By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006
Does Junichi Semitsu have the greatest summer job in the history of summer jobs? Point, click, discuss.
In the real world, Semitsu is a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law. But in this parallel universe into which he's somehow stumbled, Semitsu is working as the designated blogger for the Dixie Chicks.
Good work if you can get it! "Incredible," Semitsu says.
Armed with a laptop and an all-access tour pass, Semitsu, 32, is spending his summer on the road with Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, documenting All Things Dixie Chick. He is one of the music industry's first embedded bloggers, assigned to be everywhere and write whatever about this lightning rod of a country-music group.
And we do mean whatever: In one of his earliest posts at spaces.msn.com/3dixiechicks, Semitsu -- who is a fan but by no means a sycophant -- wrote about some of the pseudonyms the Chicks have used at hotels, a common if rarely discussed practice in the celebrity strata. On Wednesday, he posted this: "Emily showed up to the concert in London sloppy drunk. She was so inebriated she couldn't speak, much less sing. Natalie and Martie, in a panic, yelled, 'You're drunk again?' "
But in the very next sentence he revealed that it all was just one of Robison's "anxiety dreams."
Semitsu has also joked about the Chicks' undergarments in between blogging about rehearsals, exclusive parties and the Texas trio's reaction to a "60 Minutes" profile that aired on the eve of the release of the new album "Taking the Long Way." His posts are cleared by the Chicks' camp before landing online, but Semitsu insists he has free rein.
"I was told to just go and write anything I feel like writing about," he says. "I don't know of any other artist of their caliber that's essentially invited a nonmusic journalist into their entourage and commissioned them to follow them around and write about it. It's an experiment, and hopefully, I won't single-handedly ruin their careers. No pressure."
Plenty of musicians have their own blogs, from Fall Out Boy to Radiohead, and online tour diaries have become de rigueur. "I can't even name all the bands doing it, there are so many," says Antony Bruno, digital/mobile editor at Billboard magazine. "But I haven't heard of an individual artist bringing a blogger on board to do it for them."
Of course, few best-selling artists have had to work around the sort of major promotional obstacles that have threatened to trip up the Chicks, whose new album has been largely ignored by many of the same country radio stations that initially helped catapult the band to stardom.
Not that the frosty reaction has been a major surprise, given that "Taking the Long Way" has more in common with the breezy California pop-rock of the 1970s than contemporary Nashville. Then there's the tremendous backlash against the Chicks that began in 2003, when Maines told British concertgoers, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." The Chicks' recent defiance and apparent rejection of the country-music industry and fan base hasn't helped.
Anticipating the cold shoulder, the Dixie Chicks and their label, Columbia Records, partnered with MSN on a Web site whose featured attraction is the blog, which is updated regularly though not daily. Semitsu isn't on the Chicks' payroll -- MSN is paying his summer salary and expenses. Nevertheless, Samantha Saturn, vice president of digital media marketing at Columbia's parent, Sony BMG, refers to Semitsu as "our blogger" and says his work is an important cog in the Dixie Chicks' overall promotional strategy.
"Previously, radio drove a tremendous amount of awareness for the Dixie Chicks' records," Saturn says. "But there was some question this time, based on what happened, whether we'd have that amount of airplay. So online was a key area."
"Taking the Long Way" hasn't exactly flopped; the album entered the Billboard Top 200 at No. 1 and has sold nearly 1 million copies in just three weeks. But ticket sales for the band's U.S. tour reportedly have been disappointing, and questions persist about the staying power of the new album.
As sharp as Semitsu's writing may be, and as broad as MSN's reach is, a blog is not a radio station. It's one thing to read about a band, an album, a song. Hearing the music is another experience altogether -- and a passive one at that: Music literally comes to listeners on the radio, whereas finding Semitsu's riffs requires some effort and intent.
MSN would not say how many people have visited the blog.
Semitsu is a newly married onetime poet, sometime musician and blogging hobbyist who grew up in California's Central Valley. He has a few, but not many, country CDs in his collection, including most of the Dixie Chicks' catalogue. Still, he'd never written anything about the band on his politics and pop culture blog, Poplicks.com. He has no journalism training, having majored in economics and minored in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley before going to law school. He was an attorney, briefly. Now, he's teaching first-year law school students about researching and writing.
It was a mystery to him, too, how and why he landed the tour gig. In fact, when he was first contacted by MSN, he thought he was such a long shot for the job that he could barely be bothered to put together his writing samples. (He also thought that maybe he was being "Punk'd" by some of his friends.) "I figured every single blog was contacted, and I just happened to make the top thousand list," he says.
He wasn't MSN's top pick. But when the front-runner didn't pass muster with the Chicks (personality clash, apparently), Semitsu got the gig.
"I truly believe that there is some sort of higher power involved in me getting this job," he says. "And I believe that higher power is the Make-a-Wish Foundation!"
The job comes with a few ground rules. Semitsu stays away when the Chicks are getting dressed -- "and I don't go into their bedrooms," he jokes. There's also the screening process for his posts, though Semitsu says it's in place only to ensure that he doesn't violate anybody's privacy or release confidential information. "They don't screen for editorial content."
When Semitsu first met the Chicks, he says, the musicians told him they didn't want him to come across like their fan-club president or a member of their marketing team. "They said, 'Want you to be honest. Feel free to criticize us and make fun of us.' "
While he's poked gentle fun at the girls in some of his posts, he suggests it's unlikely that he'll be dropping the hammer on the band anytime soon. Something about not wanting to screw up his summer job.
"It would," he says, "be awkward to be in a room and constantly traveling with people when you're writing bad stuff about them."