“Music itself is a call that demands response,” editor Ann Powers writes in her introduction to Best Music Writing 2010. That may be true, but it’s not exactly the message of the book she’s put together. She might have been more accurate if she had said, “Musicians are a call that demands response.” Or even, “the music industry is a call that demands response.”
There are some exceptions, but overall Powers and the writers she’s selected seem much more interested in how musicians dress, where they hang out, and in how they make their money than in how their music sounds. The first selection — an oleaginous piece by Michelle Tea about her fabulous life going to fashion shows with her friend rock star Beth Ditto and how she was poor and oppressed for queerness once upon a time and so that makes it okay for her to be ruthlessly stupid and self-absorbed now — is unusual in shittiness, but typical in the way it spends page after page on Ditto’s fashion sense and success and only about a paragraph on her voice. (That voice is, apparently, authentic.)
Not that there’s anything wrong with writing about fashion or success or celebrity per se. In fact, many of the essays here are engaging and entertaining. Barry Walters’ coming-out interview with Prince-alums Wendy and Lisa is riveting in a high-quality celebrity gossip vein. Randall Roberts’ feature about LA latin/punk/hip hop band Ozomatli’s state department tour through Burma casts an interesting (unusually positive) light on the Bush Administration. Josh Kun’s piece about the importance of local Mexican bands to the ringtone market and Timothy Quirk’s polemic about digital download royalties are both fascinating nuts-and-bolts looks at the music industry’s money mechanisms. I probably didn’t need both an essay on the career prospects of Drake and an essay on the career prospects of 50 Cent, but individually neither of them is especially objectionable. And, to be fair, essays that focus on the music qua the music aren’t guaranteed to be all that, as Philip S. Bryant’s warmed over beat poet jazz nostalgia makes clear. (Memo to wannabe slam poets; commemorating original, individual, technically accomplished art in staid, half-assed free verse does not make you part of the tradition. It makes you a parasite.)
So the point here is not that Powers should have included more music writing that actually talked about music. Instead, it’s just to note that this particular collection made me realize, in a way I probably should have before, how small a part of music writing music criticism really is. The old “cliché about writing/music/dancing/architecture” as Powers calls it, rather obscures the fact that most writing about music is in fact not dancing about architecture, but rather writing about celebrity, or sex, or performance, or news.
That last is especially well-represented in this volume; Powers includes not just two essays about Michael Jackson’s death (which seems justifiable); but two about the Chris Brown/Rihanna scandal and one aggressively unnecessary effort about the Kanye/Taylor Swift brou-ha-ha. There’s even an Atlantic essay by Hua Hsu which uses hip hop as a relatively minor prop for its demographic change/post-racialism/Obama just got elected boilerplate.
The choice to include the Hsu piece seems like a particularly egregious genuflection to the zeitgeist…but, in general, I get where Powers is coming from. Music writers are often at least partly journalists, and what journalists do is write about things that are important. Obama’s election, or Michael Jackson’s death, or Rihanna/Chris Brown and its implications for young girls of color and domestic violence clearly matter in a way that, say, the production choices on Rihanna’s latest album don’t. Similarly, David Bazan’s struggle with his Christian faith is more important, more consequential, than what his music sounds like, which means that Jessica Hopper is justified in discussing the way his lyrics reveal the first at length while saying little about the second. One of his bands, she mentions, employed “fuzzed-out guitar hooks”; one of his songs includes a “keening falsetto;” some of his shows were “intimate acoustic sets.” There may be more detail than that, but not much.
There are pieces here which are more directly writing about music itself: a brief interview with composer Maria Schneider; Sasha Frere-Jones’ slight but smart take on The Dream; Chris Willman’s slight but smart (if inevitably hagiographic) essay about Bob Dylan’s could-have-been-worse Christmas album. Perhaps Sean Nelson’s “Let’s (Not) Get It On” qualifies too. It doesn’t precisely describe any particular song, but it’s thesis is based on the differences between the stance and sound of aggressive ’80s rock versus the stance and sound of ’90s indie fare. Nelson concludes that the less swaggering attitude of indie created a subculture which was, perhaps, more ambivalent about sex. What people were listening to affected the flavor of concupiscence — and so, even though he talks mostly about the concupiscence, you could argue that he’s talking about the music too.
The displacement, though, is a little…not depressing exactly. Maybe melancholy. At least, that’s what I took away from my favorite piece in the book, Alex Ross’ lovely meditation on Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The piece talks both about Anderson’s remarkable voice and about her place as an ambivalent political inspiration (for, among others, Martin Luther King.) Ross finishes his essay by noting that, while Anderson must have been proud of the Lincoln Memorial concert, it was “an ambiguous triumph — marking a great moment in civil-rights history but, on a private level, intruding on her dream of a purely musical life. An artist became a symbol. Her happiest memories, one gathers, were of those international tours in the thirties, when the European critics declared her a singer to watch, and the Finns went wild, and Toscanini blubbered his praise, and she became nothing less — and nothing more — than one of the great voices of her time.”
That made me tear up. And, of course, what I was tearing up at was not her voice, but her life — specifically, at her lifetime dream to be recognized not for her life, but for her voice. Ross can’t describe that dream without betraying it. What breaks your heart in that last line is the beauty of being unable to capture beauty. It’s the sweet ache of a tune that can’t quite be heard.
This essay first appeared on Madeloud.