Few cities in the world have had the same primal influence on popular music as Detroit. So many major movements of the last 50 years were invented there. Highlights include the assembly-line soul machine of Motown, the fiery proto-punk of the MC5 and the Stooges, zeitgeist-defining techno pioneers like Juan Atkins and Derrick May, garage-rock auteurs like the White Stripes and hip hop superstars like Eminem. As music editor of the Metro Times, Detroit’s 100,000-circulation alternative newsweekly, Grand Valley alumnus Johnny Loftus, ’97, has a front seat view of much that scene. Loftus sat for a conversation with Grand Valley Magazine’s Brian J. Bowe, also a music journalist and former Creem editor, in the Metro Times’ downtown Detroit headquarters before heading to the Bronx Bar, a Cass Corridor hipster haven that boasts two of the Motor City’s best jukeboxes.

Grand Valley Magazine: The Metro Times just finished its annual music issue. What is the state of the music scene in Detroit these days?

Loftus: The point of the music issue was to suggest that everything is fragmented right now, in the wake of the White Stripes’ exploding popularity and since Jack White moved out of town. Also, there is the wake of Eminem getting popular based on his roots as a Detroit MC and then still representing Detroit in a way. He has become such an international pop star and rap star that he doesn’t really have any connection to Detroit anymore. And then Kid Rock, who is doing the same thing. If you take those three guys, those three artists as representatives of different sides of Detroit music, none of them really represent Detroit music anymore. So we’re trying to suggest in the music issue that we’re either waiting for what’s next or a lot of bands and artists that are local are just settling for what they have already, which is a decent local following for their specific band. There is another side to it, though. Our cover story was on Great Lakes Myth Society, which is a wonderful band based out of Washtenaw County, and they’re great. So we’re trying to show both sides. There are a lot of questions about what Detroit music is right now and there are some great things happening at the same time. 

GVM: Not only is Detroit known for its great music, it’s also known for its great music criticism. What do you think is the state of music criticism today?

Loftus: Well, it’s interesting right now because, with the Internet and with blogging and a lot of Web publishing, everyone’s a critic now, and the same goes for traditional journalism. No one can really just present a story anymore because the readers aren’t going to accept it as fact because they feel that they’re vested in their own opinion being automatically better or equal to what the writer says. I’ve always tried to write from a writer’s perspective as opposed to a critic’s perspective. I feel like as long as I write something that’s readable and engaging for someone to read (if they didn’t know anything about the artists that I was writing about) maybe they will learn something about it that makes them want to check it out. And I feel like that’s better than me saying, “This record’s terrible” or “This record’s great.” Because nowadays, I don’t really feel like people really care when I like something or don’t like it.

At left, Johnny Loftus, ’97, looks over the jukebox choices at the Bronx Bar in Detroit. Above, he chats with Brian J. Bowe.
Photo by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

GVM: Since Detroit has such a historic music history, this has to be a great place for a history major to be.

Loftus: I’m inspired by the nature of Detroit all the time in my writing — the brokedown beauty of it. There’s obviously a lot of architectural ruins that we’re surrounded by, which are wonderful and yet ugly and yet heartbreaking but gorgeous at the same time, and all these great dynamics that are so cool. Then there’s Detroit’s music history, which is obviously great. The girl group stuff alone — exclude the rest of Motown, just “Heatwave” [by Martha & The Vandellas]. I would take just that song to a desert island. That song has real beauty to it as a pop song and it’s sexual in a girlish sort of alluring way, but then it has this great sense about it of being on a street corner in Detroit with a fire hydrant busted open and people out on the street. There’s a great sense of community you see in Eastern Market on Saturday morning; there’s some people barbecuing outside, there are people walking around with flowers, mixed nuts and eating and drinking beers. That’s that commingling that is so great about Detroit culture with black and white. That song embodies a lot of that stuff. That song alone is perfect.

GVM: You grew up in Chicago. How did you end up at Grand Valley?

Loftus: I graduated in 1992 from high school with an art scholarship to go to Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which is a tiny liberal arts school on Lake Michigan. It seemed like a good idea at the time and I got out there and it wasn’t so great. So I ended up looking for a new school and I was with a girl at the time who was transferring to Grand Valley from Carthage. And I was like, “OK, I’ll transfer to Grand Valley.” I stumbled onto Grand Valley. But once I was there, in fall 1994, I got involved almost immediately with WCKS radio station and fell in with a great group of people there. I was already a big music fan, so it was really great to find some kindred spirits. By the end of the year I was the music director at the station. I also changed my major to history and found an equal sort of allure in the academic side of things, so I stayed.

GVM: Wow, I mean, how fortuitous, it sounds like you really stumbled onto those two passions.

Loftus: I really did. And it’s through no planning of my own. It wasn’t like I was attracted to Grand Valley because they have a great radio station and a great history program. I went there as an art major with no knowledge of a radio station. But by the spring of 1995, I was involved in both and I was perfectly happy. It’s kind of strange how it works out.

Page last modified July 29, 2011