[27 November 2006]
In the essay “Canon Fodder,” published in this year’s September-October issue of Film Comment, critic and screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) details the problems inherent in creating a definitive film canon. Whether Schrader’s high-brow compilation of works of the highest artistic merit, a year-end top 10 list for Rolling Stone, or VH1’s arbitrary “Greatest Songs of the (insert time frame here),” these lists, or collections, raise questions. Who decides what to include in these lists, and what gives them the authority to do so, and how can they possibly be qualified to do so? Is it possible to watch every film made in the 100+ history of the medium, let alone watch every film made in just a year?
National Book Award finalist Mary Gaitskill (Veronica, Because They Wanted To) confronts this dilemma as Guest Editor of Da Capo’s latest Best Music Writing guide. She writes in her introduction: “I know the essays I picked are not the only great or good ones. The whole time I was choosing I hated to think of the ones I never saw or the ones that for some reason flew past without taking hold in my mind.”
Nevertheless, her finds are excellent and eclectic: from investigative pieces (Elizabeth Méndez Berry’s “Love Hurts” for Vibe) to musical analysis by critical heavy-weights (Robert Christgau’s “The First Lady of Song” for The Nation) to personal essays (Katy St. Clair’s “A Very Special Concert: The Enduring Bond Between Huey Lewis and the Developmentally Disabled” for San Francisco Weekly). (She’s also picked two PopMatters articles: Rob Wheaton’s interview with M.I.A. and David Marchese’s High on Fire concert review.) But what distinguishes the 2006 edition from those previous (the first came out in 2000) is Gaitskill’s approach. Instead of simply collecting a bunch of great pieces, Gaitskill has focused largely on sequencing. She has created the literary equivalent of—her metaphor—a mix tape: “I put these pieces next to each other to blend or bang them together ... to create a conversation of different dialects with invisible linguistic links.”
Gaitskill begins her linking right away, opening the volume with Greil Marcus’ “Stories of a Bad Song,” about the appropriation of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” by a group of kids for their high school talent show, and following with Alex Ross’ “Doctor Atomic ‘Countdown,’” about composer John Adams’ new opera on the atomic bomb. The articles are remarkably different. Marcus’ reads like a meditation, while Ross’ gives the impression of a heavily reported feature for The New Yorker (where it was published). But the essays deal with artists taking something old and historic and reinventing or reinterpreting it to create something fresh and new—“Stories of a Bad Song” exemplifies how a group of kids can transform Dylan’s anti-Vietnam-War song into a youthful, rallying cry against the present war, while “Doctor Atomic ‘Countdown’” chronicles the inception to the premiere performance of a new opera, but it also grapples with how to translate a controversial and devastating piece of American history into an opera, and how to render the characters involved with the dropping of the atomic bomb sympathetic, not to mention how to filter the historic event through a contemporary lens. Both articles are excellent, and their sequencing is natural, yet deeply thoughtful.
Essays here not only follow a thematic progression, but a rhythmic one as well. Mike McGuirk’s punchy 200-word reviews for Rhapsody, interspersed throughout the book, provide much needed relief after dense analytical prose. A straightforward (but beautifully lyrical) profile on blues singer Bettye Lavette by Bill Friskics-Warren leads into Susan Alcorn’s first-person road trip story on gigging in various Texas towns. And a shocking, comical interview with Bushwick Bill of rap group the Geto Boys, in which the rapper threatens writer Peter Relic with a chopstick, lightens the mood after the gravity of a 30-page piece chronicling the existential crisis at a Christian rock festival by John Jeremiah Sullivan.
Wonderfully sequenced or not, these essays celebrate music. Of the 43 pieces here, few are negative: critical, questioning, exalting, yes, but never panning. Even David Thorpe’s tongue-in-cheek “Notes on R. Kelley’s Trapped in the Closet” betrays a perverse enjoyment in the grandiose, histrionic mini-rap-opera. The essays here examine what makes music so powerful, why it captures listeners so personally. The essays deconstruct, or attempt to deconstruct, the genius behind Billie Holiday and Ol’ Dirty Bastard; they put music in cultural and historical contexts in order to understand its appeal. Maybe it doesn’t contain all the best criticism written in 2006, but its selections are certainly worthy of the 2006 criticism canon.