Every so often music critics have to bring up the term “rockism”, battling the rock-centric standards held by the unnamed canon makers. The latest upswing in the debate peaked at the end of October with Kelefa Sanneh’s New York Times piece on the topic. Sanneh’s article was well-timed, as it coincided with the release of this year’s edition of the Da Capo Best Music Writing. Each year, this volume is attacked for its excessive inclusion of articles on rock and work by and on white males; statistics are worked up revealing the percentage of texts relating to each gender, race, genre, etc. No matter that that’s not exactly what “rockism” means (the term’s still settling into a true definition)—the word is simply shorthand for resisting the old, stodgy ideas that former editors like Nick Hornby would be assumed to be putting forth. The issue comes to a head around the Da Capo series, because its annual publication is an act of canon formation, proclaiming what writers and topics are worth remembering and what constitutes “good” in either music or its critical examination.
In the 2004 edition of Best Music Writing, guest editor Mickey Hart (best known for his drumming with the Grateful Dead), appears to escape the trap, including many unrockist texts. Adam Mansbach’s article “Hip-Hop Intellectuals” even takes the issue to a sort of meta level, examining the music and culture from which came a new style of critic and academic, unhindered by the rock tradition. If the piece is useful in its own right, it also heralds the presence of new voices in this edition.
For all the joys of inclusivity, however, it wouldn’t matter if the writing wasn’t good, and, for the most part, it is. Whether they’re from writers you likely know (Chuck Klosterman, Gene Santoro, and Touré), you should know (Michaelangelo Matos, Elizabeth Méndez Berry, and Mark Anthony Neal), or you will know (William Bowers and Jessica Hopper), the articles tend to be insightful and original.
Probably Hopper’s feminist critique of the hardcore and emo scene, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t”, will gain the most attention. It’s not so much that she’s uniquely progressive or shockingly original in her argument as it is that she so effortlessly blends her academic sensiblities with her personal experiences. Her examination runs from the sad to the smart to the funny. She moves effortlessly from ideas like, “Women in emo songs are denied the dignity of humanization through both the language and narratives” to asides such as, “And to paraphrase words of Nixon sidekick H. R. Haldeman, ‘History is wack.’” In doing so, she forces a mental and visceral re-consideration of the music that matters to her (and to her audience, originally the readers of Punk Planet.
Considering the location of this review, I’d be remiss not to mention the inclusion of two PopMatters articles. Mark Anthony Neal’s piece on Marvin Gaye and R. Kelly stands out for its concise historicizing as well as its careful examination of its subjects. Neal fits the somewhat disparate singers into a tradition in order to make a closer examination of both them as people, and the soul singer type that has been developed. In “Hip-Hop’s Holy Trinity”, Lynne d Johnson aptly uses mythic imagery to examine the relationship between Dr. Dre, Eminem, and 50 Cent. She avoids forcing the relationship into the paradigm, using it only as an entry point and not as a guiding device, enabling her to develop her insights.
These two articles stood out in my mind from 2003 (although Neal’s Rakim article was actually the best of his writings) in part because of their source, the book contains plenty of memorable moments. Geoff Boucher’s “Beat at Their Own Game” made its electronic circulation for its evenhanded but affecting depiction of session drummers losing out to technology. William Bowers’s piece on his My Morning Jacket fandom, “I Think I’m Goint to Hell” serves as a primer, a memoir, and an openly and pleasingly subjective analysis all at once, offering fans of the band a love story, and those who don’t know the group a reason to pick up some of their work.
With such scattered topics and styles presented, it’s not surprising that organization is one of the book’s flaws. Articles are sequenced alphabetically by author, as practical an order as any, but one that avoids placing the authors directly into conversation with each other. I suspect the editors wish to do exactly that, covering genres and time periods quickly, throwing the pieces out as if to say, “here are the best of the best, regardless.” Fortunately for readers, adjacency frequently breeds conversation, and we’re treated to a few fine moments in this collection. For example, Alex Ross’s treatise on the need for a reconsideration of current approaches to both popular and classical music, “Rock 101”, precedes “Eminem: The New White Negro”, Carl Hancock Rux’s highly academic essay running from Greek tragedy through Frantz Fanon to Eminem, all viewed through the lens established by the discourse around Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro”. It’s an intellectual exercise, but more accessible than you’d imagine.
That accessibility returns us to a strength of the book—nearly all the pieces included show smart writing, but the authors tend to avoid arcane debates or esoteric jargon. As an overview of the best music writing, it covers the gamut from academic articles to personal essays to comical karaoke adventure logs. In having such breadth, it’s easy to have a little something for everyone, but Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004 succeeds in having plenty for anyone. It’s not meant to be the defining word on recent music writing, but it can be used as fine introduction to the variety of great writing being produced.