At WBEZ Chicago, one of its most popular programs happens to be the equivalent of two old friends obsessing over music together.
“Sound Opinions” is a music podcast hosted by music critics Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot. DeRogatis spent 15 years as the music critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, and Kot has been doing the same for The Chicago Tribune since 1990.
Since “Sound Opinions” began in its first iteration in 1993, it bounced around a few other media outlets — even receiving an offer from Hollywood for their own syndicated show (which they turned down). But Kot and DeRogatis stuck with radio as their show’s medium, spending time with popular stations like 97.9 The Loop and 93XRT before landing at Chicago Public Media in 2005.
Even after all the years spent they’ve spent on the air, the pair still don’t think of themselves as radio people.
“We wouldn’t be any good on the air if we weren’t first and foremost writers,” DeRogatis said.
The pair have kept that same energy and passion that was present in their music writing and packaged it up in a different form for “Sound Opinions.” Inspired by the legendary team of film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, “Sound Opinions” serves a space for DeRogatis and Kot to, according to their website, “interview artists, talk about pop culture and music industry news, review new record releases and give trends a historical context.”
“Critics have always been a very small part of the way music is consumed,” Kot said. “I think for people who love music, that extra layer of texture that a good critic can provide is still an absolute necessity.”
The pair always try to “cover the waterfront” by giving space on the show to examine the whole spectrum of popular music.
In recent episodes, the pair interviewed country singer-songwriter Jason Isbell and the heavy metal group Slayer. They also reviewed albums from local indie hero Liz Phair and hip-hop phenomenon Cardi B, and even took the time to make a list of their favorite songs about horses.
“We always try to mix it up so we’re not focusing on one kind of genre or even one era, and just have a show that has a multiplicity of entry points for listeners of different generations,” Kot said.
Sometimes, these reviews that some regard as simple can become focused on something much more than the music — the various contexts of the world in which the music was made. Art has always been a medium for people to express their feelings on cultural, social or political contexts, and music is no exception.
“To ignore the social issues swirling around the music is just myopic, I would even call it wrong-headed,” Kot said. “The music has meaning because of what is going on around it.”
DeRogatis explains that there’s a context here. He lays out a simple review he and Kot are working on — this time, a review of Courtney Barnett’s new album “Tell Me How You Really Feel.” In their script, they’ll bring in contextual facts about Barnett, such as her location, sexuality and life in general to deepen the story behind the album.
“Sometimes it’s much more complicated, like R. Kelly or Woody Allen. I think the critic has to deal with that,” says DeRogatis.
DeRogatis broke the story of Kelly’s alleged sexual misconduct with underage girls back in 2002, when he received an anonymous videotape at The Chicago Sun-Times that showed alleged footage of Kelly engaging in sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old girl. In 2008, Kelly was acquitted of all 14 counts of child pornography.
Ever since, DeRogatis has been on the R. Kelly beat. Last summer, he published a long write-up in Buzzfeed describing accounts of Kelly holding young women against their will in a “sex cult” at his Chicago and Atlanta properties.
Earlier this week, the R&B singer released a 19-minute song titled “I Admit” where he address these allegations. Not only does he deny these allegations, but he even calls out DeRogatis by name. Kelly sings “To Jim DeRogatis, whatever your name is / You been tryna destroy me for 25 whole years / Writing the same stories over and over again / Off my name, you done went and made yourself a career.”
DeRogatis responded to the song in a statement to Buzzfeed News, which stated, “I’ve done plenty I’m proud of, and if this story has made me rich, that’s news to me.”
Just as we’ve seen in social movements like #MeToo or Time’s Up, DeRogatis believes it’s important that we as a society be aware of the contexts that are present in the music we listen to and consume.
“You’re standing in the field at Pitchfork Music Festival in 2013, enjoying his sexy jams, and half a mile away is one of the young women who slit her wrists after a relationship with him when she was 15,” DeRogatis said. “That matters. Know that.”
In these turbulent times, the minds behind “Sound Opinions” believe an awareness of the outside context of art is important.
“The great thing about popular music is that it’s an instant snapshot of where we are as a culture at any given moment,” Kot said. “I think out of any art form it’s the most immediate, it tells us a lot about who we are as a culture, as a people, as a world.”
DeRogatis echoes this statement, stressing the importance, not only of the art, but of the outside influences behind the art.
“If art matters, and I think nothing in life matters more, then you have to investigate the context and at least be aware of it,” DeRogatis said.