Edward W Batchelder

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Best Music Writing 2005
ed. J. T. LeRoy
(Da Capo Press)

cover of Best Music Writing 2005

Long before the Christmas decorations are hung in stores, before the Thanksgiving foods are laid out in the supermarkets, and often even before Halloween announces its eerie presence, intimations of the holiday season come to book reviewers in the form of a wave of Best of anthologies.

Recently it’s become a tsunami—whole sections of bookstores are now devoted to sparing readers the endless dross of mediocre writing and serving up the pure gold of year’s best American poetry, essays, short stories, mysteries, recipes, erotica, or whatever.

Like all these anthologies, Da Capo’s Best Music Writing rises or falls with the abilities and interests of its guest editors and, over the past five years, this has allowed one to chart not only the best music writing in the United States, but as well a whole variety of ideas about what the “best” might look like. In 2003, Simpsons-cartoonist (and former music critic) Matt Groenig put together a fascinating collection of long, thoughtful pieces that focused almost exclusively on rock and blues. The following year, Grateful Dead–drummer Mickey Hart assembled much shorter articles, but managed to cover the full spectrum of American music.

This year’s collection thumbs its nose at the usual pieties of serious rock criticism in favor of iconoclasm, historical revisionism, and sometimes just plain spoofing—which is perhaps not surprising, considering the editor behind it. J. T. LeRoy came to public attention in 2000 with his novel Sarah, a raw, autobiographical novel about his life as the abused child of a drug-addled, teenage prostitute mother. More recently, however, it has been suggested that LeRoy is not so much an author of fiction as a fiction himself—several articles in New York Magazine last fall suggested that notoriously shy and reclusive LeRoy is in fact the invention of a cabal of writers.

Regardless of the truth of these rumors, the collection certainly sets a new tone for the series. It starts, for example, with a conversation between roving opinion-monger Camile Paglia and Ingrid Sischy of Interview magazine about that most frothy and lightweight of topics—rockstar fashion. The book goes on to include two separate tributes to 1979—a year that seldom figures in anyone’s pantheon of great years for music—and an extended paean by novelist Dave Eggers to the forgotten Big Country, a Scottish group that incorporated bagpipe melodies into their one big hit (“In a Big Country”) before vanishing off the American charts forever in the mid-1980s. A similar sense of irreverence shows up in Ann Powers’s humorously self-mocking piece about the treacherous fallibility of memory—comforting her baby in the middle of the night, she discovers she can’t recall the complete lyrics to a single one of her favorite songs. When The Sound of Music comes on TV, though, she’s all about “Edelweiss.”

There’s an imaginary piece from the satirical magazine The Onion about a trucking slowdown caused by drivers pulling off the road and weeping whenever “She’s Gone Back to What She Calls Home” comes on the radio. Andrew Hultkrans tries to comically reimagine an actual meeting that once took place between Neil Young, Charles Manson, and singer Arthur Lee, while Luc Sante performs one of the funniest bits of real historical research in tracing the origins of the phrase “funky butt.”

Even conventional topics take on an unexpected spin here. An interview with the usually reclusive Bob Dylan shows him to be surprisingly open about his song-writing process, while Jessica Hopper’s expose of the commercial machinery driving the alt-rock and hip-hop Vans Warped Tour is oddly blasé about the ideological contradictions. The prolific Greil Marcus rates the importance of Buddy Holly a peg higher than Elvis, and Robert Christgau finds Negro minstrelsy to be of crucial importance to American pop music.

If any piece sums up the volume’s attitude, though, it would have to be “The Rap Against Rockism” by New York Times–writer Kelefa Sanneh. “Rockism” can be loosely described as the knee-jerk tendency of critics to judge all pop music by the standards of the late 1960s. Not surprisingly, it tends to lead to a preference for scruffy guitars over smooth synthesizers, for earnest singer-songwriters over slickly produced vocalists, and for music as art over music as entertainment. As Sanneh points out, however, it also leads to a preference for white male rock stars over women, blacks, and Latinos, as well as for music that sounds “authentic” over music that might actually sound good. “The problem with rockism,” Sanneh writes, “is that it seems increasingly far removed from the way people actually listen to music.” In the evolution of pop, Sanneh argues, old models need no longer apply. He might as well have said not to trust anybody over thirty.

If this sounds like someone you know—or like something someone you know needs to hear—Best Music Writing 2005 should be the perfect gift. Just be sure to stay tuned for next year’s edition as well.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from The Tennessean)

| Music | Books | Travel & Food | Politics & Essays | Work for Hire