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Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives

Peter Terzian (ed.)

(Harper Perennial)

Credit Peter Terzian for not including music writers in Heavy Rotation. Most of them have built increasingly unprofitable quasi-careers gushing over (sometimes force-feeding) the albums that changed their lives. Terzian’s crowd are writers first, record nerds second, if at all. Unfortunately, what could have showcased a diverse array of unique voices, and even more unique tastes, instead trades one insular community for another, and settles into a tone of unapologetically or too apologetically privileged monotony.


Earlier this year, Francis Wilkinson wrote about how, given the dire conditions of the publishing world and the world economy, writing is increasingly becoming a rich person’s vocation. Heavy Rotation supports this theory. Multiple contributors casually (even ungratefully) mention boarding/ private school educations, and Terzian himself mentions a weekly $100 check (in ‘80s money, no less) from his mother during college, as though it’s something commonplace. Writing as anything beyond a hobby comes with a hefty price tag: undergraduate and graduate education, agents, connections, publicity, leisure time, social and filial support systems that understand and support non-mercenary persuasions, and isolation bordering on solipsism.


It shouldn’t be any surprise that these essays, like so much memoir, almost self-consciously shy away from turning the personal into the universal. This is a book strictly for the upper middle class by the upper middle class, confessions of the comfortable.


Granted, we can (and should) no more eliminate privilege from the world of letters than from the world of pop music: Thomas Pynchon and Michael Chabon must coexist alongside Toni Morrison and Richard Ford, just as Gram Parsons and Joe Strummer must coexist alongside Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry. But there’s a fine line between an acknowledgment of privilege, and a celebration of it. In Heavy Rotation, the privilege is deafening to the point of intellectual exclusivity.


Joshua Ferris and Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler depict how their chosen albums taught them to feel superior to the culture they consume, those who create it, and the undereducated masses who lack their piercing intellects. Worse yet, this revelation thoroughly transformed their lives. Self-congratulatory superiority, born of high school insecurity and confused identity, echoes throughout the book, and since most of these writers are old enough to be president, it’s time to get over it—- only a few of them have.


Heavy Rotation supposedly nets 20 of the “most acclaimed contemporary writers”, which should permit the absence of anybody outside the writerly circle. Or should it?


Wilkinson also notes how the Internet has revolutionized writing, expanded and shattered who could be heard and how. A cursory glance at the author bios reveals that Terzian (perhaps knowingly or even snobbishly) missed this revolution. Yes, there are piles upon piles of linguistic dogcrap polluting the Internet, but there is also a wealth of undiscovered talent, typing away not for the money or the fame (which, let’s be honest, eludes all but Heavy Rotation‘s highest-profile authors) but for the passion and verve.


Numerous Netizens could use the credibility and exposure of a Harper-Perennial anthology, and numerous Netizens rival Heavy Rotation‘s finest. A superb writer who built his C.V. from, say, a literary blog rather than a magazine would be a healthy addition to the proceedings. 


To be fair, Heavy Rotation‘s one-sidedness is not merely economical. The vast majority of its contributors are late-30s early-40s urbanites, children of Nixon, adolescents of Reagan and AIDS, post-adolescents of Cobain and Clinton. Many of the authors have lived such textbook, semi-Rockwellian lives of predictability that whatever pops the complacent balloon—Pankaj Mishra’s discovery of ABBA as a 12-year-old Indian boy, or Martha Southgate’s teenage Jackson 5 fangirling—is a welcome respite.


Because Terzian cultivated such a close-knit selection of writers, the musical selections do not branch that far out, either. As editor, Terzian respects the standard definitions of good musical taste almost to a fault. Like any dutiful city-dwelling intellectual, he ignores country music entirely, and gives obligatory space to R&B, pop (though, quite conspicuously, not hip-hop), and an offensively backhanded appraisal of Gloria Estefan.


Less than half of these albums were enjoyed by the masses, and none seems particularly challenging to canonical sacristy. The genres are firmly cosmopolitan: mope rock, twee pop, overly earnest hard rock that becomes obsolete once you discover irony, overly didactic punk that somehow doesn’t, the acceptably hip pop canon (Beatles, Jackson 5, ABBA). For a popist era, Heavy Rotation is overflowing with callous dismissals of mass appeal, a seeming last gasp from the overfed mouths of Gen-X.


Only a few of the albums that changed these writers’ lives ever changed the world (Meet the Beatles, The Queen is Dead). Terzian himself chooses to gush the praises of forgotten indie-pop obscurity Miaow, and you know how they sound the second you pronounce their name. It is telling that the boldest, most unconventional choices come not from rock radio, but from Broadway: original cast albums of Annie and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which liberate their respective female authors from not only girlhood and womanhood, but from the phallocentric confines of the pop-rock oeuvre. 


The best essays here seamlessly dovetail the album with the self, both that of the writer and the reader. Through intense, poetic verbal snippets, Clifford Chase flashes back to how The B-52’s soundtracked his sexual confusion. In dissecting American Primitive Vol. II, John Jeremiah Sullivan is smart enough to know he’s not nearly as interesting a character as those who created and curated American folk music, and wisely casts himself a very peripheral figure in his narrative.


But too many essays are indulgences without pay-off: John Haskell’s slight piece on Remain in Light barely recognizes the heady, dense album, let alone its effect on the author. And Kate Christensen doesn’t really say much of anything in her ten pages on Rickie Lee Jones’ Flying Cowboys.


Heavy Rotation ends up the literary equivalent of one of those hastily assembled all-star jam sessions. Most of the performances are competent, some terrible, only a couple transcend the back-patting self-satisfaction of the event. It leaves you wondering how it would read if Terzian had explored the world beyond his rolodex.

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