Da Capo Press should be sitting lovely with the most recent press spat J.T. LeRoy has become embroiled in. The guest editor helming the company’s latest Best Music Writing installment received the glamorous New York Times treatment again on 9 January 2006 when Warren St. John wrote a follow-up to Stephen Beachy’s October ‘expose’ of the writer being a purported penname for one Laura Albert. While both St. John and Beachy grappled with speculation and circumstantial evidence to probe the inconsistencies behind the writer’s identity, their inconclusive explorations ultimately fed right back into the J.T. spectacle.
All of which begs to ask the reader: how’s the writing?
I respond with an appropriately predictable summary: Don’t Believe the Hype.
Regardless of true identity, readers would understandably assume that LeRoy’s persona would loom over anything that bore the name on its cover. However, LeRoy and series editor Paul Bresnick simply uphold Best Music Writing‘s reputation of generous genre coverage while adhering to the series’ conservative outlook. Like a Jack of all trades and master of none, the series speaks broadly about a number of subjects, but at the expense of in-depth discourse. LeRoy proclaims that “most of the punks I was around as a kid were readers” (and you’re not a kid anymore?), yet he/she places scarcely any critical thought into this collection. Instead, accepted truisms—Dylan is great, hip-hop is demonized and some country (only the ‘real’ stuff, of course) is cool—are recycled. Even the selection of writers exhibits a like dependence on stalwarts, featuring the Two Bobs (Christgau and Hilburn; perhaps the editors felt the need to represent both coasts) and an updated cast of young lions (swapping yesteryear’s Lorraine Alis with today’s Kalefa Sannehs). All of which is appropriate for a generalist scope, but the collection’s willingness to wallow in rockist tropes (intentional irony or meta comment then that Sanneh’s critique of rockism and Ben Yagoda’s dissection of all things meta are included here?) and unwillingness to extol new ideas or critiques makes for an incredibly pompous and boring read.
While the series’ overextended format and need for marketability guarantee a lukewarm product (are these anthologies the Greatest Hits CD of the print game?), Best Music Writing 2005‘s distinct flaw stems from its editorial direction, or the lack thereof. From the outset, LeRoy exhibits an unreasonable amount of awe for his/her subjects and virtually hands over all say on the topic of music crit to a musician’s hearsay. “After a year of writing for the NY Press”, LeRoy writes in his/her foreword, “I was amazed that so many musicians were kinda like idiot savants. Gorgeous music, but the brilliant lyrics seemed to be an accident or broadcast in from some frequency only musicians can hear.” In an apparent attempt to capture the ‘magic’ of music, LeRoy singles out a telling quote, “Like Bob Dylan says in the LA Times interview with Robert Hilburn included in this collection, ‘It’s like a ghost writing a song like that. It gives you the song and it goes away… You don’t know what it means. Except the ghost picked me to write the song.”
In a similar manner, a musician ghost seemingly edits through LeRoy (or perhaps this is all just a case of ghostediting?) and allows self-glorification and clichéd music journalism instead of his/her personality or tastes to speak for the collection. Topped and kicked off by a conversation between Ingrid Sischy and Camille Paglia, the two race through every baby boomer rock cliché (“Bob Dylan… with [his] cutting-edge social issues”), sentimental ‘60s fellation (”[‘60s] album covers were scrutinized by my generation as if they were holy writ”) and ageist condescension (IS: “Do you think there are parallel strong fashion statements emerging from today’s rock stars?” CP: “I’m not impressed”). David Ritz’ “The Last Days of Brother Ray” and Chris Norris’ “The Ghost of Saint Kurt”, though loving tributes on their own, become prime offenders of the collection’s overstatement of the obvious—was 2005 really the year to officially proclaim Nirvana’s greatness? Subtler yet equally uninspiring are Michael Corcoran’s rehash of hip hop’s creation myth “1979 Calling” and Sasha Frere-Jones’ (gasp!) tribute to the Clash “1979: The Year Punk Died, and Was Reborn.” At best, the quick succession of these articles makes Best Music Writing 2005 feel boring and unnecessary. At best.
All of which is a shame because much of the writing is exceptional on its own terms, if not decent. Christgau and Luc Sante turn in well-researched pieces (the latter of which being the sole representative of jazz unfortunately and inadvertently places the idiom completely in the past, once again), Jessica Hopper compassionately critiques all the new punks and Sanneh beats everyone to the zeitgeist buzzer once again. Unfortunately, compiling the remaining pieces together only highlights their critical inadequacies. Worse, few of the articles actually pertain to the year in review. Not that the series should focus specifically on events during that one year alone, but it should speak to some distinct quality about music and music journalism in 2005. Frankly, many of these pieces could have been written five years ago.
While the series’ guest editor format provides a fun opportunity to present one celebrity music nut’s look-back outlook, this latest edition only proves how disingenuous and reductive this approach can become. Seemingly torn over his/her dual role as both music journalist and musician (LeRoy is the lyricist for the band Thistle LLC), J.T. makes the j.v. mistake of deferring to fluffer pieces. With little effort, the collection reads all too familiarly. If Da Capo truly feels that celebrity reigns supreme and sets the bar for critical thought, then the company should have trolled out Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Desert Mountain Discs. Now, there’s an idea for next year: an edition edited by a movie character!