Introduction to ‘Best Music Writing 2009’

In many ways, the piece here that bothers me the most is Jody Rosen’s “Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison;’ a straight New York Times report on a small technological breakthrough. Researchers had managed to translate the audio waves of a performance of “Claire de Lune,” recorded visually on paper in Paris in 1860, into sound that could be played back.

One commentator wrote that the discovery opened the possibility that, someday, we might be able to hear for ourselves the greatest of all lost voices: Lincoln’s. That was my first thought, too. There’s a way in which “the mystic chords of memory”—which is what we are forced to rely on when imagining if the delivery of, say, the lines “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword;’ from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, matches the words themselves, undercuts them, or leaves them even more on fire than, on the page, they already are—can never be as powerful as mere chords of memory and no more, no need for mysticism: I was there.

Lincoln is just a touchstone. Anyone else might think of Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass—or a version of the number one hit minstrel-show play, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (for the time being we have to rely on the Firesign Theatre recreation from their 1974 Everything You Know Is Wrong), or real slavery-time secret ring shouts in the woods, not merely the handed-down accounts transcribed in the 1930s by WPA writers or recorded by Alan Lo­max in the 1940s. In other words, if Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville could invent the phonautograph in France in the 1850s, who knows what Americans, or Russians, or Japanese came up with at the same time, or even earlier? It’s 2009, one­-hundred-and-twenty-one years since the Edison Company achieved playback on a wax cylinder, and we have no idea what remains to be heard: what we don’t know.

That sense of contingency and uncertainty hangs over many of the pieces in this book, from Carrie Brownstein’s “Mystery Drain” (“the unknown elevates the art… Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, Badfinger, Sam Cooke, Brian Jones, Syd Barrett, Jandek, Bjork and Prince are just a few of the names that come to mind for me”) to John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Unknown Bards” to Jace Clayton’s “Confessions of a DJ” (“I’ve died in more than two dozen countries”) to Edwyn Collins’s “This Much I Know” (“They did this routine where they mimed ripping up a piece of paper. Afterwards our manager was crying. He said, ‘The big moments are never as good as you think they’re going to be”). But while a sense of time, eternity, and the vast catacombs of what-might-be-but-is-not-yet hangs over this book (David Remnick’s “Bird-Watcher,” William Hogeland’s “American Dream­ers“), that same sense brings on a certain impatience. Get it over with! Tell me what you think! Time? As Charlie Haas once wrote of why punk songs were so short, people can’t stick around for stuff that takes ten minutes to read. People have to be somewhere in ten minutes.

So there’s Carrie Brownstein again with “Your Trusted Source for Music Reviews” (“Bear in Heaven—Red Bloom of the Boom,” with a rating of “Double Tall Sugar Free Vanilla Latte”) and a selection from Paul Ford’s heroic, or demonic, “Six-Word Reviews of 763 SXSW Mp3s“: It’s not simply that he runs through the heart, soul, blood, toil, tears, and sweat of musicians who’ve given everything they have in a few words, implicitly dismissing music and criticism at the same time. He has to do it in six words, no more, no less. It’s a game, a challenge, a line in the sand. The Waco Brothers’ “How Fast the Time”? “I need to wash a shirt.” That makes sense, the Waco Brothers are a sweaty band. Followed by Watershed, “Obvious”: “Wish I had a clothes dryer.” Which may be cuteness, criticism as limerick without rhyme, unless “Obvious” is so dripping with sincerity you really do need to put it in the dryer. Then Wax Fang, “World War II (Pt. 2)”: “But where would I put it?” What, God help me, if I were still stacking discs?

I don’t think it’s jadedness or fatigue that’s running the show here. Writers are sensitive to the mountains of trash presented to the public as a glowing chest of perfectly individuated precious stones, but they’re looking for the stones, not the trash, unless they can turn the trash into a precious stone, as Aidin Vaziri does with his review of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy: a one-sentence review prefaced by one-sentence reviews of nine other albums released at the same time, all in a tone of such unrelenting cynicism that when Hall and Oates’ Live at the Troubadour gets “Awesome, as usual,” you figure it probably is.

Writers are trying to reinvent what music writing might be—or discover it. Among the pieces this book was drawn from were any number of first-class, completely professional fly-on-the-wall musician profiles; personal testimonies; critical analyses in which the writer seemingly tried to rise to the occasion that seemed to be taking place as he or she listened, as if it were the writer’s job—let’s say task—to put as much soul-force into the music as the musicians must have. They were so well done I was on the verge of including all of them, until again and again I realized I’d read it all before—the same scenes, the same idle banter framed for significance, the same irony rescued from the same closing bathroom door, the same passionate attempts to plumb the artist’s motives, to amplify the biographical echoes, to wring truth from the singer’s power. After a couple of hundred pages I wasn’t even sure I hadn’t read the same pieces before, years before, with all the same names. People are fighting their way out from under this killing legacy of critical institutionalization, cliché, banality, stupidity, and repetition, where it can come to seem that performance is a representation of another performance before it is anything else, every gesture made by any singer seems borrowed from another one, every word or angle borrowed from oneself.

This book is not an almanac. It is not a record of the best or worst or most important what-happened-in-music of 2008, the year from which all of the pieces here were drawn. I don’t know what happened in 2008, outside of a few musical events that happened to speak to me—I’m Not Jim’s uncanny “Walks Into,” Bob Dylan on election night at the University of Minnesota making “The Times They Are A-Changin”‘ and “Blowin’ in the Wind” into something they never quite were before, and those pieces here that I read as they appeared—and I don’t care. I distrust those who do know what happened in 2008, because I distrust the notion that something has to happen in any given year that in the future we will look back upon as a portent of something or as an example of something else. I do trust Flipper: “Life is pretty cheap/It’s sold a decade at a time.”

That’s why, perhaps, there is so much of the past in these pages: what’s formally consigned as the past. People here are writing to open the past, to get a feel for how much remains unsolved and unresolved, for what mystifications still close questions or prevent them from even being asked. The past is not stable: as Joshua Clover reinhabits 1972, 1998, 2003, and 2007, the years can seem as distant, their languages nearly as forgotten, as Geeshie Wiley’s 1930 and her language, which in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s hands—in her hands, too—can seem more like 1830, just as David Ramsey’s “I Will Forever Remain Faithful: a memoir about Lil Wayne and a year spent teaching in New Orleans Recovery School District, can seem antediluvian, and Vanessa Grigoriadis’s “The Tragedy of Britney Spears” the damned last words of a story that ended long ago.

The love in these pieces doesn’t gainsay the disrespect in so many others. The disrespect doesn’t question the love—it envies it, just as the love can’t fully trust its own heart. The greatest struggle a writer faces is to say what he or she truly means with­out fear of how it will make him or her look, to be willing to be fooled, and the form the writer chooses, or that chooses the writer, comes after that, if you’re so lucky. I think the people here got very lucky.

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2009 (GM as Guest Editor, with series editor, Daphne Carr)

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