Listen to the Music

Best Music Writing 2011
Alex Ross, Guest Editor; Daphne Carr, Series Editor

This is going to be one of those semesters.

We’re only a couple of weeks in and  I’m already so far behind I’m in danger of seeing myself out on my way in.

Luckily, though I hadn’t planned it this way, it turns out that I am prepared for just such a contingency. That Claude S. Fischer book from last month is not the only read-but-not-yet-written-about volume in these parts.

Which brings us to the book at hand, the final edition of that rarest of things, a series that comes to an end. The economics of publishing almost dictate stumbling along for as long as possible. Heck, in the direct sales end of the business they write new volumes as long as they can keep selling them, even when the subject, by definition , is finite, like World War II.

Well, if there’s going to be an end it makes sense to go out with a big bang. As music writers go, there aren’t many better choices than Alex Ross, the long-time music critic at The New Yorker.

Ross, who covers the orchestral and operatic end of the spectrum, is that rarest of specimens–a learned listener who can write about sometimes difficult subjects in clear prose. Some writers on what used to be called long-hair music build walls to keep you out; Ross draws readers in.

One nation under a groove. Not a bad idea.

It speaks to my own prejudices, born of experience but prejudices nonetheless, that I think the classical crowd likes the rarefied ghetto they’ve created for themselves. The price of admission is steep, after all, so the value lies in keeping the hoi polloi at bay.

Isn’t music music, though? If you love it, obsess about it even, doesn’t something just grab your ear, your heart, your mind regardless of genre? I’ve always thought so and based on the work collected in this volume I’d say Ross agrees with me.

Just how much ground does our Guest Editor cover? There’s Beethoven, not unexpectedly, portrayed by Justin Davidson not as the king of the classical hill but rather as agent provocateur. There’s Duke Ellington. And Lady Gaga. Parliament Funkadelic and an opera round-up. Wagner’s Ring and a history of the vocoder.

And that’s just most–but not all–of the first hundred pages.

The breadth alone is worth the price of admission but Ross has as fine an ear for the written voice as the sung one.  The writers here contain names well-known to me–at least one of whom managed to still offer up a surprise–and brand new. There’s not a stinker in the bunch.

The couple you’ve never heard of responsible for many songs you know.

I read–and now that verb has to be understood in the past tense–these annuals because, paradoxically, the Internet has made it harder for me to discover new music. I need to have my ears or curiosity piqued. The algorithm-based filtering of today’s streaming services, technology’s answer to the discovery process, fails miserably.

Here’s an example of how reading about music spurs me on. In “The Honeymooners,” Franklin Bruno, writing in the Oxford American, profiles Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. The Bryants are of interest because they were the first full-time songwriting duo in Nashville, a town that bills itself as Music City. And if you’re wondering who they are, they’re the couple who penned ‘Wake Up Little Susie.’

I’ve spent time in  Nashville and in Austin and these dueling heartland musical capitals couldn’t be more different.  Austin, at least in its music scene, takes its cues from the coasts and the wider world. They like their tortured artists wringing art out of personal turmoil.

Nashville, by comparison, is the place where the business of music–sometimes, I think, considered a tawdry thing even here in New York where the big labels used to live–is, well, business. Spend an evening on Music Row or at any of the jam sessions around town and you’ll not only hear great playing, you’ll meet musicians, performers and writers scrambling for their next paying gig or to sell their latest song.

There’s still money in music.

That’s not how it’s done, is it? An untutored genius from the wilds of Minnesota shows up in town bearing idiosyncratic songs sung in a scratchy voice. Eventually you team him with a Chicago-born monster guitar player who’s also stumbled over the threshold and a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who loves the blues and plays the organ and history is made.

Except it’s nonsense, a fairy tale that supports the great Romantic narrative. None of those people or the producer who brought them together was uninterested in commercial success.

At the same time they were ‘making magic’ a man who went on to treat songwriting as a 9-to-5 job you commuted to, with Wednesday afternoons off for golf, was penning and recording an equally impactful number. Today, both ‘Like a Rolling Stone‘ and ‘Wild Thing’ are firmly in the canon and, if you ask me, equally profound.

So why shouldn’t we celebrate folks who made their living writing songs? There are less honest things to do. Are we really going to slam Harold Arlen or Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland or Paul Simon, even, for going to work every day? I don’t especially like Lou Reed but I respect the chops that got him into the Brill Building.

Through these doors have passed the writers of some of the world’s most memorable songs. They were going to work.

I admit, this got away from me a bit but that’s the point. The thing I’ve been missing since this series met its demise is things new things to think about. I may never become a fan of Ke$ha or Drake or Cardi B, but I’m open to hearing why  I should be.

It’s unusual, I grant you, to find your way to music via the printed word. Most folks just turn on the radio and I do that, too. But it’s too narrow and even the broadest playlist gets old. I’ve always found new music by reading. And no matter how hard that becomes, I suppose I still will.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a few good ideas that will stand the test of time, look for a used copy of this book, the last of its kind.

It’ll be worth it.






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