In 2014, Esquire published an interview with Penélope Cruz that included exactly five direct quotes (one of which involved her quoting Hamlet) and spent 1,968 of 3,301 words going on about bullfights in Madrid. I say “interview” but it was more like an exercise in creative nonfiction writing, with a lunch featuring Cruz’s “bottomless brown eyes” shoved in the middle. In the piece – written to commemorate Esquire deciding Cruz was that year’s sexiest woman alive – she gives little away. After writer Chris Jones mentions that he and Cruz are eating in a restaurant where Cruz later plans to join mentor and collaborator Pedro Almodóvar, Jones notes that: “She will not talk about the new film she is planning with Almodóvar, however, or even if they are planning one, or what else they might discuss this evening.” He then makes some guesses about what Cruz and Almodóvar might talk about.
It’s a perfect example of pretty standard practice in celebrity interviews at the moment: you get access to the subject of the story for a meal, if you’re lucky, and may not have the time to build a rapport that leads to insight. Sometimes, a publicist will want to sit in on the conversation (which, OK, but did you ever go on chaperoned dates as an adolescent? Similar vibe – it’s not conducive to the best possible story). Hollywood is in a league of its own – never forget that time Robert Downney Jr walked out of a Channel 4 News interview because he was asked about comments he’d previously given and not just fed fluffy questions about the film he wanted to promote. But once musicians reach a level of hype where they pick up management and PR representation, they too become closely monitored. And that’s why Quincy Jones’ two completely unfiltered interviews from earlier this month, with New York Magazine’s Vulture and GQ, were like a gift that none of us deserved.
You’ve seen the headlines by now: he said the Beatles weren’t shit, said he could speak 26 languages, implied Marlon Brando had shagged Richard Pryor, and called out Truman Capote’s alleged anti-black racism among a lot more. The GQ and Vulture interviews made such a huge impact because Jones is a living legend (he’s the first producer I could ever recognise by face and name as a child in the 90s, followed closely by Babyface) and because he spoke so plainly. People in the public eye don’t really do that anymore. And when they do, they certainly don’t name-check other celebrities that bluntly. Reading the interviews felt like peeking into the private stream-of-consciousness thoughts of a post-retirement relative who hasn’t censored themselves since about 1987 and has been collecting the stories to tell for decades before that. But… but then on Thursday, Quincy apologised. Quincy, mate, you what?? In what I like to call the direct smartphone press release, Jones tweeted a screenshot of a note he’d written, addressing the two completely flawless interviews.
“When you’ve been fortunate enough to have lived such a long and crazy life (and you’ve recently stopped drinking – three years ago!), certain details about specific events (which do NOT paint the full picture of my intentions not experiences) come flooding back all at once,” he wrote, “and even at 85, it’s apparent that “word vomit” and bad-mouthing is inexcusable. One of the hardest things about this situation is that this bad-mouthing has contradicted the very real messages I tried to relay about racism, inequality, homophobia, poverty… you name it. And of course I don’t want that.” No, Quincy. Don’t apologise. Don’t you dare even come close to apologising although, yes, technically you’ve apologised already.
I want you to imagine, for just a moment, a future where every interview is just a few carefully rehearsed lines about “how much the project means to me” and how “everyone has been so great to work with” and “I just love it! I really love this!” Profiles would become redundant. One of the enduring strengths of a well-written profile rests on both the journalist and subject opening up to each other. When a writer uses their time with a subject to illuminate elements of that person’s character or their work, you as a reader feel as though you’ve learned something new. And in the case of someone like Quincy Jones, who has been a public figure for so long, sharing stories like these, even in their silly moments, communicate how bright, warm, confident and funny he seems to be (again, I’ve gained that impression just from reading the words he said to those two journalists, having never met him. That’s the beauty of a good interview). Obviously the main people who really care about this sort of thing are those like me, who work in journalism. Maybe now everyone else wants to enjoy the art itself and then look at a few Instagram stories posted directly by the famous people, and be done with it.
I’m not trying to say that every single interviewer is entitled to intimate or salacious details of a celebrity’s life, or that people in public life should feel that they have to spill secrets every time they sit opposite a journalist while a recorder is running. That’s ridiculous, and would be beyond draining. The interview apparatus is a strange one, which can often feel like going on non-romantic dates (or non-romantic 15-minute speed dates, in a press junket setting). Two strangers will meet, one will probe the other with questions and share some information about themselves, and then be given the task of summing up that interaction in a way that is true and honest and informative. It’s undeniably weird. But dammit, what Quincy Jones said doesn’t warrant an apology so much as a disclaimer that he was up for speaking frankly about his own opinions, memories and thoughts. That’s worlds apart – and loads more engaging – than a few quotes over a lunch that's more concerned with what someone looks like rather than what they have to say. Plus, imagine trying to fit all of Quincy's observations into five quotes. No way.
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