The Best Music Writing series from Da Capo Press has been putting out consistently impressive collections of each year’s most important music writing for the last decade, and this year’s special 10th anniversary edition is no exception. In addition to series editor Daphne Carr (scholar and journalist who is also behind funboring.com), this edition is guest-edited by Greil Marcus, music journalist, cultural critic and author of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, and Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads. Marcus has also been a writer, editor and columnist for numerous publications such as The Believer, Creem, Interview and Rolling Stone, so it’s safe to say he knows a fair bit about good music journalism.
In his introduction, Marcus comments on the uncertainty hanging over music writing these days, which is palpable in many pieces in this volume. He suggests that these writers are trying to discover or reinvent what music writing can be, by which I think he means that these writers are doing what music writers have always done and will to continue to do even as media and our relationship with music continues to change. It’s interesting that Marcus, arguably one of the finest and most accomplished writers in the field, closes his introductory remarks with the statement that the writers in Best Music Writing 2009 got very lucky. He notes that the greatest struggle a writer will face is to say what he or she truly means without fear and with a willingness to be fooled, and that form comes only after that—if you’re lucky.
The 35 articles, essays, reviews, interviews profiles and blog posts—gathered from work written and published in 2008—included in Best Music Writing 2009 cover a wide variety of genres and sources. Carr, who has served as series editor since the 2006 edition, has compiled pieces on everything from the idiocy of Axl Rose’s ego (Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy by Aidin Vaziri for the San Francisco Chronicle) to the lunacy of Britney Spears’s life (The Tragedy of Britney Spears by Vanessa Grigoriadis for Rolling Stone), from an engrossing, disturbing historical look at Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain by Yuval Taylor (Funk’s Death Trip for PopMatters) to the humorous commentary on review authenticity, or the lack of it, from Carrie Brownstein (Your Trusted Source for Music Reviews on the NPR blog). This article is a particular highlight of this collection, both for its commentary and its irreverent humor. While commenting on the growing practice of passing judgment on albums without hearing them, and mimicking the snarky attitude that has become so prevalent in reviews, she completely takes the piss out of any of those writers by giving one disc a rating of “2 F**ks and 1.5 Yeahs.”
Although that last example is quite clearly poking fun at amateur reviewing, or at those for whom music writing is more of a way putting forth a personal image than it is about the music or the writing, it does reiterate some of Marcus’s points from the introduction. It also raises some questions for music writers, musicians and readers, as much about what the future of music writing might hold as about whether or not music writing, as such, even has a future. Many articles on musical subjects today, some of which are included in this book, vary so widely, in form style and content, that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to classify them all under the—broad as it may be—term “music writing.”.
So then, what is music writing? Does it have a set form? Should it? As we move away from print, will music writing become more fractured and brief, until it’s reduced to Twitter updates only? What role does the writer play in the writing, and what responsibilities does the writer have to the readers? Is music writing going to be an entirely isolated endeavor at some point, limited to the “favorite artists” box on someone’s social network profile?
Best Music Writing 2009 doesn’t, of course, address any of these things specifically, but it will be interesting to see in future editions (provided there are future editions) how the nature of music writing, and its relationship with its subject will evolve.
Best Music Writing 2009 closes with a four-page list of other notable music writing from last year as well as a list of contributors and brief bios. But obviously, it’s the writing, not the writers, that matters. And all the writing here is superlative (hence the title), and it’s by nature a quick, light read because of all the inclusions being rather short forms. But it also lends itself quite well to re-reading and reference, and it’s particularly helpful if you feel as though you’ve been missing something in the world of music and cultural criticism recently.