[15 January 2009]
In “A Paler Shade of White”, one of 2007’s most hotly debated pieces of music journalism, New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones argued that what separates the current titans of independent and underground music from the indie and punk rockers of the past is a lack of soul. By ignoring the history of musical miscegenation that has been the bedrock of rock ‘n’ roll ever since Elvis Presley, as Frere-Jones describes it, “stole the world away from Pat Boone and moved popular music from the head to the hips,” the current wave of indie superstars (Frere-Jones cites Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens and Wilco, among others, as precedent) have sacrificed rhythm for preciousness and, as he sees it, excitement for dullness.
Frere-Jones’ article was not without value; the credibility of its thesis notwithstanding, the author’s insight over just how this musical segregation came to be, as it turns out, largely though hip-hop’s rise and eventual cultural dominance makes it a worthwhile read. But it is also, as its many were quick to point out, full of broad generalizations, intentional provocation and highly selective examples that did little to provide a accurate picture of the spectrum of popular music circa 2007.
And there could have hardly been a less appropriate time to publish such a diatribe than 2007, not only one of the most vibrant and exciting years for music in recent memory but also one of the most thrillingly diverse, particularly in the realm of NPR / Pitchfork-approved music that Frere-Jones so shortsightedly derides. Rife with dazzling genre-benders working at the top of their game (LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A.), larger than life personalities grabbing both headlines and critic’s prizes (Amy Winehouse, Kanye West) and trend setting industry innovations (Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want distribution)—the class of ’07 was notable for a lot of things, but anyone who paid even fleeting attention to what both the masses and the hipsters were listening to that year (and it was occasionally, if not always, the same things) would be hard pressed to call it dull. To the extent that the brand fey, Brian Wilson-inspired white-boy rock that Frere-Jones charges with rendering all of indie-rock funkless thrived in 2007, it was only as one more thread in the year’s richly polymorphous sonic tapestry.
Frere-Jones’ article is not included in the 2008 edition of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing series (each year’s volume covering the writing published during the previous calendar year), though it is addressed right at the front of the collection in the form of Carl Wilson’s thoughtful rebuttal, a genuinely provocative look at where indie-rock’s exclusionary lines are really drawn (Wilson’s answer: it’s not race, it’s class). It is one of three explicitly critic-centric pieces here—Noah Berlatsky’s convincing argument for critical recognition of contemporary chart R&B’s unheralded sonic innovations and Bill Wasik’s expose, in the veiled form of a profile of Montreal band Annuals, of the largely-critic-generated indie-rock hype machine as a system every bit as fleeting and trend-conscious as any cookie-cutter teen-pop factory are the other two—rightfully spotlighting the role that the music scribe plays in the midst of an increasingly expansive and complicated musical landscape.
In a way, though, this entire collection—not just Wilson’s standout piece—serves as its own elaborate response to Frere-Jones’ controversial charge. Just as 2007 itself was all over the sonic and geographical map, Best Music Writing ’08 reflects this trend with its reliable penchant for topical diversity. Helmed this year by Nelson George, a prominent hip-hop critic and historian during the genre’s genesis and development (1978 to the mid-90s), most of these selections end up being reflective of the editor’s twin fascinations—the soundtracks that accompany emerging trends and cultural movements, and comprehensive excavations of the musical past.
If there is very little direct correlation between the most celebrated music of the year in question and the essays collected here—among the superstars of ’07, only a pair of articles on two critically-derided chart toppers are represented, here in the form of Jeff Weiss’ informative (for those of us who ignored it) overview of Soulja Boy’s YouTube-assisted breakthrough and Ann Powers’ thoughtful-beyond-the-call-of-duty dissection of Britney Spears’ flop comeback attempt Blackout—it nevertheless becomes easy to spot analogs between what is represented and what we were listening to. The absence in this collection of M.I.A., easily the most “global” of all of 2007’s shining lights, and her politically charged (and oft-told) back-story is echoed in being Eric Pape’s eye-opening look at the cutthroat Congolese music scene.
Likewise, Clive Thompson’s aptly titled “Sex, Drugs and Updating Your Blog”, on independent singer-songwriter Johnathan Coulton’s internet-generated success, provides an interesting contrast to Radiohead’s revolutionary release strategy by coming from the opposite end of the digital music spectrum. And Andy Tennille’s expansive profile of acclaimed retro-soul outfit Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is a much-needed breath of fresh air in light of all of the critical fawning over Amy Winehouse’s much more commercial soul revival.
If these selections serve as an evocative time capsule for the musical present, at least half of this collection is nevertheless given over to history. Essays in this latter category are typically canonical, as is to be expected coming from such historically minded publications as MOJO and Oxford American, the sources of meticulously thorough entries on Pete Seeger (from Phil Sutcliffe) and Lee Hayes (from Jeff Sharlet), respectively. Equally invaluable are David Margolick’s anecdotal recounting of the typically apolitical Louis Armstrong’s angry outbursts during the school desegregation movement of the 1950s and David Kamp’s golden-ticket interview with the notoriously evasive Sly Stone.
Most surprising, though, may Sean Nelson’s bitterly poignant take on the Kurt Cobain legacy in the unlikely form of a review of the documentary film About a Son. Cobain may very well at this point be in the running for one of the most written about musicians this side of the Beatles in rock’s short history, so gaining a fresh perspective on the man this late in the game is nothing short of startling.
Perhaps more interesting still, mostly because the writers don’t have their work at least partially cut out for them in the form of subjects rich with gravitas, are the stories that delve into the more unexplored and seemingly frivolous corners of music’s past. I have never been that much of a fan of John Badham’s oppressively grim Saturday Night Fever or the Bee Gee’s wildly overplayed soundtrack, but Sam Kashner’s detailed retrospective of the entire phenomenon is an absolutely essential and compulsively readable bit of pop culture history.
I have always been a completely guilt-free ABBA fan, but their role in my life has never been as anything more than aural candy floss, so Tom Ewing’s attempt to locate their hidden depths is not only clever but potentially vindicating. And at the risk of offending Parrotheads everywhere, Jody Rosen’s light but compelling look at Jimmy Buffett and his cult-like fan base on the occasion of the singer’s 60th birthday manages to transform this topical into journalistic gold.
And what to make of Marke B’s fabulously witty look at the current state of gay clubland? Or J. Bennett’s exploration of the Norwegian death metal scene through the lens of genre favorites Dimmu Borgir? Or Nike D’Andrea’s profile of the irreverent punk band NunZilla, who perform their noisy, foul-mouthed sprints while dressed in nun’s habits? Perhaps it is fair to say that these tangents are indicative of the sheer richness of the year in question, both in its music and in the ability of these writers willingness to mine greatness out of the even the least commonly explored corners of contemporary music.
At any rate, Best Music Writing 2008 more than lives up to the standard set by the series’ previous entries; an embarrassment of riches for pop scholars and fans of just plain fine journalism alike.