Leon Neyfakh is perhaps more like his mom than he’d care to admit. The Slate staff writer and sometimes music critic’s first book, The Next Next Level (released July 7) is a kind of conjoined twin profile-memoir, with the subject—a white rap-rocker from Milwaukee, renowned for his intense live shows, named Juiceboxxx—sharing as much of the word count as the author. The connection is natural. Neyfakh’s known Juice since they were teens, when he was booking the energetic, single-minded MC for a show in a church basement, and, later, sneaking Juice into his house, fearing that his parents wouldn’t approve of his friend.
Neyfakh was born in the Soviet Union but grew up in suburban Illinois. His parents, with their rigid sense of highbrow and lowbrow, and what constitutes a worthwhile pursuit in life, shaped his taste and interests. He simultaneously absorbed their relatively conservative values and rebelled against them, and it’s a tug of war he’s still wrestling with.
In tracking Juiceboxxx’s career, his constant back and forth between giving up and continuing to tour and release new music, The Next Next Level takes dichotomies like high culture and low culture, artist and critic, fan and journalist, elitist and populist, interior self and outwardly performed personality, and troubles the borders between terms that are supposedly firm barriers.
The jacket copy mentions music critic Carl Wilson, suggesting to the reader that Neyfakh’s book might contribute to the interrogation of taste Wilson performs in his incredible examination of Celine Dion fandom, Let’s Talk About Love. But Neyfakh’s book is more in line with projects like Chris Smith’s American Movie or Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil: The Story of Anvil. This is a character study of someone with a compulsion to make art who might not ever achieve great financial success or acclaim. If Wilson is asking you to think harder about what it means that something is deemed “good” or “bad” art, Neyfakh is more interested in understanding a particular personality—and how it’s shaped his own.
Gawker Review of Books talked to Neyfakh about how what intentionality has to do with art, how Stockholm Syndrome might inform poptimism, and whether our mothers were right all along.
There’s a lot of discussion about Juiceboxxx’s motivation and intention in the book. As a critic, do you find yourself privileging intention when you react to a piece of art?
I think it’s always better to meet people on their own terms, or to try and meet them on their own terms. I was taught by mom, pretty early on, the difference between “I like this” and “I think this is good.” Something can be really good and you don’t like it, and you can really like something and know that it’s not good.
Every once in a while, someone will put out a record that people don’t like, even though they loved what the artist had done previously and know that this artist has pushed culture forward in the past. And I’m always just like, “Trust them. They’ve demonstrated that they have a gift, that they have vision—just go with it. Try to take into account what they’re going for.”
Which forces you to consider intention on some level.
I keep coming back to the moment in the book where you describe music critic Jessica Hopper’s first take on Juice, and initially she’s onboard. But when writing about him a second time, after she encounters him in a different context, i.e. with a digital art collective, she’s not down anymore. And it seemed to me that nothing had changed about Juice’s music fundamentally, it was just this different context that led her to think differently about Juice’s intentions. It led her to believe that maybe he was ironic in his approach to his art. Is that shoddy criticism?
No. I don’t necessarily blame her for being turned off at the thought of someone doing what he’s doing ironically. Juice has been running away from that his whole life. What’s less appealing than someone selling you a rap parody? And so I think that’s probably what she thought was happening. “This guy is calculated, and this isn’t just coming out of him. He’s trying, in a contrived way, to be exuberant.” To see him in an art context, surrounded by people who are contemporary artists, implies a level of intentionality that, if what you really thought you were responding to was raw, unfiltered instinct, is disappointing.
But why privilege instinct over calculation?
I get into this whole thing with the band Wavves in the book, because I was annoyed that, [when they first came out] they were so proud of being stupid and unpracticed. And I think that’s a really powerful current in the culture. The same summer I saw Wavves, there was a Diesel ad campaign all around New York and the slogan was “Be stupid.” Why? Because inevitably the person who is stupid is more real? As someone who is friends with people who are, by that metric, artificial zombies, I just don’t buy it.
So then does it put you back on a similar wavelength as your parents? Are you becoming an elitist? Are you comfortable with that word?
No, but it’s funny—when I’m at home with my mom, and we’re having conversations about culture, or Juiceboxxx, I’m on the defensive. I find myself trying to convince her that she’s being really conservative or close-minded. That she’s measuring people based on some outmoded set of superficial values. She’ll say, “This guy, he swears too much, he speaks like a sailor or a garbage man.” And I’ll say, “What are you talking about? Who cares how much he swears? Why would you think that makes him a dumber person?” So, I’m on the defensive at home, but then I go out into the world and suddenly I feel some compulsion to rep my upbringing. Suddenly I get mad at the “Be stupid” ad. For instance, my whole life, my mom would say, “Don’t go outside without a jacket when it’s cold, because you’re gonna get sick.” And I’d say, “No, that’s ridiculous. That’s not how getting sick works. This is just something that you think is true because that’s how you were raised.” Then, I’m in 8th grade science class and the teacher asks the class, “How many of you think that you can get sick just from a chill?” And I’m like, “Fuck yeah. Definitely.” So every time I’m out of the house, I feel some impulse to defend my parents’ values.
So did you become your mom at the Wavves show?
[Laughing.] Right. Exactly. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yeah.
So then how should a person be? Fall somewhere in between the “Be stupid” ad and the Mom School of Living?
[Laughing.] Yeah. I’ve gradually become more happy with who I am. Writing this book made me think that I have my own interests and taste and orientation towards the world. Wanting to be like Juiceboxxx as a kid—now, I’m happy being the way I am. I don’t feel bad about it anymore, the way I did.
There are a number of moments in the book where you commit theft, so to speak, by which I mean you record the music of your friends without them being aware of it.
Yeah, there are two instances. I have this collection of tapes and CDs made by my friends and I love that music disproportionately. I like being near it. When I was in college, my friend played me music from his high school band, which would eventually turn into Real Estate later on. Knowing that these are real people, not mythical creatures is exciting to me. Even though in other moments, [when I was interviewing] Migos, for example—the reason I like them is that they exist in a completely different dimension from me. What they’re capable of doing in the studio is unfathomable to me. Or Lil Wayne. Any of the truly exciting superstars, they’re unrelatable because they’re so great.
But then they’re also vividly relatable to some people.
Yeah, but to me their talent is so huge there’s just no way in which we are the same. Whatever gives them the ability to do what they do is so overwhelming, all I can do is appreciate it.
Given these admissions, do you think of the book as a confession?
Definitely. I don’t feel bad about the recordings. I was doing that out of love. But I think a lot of people who read it are going to know me better. My mom told me, “You need to say this is fiction.”
What was most distressing to her?
She’d say, “Clearly Juiceboxxx isn’t a serious artist. You don’t think he’s a serious artist, do you? Do you want people to know that you idolize him?” But then there’s a scene in the book where I tell her about the project and she’s really supportive. I thought, Wow, we’ve turned a corner. She really trusts me. And I think she does more than she did when I was a kid. But I’ve gone home a few times and been disavowed of the idea that she’s completely liberated from the high/low divide.
Oh, your mom’s not a poptimist?
[Laughing.] No. But she really likes the book and is proud of me for writing it. But is it easier for her to tell her friends that her son wrote a book about a rapper? No. And that says more about them than her. But it still means something to her that he’s a rapper, and it signifies that he’s low. And I think that has a lot to do with being transplanted from a different culture where there were totally different signifiers. I think that if she had been raised in America, we would see more eye to eye. But it certainly feels that when I’m with her, I’m on the opposite side, and then when I’m out in the world I want to stick up for her values.
Does it make you feel like you don’t know where your center is?
Yeah. But I guess I don’t think very much about what it says about me that I like this. Still, I think taste is important; I think what you like says a lot about who you are and your values. There’s something that’s enjoyable about liking something other people don’t get. But I take a sort of ugly pride in being alone among my friends in really getting Juiceboxxx.
When that poptimism article by Chris Richards came out, my observation, which I don’t think anyone cared about or agreed with, was that a big part of what motivates people to really go to bat with as much enthusiasm as they can muster for Kanye or Beyoncé, it’s that, we all like them, but if you can like them the most, if you can convince someone that you see in Beyoncé what no one else sees, you’re practically as much of a genius as Beyoncé. Like, I really understand the greatness of this, because I have the faculties and the taste to be able to discern that.
Which is just the flipside of, this thing that everyone hates, I’ve unlocked it as something special and you just don’t see it.
Totally. And I think that used to be a much more common mode in appreciating underground culture. You were proud of knowing the band that no one else knew. Obscurity was a merit badge. Now, it’s like who can appreciate the thing that everyone appreciates the most. Who can see genius in stuff that might be written off as trash by people who might be less discerning.
I had this thought with regards to Kim Kardashian. When Selfish came out, there were people who were really enthusiastic about proclaiming her a great artist. I don’t doubt their sincerity, but you’re putting yourself forward as having critical vision that other people lack.
I don’t feel that way about Juiceboxxx, though. I feel like if people saw him live and really absorbed it the way that I had, seen him when they were 16 or 17 and got hit by his power the way I was, they’d be into him now. At one point, Juice said, “If you hadn’t happened to see me that night at the church, you would never have given me a chance, you’d never understand what I was doing.” And that’s probably true. And it’s sad to me.
But that doesn’t make you think any less of what he does as art? Because now we’re talking about context again. If you hadn’t encountered Juice’s music in that specific context, it wouldn’t have been great to you.
Sometimes I’m like, Well, huh. Maybe the fact that it’s so hard to turn people on to him means something. I had a friend read the book and asked, “Have you ever thought that maybe he just sucks?”
Does it matter to the purpose of the book if he’s not good?
No. And still, people will apologetically email and say, “I tried to listen to Juice and didn’t like it.” But there’s something about being up close to it, you know? If you listen to a song 100 times, you’re gonna start liking it.
It’s like Stockholm Syndrome. You fall in love with your captor.
You listen and you start picking out texture and really fall into the nooks and crannies.
Which could potentially be an argument for poptimism. You’re going to be exposed to Ed Sheeran more than Juiceboxxx. So maybe you only love Ed Sheeran because you’ve heard him 100 times.
Maybe Stockholm Syndrome is a good phrase for it. It makes you sympathetic to them. You become motivated to see it their way.
You’re like Patty Hearst. “Gimme the gun, I’ll rob a bank with you, Ed Sheeran.”
Carl Sekaras is a former teacher and sometimes writer living in Queens.