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NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans talks representation and really bad music

Author and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans
Author and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans

NPR's TV critic spoke with IPR about critical race theory, a new documentary by Questlove and the current prospects for aspiring arts and culture critics.

NPR's TV critic visited Interlochen Center for the Arts this week to give a keynote address on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

He also spoke with Interlochen Arts Academy students about a number of issues pertaining to race and media.

IPR caught up with Deggans during his visit to chat about his career and about some of his favorite (and least favorite) TV soundtracks from the last year.

Deggans began his career as a pop music critic, but he started to feel like he was aging out of the scene after a few years.

He began exploring other opportunities for himself as an arts critic and realized that television was the place to be.

"You can write about social justice issues, politics, race, gender - anything under the sun is happening on television," he said.

Deggans made the change to television criticism in the late 1990s, and he was at the forefront of the cultural shifts to cable television and then to premium cable television and now to streaming television services.

"The beat has only gotten bigger and bigger," he noted.

Unfortunately, the types of journalists and journalism outlets that cover television and other cultural topics have only diminished in recent years.

"A lot of mid-level newspapers don't have the money to have critics any more," Deggans explained.

As a result, anyone who wants to be a critic likely needs to do so online and for very little, if any, pay. The chances of moving to a major outlet like the New York Times or NPR are slim.

"I feel bad that the ladder to success I climbed - those jobs don't really exist any more, and it's harder for people to get a foothold in the industry," Deggans said.

We asked him about some of his favorite (and less favorite) TV soundtracks from the last year or so.

He's a big fan of "Summer of Soul," a documentary film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Directed by Questlove, "Summer of Soul" uses this six-week event as a window into Black music and culture.

The film's soundtrack is a who's who of Black music stars from the late 1960s, including Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson and B.B. King.

Another one of Deggans's picks is "Euphoria," a gritty show that portrays teens' battles with substance use disorder. Deggans praises the show's use of music to help get the viewer inside a character's head.

As for shows that have less-than-great soundtracks, Deggans points to "Peacemaker" as an example.

He'd had high hopes because director James Gunn had previously used music to great effect in the "Guardians of the Galaxy" film series. But, Deggans said, that's not the case for "Peacemaker."

"The character Peacemaker loves terrible heavy metal music," Deggans explained. "So the first season is littered with a lot of questionable heavy metal."

Luckily for Deggans, he doesn't have to spend a lot of time watching bad television. At the same time, his job is to find what's truly excellent.

"There's a lot of good television out there, but not a lot of great television," he said. "The real dividing line is between what's good and what's great."

Author and NPR TV critic talks to Interlochen Arts Academy students in Corson Auditorium
Interlochen Center for the Arts
Author and NPR TV critic talks to Interlochen Arts Academy students in Corson Auditorium

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.