[Rex Parker is the self-proclaimed "31st Greatest Crossword Puzzle Solver in the Universe!" In addition to constructing world-famous puzzles he runs a massively successful blog devoted to the art: Rex Parker Does the NY Times Crossword Puzzle. Most everyone (or everyone cool) in that Puzzle Universe knows of Rex Parker and his not-so-mild-mannered alter ego Michael Sharp. Rock Cellar Magazine asked Rex to tell us about the new breed of up-and-coming puzzle creators and how popular music shapes their cluing.]
Indie Puzzle-Makers and the Music That Moves Them. – by Rex Parker
Every crossword puzzle is an assertion about what counts as common knowledge.
But if you’ve ever stared down the barrel of an empty square where, say, a lesser Rossini opera crosses a variant spelling of a Serbian hedgehog, you know that “common knowledge” is a relative concept. “Common to whom?”, you might ask. Or perhaps “Who in the #*@% knows this *&^%!?” is more your style.
At any rate, it is clear that this concept of “common knowledge” is a contentious issue – which, to me, is what makes crosswords exciting to solve. Much more exciting than, say, Sudoku, which is rigorously logical and detached from the messiness of human language and culture, and about which, finally, there is nothing to say.
No one ever asks, “Did you do today’s Sudoku? Yeah? Remember that part where the 9 …?” No.
No, you don’t remember that part, first because there are, ultimately, nine 9s, and second because I’m boring myself just writing this sentence. There is no such thing as a good Sudoku. Or a remarkable Sudoku. Or a memorable Sudoku. There is just Sudoku. Hard, medium, easy – the end.
With crossword puzzles, on the other hand, there is most certainly good and bad (and, occasionally, ugly); there is old-fashioned and new-fangled; devilishly clever and painfully straightforward. We have opinions about and reactions to puzzles precisely because they touch on the question of who we are in ways that pure logic puzzles do not.
There is an implied community, a “We,” created by every set of clues and answers. And we (that is, actual solvers) have a complicated relationship to this “We.” Sometimes we feel like we belong, other times, not. And all of us, expert and novice, know the dizzying, sometimes nauseating, interplay of outside/inside – the exhilarating feeling of recognition and aha, the disheartening feeling of befuddlement and WTF?
Few crossword clues draw the inside/outside line harder than ones about popular culture, and nothing divides a solving audience along generational lines quicker than a *Contemporary Music Clue.*
I see this divide played out on a regular basis – in the comments section of my blog, on the blog’s Facebook page, in private emails, and in honest-to-god snail mail.
Young people: “How am I supposed to know some band leader from the ‘30s?”
Older people: “What’s a GHOSTFACE KILLAH?”
Will Shortz, the esteemed editor of the Times crossword, is a hero to most American crossword solvers. Under his leadership, solvers have seen the puzzle become more playful, more wide-ranging, and more open to the language of the living world (e.g. slang, brand names, and, yes, “popular culture”) than it ever was under previous editors. But Shortz has to anchor his puzzles in the knowledge base of his core audience (median age: AARP-eligible), as well as ensure that answers in his puzzles will have legs – that they will be recognizable to audiences not just now, but well into the future (when they appear in bound collections of reprints).
A crossword editor cannot simply embrace whatever happens to be hot at the moment. Shortz told me he once rejected a puzzle that had, as a marquee answer, what was at the time a very recent #1 single. As he rightly notes, “there are lots of #1 hits that no one remembers a year or two later.” He asked the constructor to resubmit the puzzle six months later, once there’d been enough time to see if the song had “seeped into the national consciousness.” Well, it seeped all right, and for better or worse, you know it: “OOPS, I DID IT AGAIN” (at 15 letters, a perfect grid-spanning length). The puzzle was resubmitted and Shortz ran it.
While Shortz continues to modernize the puzzles against the pressure of a decidedly non-pop-culture-friendly core audience, there are other puzzle-makers out there, less well known but increasingly prolific and social-media-savvy, who are taking puzzles in a fundamentally more youthful and at times aggressively musical direction.
For crossword lovers looking for new and fresh grids to conquer, there’s no better place to start than the most recent collections from three of the country’s most impressive independent puzzlemakers: Ben Tausig’s Crosswords from the Underground, Natan Last’s Word, and Brendan Emmett Quigleys Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll Crosswords.
The importance of music as a category of knowledge in all of these new books can be seen right on their covers. “Crosswords from the Underground” features a smiling woman holding headphones to her ears; the partially-filled grid on the cover of Word contains a bevy of musical answers, including, ASHANTI, LADY SOVEREIGN, SWANS, and KINGS OF LEON and “Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll Crosswords” has music right in the title (as well as a guitar and musical notes on its cover).
I asked Ben Tausig, who edits the Onion A/V Club crossword and whose widely syndicated Ink Well crossword is collected in Crosswords from the Underground, how important music is to him in constructing his puzzles.
“The history of musicality,” he said, “is marked by highly memorable people and ideas that (for me) even the creative realms of film and literature cannot match.”
But Tausig acknowledges that when your puzzle ventures deeply into the musical world, you risk creating an “exclusivity effect” — playing to the cognoscenti while potentially alienating some segment of your less music-savvy solvers. For Tausig, though, the “exclusivity effect” has an upside: “It makes the puzzle feel special and well-suited. I’d rather write a puzzle that really thrills 20 people out of 100 than a puzzle that barely satisfies everyone.”
All constructors are constantly on the hunt for fresh fill — those new words, phrases, and names that they can put into their databases to help them make both smoother and more flashy puzzles. But as Tausig points out, simply being in the news doesn’t necessarily make something crossworthy.
What a constructor is really looking for, Tausig says, is “cultural touchstones”: “To take a contemporary example, even LMFAO, who are totally stupid, are liable to have some retro currency. But I wouldn’t touch, like, a single from the new Paul McCartney album, which might sell well and garner decent reviews but has almost no chance of becoming a cultural touchstone of any sort.”
Natan Last, a former intern for Will Shortz who graduated from Brown just this year, edited and wrote most of the puzzles for his new puzzle collection, Word, which is aimed explicitly at solvers in their teens and twenties. Even though he’s only in his early 20s, he has been constructing crosswords (primarily for the New York Times) for years. The child of a Woodstock attendee and a drummer, Last can’t help but be influenced by all kinds of music, particularly jazz, funk, hip hop, and classic rock. With Word, he takes these influences in a particularly modern direction.
Last points out two features of the contemporary music landscape that make it particularly interesting territory for puzzlemakers. First, there’s the balkanized music scene that the internet hath wrought. “Music these days is raucously fragmentary, like any good family,” he said. “As with so many sects, it’s difficult to know if something in one corner of the mainstream will be recognized by someone in another.”
Then there’s the simple matter of how awesome many modern band names look in the grid. These names can be highly entertaining, and (if you’ve never heard of them) brutally difficult to suss out:
“Whereas I can intuit, I dunno, Bill Haley and the Comets, it’s harder to piece together, logically at least, Gorillaz, The XX, the exact spelling of Ludacris, Timbaland, etc.”
While his puzzles for the Times have to proceed with caution where specialized music knowledge is concerned—he’ll often float a potential answer to Shortz before building an entire puzzle around it – in his own collection, he (and fellow contributors) let their pop – (and cult-) minded muses run free.
Brendan Emmett Quigley, a longtime contributor of puzzles to the New York Times and other major outlets, started his own website several years ago, and has since been using it to steadily release an impressive barrage of daring, even experimental, puzzles – ones that are far more responsive to current events and current cultural trends than any newspaper puzzle could ever be.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Crosswords collects his earliest efforts from that website. When I asked him how important music was to him in constructing his puzzles, he scoffed:
You kidding me? There are four things in my life: music, crosswords, my wife and my daughter. I’ll leave the order as an exercise to the reader.
Quigley is exceedingly prolific, and being his own editor allows him to take all kinds of risks with answers and cluing, and to make use of far more of the strange observations and ideas that crossword constructors have all the time: “Discovering DIRTY PROJECTORS was a 15 was something of a revelation.”
When considering the pros and cons of making wildly contemporary puzzles, Quigley is blasé in a way that only someone who is highly experienced and truly independent can be: “Pros: it hopefully draws in a younger audience. Cons, well, the olds aren’t going to like it. But then again, I’m so sick of seeing clues about silent movie actresses and opera singers from a century ago…
“So … revenge is mine.”
For those unfamiliar with Rex Parker’s work, here’s a short CBS News piece on him:
Please be sure to drop in at Rex’ site: Rex Parker Does the NY Times Crossword Puzzle
and at Michael Sharp’s super-duper retro-cool site POP SENSATION.