“Music is the highest form of human communication. Coverage of that, to me, it’s like breathing. Why wouldn’t you cover it? Why wouldn’t you want to talk about it?”
I felt goosebumps creep across my arms when Greg Kot, the former Chicago Tribune music critic, succinctly stated his need to be around music, to create a dialogue about it, to be constantly engaged and plugged in to it.
Holed up in a private study room armed with only my cell phone, a recorder and my notebook, I was worried my shaking voice would betray that I was starstruck that Kot had graciously given me 30 minutes to pick his brain on what it takes to make it as a modern music critic. I was just a month shy of finishing my undergrad at DePaul University, and although my professors and family were proud of my accomplishments, they all warned me that a career in music journalism wasn’t something I should put all my hopes into. Hell, Kot himself had just left the Tribune after 40 years on staff, and the state of news media had never looked so dismal.
But Kot only fueled my journalistic fire that refused to be stomped out by those who hoped I’d set my sights on a more reasonable career goal. We discussed the importance of covering the arts in a major city like Chicago, where many people consider the cultural scene to be an essential part of their lives. Kot explained how, with today’s easy access to technology, musicians are creating and self-publishing at an extraordinary rate.
“You can record an album in your bedroom and hypothetically release it to thousands of people that very same day,” he said. More music being available for consumption requires a careful listener willing to filter through all the noise. Now, more than ever, the role of the critic is a necessary one, Kot explained to me.
When Chicago shut down its venues and stages in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt all of Kot’s encouragement and validation for budding critics flee my mind. Logically, I knew that not even a pandemic would keep musicians from creating, but without the thrill of a live show, the anticipation before a long-awaited band takes the stage, the magic of losing yourself in a crowd of fans as you all sing a chorus in unison… what was left of the Chicago music scene I considered a second home?
No longer able to discover new bands organically by combing record stores or attending live shows at venues across the city, I felt my motivation to dig through online streaming sites dwindle and vanish. Instead, I found solace in classic tunes that have been ingrained in my memory for years. I hummed along to The Marshall Tucker Band as I took aimless drives to escape my apartment. I danced to Black Sabbath in my living room. I played Suzi Quatro, The Runaways and Fleetwood Mac on a loop, hoping I’d find the missing pieces of myself in the songs I held closest to my heart. Long after I had exaushted these tracks, it was easier to be held captive to familiar melodies than to take a chance on a new record when everything else in the world seemed fragile and unpredictable.
For the first time in years, I put music on the backburner and replaced it by discovering new hobbies I could enjoy in the comfort of my apartment while in quarantine.
I began crafting resin jewelry, eager to create the perfect pair of glittery hoop earrings for myself. I experimented with colorful makeup, smearing bright eyeshadow across my lids with Siouxsie Sioux meets Twiggy as my inspiration. These new hobbies had me scouring social media, logging way too many hours of screen time, sharing photos of my latest creative endeavors and searching for future inspiration. It was while combing Instagram for 60’s mod makeup looks and retro styling that I came across vintage fashionista Devyn Crimson, bassist of Chicago’s dreamiest new rock band, The Knee-Hi’s.
I initially assumed The Knee Hi’s had flown under my radar while in my depressive quarantine slump — how else would I have no clue that an all-girl, doo wop revival band was releasing music in my own city? After a bit of digging I discovered that, much to my pleasure and surprise, the group had recently formed at the end of 2019 and had just recorded their debut single, “Darlin’ Darlin’.”
Even before hearing the pensive track, I was over the moon— I had found a new band, and I was interested in their new music for the first time since March. Would The Knee Hi’s be the band to break my quarantine slump?
“Darlin’ Darlin” is like slipping into a warm bath in a claw foot tub. Although the song’s lyrics are tinged with melancholy as lead vocalist Alice Stride begs a lover to lay with them before they say goodbye, the track made me feel like I was wrapped in the secure arms of a loved one. Stride’s soothing croon is like honey — it’s captivatingly sticky and undeniably sweet. Her simplistic guitar melodies and groovy keys had me twirling in circles across my sunlit living room. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the four rockers painstakingly style themselves to fit the 60s aesthetic that had inspired my latest crafting and makeup endeavors.
Having receded into a stagnant repertoire of songs during quarantine — much of which was 60s & 70s rock — The Knee Hi’s blended my need for comfort with my desire to have my interest peaked by something new. Their soothing du wop harmonies are nothing new, but they’re done with a fresh twist that’s fresh and authentic. The band may have clear inspirations, but they’re not trying to be anyone else or do what’s been done before. Most importantly — and most simply — “Darlin’ Darlin’” gave me hope that I could connect with a new song again after months of feeling like I’d never break away my repeating quarantine playlist.