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Racket Racks Up 5 Journalism Awards: A Conversation with Keith Harris, Our Big Winner

Harris scored a hat trick, including two first-places finishes.

Facebook: Society of Professional Journalists - Minnesota Pro Chapter|

These were awards handed out at last year’s ceremony, but you get the idea.

Welcome to the least impartial article you'll encounter today!

That's right, I'm here on the Toot Your Own Horn Beat to let readers know about a plucky lil newsroom that took home five awards at Tuesday's Page One Awards, the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists' annual kudos to the state's best reporters, photographers, podcasters, and social media posters. (Click here for the complete list of 2024 winners, including Journalist of the Year Andy Mannix, whose marquee Star Tribune story we featured here.)

Racket's '24 Page One Awards war chest includes: First place in A&E/Culture Criticism/Reviews for Keith Harris's "I Saw 30 Concerts In 30 Days"; first place in Best Interview for Harris's “My Teen Niece Helps Explain the Taylor Swift Show I Saw on Saturday”; third place in Arts & Entertainment Reporting for Harris's "Is Touring Even Worth It?"; third place in Enterprise/In-depth Reporting for my "There’s a Massive, Hidden Lake of Mining Residue Above the North Shore. It Might Grow"; and, finally, third place for Best Website, the criteria for which remains something of a mystery to us. (Last year, our first of eligibility, Racket racked up four Page One Awards, including my first-place finish for this one.)

To better wring content out of this self-serving blog post, I connected with Harris (easy interview to land) to dive deeper into his celebrated stories on Taylor Swift, marathon concert reviewing, and the economic lives of local touring musicians. Enjoy our Frost vs. Nixon-esque sparring, and thanks for making this award-winning journalism possible—we quite literally couldn't do this without ya.

On turning a Taylor Swift concert review into a Q&A with your niece...

What was your capsule, music critic-y take on Ms. Swift in mid-2023? 

I wasn't wild about Midnights, her most recent album at the time. But she was coming off two excellent career pivots (Folklore and Evermore) before that, so she was due for a little dip in quality. What she's done is really unprecedented: No pop star has operated at that level of fame for so long without losing the plot. America loves tearing down the idols it's built up, and to survive for 15 years without giving us an excuse to do our worst is a real achievement. 

How'd you come up with the high-concept approach to your review? 

I'd like to be noble and say, "Oh, I didn't think the world needed another middle-aged guy's review of a Taylor Swift show." (I might even have said that in my intro, lol.) But honestly I'd already reviewed her live show twice (in 2013 and 2017) and written about her a bunch over the years, so I wasn't sure how much more I had to say at length. 

And really I was just curious to hear what Julia had to say.  Also, I foolishly thought maybe it'd convince her I was cool. 

Was Julia fully onboard? 

Totally. It's not like people were regularly asking her to divulge her opinions about Taylor at length, I'm guessing, so she had a lot of pent up thoughts she was ready to unload. And we'd already done something similar when she was younger. I interviewed her and her brother, Jack, about their favorite Hamilton songs for City Pages.

So this won the top award for Best Interview. Do you have a general approach to how you conduct interviews and, if so, did it change while interviewing a source who happens to be your teenage niece? 

I like to let the person I'm talking to take the interview where they want to. The less I'm interrogating someone and the more of a conversation we're having, the more relaxed they are and the more likely they are to say something interesting. I have to say, Julia was a very easy interview. I knew she was smart and articulate, but not all smart and articulate people make for good interviews. So I was glad it worked out.

Did Julia's appreciation, analysis, and fandom of Swift change the way you think about her music? 

Well, it didn't make me like Red any less. Mostly I just wanted to let a smart fan have her say. We hear from the bad side of fandoms online these days, and they can be really corrosive and just plain stupid. So I was happy to have a chance to present a sort of #NotAllFans counterpoint, to show that discernment and fandom can coexist.

How is Julia feeling about the big win? 

When I texted her about it, she replied "No way!? Amazing!!" But I don't know how sincere that was. She just graduated this week and won a few awards at school so she might be a little jaded now.

What are the odds Travis and Taylor get married this year? Feel free to "punt" on this one. 

Ha, I don't know, but I'm glad she's finally found a good-natured, goofy jock after all those arty pretty boys. And I don't know how she tops this tour, so a little time off might be good for her.  

Click here to read the story

On attending and reviewing a marathon spree of 30 straight Twin Cities concerts in 30 days...

Tell me: How'd you come up with the idea for this stunt? 

I basically stole the idea from Robert Christgau. (Not the first I've stolen from him.) And for some reason I love putting too much work into a project. This was about the least efficient use of my time I could imagine.

At the time of publication, I was 35 and you were... 53? I'm physically exhausted just thinking about pulling this off. Take me through it from a motivation and stamina perspective. 

Honestly, it wasn't as hard as I expected. I'm a committed napper to begin with, so I generally have a nighttime second wind, and it was June, so it's not like I felt like sitting around at home every night anyway. The hardest part was psychological—getting to the end of the day and realizing... it wasn't the end of the day.

Excellent point. Now, I feel like I'd suffer extra because of drinking in the clubs. You're a famously sober guy. What are the benefits of being a non-drinking concertgoer? 

Well, the way I drank... there's no way I could afford it now, to begin with. And at 54 I basically feel hungover most of the time anyway, so I can't imagine what an actual hangover would feel like. Then again, our entertainment infrastructure is built on alcohol sales, and if everyone was like me the industry would collapse. So I guess I have a responsibility to promote live music because I'm such a financial drag on the system.

What were your biggest takeaways from our venue/club ecosystem?

I don't want to get too rah-rah here because the boosterish side of Minneapolis annoys me sometimes, but this is a good music town. Even on a Tuesday night, you can find live music somewhere. The Twin Cities are a very nostalgic place and, especially every time a club closes, people talk about the past like it was a golden age. But I bet if you crunched the numbers, there are simply more places offering live music than there were 30 years ago.

Sorry, gotta ask: What's your general sense on the current health/vitality of the Local Music Scene? We're now fully awakened from the Covid slumber -- how different or non-different are things out there? 

I took about 15 years off from covering local music, between the early '00s and the mid '10s. My old job was typically talking to groups of white cis straight guys week after week. When I got back in the game the first thing I noticed was how many more women there were in bands. Since Covid the scene feels increasingly queer. That's just an exciting trajectory.  

You've been reviewing shows for three decades. How, if at all, did this bootcamp, gauntlet-style marathon change your approach? 

I don't think so, though I definitely took more notes than I needed for those short capsule reviews. It was definitely a challenge to paint a scene in a hundred or so words after being used to having space to ramble.

Would you do it again?

Nah. You can't pull off the same stunt twice.

Click here to read the story

On asking local bands about the economics of touring post-pandemic...

We'll keep this one brief because you got your ass clobbered by Carbon Sound and the Mankato Free Press...

Can't win 'em all.

The economics of music seems like the most broadly interesting topic to the layperson, but it's notoriously rude to talk about money. How willing were your sources to crack open the books? 

Musicians—and people in general—seem way more willing to talk about money than they used to be. I think one thing with musicians is, in the indie world, it used to be uncool to seem like you had too much money. A bohemian lifestyle was something you aspired to, even if you were just slumming. Now everyone is looking to survive, and they're happy to share tips with each other. Class solidarity is a real thing.

Well, is touring even worth it?

I mean, is any job worth it? You know, a lot of commenters said the story was depressing, but most of the people I talked to were more optimistic than I'd expected. Of course, if you talk to people who are still touring, they must be getting something out of it. 

In terms of being godforsaken and in utter shambles, how does music industry compare to journalism industry? 

It's the same story, really. All the money has been sucked up into the tech sector, an absolute parasite class. And that's happened across so many other industries as well.  For a while, capitalism tricked us into thinking we could live somewhat comfortably on the margins, but that illusion is really hard to maintain anymore. There's no going back, so the question is: How do you find a way forward? 

Click here to read the story

And here's where I'll hijack the story yet again to talk about myself and

On investigating the massive, potentially growing pool of toxic water teetering above the North Shore...

This story—which notched almost 50,000 pageviews—is part industrial history, part ecological alarm bell, and the full culmination of my own personal curiosity about that dull, glowing orb that's perched above Silver Bay on Google Earth.

In March, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issued its long-awaited, 241-page decision on the proposed Milepost 7 expansion, one that found the project does not require a new environmental impact statement. "In my very preliminary scan of the decision, I noted that DNR 'does not consider the project to be an expansion' and that DNR is relying on review documents and a permit issued almost 50 years ago," JT Haines, Northeastern director of Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, told us via email. Stay tuned.

Click here to read the story

On Racket's massive win for third-best Best Website...

According to Page One Awards judges, while the very website you're on at this very moment isn't quite as good as first- and second-place finishers Sahan Journal and Star Tribune, it's better than everyone else's. No clue what any of that is based on, but we'll take it!

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