The Da Capo Best Music Writing 2010
Ann Powers, Guest Editor; Daphne Carr, Series Editor
Hardcover; 352 pages
Da Capo Press
This is an editorial disguised as a review written by a music writer about a collection of articles written by other music writers, compiled and edited by...who else? Another music writer. This may be the craziest, most useless daisy-chain of an intellectual (and I say that carefully) exercise ever conceived. This is not analysis or even meta-analysis. It is para-meta-analysis. Self- aggrandizing and indulgent, why would anyone want to read such drivel (outside of the pathetic music geek concerning himself with matters no one, save he, cares about)? I mean, to a reading public, as a whole (and dwindling), of what interest is music writing that is not directed specifically toward a given reader's musical interest? Why read a collection of articles primarily about hip hop when classical music is the reader's big jones?
A blanket answer is that an element of reading is the desire to read the well written. Good writing transcends subject. An excellent place to start is with collections of writing assembled for that purpose. The "Best American Series" (Houghton Mifflin) provides a yearly countdown of the best writing in the areas of short story, poetry, essay, mystery writing, sports writing and so on. The broader the palette of subjects, the more the reader stands to learn. That is the beauty of reading; it possesses no built-in obsolescence. While physically what is read (hard covers, paperbacks, magazines, electronic media) will change, the act of reading will not change any more than the act and result of a heartbeat will. Reading is that constant...and important.
But what of music writing specifically? What is so important about music that reading about it may benefit the reader? First and foremost, music is part of our daily sound track: those audible noises shaking our tympanic membranes and translated in the cochlea before being submitted to the eighth cranial nerve en route to the primary auditory cortex located in the temporal lobe of the brain, where it is finally decoded. Music is sound produced expressly to be heard, considered, cherished and consumed. It is an act of art and as such an expression of the broader culture. Music teaches us about much more than music. It is a central cultural creative stream that both reflects and propels conventional and counter-conventional wisdom. Music is the sound-clip of information, giving and taking context from its surroundings; that is why it is a mirror to culture.
Da Capo press publishes the yearly Best Music Writing, 2010 being the tenth edition of the series. This edition is guest edited by Ann Powers, the chief pop critic for the Los Angeles Times and the series editor again is Daphne Carr. In her editorial introduction, Powers bemoans the state of music journalism during these trying ADHD-140-character times: the slow expiration of peer-reviewed brick and mortar writing outlets in favor unsupervised blogs, tweets, sound bites and ecstatic polysyllabic ejaculations and how this is as exciting as it is scary for the writing community. She showcases this sentiment with the inclusion of Christopher Weingarten's frank talk on written music consideration: "The Death of Rock Criticism," delivered at the 140-Character Conference, New York City, June 16, 2009. Powers finds writing from places as disparate as Rolling Stone magazine and the Barnes & Noble website, giving the pieces equal footing.
Like all writing, music writing should communicate, entertain and inform. Cynically, these three agenda tributaries should lead to one stream: recorded music and concert ticket sales. During the Golden Age of Rock Criticism (the 1960s and 1970s, of course) music writing did sell a pile of record albums. Writing to spark interest in a given recording or genre remains a writing staple, as in Jessica Hopper's spotlight on disgruntled contemporary Christian music in "The Passion of David Bazan" (The Chicago Reader). But the bread and butter remain the overview articles and those socially infused scribblings tangentially related to music. All of these methods are in attendance in The Da Capo Best Music Writing 2010.
Today such writing may be more purveyor of perspective than point-or-service definition. From this point of view, four pieces pop to the surface giving universal treatment to Michael Jackson, Merle Haggard and Brad Paisley...if those are not strange bed fellows, then there is no such thing as "strange." Greg Tate's Village Voice tribute: "Michael Jackson: The Man in Our Mirror" and Jason King's "Michael Jackson: An Appreciation of His Talent" from Pass The Curve capture the immediate importance of Jackson to American music as well as his place the in the cultural freak hall-of-fame already inhabited by Fatty Arbuckel, Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley, and soon-to-be Tom Cruise. Haggard, in Jason Fines's "The Fighter: The Life and Times of Merle Haggard" (Rolling Stone) emerges as the consummate survivor, with Willie Nelsonicons in no need of cultural redemption. Robert Christgau's take on Brad Paisley on the Barnes and Noble website demonstrates amply why he is "the Dean of Rock Journalism."
Similar are two juxtaposed treatments of hip hop at light-speed: Lola Ogunnaike's introduction the the Lil Wayne-generated phenom, Drake (current reigning king of hip hop) in "Drake: Rookie of the Year" published in The Vibe and Philip Mlynar's "50-Cent: One Dethrowned King Out to Reclaim His Crown" from Hip Hop Connection. Ogunnaike's article is a snapshot at the top, where Drake currently finds himself and Mlynar's illustrates just how fleeting fame becomes in the rap world as it was not so long ago that 50 Cent was king, with Kanye West and Lil Wayne kings leading up to Drake. Only Eminem seems resistant to this hyperspace evolution.
In the area of straight reportage, Eugene Holley, Jr.'s "One on One with Maria Schneider" from PMP: The Annual Magazine of the Philadelphia Music Project is a splendidly candid interview with one of the brightest minds in contemporary big band, where Schneider was not afraid to take on "Testosterone" big band theory in the face of her carefully crafted charts. Mark Swed's "Conducting 101" in Los Angeles Times captures conducting enfant terrible Gustavo Dudamel steering the Gothenburg Symphony through "this crazy opera," Verdi's Requiem on his way to his post at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Alex Ross provides The New Yorker with "Marian Anderson: Voice of the Century," shining much deserved light on that voice.
Social commentary disguised as music writing provides for the most compelling writing in the collection. Michelle Tea's "The Gossip Take Paris," published in The Believer follows the fabulously fat and militantly gay Beth Ditto ("another feminist punker from Arkansas," how many are there?) on the streets of Paris. Tea's article is less about music than it is the Euro-cultural icon/anti-icon that Ditto represents in sophisticated Western Europe; her Horatio Alger-ness of Ditto sounding disingenuous.
Hua Hsu's "The End of White America" from The Atlantic is a dirt sandwich of an article that begins with the perfectly true supposition that we stand before post- white America and ends with "race as cultural fiction" clung to for a sense of place. In between is an absurd discussion of "Whiteness" cultural studies emerging in the academy, as if the first three-hundred years of higher education in America was not enough to define "Whiteness." Hsu quotes Temple University sociologist Matt Wray, who contends that his white students believe they are culture-less:
"White students are plagued by a racial-identity crisis: 'They don't care about socioeconomics; they care about culture. And to be white is to be culturally broke. The classic thing white students say when you ask them about who they are is, "I don't have a culture.' They might be privileged, they might be loaded socioeconomically, but they feel bankrupt when it comes to culture...They feel disadvantaged, and they feel marginalized. They don't have a culture that is cool or oppositional."
Grow up white, German-Catholic and in the American South and that statement seems derived more from the idleness of wealth and its contrived trappings and less from experiencing the culture on the ground.
Finally, Raquel Cepeda's "Another TKO: Teens Grapple with Rhianna vs. Chris Brown" in The Village Voice reveals a troubling future as junior high school girls side with Chris Brown in the couple's much publicized bout of domestic battery. The young critics reason that Rhianna was asking for the beating he gave her. That should keep gender-studies specialists busy into the next decade.
And all of this in the name of music.