Best Music Writing 2011

Last month I picked up a copy of the 2011 Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology, partly because I wanted a smorg of top-notch contemporary writing about music to read, partly because I thought I might want to use it as a text in my Writing About Music class this spring. I was particularly enthused because this year’s guest editor is Alex Ross, whose The Rest Is Noise I have praised elsewhere on this site (as if it needed more praise). The blurb on the cover, from the New York Journal of Books, also tempted me. “These essays make the reader want to explore the music of these artists if they have not been fans before,” the Journal claims. “That is what good music writing should do—it should pull the reader into the music.”

The same might be said about the relationship between a good blurb and the book it advertises. This one makes two separate claims. Both of them are valid. I’m just not sure they should be equated.

The first claim—music writing as a path to exploring artists outside a reader’s listening habits—is certainly borne out by Best Music Writing 2011. In his introduction, Ross argues persuasively for the atomization of musical culture in the digital age, a point which he shrinkwraps, “All music is subcultural; no music is everywhere beloved.” Hence the ethos of the anthology: diversity. I’m still rooting around on YouTube for stuff by Georg Friedrich Haas, Moshen Namjoo, and Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, to name but a few. Then there are those gaping holes in my knowledge of music history which an anthology like this one begins to fill. I never knew (forgive me) that Joan Jett and Lita Ford had played together, or that a band called The Runaways had existed. Of course, one point of Evelyn McDonnell’s torch song to Runaways drummer Sandy West is that the band has been overlooked by rock history—age and gender having everything to do with it.

But McDonnell can only furnish me a partial excuse. In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois writes (apropos of Booker T. Washington): “It is as though Nature must needs make men narrow in order to give them force.” As a listener, I fit this description (or gloved criticism) pretty well; my habits tend to be narrow, so when I find something that grabs me, I dig. I mean, I bought every Eric Dolphy album I could get my hands on before I owned a single record by Charlie Parker. I’d rather listen to an album that intrigues me for the dozenth time than spend an hour on the internet sifting the virtual silt in the hope of finding a nugget of gold. Which is why the annual Best Music Writing, an occasional Sunday Times, and radio resources like WKCR and WSOU are invaluable: they act as sluice gates, keeping me in a happy place between desiccation and drowning. I understand that many music-writing professionals and DJs, who are expected to keep abreast or even ahead of the trends, don’t have the luxury of such restraint. I also know that recursive listening means that I miss nine-tenths of the music out there. But the only other option seems to be the Facebook equivalent of listening.*

The second, normative part of the blurb (“what good music writing should do”) is connected to the first by an unspecified “that,” which is then defined as “pull[ing] the reader into the music.” But is “pulling the reader into the music” the same as what I just described: the nudge you get from the radio, newspaper, or a friend (Facebook or otherwise) to give something new a spin? YouTube does as much when it pulls up a string of videos related to the one I searched. So does Amazon: “Customers who bought this item also bought …”

What about music writing that, rather than just pulling me into the orbit of a genre or artist, enables me to hear music, even music I thought I knew well, in a new way, in different contexts, according to different parameters? And if we expand the definition of “good music writing” to include the above, how well do the selections in Best Music Writing 2011 showcase the sort of writing that tweaks or wet-willies or even boxes my ears?

With about a third of the anthology devoted to pop music, BMW 2011 shouldn’t feel pop-heavy. And yet, it does. This may be my fault; pop rarely worms its way into my ear, let alone up to that dozenth listening, and I confess I have little patience for the nuances of celebrity-making and market synergies. Before I’m accused of a naivete I would elsewhere happily embrace: yes, I am aware that it is impossible to write about music today—popular or fringe—without addressing the music industry. I also understand that examinations of celebrity are a necessary part of the analysis of contemporary culture. But there’s a difference between addressing industry/celebrity self-fashioning, and making this the heart and soul of the writing … or the anthology. It’s not as though there was nothing else to talk about with pop; Jessica Hopper’s pitch-perfect review of M.I.A.’s  /\ /\ /\ Y /\ (yes, that’s the title of the album) proves that in spades. Even Chris Norris’s well-salted take on the commerce of the Black Eyed Peas (“ and the Science of Global Pop Domination”—it might have been called “All Logo”) has a couple of depressing-yet-fascinating Pea insights to share about the music. (My favorite: “The whole song should be a chorus.”) Maybe it all goes back to Andy Warhol. I never got Warhol, or just never cared to; Warhol is Lady Gaga’s avatar, according to “Growing Up Gaga”; and Lady Gaga seems to be the quintessence of celebrity packaging. That’s the closest I’ll get to a syllogism today.

Focus on celebrity has an unfortunate corollary, which is a preponderance of biography. This sort of surprises me, since The Rest Is Noise does such an admirable job balancing biography, history, and theory, never losing sight of the music along the way. I don’t mind a good profile; in fact, one of the pieces included in this year’s anthology is “Giant Steps,” David Hajdu’s wonderful profile of Fred Hersch, originally published in the New York Times. But as with Ross’s writing, Hajdu uses biography to forward our understanding Hersch’s music. How do stereotypes about gays affect the way we listen to the lush, lyrical music of an out gay pianist? In what ways have Hersch’s battle with AIDS affected his personality as a composer and an improviser? But in this anthology, such connections are few and far between; for all the pontificating about one or another star’s sexual orientation, the discussion rarely moves beyond packaging.** Even a masterly article like “The Thriller Diaries,” which makes some really brilliant points about Michael Jackson, is so larded with Jacksonalia that much of it reads like a savvy, well-written gossip column. Maybe that’s what Vanity Fair readers want: gourmet cotton candy. But when Nancy Griffin can pen something like “[Jackson] radiate[d] an epicene glamour that was at once innocent and intensely erotic,” it makes me pine for the article that wasn’t.

The above points to a second issue with the anthology: some of the pieces feel too slight to merit inclusion. In his introduction, Ross puts in a word for the more expansive articles: “The long read remains, in my experience, the most potent means of musical persuasion.” His point is certainly substantiated by many of the essays here: Hajdu’s profile of Hersch, James Wood’s dissection of Keith Moon, Franklin Bruno on the Bryant duo, Lauren Wilcox Puchowski on wedding music, Kelefa Sanneh on the canonization of hip hop lyrics, Geoffrey O’Brien’s review of a new Duke Ellington bio. True, not all the “long reads” are equally persuasive, and a few of the shorter pieces, such as Jace Clayton’s “Curiosity Slowdown” and the aforementioned M.I.A. album review (“Making Pop For Capitalist Pigs”), pack a real punch. The problem is that it’s not easy to make a review last much past the sell-by date. Even a concert review by a seasoned practitioner like Wendy Lesser (“Darkness Invisible”) can’t hold up beside many of the longer, more nuanced pieces that precede it. Her conclusion—“total darkness began to seem like the ideal environment for listening to just about everything”—seems like a no-brainer. And that’s just the point: months after the generating event, without anything larger to hitch their wagons to, reviews can come across sounding pretty stale. “Searching for the Heart of Country” is another good example: it begins with a marvelously detailed rundown of where the heart of country might be (“Is it … in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Lower Broad in Nashville where the pickers will eternally play for the tip jar?”), but quickly devolves into a discussion of Taylor Swift’s record sales before arriving at another ho-hum conclusion: “the listeners” decide where the heart and soul of country is. Funny, the discussion of album sales started with the unrebutted assertion “But it’s also in marketing departments’ hands.” The diversification of country’s audience is indeed an important phenomenon; I only wish there had been a “long read” to provide a more persuasive analysis.

Maybe most varying in quality are (I dread to say it, but) the blogs. Like some of the shorter news-y pieces, much of the blog writing here feels too off-the-cuff, at least rubbing shoulders with the print articles. Jonathan Bogart writes with a lot of gusto about Ke$ha; but after the zillionth parenthetical interruption, some paragraph-length, I came to wish Ross or series editor Daphne Carr had invited him to edit, or had taken it upon themselves to do so. The single metal entry, also taken from a blog, has some great riffs (“One quick taste of the brick wall was enough for me. I retreated to safer ground, but there’s not much in the way of secure real estate at The Acheron”), but is less a stand-out than a paint-by-numbers example of how to write a metal show review (“‘Extinction’ started things off full throttle, instantly giving my neck a workout”; “Mutant Supremacy kill”; etc.). And Amy Klein’s tour diary “Rock and Roll Is Dead” is heartfelt and beautifully written … but adds nothing, so far as I can tell, to the discussion of the way rock music and rock journalism objectify women. I know this is her point: “It’s become such an old story that people frequently forget how vital it still is.” But where is the spiritual daughter of Joan Didion to wonder aloud about whether rock and roll wasn’t strangled in its cradle … or stillborn?

Of the blogs, pianist Jeremy Denk’s snarky, lyrical demolition of the program notes genre stands out. Here he is on Stravinsky’s Piano Concerto: “The main thematic material is good crusty Baroque fare: full of jagged, pointed intervals, evoking an academic abstruse fugue, food for angular counterpoint … to allow this to become roaring ‘20s jazz is a punning leap from the cloister to the cabaret.” He follows with the comment, “Perhaps you feel my description goes too far”—and then immediately contrasts his language—itself crusty, baroque, and punning—with generic program fare.

Now, I’m not asking for 300 pages of this. A paragraph of such language is exhausting. But I did want more like it: more precise attention to the music; more treating words like taffy. Nor am I saying no business, no celebrity, no biography. All these have their place, and can be done well—there are numerous examples here. But I shouldn’t get to James Wood’s “The Fun Stuff,” the fourth to last selection out of 32, wondering why a slightly less hyperactive version of Denk’s counter-manifesto was the exception rather than the rule.

It’s not like Wood eschews biography. We get the full Moon here: his practical jokes, his addictions, his whole restless personality. In fact, we get more than a little about Wood himself. But these elements are here to help us understand Moon the drummer. We hear Moon next to Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, consider his life next to Glenn Gould’s. The words of Bataille and Gogol and Wallace Stevens shed light on aspects of Moon’s playing. We hear about how Wood’s own conservative musical background intersects (or fails to) with his appreciation for Moon. We get analyses of rock drumming and of The Who in performance. And we get all this bundled up in Wood’s precise, beautiful, always illuminating language: “[Moon’s] joyous, semaphoring lunacy suggested a man possessed by the antic spirit of drumming”; “[Moon’s drumming] is a revolt against consistency”; “He needed not to run out of drums as he ran around them.” By the time Wood compares Moon’s drumming to “an ideal sentence, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to do”—the familiar trope of the writer admiring the ineffable that music “effs,” albeit tweaked—it is difficult not to be mad with jealousy over Wood’s own sentences.

This isn’t a matter of wanting to read about rock more and, say, pop less. There’s no reason someone couldn’t write a similarly music-driven article about Macy Gray, or Calle 13. Anyway, I’m hardly biased toward The Who. They were always my sister’s band, not mine; she, not I, went to see the first of several “final” tours in 1982; I admired them from a distance, rather like you admire your older sibling’s coolest friends. But that doesn’t matter: Wood’s piece pulled me into the music. It didn’t just make me want to pull up some Keith Moon videos. It changed the way I listen to Moon, and the way I will hear him from now on.

So … I came to this anthology looking for a book to read and maybe teach, and wound up facing some of my own preconceptions and expectations about music writing, becoming conscious of them in a way I had not been before. This is no small gift, and makes me look forward to Best Music Writing 2012.


* In fact, I just had an interesting conversation with a record store clerk in New Paltz, who was busy going through a box of 3” discs someone had dropped on the store’s front step. “I like the Foo Fighters and Bob Marley,” he said, “but do I ever really need to listen to them again?” He frowned and shook his head. I admire his energy, and his curiosity. I realize I spend my listening career parasitizing the labor of people like him. But I couldn’t do it myself. Besides, the argument seems to be that repeated listening is an act of nostalgia, rather than discovery. You can burn out on anything. But every time I hear “Redemption Song,” it’s another first time.

** Ironically, I’m in the midst of writing a profile of one my own favorite out gay musicians … so as I write these words I can already feel them swimming up to bite me on the ass!

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