“You’ve got some nerve asking me a question like that!”

This is an adaptation of a presentation called “Quand dire c’est faire violence” I gave during a study day at the University of Nantes on January 31st

You've got some nerve!
In Les interactions verbales, Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni speaks of the difficulty in establishing the relationship between places occupied in interviews, because of the dissymmetry of interactional roles specific to this kind of exchange. She notes that interviewers control content because they direct the exchange with their questions but that interviewees provide the conversational material with their replies. Moreover – and this is particularly striking in the specific case of interviews with singers – the interviewee’s words are accorded more value because they justify the interaction with the secondary audience – the public. Journalists are said to ‘record’ the words of a prestigious artist whose ideas are likely to interest fans.

In this context, the negotiation for the positional relationship in the interview sometimes leads to protean verbal violence from both sides of the exchange which becomes a kind of conflict thus underlining the initial fragility of the collaboration. Critics and artists have always maintained a difficult relationship throughout the history of rock and certain acerbic exchanges have even attained a particular status in collective memory. This was illustrated when Lou Reed passed away and his arguments with journalist Lester Bangs were cited as much in certain obituaries as some of his artistic works. This was also the case with the argument between Bob Dylan and a Newsweek journalist covering his stormy European tour in 1966, an excerpt of which is included in this article. This conflict is at the heart of DA Pennebaker’s film, Dont Look Back made at the same time, several sequences of which are also included in Martin Scorsese’s documentary, No Direction Home.

This confrontation of the points of view and interviewing methods specific to music documentaries in which images and recent interviews are made to echo each other is a particularly fruitful way of examining the different aspects of verbal violence, particularly its lasting or ephemeral character and its place in representations of rock culture.

After discussion of the forms verbal violence can take in interviews – particularly the differences between attacks and counter-attacks, sometimes insulting criticisms and reactions – we shall consider the extent to which such communicational conflicts should not be put down to over-sensitivity and egos but instead are part of the construction of a whole rock ethos. We shall then look at how avoidance strategies and the passage of time help to neutralize such verbal conflicts and open the possibility of a calmer look back on possibly violent discussions.

Which violence?

Without wishing to blame anyone, violent exchanges often seem to be initiated by journalists – or at least musicians tend to see it that way – and this leads to a reaction. This can be partly explained by the journalists’ role as ‘content master’ suggesting new subjects and therefore potential areas for negotiation/conflict (cf. Kerbrat-Orecchioni) and partly through the very function of critics whose role is sometimes to express a negative view of the artist’s work. It should also be noted that the way in which interviews are conducted may have changed over time but that the role of rock journalists (give an opinion / get a reaction from the artist) has stayed pretty much the same.

Verbal violence from journalists can be found then at the level of the content proposed (but rarely in its form) and also in their contextual role because questioning can be experienced by the artist as a form of communicational imposition and therefore violence. We should also note here that the way in which interviews and press conferences are staged is not imposed solely by journalists because singers are made to promote their work by their agents or record companies for example. Let us a take the example of Bob Dylan and the journalist from Newsweek:

– Do you care about what you sing?

– How could I answer that if you got the nerve to ask me?

– Well, then you have…

– I mean, you’ve got a lot of nerve asking me a question like that. Do you ask the Beatles that?

– I have to ask you that, because you have the nerve to question whether I can…

– I’m not questioning you, because I don’t expect any answer from you. But do you think somebody wouldn’t go see somebody if they didn’t want entertainment?

Where does the verbal violence come from? In the journalist’s question, the word ‘care‘ is essential because it suggests the accusation that Bob Dylan may be insincere. The context of this interview was rather delicate as it took place at a time when Bob Dylan had moved from folk to rock music – a change which brought him accusations of betrayal and of abandoning protest songs in favour of a form that was seen as more commercial (and to some extent violent, particularly on the acoustic level) and disconnected from the alleged purity of folk.

Bob Dylan’s reaction is interesting. He first refuses to reply and questions the relevance of the question, highlighting the supposed incompetence of the journalist. He then refers to the Beatles who had a comparable level of popularity at the time. What is the meaning of this reference? It is fair to suppose that he is suggesting a re-categorization for himself as an artist – like the Beatles, he does not wish to be questioned about his sincerity, a question they did not have to face probably because they had not declared political commitments at that time. The other hypothesis would be that he is making reference to their equivalent popularity, suggesting that he would deserve the same deference because he is as well-known and popular as the Beatles.

When the journalist protests, Dylan reminds him of the communicational schema at play, namely that the journalist is in charge of the questions while he provides the answers. He reiterates his (potentially) dominant position insofar as the journalist is expecting something from him, whereas he does not care about the journalist. Then he ends up replying with a rhetorical question thus moving the debate into the context of entertainment, negating the notion of sincerity and referring the journalist back to the underlying ‘interspeech’ of his question, namely a matter linked to the audience question (that of sincerity). However as the audience comes to the shows, it has just as little legitimacy as others to question this.

Bob Dylan’s reactive violence can be seen to constitute a block in communication, a refusal to reply and to highlight the mechanism of the interview as he suspends his collaboration in it.

Another case in which the violence of the attack and response is more intense is Gloria Emerson’s interview of John Lennon for the New York Times. The discussion here is not about music and is centred instead on John Lennon’s campaigning for peace through publicity and his decision to give back the Order of the British Empire he was awarded with the other Beatles, a ceremony  which had received a lot of coverage in the media at the time. The extract dates from the end of the 70s.

 – If I’m going to get on the front page I might as well get on the front page with the word “peace.”

– But you’ve made yourself ridiculous.

– To some people. I don’t care…

– You’re too good for what you’re doing.

– If it saves lives…

– You don’t think you… Oh my dear boy, you’re living in a never-never land.

– You talked to a…

– You don’t think you’ve saved a single life? What do you know about a protest movement, anyway?

– I know a lot about it.

– It consists of a lot more than sending your chauffeur in your car back to Buckingham Palace.

– You’re just a snob about it! The only way you can make…

– You’re a fake! Can’t you give up something that means a little more?

– It was no sacrifice to get rid of the MBE, because it was an embarrassment…

– Then what kind of a protest did you make?

– You said I don’t know what this…It is an advertising campaign for peace. Can you understand that?

– No, I can’t.

– A very big ad campaign for peace.

– I think it’s vulgar and self-aggrandizing. Are you advertising John Lennon or peace?

– Do you want nice, middle-class gestures for peace? And intellectual manifestos written by a lot half-witted intellectuals? And nobody reads them. That’s the trouble with the peace movement.

– I’m someone who admired you very much.

– I’m sorry you liked the old mop-tops, dear and you thought I was very satirical and witty. And you liked Hard Day’s Night, love, but I’ve grown up. But you obviously haven’t.

– Have you?

– Yes, folks.

In this extract the attack also comes from the journalist but it is neither veiled nor modalized by the use of an interrogative form. She qualifies Lennon’s stance as ridiculous, self-deluding, hypocritical, pointless, vulgar and self-aggrandizing while questioning John Lennon’s knowledge of political activism and comparing him unfavourably to how he was before.

John Lennon counter-attacks, trying to explain the relevance of his campaign, but although the conversation starts off as a debate about ideas it takes a more personal turn as it gets more heated and they interrupt each other more. He calls her a snob, makes it a question of class (middle-class) and mocks her attachment to the past with the reference to the mop-tops – the Beatles’ haircut at the start of their careers – and A Hard Day’s Night, a symbol of Beatlemania. He then sarcastically imitates a snobbish phrase he imagines the journalist might say (witty, satirical).

The terms used to address each other are clear – there are no actual insults but the contempt is evident in mock-affectionate terms like dear boy and then dear and love which imply the journalist is like a teenage fan who never got over Beatlemania.

Here we can see that the verbal violence the interviewee perceives in the interviewer’s question/remark takes the form of a communicational block, a refusal to cooperate and an inherent questioning of the exchange through silence or metadiscourse (the wrong question, the journalist’s incompetence, etc). However we shall see that henceforth the verbal violence used by musicians is not just for self-defence but also to show themselves in a positive light by conforming with the stereotypical rock ethos.

The rock ethos

The intensity of Bob Dylan and John Lennon’s reactions highlights the importance of a crucial element of rock culture and the discourse it engenders underlined by Claude Chastagner, namely authenticity.

This notion may have a political and artistic character and is relayed by fans and critics in the role of ‘gatekeepers’. Rock artists are simultaneously viewed as “a driving force for protest and subversion, a challenge to authority and the norm” (political character) and as exceptional individuals whose artistic expression is supposed to express great sensitivity and depth of character.

The reactions of these two artists are easier to understand in this context but verbal violence and rudeness are themselves ways of affirming membership of the rock community through the construction of a discursive ethos (the self image constructed through speech according to Ruth Amossy’s concept) which both works on stereotyping (the idea that a social group has of itself) and on the prior ethos (social stereotype and image of a public figure).

What is this rock ethos artists comply with? According to Chastagner it is above all marked by the idea of rebellion and a form of impertinence which would explain artists’ propensity for defying norms of politeness. The theory of a feeling of real or feigned superiority towards interviewers is reasonable. Several examples tend to show that this discursively constructed rebellion is both approved of by fans (cf. Oasis) and constructed intentionally or by reaction in certain cases (cf. Rolling Stones) and played out in exchanges (cf. Joe Strummer and punks).

Andrew wanted to make the Rolling Stones the anti Beatles, so if you got a hero, you got a antihero, like in a movie, you got good guys and bad guys. Andrew decided that the Rolling Stones were the bad guys, it wasn’t just an accident, he thought the Rolling Stones would suit that image. It helped to have people who would go along with it or would fit the bill, it’s good to have an actor to play the part.
(Mick Jagger,Crossfire Hurricane)

JS: Shut up, will you, you stupid cunt!

Journ.: Thanks for that.

JS: Yeah that’s what you deserve with that sort of crap. Who do you think we are? Do you think it’s 1976 and you’re talking to the Sex Pistols? Piss off or I’ll fucking piss all over you. If he feels like throwing up, it’s because his stomach hurts. And I don’t need your jokes to fucking contend with. If you haven’t got something serious to say then piss off.

Journ: Well it is serious.

JS: Well if you tell me, what about life and death, not about who pukes on stinky carpets. (Joe Strummer, The Future Is Unwritten)

‘We’re fuckin’ brilliant. You’ll either listen to us or fuck off.’ And their attitude was ‘Oh, fuck that.’ (Oasis fan, Live Forever)

The example of the Rolling Stones shows that their image was the fruit of a deliberate strategy used by their manager Andrew Oldham to transform these nice, polite boys into bad boys (their first interviews made them look like clean polite youngsters). This was indeed a form of reaction or opposite approach to the Beatles who had become well-known before them.

The case of the Clash and punks in general is more linked to a broader form – that of the rejection of the previous period (despite definite admiration for the Rolling Stones in particular). There is a debate regarding the sincerity of the punks (cf. Chastagner or Nick Kent in Apathy for the Devil) but the most convincing theory is that it was all a pose for many of the punks of the time and that violent behaviour was supposed to reflect the musical violence of a spontaneous explosion led by musicians whose energy and sincerity was supposed to make up for musical failings.

The most striking feature of Joe Strummer’s insults – apart from the importance of defilement in all its forms – is the link made with the Sex Pistols, the Clash’s rivals in a system similar to that of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but a reaction which is similar to Bob Dylan’s (as seen above). The reference is not particularly clear (why 1976?) but presumably this derives from the lack of seriousness of the subject brought up by the journalist (vomit on a carpet) and suggests that the Sex Pistols did not have the same intellectual and political ambitions as the Clash (who wanted to talk about “life and death” matters). The absence of reaction from the journalist being insulted can also be interpreted in different ways but one may assume there is a certain awareness of the theatrical character of all this.

Finally the Oasis fans cited here show that the casual nonchalance displayed by the Gallagher brothers is appreciated and probably seen as a kind of anti-establishment attitude.

As Claude Chastagner notes, the “rock community” is a group which forms through rejection, “a closed and protected world which is difficult to grasp”. Inside this group, stars occupy a place apart which is the partly the fruit of a construction and staging of violent speech and impoliteness. However this construction, like the effects of certain words, does not resist the passing of time and a documentary’s retrospective view actually makes it possible to highlight the role of what is said in the affirmation and diffusion of a rock ethos.

Defusing verbal conflicts

When we look again at Mick Jagger’s statement it is easy to understand why he could explain this in a film made to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the group’s existence rather than in promotional interviews for one of their first albums – only a well-constructed and entrenched media image can stand up to analysis and metadiscourse.

However this is indeed the angle adopted by numerous documentaries which are generally made in collaboration with the artists, their family and friends (and their record company). The directors are sometimes well-known like Martin Scorsese and are not treated distantly or with the disdain reserved for music critics which leads to a different approach to the violence of words used. What factors are highlighted by those interacting in the film to allow this?

1) Time

The retrospective view and the system of echoes between archives and recent interviews imply that there is often quite a large time interval involved in each film. This allows artists to reconsider their words and attitudes and in some ways to combine the role of narrator and participant in the story told using the 1st person. For example, Patti Smith relating her meeting with the actor and director Sam Shephard in his presence:

The first time I ever met Sam [Shephard], he was sitting, he was behind drums singing “Blind Rage” with the Holy Modal Rounders. I thought: “That’s one hillybilly son of a bitch! [laughs]”

These two former lovers who remained friends then laugh because clearly this relatively unflattering first impression was proved inaccurate by their later relationship and Shephard’s subsequent brilliant career.

2) Negotiation

Although the collaboration between artist and director is calmer, directors may still bring up potentially irritating subjects to avoid falling into the trap of hagiography. Any potentially violent criticism is thus (usually) defused by a process of compensation, use of euphemisms or by questions on past criticisms or remarks made by others. It should also be noted that in most cases directors’ questions are edited out and only appear in the film if the conversation in question becomes more complex. This was the case with this interview with Liam Gallagher in Live Forever where the subject was his androgynous side.

– What does that mean?

– That you have a feminine quality about you.

– I have a what?

– A feminine quality.

– What does that mean?

– Well, you’re not just some…

– I’m a bird?

– No, I’m not saying you’re a bird.

– What does that mean?

– Well, it’s like you’re not some 15-stone hulk. You have, you have that kind of… Androgynous, you’ve got a bit of feminine in your masculinity.

– Have I? Explain. What does that mean?

– I suppose just in your looks.

– I’m a pretty boy, yeah. Yeah, I’m pretty good-looking. I take care of me hair. Bit obsessed with me hair. You’ve gotta have a decent haircut if you’re the front man of a band. Yeah, man.

The journalist’s hyper-politeness still elicits an unfriendly reaction from the singer but clearly he makes an effort to get round this difficulty and avoid conflict:

– through a strategy of avoidance: the original question was cut at the editing stage but it is fair to surmise that it involved someone else’s opinion (the journalist Jon Savage in fact) which means the journalist is relating another’s view and thus has less responsibility for it.

– by the denial of an excessive suggestion by Liam Gallagher: “I’m not saying you’re a bird

– by a euphemistic circumlocution: “not some 15 stone hulk“: the journalist avoids a direct attack on Gallagher’s physique by denying the use of a hyperbolic image.

– through the use of modalizing terms such as kind of, a bit of, just and semantic distancing – a feminine quality becomes a bit of feminine and is accompanied with a compensatory reminder – in your masculinity

– the final suggestion – “just in your looks” – makes the subject into a non-essential quality. The interviewer finally avoids correcting Liam Gallagher’s erroneous interpretation reducing androgyny to a matter of haircuts.

3) Humour and metadiscourse

Documentaries generally permit more civilized exchanges which means the journalist/artist conflict can be played out with a certain distance thanks to both the humour and analysis inherent to the interview situation. Does this tend to suggest that the artists involved are aware of the existence of stereotyped staging in their interviews?

Here is a case in which the singer disputes the legitimacy of the director and even of the interview itself. It involves “Pancho” Molina in the film Year of the Horse about Neil Young and Crazy Horse by Jim Jarmusch who went on a European tour with the group.

Pancho: I see a film like this being made and I go: “Wow people are going to think about Crazy Horse and whatever I am saying now, or Billy or Ralph.” It just blows my mind because you know it doesn’t even scratch the tip of the iceberg cause over that time period we’ve been through so many changes in lifestyles and families and venues and just the ways we recorded and instruments we used and loving each other and hating each other and the whole deal. And some guy like you comes in, you know, hip, trendy New York kind of artsy fartsy film producer to ask us a few questions (laughter)

JJ: I’m a film director.

Pancho: Director, sorry, director. (laughter) Writer-director. 

Pancho Molina’s remarks are intended to tease Jarmusch and this mischievous tone is used a lot throughout the film. There is a certain negotiation about Jim Jarmusch’s professional title and status as a trendy New York artist. However the musician also conveys a tendency in rock culture to devaluate criticism and verbal analysis which are seen as over- intellectualization and useless chat that hinders the supposedly more intense, natural, authentic and physical contact with music. Bob Dylan put forward a similar argument to explain his weariness following his 1966 tour and to explain why he gave up giving concerts for several years.

– And I’d just about had it, though. I’d had it with the…with the whole scene. And I was… Whether I knew it or didn’t know it, I was looking…to just quit for a while.

– What about the scene? What had you had it with? What about the scene were you sick of?

– Well, you know, people like you. People like (chuckle), you know like, just, you know, like just being pressed and hammered and, you know, expected to answer questions, you know. What can I… You know, like…It was enough to make anybody sick, really.

Here he clearly uses a certain derision to express the fact that, even several decades later, the impression of violence which may be caused by probing questions has changed little.


Amossy R., La présentation de soi : ethos et identité verbale, Puf, Paris, 2010

Chastagner C., La loi du rock, Climats, Paris, 1998

Chastagner C., De la culture rock, Puf, Paris, 2011

Cohen T.F., Playing to the Camera: Musicians and Musical Performance in Documentary Cinema, Wallflower, Londres, 2012

Hall J., “Don’t you ever just watch? American Cinéma Vérité and Don’t Look Back”, Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video, Grand et Sloniowski (ed), Wayne State University Press, 1998

Kerbrat-Orecchioni C., Le discours en interaction, Armand Colin, Paris, 2005

Kerbrat-Orecchioni C., Les interactions verbales (tome 1), Armand Colin, Paris, [1990] 2006

Featured image: Decoupaged Fira Mini Chest by vagabondblogger under Creative Commons by-nc-sa license.

This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator.

Cite this blog post
Charles Bonnot (2016, August 2). “You’ve got some nerve asking me a question like that!”. Anthology. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/b7ug

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