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Fear of Music

Jonathan Lethem

(Continuum; US: Apr 2012)

Fear of music. Is it about paranoia over the effects of music? Is it the paranoia of art itself, deeply aware of its tenuous position in a world of sirens blaring, lives lived during wartime? Is it about fear of everything, everything around you, even the air and even your own pets? If I’m making sense, should I stop?

“Talking Head’s have a new album. It’s called Fear of Music.”

“Talking Heads have a new album. Its called Fear of Music.”

Novelist Jonathan Lethem remembers hearing this repeated tag-line in an ad for the album on his Brooklyn radio station, repeated over and over, calling into question tag lines and advertisements and even the idea of, the cultural nimbus around, the notion of the “new album”.

As the voice mutated, “multiplying into a swarm of ethereal clones,” the commercial became the first introduction to an album that would become formative for what Lethem calls “the boy in his room”—his double, his younger self, the first listener to the Talking Heads new album that was called Fear of Music.

Lethem has produced some classic prose about music, seemingly without ever meaning to. His novel, Fortress of Solitude, explored a white childhood in Brooklyn that involved being both repelled by and drawn to R&B, Soul and Funk. Lethem turned desire, fascination and theft of musical styles into an extended metaphor for the complications of racial desire and anxiety n America. As if that amazing novel needed another extended metaphor.

Lethem’s collection Anxiety of Influence proved him the consummate essayist. His critical engagement with popular culture ginned up reflections on all manner of topics, ranging from Star Wars to the nature of independent bookstores. He’s even written a collection of short stories inspired by Kafka and an earlier essay collection, The Disappointment Artist, that I think belongs with Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem as masterpieces of the genre. And lets not forget that he wrote an incredibly pleasurable little book about John Carpenter’s 80’s cult film They Live.

If you’ve enjoyed obsessing with Lethem about his obsessions before, then you’ll be delighted by his contribution to the 33 ½ series,  Fear of Music. A series of short reflections on the songs interpolated with more short essays on the larger themes of the album, it will have you listening to the original over and over again.

The conceit that guides these essays involves Lethem the aging music nerd turning to his 15-year-old self in 1979, the music and science fiction and comic book obsessed self that lived in Brooklyn. More to the point, the one living in “a definite brownstone in a maybe-ghetto.”

Past readers of the Lethem’s work will not be surprised to learn that the boy in the Brooklyn Brownstone, now the successful writer pounding the keys in a farmhouse, uses his discussion of Fear of Music to reflect on everything from the nature of art to the nature of New York City to the elastic lines between genre writing and so-called “literary” forms.

If you are a fan of the Talking Heads, you already know a lot of what Lethem has to say. You’ve felt the album’s sense of paranoia, its obsessive compulsive grasping at small details amidst the generalized chaos (“Hold onto the Paper! Tear up the Paper!). However, in one of the many passages in the book where Lethem finds a meaningful way to say things fans already know, he writes that, “Wartime enlists the whole album in its project.” He points out that, not only may this be the height of the Talking Heads musical powers, it’s also a radical break with much that had gone before. What Lethem calls the “damaged viewpoints” and “bourgeois neurosis”, the white boy angst of some of their previous work, disappears. Like much of the album, it’s not about the individual but about a society that’s in ruins, or should be.

“Life During Wartime” never made it past #80 on the Billboard Hot 100, Lethem tells us. Both he and his 15-year-old self are “flummoxed” by this news, since his Brooklyn station played it “every twenty minutes or so in November of 1979.” This sets up Lethem’s assertion, followed by a rapid, almost bored pulling back from the same assertion, that Talking Heads are “the definitive New York band.” He then goes on to interrogate what this could possibly mean. He decides that it has something to do with the kinds of cities we create in our heads, how we superimpose our inner topographies on real places and try to make them our own.

Lethem’s interest in science fiction appears, as well. And of course, this is no ancillary concern when writing about Fear of Music, an album that seems at times to be taking place in a post-apocalyptic landscape or perhaps an inner, time-traveling dreamscape that Kurt Vonnegut might conjure.

The author knows he’s trying to wrangle the Talking Heads into his own secret world. Lethem admits that the young boy who first “parsed on headphones” for this album, did so in a room lined with the works of Phillip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. Moreover, he cops to interpreting the album through a specific lens that has subsequently guided much of his writing, the desire to see sci-fi pulled from its pulp magazine origins and the heritage of what he calls “compensatory power fantasies and wish fulfillment.” Science fiction, he’s always argued, could become a genre–bending genre, tales of human dislocation in the strangeness of both space and time.

Fear of Music seemed to understand this. Lethem suggests that the album tell us “the city you live in might be a kind of dystopia and a future ruin.”  Did David Byrne create a science fiction album? Yes, Lethem concludes.

If conclusions like these are unsatisfactory for you, then this book is probably not for you. And too bad for you. You’re missing the chance to uncover a secret cultural history that could illuminate something of your own secret history. Like so many of the characters in his novels, Lethem the listener, Lethem the critic, writes with a definitive commitment to uncertainty, a sense that dread overwhelms human existence on every side and that locates us amidst swirling dislocation. His characters are alienated in the way that Phillip Dick and Kafka’s characters are alienated…outcasts who cast themselves out, Bartelby’s who “would prefer not to,” characters who “Have no time for dancing/or lovey dovey” who “just ain’t got time for that now.”

These are the themes of Fear of Music, and this is what made Lethem literally the most perfect writer in the world to reflect on it. He is writer as fanboy writing about an album for disappointed fanboys, people who have loved something that turned out to be dangerous for them, people who have come to question all commonly accepted wisdoms (“People say not to worry about the air”) and who still, for some reason are willing to let their fear of art break their already broken hearts.


W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.

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