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Profile of Career Change: Thomas Conner

Pop Music Critic Thomas Conner has had his fill of the journalism world, and he opened up about it for ChicagoTalks.

Thomas Conner. Screenshot from National Arts Journalism Program.
Thomas Conner. Screenshot from National Arts Journalism Program.

After 20 successful years in the business, what made Conner, now former pop music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, come to the conclusion that he wanted out?

The breaking point, he said, was when he was forced to choose between writing about actual artistic expression and Miley Cyrus’ twerking escapades.

Now, Conner wants to become a university professor, which is why he’s currently pursuing a Ph.D. in communications at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Although he’s taught occasional journalism, English and literature courses for over 12 years, Conner said he is seeking a more permanent position. No surprise there, since he stumbled into his prior profession on a political reporting scholarship hoping to be the next Hunter S. Thompson, but finding, after numerous drunken college nights in rock clubs, that he had a knack for music criticism, he said.

You have artists, and you have critics, and there’s a natural tension between them. Conner dove in headfirst, working freelance and for local newspapers, nailing review after review, before landing the Sun-Times job as Music Editor in 2005.

Talking to a man with such a sarcastic sense of humor and an undying love for Jonathan Segel’s album “Storytelling,” you don’t expect that he’s a huge fan of soul girl Janelle Monáe, but he is. Conner said he admires her outspoken nature – something that he wished existed more in the music journalism field: female voices that can manage to balance the gender gap on paper.

Conner credits his strong work ethic as an essential part of his longevity as a critic, where you work while enjoying the fruits of your labor. But as much fun as Conner may have had, the naked truth is… he got crushingly bored, and as he put it “twitchy.” Constant critiques of generic, repetitious pop hooks, unimaginative shows and the depressive state of contemporary newsrooms took away from Conner’s need to rise above and comment on something universal.

Thomas Conner was one of the lucky ones, he said, paid with benefits. This journey has been incredibly satisfying creatively, including this recent academic turn.

“Going to barber college or bartending school may have been an easier option being that people’s hair will always grow and they’ll always need a drink, plus the tips aren’t that horrible,” he said. Having a back up plan seems to come in handy these freelancing days.

Eight years later, when asked if he had to choose his career path over, would it still be a well respected music critic, he simply replied, “I still dream of gardening in a monastery, but doesn’t everyone?” Conner has yet to disappoint.

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