In Defense of Ultragrrrl
The most controversial figure in New York' s music scene is sitting in a T.G.I. Friday's on West 34 th Street, eating some disgustingly delicious fried food. Sarah Lewitinn, the blogger, published author, DJ, VH1 commentator, and a&r rep known professionally as Ultragrrrl, is five foot one, with chin-length, bobbed brown hair (the previous color, purple, is long gone), and looks not one iota like one of "the most influential people in music," as New York magazine dubbed her last year. She doesn't look like the kind of girl who'd inspire bloggers and Internet denizens to hate her with a passion so great they create message-board threads with titles like "I Want to Shoot Ultragrrrl in the Face." Nor does she seem like one of the "50 Most Loathsome People in New York," as the New York Press once dubbed her.
For now she's just a normal girl digging in to a heart-attack-inducing mealcrispy green-bean fries and a fatty Tuscan portobello melt. She sits with the singer of Permanent Me, one of the signees to her new label, Stolen Transmissionthe Long Island pop-punk band has just played for 2,000 people across the street at the Hammerstein Ballroom, opening for Fall Out Boy. There are two hours to kill before the headliners go on, so we eat our greasy food with relish.
When we head back to the venue, she looks for a kid in need of a ticket. She has an extra, and wants to make someone's night. She eyes a teary blonde teenager who's outside the front door crying hystericallyeither she just got kicked out or the guards won't let her in. Looking like a teenager herself, Lewitinn, slightly disheveled in a black-and-white polka-dot dress, mussed-up hair, and smeared eyeliner, takes up the cause; Lewitinn tries to convince the authoritarian security guards that she's not some desperate girl trying to get a stranger backstage.
"I work for the label," Ultragrrrl says, pointing to her all-access pass.
The security guard's stern expression doesn't change, and the blonde becomes more despondent. Lewitinn continues to argue. "But why? Let her inthis is a legitimate ticket. I work for the label." She thrusts the ticket into the girl's hand.
The guard gets more annoyed with each pleading cry from both ladies, though, and for a second it looks like nobody's getting in. Reluctantly, Lewitinn gives up, and we leave the teen to her own devices as we head inside.
"I used to be that girl, up in the front row, jumping up and down," Lewitinn says a little wistfully. "Now I'm in the back."
But the farther back she gets, the closer she gets to the spotlight herself. Ultragrrrl now has to sell records with the same enthusiasm and magnetism she once used to sell herself.
Lewitinn first got national attention in 2003 via her blog, Sarah's So Boring Ever Since She Stopped Drinking (now located at ultragrrrl.com). Then came Making Out With Ultragrrrl, her minuscule but influential column in Spin that ran from 2003 to 2004. She's won Paper magazine's People's Choice award for Best Party and Best DJ (sharing the latter honor with her DJ partner, Karen Plus One) two years running, and in 2005 wrote The Pocket DJ, a book of playlists for different genres, moods, and occasions. It sold 38,000 copiessuccessful enough that she's signed to do a second book, The Pocket Karaoke. She's working with a screenwriter on a movie script partially based on her life. Her growing profile nabbed her a recent write-up in Vanity Fair (written by her good friend and former Spin mentor Marc Spitz, which spurred a bit of controversy) and more media attention than any other a&r rep in town when she started Stolen Transmission, a subsidiary of the Island/Def Jam label empire. But her main claim to fame is the early discovery of New Jersey goth punkers My Chemical Romancea band she briefly managedand her similarly prescient championing of Las Vegas dance-rock sensations the Killers. She also provided early support for such bands as Muse, Franz Ferdinand, Fall Out Boy, and Stellastarr(whom she also briefly managed). She has shown an unsettling ability to call the next big thinga soothsayer for teenage girls, middle-American music fans, and even hipsters who would like to think they know better.
photo: Chad Griffith
Lewitinn just turned 27, but she seems perennially 21, a happy-go-lucky party girl who just really loves music. She's not much different than when I first met her eight years ago, playing records at a LES bar with Spitzshe got so drunk she had to be carried downstairs to the bathroom, leading to an incident that earned her the nickname "Buckets." She just really loved music then, too, but back then no one paid much attention to her opinions.
At that time, she was the office mascot at Spin, an intern who would tell the unimpressed, uptight indie-rock music nerds working there that a then unknown band was gonna be huge, with the unfettered, unabashed enthusiasm of a cheerleader. While the nerds were griping that she couldn't write, her ear for whether a band's sound would resonate beyond the four walls of her LES apartment impressed superiors far older and more experienced than her. "She had a really uncanny, almost terrifying ability to wander in the office and say, 'I saw this band; I think they're gonna be really bigthey're called the Strokes,' two years before anyone had heard of them," says Michael Hirschorn, a former Spin editor who's now a vice president at VH1.
"She's directly responsible for the bad magazine I used to work for getting interested in covering bands that had Web buzz on them," says Spitz, who wrote a longtime gossip column for the magazine until he was fired last year after a publishing takeover. "SoundScans would materialize Tuesday and Wednesday morning, and those were the bands we'd consider Matchbox, Creed, Sugar Ray. Bands like Interpol, the Killers, My Chems, the Yeah Yeah Yeahsway before they got big, this girl was talking them up. Suddenly, a switch flicked. We were like, 'Sarah, what are you listening to?' She's the most gifted, natural, organic listening machine that probably ever existed. She's just scary good at what she does. I'm sort of in awe of her."
She left Spin in April 2005 to start Stolen Transmission, where she's "Top Banana" (as her e-mail signature proclaims) along with her partner, longtime a&r star Rob Stevenson, who signed the Killers, Fall Out Boy, and the Bravery. At work, she regularly sits beside Jay-Z at label meetings. L.A. Reid, the iconic Island/Def Jam chairman, calls her his "rock star" and once even jokingly bowed down to her in the hallway, chanting, "I am not worthy!"
"They love her because she speaks her mind at Def Jam meetings," Stevenson says. "She has no filter."
But convincing magazine editors to cover buzz bands is different from creating that buzz herself. The question remains: Can lightning strike again? "A lot of people are watching her and watching her label to see what it does, to see if she can continue her streak," Spitz says. "People are counting her out, saying that she lost it or signed bands that aren't making the same dent on the culture as My Chems. I'm sure they'll be listening to at least one of her bands in the next 18 months. Maybe not all of them."
Lewitinn can't afford to fail. Too many criticsmost of them anonymously trolling message boards and blogsare rooting for her downfall. People love to hate Ultragrrrlor at least the persona she's created, a character so grating to some that the New York Press, naming her to their "Loathsome" list, wrote: "Once confined to her ultra-vapid sycophantic hipster blog Ultragrrrl, Sarah Lewitinn has somehow parlayed her love for wimpy bands and kitsch into a career as a record promoter and talking head abouttwo guesseswimpy bands and kitsch."
People hate her 'cause she's raving about bands they already blogged about. They hate her because they think she has no business writing and is a step away from being a groupie. They hate her because they think she's just a lucky girl who was in the right place at the right time, earning a spot at Spin coveted by thousands of aspiring writers. They hate her because she writes about her dog, Monkey, a funny-looking Brussels Griffon that's inspired its own cult of fandom. For those and many other reasons, she is roundly and endlessly dissed on blogs and public discussion groups, where anonymous commenters run wild, writing things they would never say to her in person, from mean-spirited pattercalling her "carb face" or dismissing her as "frumpy" and "dumb"to more misogynist and hateful remarks that no male writer or executive would ever have to endure.
On the popular music-discussion board I Love Music, one anti-Ultragrrrl thread, originally titled "I Want to Shoot Ultragrrrl in the Face," goes on for an astounding 15 pages. Another thread, deriding her appearance on VH1 where she proclaimed Eminem's "Lose Yourself" one of the greatest pop songs ever, was 22 pages longwith detractors bravely making fun of her "chunky troll legs." People who are ostensibly her peersthe ones she is writing for and hoping to reach with her labelrip her up at every chance.
"How did this womanI mean, grrrl become the music scene's Paris Hilton?" wrote one detractor in a comment on the music news/gossip site Idolator. "So much praise and adulation, such little talent."
"Let's see . . . three bands I cannot stand: Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, and the Killers," read a similar post on Gawker. "And you're telling me this girl is responsible for all of them? Is she also responsible for Fergie? I hope I never run into this bitch on the street."
"I fuckin' hate Ultragrrrl," concluded a Brooklyn Vegan commenter. "You stupid hipsters."
But if people dislike her as vehemently in the industry, they don't show it. Attempts to get on-the-record criticism about Ultragrrrl came up mostly empty. Those who wanted to talk trash wanted to do so anonymously, including a few who'd been up for an a&r job she eventually got. One of the only people willing to comment on the record was freelance writer (and occasional Voice contributor) Jason Gross, who said he lobbied to keep her off a panel last year at South by Southwest because he didn't think "she'd have anything constructive to add and would just pat herself on the back the whole time. The one thing she's definitely good at is self-promotion. People in the industry know who she is, but that's because she makes such a spectacle of herself."
The question now becomes, can she make enough of a spectacle to sell Stolen Transmission's roster? So far, with the exception of the Horrorsalready a minor sensation in the U.K., and already part of the Universal family that oversees Island/Def Jamthe buzz on the label's acts has been rather quiet. But Lewitinn and Stevenson can't sign the next Killers or My Chemical Romance. While they could funnel the bands (commonly called upstreaming) to Island/Def Jam, Stolen Transmission is a four-person operation with an indie-sized budget focused on indie-appropriate bands, a scale much smaller than the mainstream success of the Killers. "If a band is being coveted and approached by another label, I can't afford it," Lewitinn says. "Our budget is literally peanuts. The entire budget for [recent signees] Bright Light Fever is probably tour support for some band out there."
The label's seven-band roster, a combination of all four employees' picks, is wide-ranging a little bit of powerpop emo (Permanent Me), a little bit of girly California sunshine pop (Oohlas), a little bit of scary British post-punk (the Horrors). Reviews have been mixed but mostly positive, with a couple key write-ups in Spin and Blender.
With four records released in the past six months, sales are far from scintillating. Lewitinn was reluctant to reveal the numbers, lest they invite more public barbs, but SoundScan shows that the label's best seller thus far is pop-punk group Monty Are I's Wall of People, released last August, with 7,259 copies sold. Bright Light Fever, a band that invites comparisons to Queens of the Stone Age, did the worst, selling fewer than 1,000 copies since October 2006. Stolen Transmission's hopes are pinned on Permanent Me. Their debut record, After the Room Clears, had already sold 3,800 copies since its January release.
That sound you hear is the Internet snickering with schadenfreudean glee. "Whoo-hoo," cracked an Idolator commenter. "Tearing up the Billboards."
"I would be ecstatic with 25,000," Lewitinn says of Permanent Me's potential sales. Clearly, the scales she's using aren't meant for heavyweight fighters. Billboard magazine's indie correspondent Todd Martens agrees: 20,000 records sold "would be a huge success, especially on this record. That's something that wouldn't be expected to happen overnightmore over the course of two years."
Lewitinn and Stevenson say that a grand slam is not their goal, anyway. The word they use is incubator. "That's a model that a lot of the major labels are looking to these days, not just Stolen Transmission," says Martens, pointing to smaller labels such as Fueled by Ramen, which grew future mega-successes Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco. But while she told Vanity Fair that she "hasn't been wrong yet," that's not exactly true. Early Stolen Transmission picks like the Spinto Band and Louis XIV were less than memorable; another Ultragrrrl favorite, Stellastarr*, didn't grip the culture the way her other favorites have. "Some artists take longer to get to a point than others," Lewitinn says. "But we're about developing future iconic bands, not just throwing bands out of the gate and expecting them to change the world."
Unfortunately for her, the world expects her to do exactly that. Anything less is failure. Bring on the dogs.
"I find comfort in the fact that people who actually do know me like me a lot," Lewitinn says, preferring that over worrying, "Oh my God, that person on the Internet hates me." Over dinner at Clinton Street Bakery, it becomes clear that Lewitinn is unfazed by her detractors. She ticks off their charges against her: "That I'm talentless. I'm a whore. That I have bad taste in music. I make rash judgments. Mostly, that I have no talentwhich is fine. I don't need to have talent. I got this far without it." There's also the "groupie" label, perhaps not helped by the title "Making Out With Ultragrrrl" or blog posts like this one: "OK. My lunch with Cappa [Cappadonna of Wu-Tang Clan] went really well. We had pasta, talked about how you don't need drugs or alcohol to have fun, and he said I had a good aura. Then I sat on his lap for a picture."
She's coming off a cold and has a little cough. Her eyeliner is, as always, smeared. Unlike the other 500 girls roaming the Lower East Side, this is not an affectation. Part of her charm is her ability to seem completely uncalculated and tuned-in at the same time. She's just out there having fun, listening to bands, and letting people know about it.
"I'm an easy target," she continues. "I open myself up a lot. I don't take myself very seriously, which I think bothers people a bit. A lot of people are very calculated in the things that they do, and I've never calculated anything. So I didn't plan on being where I am today. It bothers people that I step into lucky situations all the time. I think it's because I'm not sitting there ruing everything. A lot of people rue situations, lost opportunities. Whatever, I don't care."
She used to be hurt by all the nasty comments, by the people who would post anonymously on her own blog, calling her fat and untalented. But she's realized most of it is just envy. "When I read shit like that, it's as if they are talking about Lindsay Lohan and, like, Nicole Richie," she says. "I feel like the person they talk about isn't even me. Maybe that's kind of sociopathic, but I recognize they are so far off they obviously don't know who I am, so I can't even be offended."
For dinner, Lewitinn opts for all side orders: a salad with blue cheese crumbles, mashed potatoes, and sauerkraut. A modern Orthodox Jew, she's also kosher vegetarian. She goes home every Friday for Shabbat dinner with her family in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Her parents are Egyptian Jewish immigrants who fled the country during the Sinai campaign in 1956, signing away their property. Her brother Lawrence, who frequently defends her on blogs and tends her Wikipedia entry, is a real estate investor; her older brother is a TV producer for CNN. Her mother is a real estate agent, while her father is a perennial salesman with a colorful career selling everything from jewelry to real estate to his current productart on eBay.
One of the biggest fallacies about Lewitinn is that she's a trust-fund baby with a rich family, a misconception perhaps stemming from a high-profile 1995 incident in which her father, having discovered some Torah scrolls in a museum on a family trip to Egypt, sued the Egyptian government for the scrolls to the tune of $500,000,000. (He wanted the scrolls moved into Jewish custodythe courts threw out the case, though another organization took up the cause later.) "The judge said, 'You need to give a numerical price for these Torah scrolls,' " Lewitinn recalls. "My dad's like, 'It's priceless; I can't give a figure!' And like, in an Austin Powers moment, my dad said they're worth $500 million." She laughs. "Both of my parents are not afraid of failure, and I'm not afraid of failure, which means that if you can go headfirst into something, you're gonna do really well or do your best, because you're not worried about making a wrong move."
In high school, Lewitinn took a bus after school to her first internship in 1996, a two-year tenure at ABC News' website. It was during that time that she needed an AOL screen name Lawrence suggested Ultragrrrl, a combination of a failed feminine product he was repping called Ultrafemme and a riff on riot grrrls. Unbeknownst to them, the seeds of a perfect marketing persona were planted.
It was also around this time that Lewitinn met Mikey Way, who many years later would become the bass player for My Chemical Romance. She met him by typing in a string of search terms (Blur, Radiohead, NYC) into AOL's search engineshe e-mailed Mikey and they became fast friends, even briefly dating. Another search, this one for "New York City" and "music journalist" turned up Marc Spitz. "She was like any other IM you would get unsolicited from someone random," says Spitz, who was working for Spin's website at the time. "Nine times out of 10, I would have closed the box and not responded, but I thought, 'Ultragrrrl, that's interesting.' "
As an intern at Spin, Lewitinn was an idea machine, if not exactly a gifted writer, which led some to criticize her behind her back. "I always planned on being in the music industry, but I never planned on being a rock critic," she says. "I never was a rock critic. I was a rock fan that had a pen."
Her college education is minimal: She has a two-year degree in advertising and marketing from the Fashion Institute of Technology. She's got a sort of George W. quality to hershe's not particularly eloquent and can come off spacey. But she's smarter than she seems, and despite her insistence that she's totally uncalculating, she's quietly used various internships and assistant-level jobs to construct her own University of Ultragrrrl course load, learning about every aspect of the music industrywriting, publishing, Web design, publicity, marketing, scoutingwhile working at inside.com, sonicnet.com, ivillage.com, and Ultra14, an online marketing company. At one point, she interned for a band manager, garnering a skill set she later flexed (not very well, by her own account) for My Chemical Romance. She'd gotten the gig in 2001 via Mikey Way, her old friend and former boyfriend, two months after the band had formed and before they'd even recorded their first album. A bidding war ensued, but the band didn't sign with a major because they felt they were too green, instead releasing their debut, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, on an indie. Lewitinn realized she was in over her head. "I was trying so hard to get them a new manager because I didn't know what the fuck I was doing," she recalls. "But I got them a bunch of meetings." Eventually, Reprise signed them in 2003the sophomore release that resulted, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, went platinum.
She never saw a dime.
"People always ask me if I ever made any money and if I'm upset that I didn't, and I'm not!" she says. "I was not in it to make money. I was in it to help these bands. I love music, and sappy as it sounds, I helped these bands because I loved them. It's one of those things where you don't see the money immediately, but you feel it later on. I'll always be able to have it on my résumé that I managed My Chems. While I didn't get a $30,000 check, I did get opportunities and doors opened because of my reputation, so I had no problem with that. You can't buy reputation."
When she likes a band, she goes the extra mile, which might be what separates her from rival bloggers all chasing the same thing. "People at the label realized they were getting a three-fer," says Hirschorn. "She's got good instincts, she'll promote the band on her blog, and she'll actively sell the band to a network of people who know who she is."
"She's a huge cheerleader for her acts," concurs Billboard's Martens. "But it doesn't necessarily translate to sales."
"I'm a born promoter, ultimately, because I have a big mouth and I'm obsessed," Lewitinn says. "All I do when I get into a band is talk about them nonstop, and I send e-mails to so many people every day that, like, a band that is unheard-of is suddenly known, but nobody knows why, because all I do is, 'Muse, Muse, Muse.' "
Indeed, when Stevenson first met a teenage Lewitinn at an EMI Christmas party, she was balancing a drink on her head and going on about Muse, an operatic rock band from England. "I thought, 'This girl had some amazing energy,' " he says. His next real encounter would be when she was managing My Chemical Romance. After that, they kept in touch, and when he first heard of the Killers, he asked her to dig up an MP3 and find the band. She did, and urged him to sign them.
"Here's this downtown blogger saying she loves Linkin Parknot saying it's a guilty pleasure, but as a fact, just like her telling me how much she loves the new Interpol record," he recalls. "When she told me that, I knew she'd be a good a&r person, because she wasn't trying to find things that were cool. Some people think they have an ear because they are trying to find things that are around a cool scenenot music."
Several years later, Stevenson and Lewitinn officially teamed uphe benefiting from her hyper-attuned ear, she benefiting from his vast knowledge of how to run a label. They just released the Photo Atlas' record, No, Not Me, Never, and are gearing up for Play Radio Play's The Frequency EP in late April and the Horrors' full-length, Strange House, in early May. The skeptics will be watching.
So far, the success of Ultragrrrl has hinged on her ability to turn herself into the ultimate fan. Now, she has to turn herself into the ultimate music mogul. When the hype and the cacophony of hate fade, it all comes down to her ear.
"You just get that feeling," she says. "It's not a matter of taste, or just looking out for different things. It's like, when I listen to something, I know within the first minute if I'm gonna like it. I know immediately. Rob thinks I have really good instinct. Like I said, I am not very calculated; I just feel it."
As we left the Hammerstein that night, I noticed that the blonde superfan from earlier had managed to get in after all. "I tell people I'm psychic," says Ultragrrrl, as our taxi pulls away. "I know what's gonna happen. They don't believe me." Maybe someday they will.
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