There is a feeling of neurotic helplessness I sometimes suffer from; when I realize I live in a world where I have the freedom to make infinite choices over what music I listen to, what gigs I attend and what literature I choose to delve into. There is such an overload of witty, critical music journalism that I find myself frozen in indecision – is it best to skim over everything via twitter, trawl through my RSS feed, or simply spin around in circles at the local bookstore and randomly pluck a glossy magazine from the shelves; at the expense of all the zines, blogposts, podcasts and other potential gems floating around the internet?
Here’s a book that will make the decision making a little easier – now in it’s eleventh year, Best Music Writing 2010 presents a knowledgable yet accessible array of thinking that represents a diverse range of recording artists from Michael Jackson to burlesque’s elusive Eva Tanguay. Likewise, the writers included within range from musicians, scholars, and roadies to self-confessed superfans. Filled with rich prose, music scholars and geeks alike wax lyrical and share personal stories of how music has shaped their lives; as The Stranger’s Sean Nelson details in his contribution, “Let’s (Not) Get It On”: “Still, for those who are attuned to it, pop music is more than just the background noise of our development. In an indirect but essential way, it teaches us how to live, by offering codes that we’re free to decipher as we choose.”
Far from being the ramblings of an idiot savant, buried in liner notes and arguing long redundant Blur vs. Oasis-style fanwars, those published here use music as a means to examine a broader view of our society – music is the yardstick by which we can measure standings in current events, language, technology and self-expression. Anyone who dismisses pop music and culture as frivolous should read on – BMW2010 addresses such pivotal music issues as royalties, music as an avenue for feminism, marketing personas and more. It examines how our use of technology has shaped the way that we communicate, and how musicians are changing their view of success to adapt to a post-napster music market.
Guest Editor Ann Powers opens the book with a powerful introduction that (forgive the pun) strikes a chord in the reader and emphasizes the fact that although the world of criticism and analysis is often thought of as exclusive, music is still an inclusive, uniting force: “Music itself is a call that demands response. It organizes desire, sorrow, and joy into a form both primal – the ear is the first sense organ to begin working when we are in the womb – and intensely communal; in every known culture, some form of music has been a constant in everyday life. Making music or listening to it is a part of how we grow; sharing music is what helps us create community. You don’t have to be a musician, or even a major music geek, to exist within that realm”.
I don’t usually agree with most “Best of” lists, and I would not expect to be enamoured with every piece in this book, either – but the call for submissions included “essays, profiles, news articles, interviews, creative non-fiction, book reviews, long-format reviews, charticles and other creative blends of language and image, blog posts, tweets, and other thoughtful and well-written work on music and music culture” – resulting in a diverse and at times truly amazing array of responses to music. I normally wouldn’t blink twice at an article about The Gossip either, but Michelle Tea‘s writing is so accessible that by the end of the chapter, I find myself looking up Music for Men on YouTube. How could you not giggle at Beth Ditto’s shenannigans during Paris Fashion Week: “After breakfast, the wearing of socks throughout the Westin continues. “We’re adults!” Beth hoots, waggling her feet. “We’re punk!” She references her friend the Portland zinester Nicole J. Georges, who holds punk as a trapdoor that lets you escape any breach of good conduct or manners. “We’re punk!” Beth explains to strangers as we board the elevator and return to our rooms for a nap before the Nina Ricci show that night.”
One of my favourite pieces is Tim Quirk’s My Hilarious Warner Bros. Royalty Statement, in which our hero battles against The Man in an attempt to find out simply how his defunct band is generating revenue for the company. I cannot help but think of Vonnegut’s dark humour when reading Quirk’s lament: “People in the record industry are very good at making bands believe they deserve the hundreds of thousands (or sometimes millions) of dollars labels advance the musicians when they’re first signed, and even better at convincing those same musicians it’s the bands’ fault when those advances aren’t recouped (the last thing $10,000-Is-Nothing-Man yelled at me before he hung up was, “Too Much Joy never earned us shit!” as though that fact somehow negated their obligation to account honestly). I don’t want to live in $10,000-Is-Nothing-Man’s world. But I do. We all do. We have no choice”.
My other favourite would have to be Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, penned by TIG’s very own Chris Estey. Again, I’m no fan of the artist, but the sentiment-driven prose is beautiful to read. This unique track-by-track analysis of the record also doubles as a gritty, moving autobiography of the writer himself, who makes the wry free-writing within crystalize into something quite moving: “He touches a live battery on his little brother’s tongue while they listen to the descending third side of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Everyone who lives in a trailer court loves to hear songs about paradise going rotten for the lucky few. They plan a suicide pact in the woods behind the trailer court to John Denver songs about reincarnation in the mountains in a sad voice he had borrowed.”
This book resonates with me, and I know I will be returning to it throughout the new year. BMW2010 is the perfect gift for your very own Rob Gordon – but why make do with the book alone when you could join a few of the writers for a night of unabashed dialogue, discussion, and readings from the book? Perfect for shaking that post-Christmas lull, we at Three Imaginary Girls are super excited to have Seattle writers Chris Estey and Sean Nelson included in the lineup for this year’s reading – hope to see you there!
Best Music Writing 2010 – Seattle reading with Ann Powers, Chris Estey and Sean Nelson:
Tuesday December 28, 7:00pm – 8:30pm
Elliott Bay Bookstore
1521 Tenth Avenue