhone means you can definitely shoot a music video. That has put the tools back in people’s hands to make great art.
And my personal joy of showing people music videos at my parties recaptures a little of that communal feeling of all of us sitting around watching music videos.
What’s your favorite music video of all time?
‘A Perfect Drug’ by Nine Inch Nails. As a kid, I was into music but it wasn’t my identity. But then in 7th grade, I saw the video for ‘A Perfect Drug’ and when I heard that song, I thought, that’s what I’m into now. I still wear all black now. I still wear Nine Inch Nails shirts. Seeing that video was a governing principle of getting into music and making it a big part of my life.
Wrestling is an amazing post-modern meta perfect American art form unlike anything else. In the fall of 2015, Brandon and I started watching these old Wrestlemanias and trying to give a modern perspective for his podcast, ‘You, Me, Them, Everybody.’ And you’d be surprised at the stuff happening in 1984 that was still happening now. One of those things was Donald Trump was on Wrestlemania — a lot. Being in D.C. and heavily involved in politics, Brandon said, ‘Hey, we should write a book about his connection to it,’ and I said, ‘Haha, that’s funny.’ And then Trump came in second in Iowa and first in New Hampshire and then we were like, ‘Oh shit, we should’ve written a book about this already.’ So we just started doing it.
The thesis is already being forgotten because it’s our reality now. But basically, when he got into politics and then every time he fucked up, everybody said, ‘This is definitely the thing,’ but it never was the thing because he wasn’t playing by political conventions. The conventional wisdom of when you insult somebody or say someone has a sex tape on Twitter or literally anything he did should have been disqualifying, but it wasn’t. People were trying to use the history of politics but it just wasn’t the right frame. Wrestling actually gives you a really good prism to look at how he approaches things of being a bad guy.
The first half of the book is a dual biography of Vince McMahon and Donald Trump. They both have these shockingly parallel lives — like they both started football leagues and they both kinda want to fuck their daughters. You can see how they’ve approached life the same way. You can see how Donald understands that carny world of wrestling. People say, ‘Oh, you can’t do this in politics.’ Well, he fucking did it. He’s the President.
Wrestling is predetermined and the endings are fake, but people really die in the ring and tear their knees and have real reactions to the things that are happening. People get angry or happy based on what’s happening. Those are real reactions.
The second half of the book discusses how to move forward knowing this. We’re going to revise this and extend the book, so look for that. The idea is that it’s not going to be a field guide for Democrats, but how do we use this logic to separate the signals from the noise and how we should combat this because clearly nobody — Republicans, Democrats, press, institutions — has figured out how to combat it.
From live performances to music videos to wrestling, emotional connection seems to be the thread that connects all of your varied interests together. How does this influence your contributions to art and culture?
There’s a part in Party Down where one of the caterers yells at someone, ‘I run a very prestigious blog, sir!’ and you don’t wanna be that guy (laughs). Everyone has an outlet. Everyone can share their opinions. I’m not special because I get to write about this, but I’ve put in some work and now I have this opportunity. I don’t take it for granted and try to contribute my two cents.
There’s plenty of stuff that’s good or just fine, but I just want to find the stuff I have an emotional connection with and just shine a light on it. If I have an emotional response to it, maybe you will too. I want to share things that make me happy. And I’m happy when I get to share somebody’s story. I have an opportunity to share some of their truth, their life, and their art. It’s something that touches me.
“There’s plenty of stuff that’s good or just fine, but I just want to find the stuff I have an emotional connection with and just shine a light on it. If I have an emotional response to it, maybe you will too.”