Village Voice: In Defense of Ultragrrrl

Lewitinn first got national attention in 2003 via her blog, Sarah’s So Boring Ever Since She Stopped Drinking (now located at 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 copies—successful 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 Romance—a band she briefly managed—and 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 thing—a soothsayer for teenage girls, middle-American music fans, and even hipsters who would like to think they know better.

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 Spitz—she 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 big—they’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 Yeahs—way 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.”