I Hear Music

Best Music Writing 2010
Ann Powers, Guest Editor; Daphne Carr, Series Editor

The Stone Cottage, in which I sit writing, was not named in a fit of whimsy. It is, quite literally, a small fieldstone and timber structure built around 1909. Architecturally it offers all the accoutrements of that day, which is to say that, as a farm outbuilding constructed for use in a pre-consumer society, storage space was not top of mind.

George Carlin once said we buy bigger houses to hold more stuff. Imagine, if you can, having a normal amount of stuff, with nary a closet in sight, housed in a compact 1300 square feet (basement included). It should not be possible for anything to go missing for years.

Yet this volume did.

I distinctly remember why I set it aside upon finishing. Something about the selections made by our guest editor, Ann Powers, then the chief pop critic of the Los Angeles Times, had struck me funny.

Ms. Powers is married to an academic and herself holds an advanced degree in literary theory. I don’t mind people better educated about music than me undertaking an educational excursion. But I really hate ladling pompous academicism atop one of the more ephemeral, and enjoyable, human creations–pop songs.

It was a situation that needed to be addressed and I was the guy to do it. I had a whole research program scoped out. I’d go through all prior 9 volumes in the series. I’d classify every entry by where it was published and other relevant criteria. I’d do math … and get to the bottom of it all.

Phil Ochs, 1940-1976
Because no one posts pictures of Phil anymore.

Now, I’ll just note that while it’s among the longest volume in the series, this penultimate installment is among the weakest.

On the surface, there’s no apparent reason why that should be. You get breadth: Michael J in the year of his death, Kanye, Phil Ochs. Marian Anderson. You get established names: Christgau, Frere-Jones, Gaistkill. Ross. The sources are, pardon the pun, rock-solid: Rolling Stone. The Village Voice. The New York Times. Billboard. There are even new, well, new to me, voices from all sorts of virtual and real publications I’ve never heard of.

So why the disappointment? Isn’t this the musical motley we’ve come to expect from these annuals?

Maybe we just got off on the wrong foot. Take “The Gossip Takes Paris,” the 27-page opening article which appeared in The Believer, a publication I’d never heard of, which emerged from the McSweeney’s orbit. I stipulate up front that I find identity politics boring, limited in explanatory power and self-defeating. So it just could be that the irony of a feminist punk band in Paris for Fashion Week is lost on me.

It seems, though, that both the band and writer, despite themselves, succumb to at least some of the charms the fashion set has to offer. And though we’re told The Gossip earned their place on stage at the Fendi party by not compromising, it’s pretty clear that stardom like this would be welcome. The Frankfort School guy in me shakes my head ruefully and mutters, “So is it ever.”

I’m just guessing that when they formed Mission of Burma they couldn’t envision a mission to Burma.

How about Randall Roberts’ tale of travelling to Burma with Ozomatli, a newer band I’ve actually heard of and some of whose tunes I like? Here the intrusions are both local and political. The local angle is that the band–a sort of SoCal Latin Chumbawumba–hails from East LA and has it roots in mid-1990s protests, the facts that explain why LA Weekly is on the case.

Though Powers is close to my age, she seems to have adopted the irony-laden views that folks just a few years younger drip. I’ve no better explanation for her and Roberts’ fascination with this 3-nation swing, sponsored by the United States Department of State, through Southeast Asia. Maybe the fact that Laura Bush and Karen Hughes were big proponents of these cultural tours, and Hughes, at least, might be a fan of the band, is supposed to stun.

Or how’s this for pre-Bernie politics? Evie Nagy, writing in Billboard, tells the tale of The  Disco Biscuits, a band that finds itself in the role of festival promoter. Growing up on the jam band circuit, they found the structure of those events didn’t maximize their opportunities to expand their base. (The business-speak is mine, not theirs.)

When it comes to jam bands I’m kind of a purist.

What’s a young band to do? The epiphany, as in so many stories of marketplace success, is the observation that they had a fan base that just might be large enough to come to a festival they threw and headlined. Hey, it was the era of Bush 43 and Bernie still doesn’t have a word for entrepreneur. It’s amusing, in this moment of AOC and suburban progressivism, to look back to a time not so long ago when radical was more multi-dimensional.

It doesn’t sound like I disliked this book, does it? Well, I never said I disliked it, merely that I found it weak by comparison.  None of the items I’ve mentioned is poorly written. Some things, I’m thinking especially of Jason Fine‘s portrait of Merle Haggard, are among the best things ever to appear in the series.

Overall, though, it just felt too … I’m not sure. Expected? Familiar? Homogenous? What I know is what I didn’t experience: that moment when I had to run to the record stores (more recently YouTube and Spotify) because I absolutely had to hear something. It’s cheaper now, but I’m not sure that means we’re ahead in the game.

The last man standing in what had been a row of record stores. All succumbed to the stream.

One of my distinct peculiarities is that I often discover new music is through the written word.  I can’t be alone, why else would this series exist? The joy lies in discovery. I get cranky when I can’t find my joy.

Like the song says, I think I hear West Memphis and Slidell calling. I better get back to looking.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.