Since entering the world of journalism as an intern at High Times at the age of 19, Zena Tsarfin has made a name for herself as both a writer and an editor. She has worked for such notable online publications as Cracked, XXL, Revolver and even had a stint as an Assistant Editor at Marvel Comics. She has contributed innumerable articles to heavy metal and other music publications over the course of her career, and has always been a vocal and engaging fan of heavy music. Zena maintains an active online presence through her culture blog, Zena Metal Wants to Conquer the World, and her Twitter feed. Zena’s ferocity, passion and eloquence have always impressed me, and I am thrilled that she has agreed to be a part of Girls Don’t Like Metal.
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You have been a life-long metalhead — by your account, you started listening to metal when you were 11 years old. How do you think that this music and culture have defined your personality, as well as your career?
Metal was my first obsession — the thing I was most passionate about — even as I discovered different types of music. Metal is the ultimate shorthand — you’re able to start conversations with anyone from around the world and any walk of life based on the band T-shirt they’re wearing. Outside of metal, that’s extremely rare; it made me feel like I was part of an elite, underground culture.
In junior high school social studies class, we were asked to do a report on “big business” or some kind of industry. I chose magazine publishing, cold-called the Hit Parader offices and interviewed someone who turned out to be extremely helpful and friendly. I got an A on the report and soon laid out my master plan: I was going to move to Manhattan, become a magazine editor and get into Slayer shows for free. I did all that by the time I was 25. Eventually, I moved on to work at titles like XXL, where being a metalhead was a frequently referenced novelty, but lent a “tough chick” connotation to my reputation as an effective manager.
Over the course of your long history with heavy metal, how have you seen it change and evolve, especially in regards to the way women are treated and accepted?
When I was younger, female fans were definitely an anomaly. These days, girls are schooling guys and showing up in droves to all the good underground metal shows. Knowledgeable, beautiful women are dominating all aspects of the scene, from their presence in bands to booking shows and running mini-media empires. There’s really no choice but to accept them.
In addition to doing an internship, you had two stints as the Managing Editor at High Times. What was it about that publication that kept drawing you back?
There’s a unique vibe to that place that has always made it feel like an eclectic, amazing, sometimes dysfunctional family. I was 19 when I first started there, so I literally grew up around the staff, and also know their audience well. Plus, High Times has proven to be one the few recession-proof publications out there, especially with medical legalization slowly taking hold in the U.S.
I still contribute to the magazine and hightimes.com as often as I can. And if I smell good herb at a show, I always tweet about it from their account.
You have adapted extraordinarily well to the changing climate of music journalism, having diverse interests and writing for a variety of publications, while also splitting your time between online content and writing for print. Can you talk a bit about your professional writing strategy?
I’ve always joked that my career is based on things boys like: Marvel Comics, High Times, Revolver, Decibel, Guitar World, XXL, Cracked.com, Superdeluxe.com. If boys like it, I’ve worked on it. But, honestly, it’s not a strategy as much as it is learning to adjust your skill set to a different form of media. I went to journalism school, so I cut my teeth on the old-time values of reporting, fact-checking and ethics. That background was imperative and translates no matter what faction of media one is involved with. My various interests, like metal and hip hop, comics and toy culture, provide the subject matter and from there I consider which audience would most appreciate reading about it.
These days, because of my day job demands, I tend to really pick and choose what I’ll take time to write about, both for print and various sites. Writing about Eyehategod for High Times recently meant a lot; they’re a revered band that I adore and they really deserve to be in the spotlight.
You have strong ties to Revolver magazine, both as a writer and founding editor, and it’s a publication that has come under fire for the way female musicians are depicted between its covers. What are your thoughts on features like “The Hottest Chicks In Hard Rock?”
Personally, I think it’s an antiquated concept. It’s as silly to grant coverage to an undeserving act because they have a woman in the band as it is to reduce serious musicians to airbrushed lingerie models. A few years ago, it inspired the ladies at Reign in Blonde to take the piss out of it with a bracket competition where they ranked the cutest metal boys. I’d love to see more creative satire like that.
From an editorial standpoint, I understand how it’s a compelling theme for Revolver. For one thing, it keeps them buzz-worthy on blogs and Twitter for weeks surrounding “The Hottest Chicks in Hard Rock” issue’s release. They count on the metal community’s outrage to keep them current — any press is good press. But it’s difficult to read personal attacks on their Editor-in-Chief, especially coming from people I respect. There’s an institution behind the brand’s decisions, so scapegoating the Editor-in-Chief is misguided.
As a prolific journalist, it can often be difficult to balance the needs of the publications you have relationships with and the bands you work with. How do you manage this?
No matter what, I try to remain honest about my opinion of the music. I remember being a kid with limited means scouring magazines looking for the next big thing and really putting stock in what I read. Now it’s my responsibility to report the story and not worry about making a band seem a certain way for the sake of their, or the publication’s, fan base. If you can’t, it’s a conflict of interest and you shouldn’t be doing the story in the first place.
Do you consider music journalism a creative practice?
It’s a craft and crafting is most definitely a creative practice. It’s a challenge to present a linear narrative, introduce history and facts, carry a story and, ultimately, make someone care long enough to read more than 200 words into any article. That takes practice, study and skill.
What is it about heavy metal music that so draws and captivates you? Why do you think that metalheads become such notoriously rabid fans of the music that they love?
The loudness and audaciousness of it all are what pull me in. Once it gets under your skin, metal becomes all-consuming and you’re in it for life.
If you had the opportunity to mentor a young writer who was hoping to build a career in music journalism and content creation, what sage advice would you impart to them? What pitfalls would you help them avoid?
Learn the craft of writing first. You need to learn the rules before you can break them. It probably wouldn’t hurt to know coding either. Be open to criticism, always remain professional and don’t feel entitled, especially when you’re just starting out.
What aspect of your career are you most proud of?
Surviving and thriving in this field despite the unstable climate. That and Bruce Dickinson knows who I am.
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Zena Tsarfin is the Online Content Director at Clear Channel NY, and a veteran of the publishing and music worlds. An experienced editor, writer and social media strategist, her work has been published in Terrorizer, High Times, Revolver, Guitar World, XXL, Playgirl and Alternative Press, among others. In her free time, she enjoys going to shows, making mainstream celebs do “the Claw,” obsessing over cat memes, Jameson whiskey and guys named Thorns.
Follow her on Twitter: @zenametal. And on-line: zenametal.com.