‘Best Music Writing 2011’: Like the Subject Matter, It’s a Mixed Bag

Alex Ross is a best-selling author, Macarthur Fellow, writer for the New Yorker, and current king of the classical music blogosphere. He’s also the “guest editor” for this year’s installment of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing. It’s unclear how much of his guest editor role is simply a gimmick; Daphne Carr is continuing her role of “series editor” for the sixth year, and it’s a good bet that she does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to putting these volumes together. However, Ross does put together a nice little introduction to this current volume, one that exposes both the strengths and weaknesses of attempting a project like this in the year 2011.

The subject matter of this introduction will come as a surprise to no one familiar with Ross’ work, as he has often attempted to bridge the pretension of classical music with a modern, pop sensibility. Here, Ross makes a case for the advantages that the fractured musical market of the 21st-century provides. “Just as we would not want to live in a world that adhered to one language, one political system, or one mode of religious belief, we would not want to live in a world that imposed a single musical taste,” he argues. And indeed, when the first two articles tackle Beethoven and Ke$ha respectively, it seems clear that he’s not kidding around — this book is really going to feature every corner of today’s fragmented musical landscape.

The problem in a book like Best Music Writing 2011, however, is managing to cover this massive amount of terrain while still appealing to the general reader. In his introduction, Ross indicates that he doesn’t want to feature articles that only address a certain corner of the market. But his goals of both universal access and complete coverage seem at odds. In attempting to encapsulate the entirety of “music” while still remaining at an amateur level, the book never really takes off; most of the articles are largely too short to be of any interest. The book reads as schizophrenic and often incoherent, which is perhaps indicative of the music scene in 2011, but is hardly a literary strength.

The major problem for a book like this one to overcome is the integration of the classical music pieces with the more popular reading material. And here, one can find Ross’ fingerprints. Most of the classical articles are of stellar quality, and do a good job reaching out to those unfamiliar with the medium. The winners of the #operaplot contest (a challenge to summarize a full-length opera within a 140-character Tweet) are featured, and are both hilarious and accessible. Next to this, Ann Powers does her best to bring Wagner to the masses in her piece “A Pop Critic Takes On The Ring”. Powers makes the argument that Wagner’s music can be “appealing to today’s pop music fans, who “relish being bombarded with images and sound, and who like their stars to transform onstage, all the way to the edge of the grotesque.” It’s not a perfect argument, but it’s a nice attempt to integrate the two worlds.

Even the more technical classical pieces make for good reading and some thought-provoking material. Jeremy Denk’s “Jetlagged Manifesto” is both a good take on the stultifying effect of classical “program notes”, and an excellent example of how some of the best music writing in the year 2011 is not even being published in major titles (the piece originally appeared on Denk’s blog). And Wendy Lesser’s “Darkness Invisible”, in which the author listens to a Haas string quartet in pitch darkness, functions both as excellent modern music criticism, and a novel experiment intriguing in its own right.

On the pop side, unfortunately, there’s less material of this quality. Some of the articles appear to be included only because of their subject matter, and not because of their actual content. It makes sense that the editors would hunt down pieces on Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, and Ke$ha, but none of these pieces offer more than a cursory glance at their subjects. It’s a bit disappointing that there couldn’t be more provocative articles about some of the more controversial figures in the 2011 music scene.

Vanessa Grigoriadis’ piece, “Growing Up Gaga”m however, is notable for one paragraph that, while small, nonetheless broaches an interesting topic. She writes that,

“By 2006, labels were asking artists for a “360 deal”: Instead of financing an artist’s recording and then owning the masters, they wanted to share in the rights that traditionally belonged to the artist, like merchandise, live revenue, and endorsement fees… With her 360 deal, Lady Gaga doesn’t own as much of Lady Gaga as one would think.”

It’s an interesting appraisal of the modern pop music scene, but one that hardly comes as a shock: art and commerce are as tightly bound together as ever, even in this age of digital options and market fragmentation. The point is driven home even more directly in Chris Norris’ excellent article about the commercial ambitions of Will.i.am.

“With Dipdive [Will.i.am’s upcoming social network], he plans to build an entire distribution system — from singer’s voice to user’s earbud. Selecting artists from various fields on a ‘dopeness’ criteria, Will.i.am says Dipdive’s filtered, curated social-media platform will unite millions of ‘partners’ and play a role somewhere between ad agency, record label, radio and TV network. ‘That’s coming in 2013,” says Will.i.am. ‘The biggest artist is going to do it all: play produce, remix and distribute music.”

It’s no secret that there’s more to music than merely artistic talent, but it’s both a shock and a breath of fresh air to see a character such as Will.i.am be so direct about his commercial goals. As Norris describes Will.i.am’s calculated, formulaic process to writing pop songs, one is divided between the sickening feeling of confirmed suspicions, and a grudging respect for a man who knows how to play the system.

But apart from these fascinating views on the steps the music industry is taking to stay relevant in the 21st-century, most of the other pop articles in Best Music Writing 2011 fall flat. The articles on metal and country also feel like cursory additions, the editors wanting to make a grab for every corner of the musical market without digging deep enough to find any worthwhile reading. And a good deal of the pieces are merely decent writing about subjects it’s hard to believe we’re still talking about in 2011. Yes, there’s some nice stuff on Michael Jackson, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and the Everly Brothers, but are these figures really the best that 2011 musical writing has to offer?

The best article in the entire anthology might be Kalefa Sanneh’s piece on hip-hop. Sanneh is nominally reviewing Jay-Z’s book Decoded, but uses the opportunity to take the reader through the entire history of rap lyrics, approaching these words with the analytical eye of a classically-trained musicologist. The conceit of a New Yorker writer tackling hip hop might seem as ridiculous a concept as Ross’s goal of featuring the entire field of music in one volume. But here, as Sennah guides the reader through the language of rap artists’ enjambments, internal rhymes, and uneven line lengths, the combination of academic pretense with the street sensibilities of hip-hop somehow comes together perfectly.

Sanneh’s article achieves what Best Music Writing 2011 spends the entire book trying to do: write a deep but universally accessible article on music, one that would appeal both to teenage rap fans and aged white-collar New Yorker readers. But the rest of the volume spends too much time attempting to reach this magic formula. Most of the articles end up either veering too far to one side, or feeling pat, overly-short, and undetailed. Best Music Writing 2011 features some decent classical music writing, some OK popular music writing, and the general feeling that the music scene in 2011 is more fragmented and less reconciliable than ever. Depending on your musical taste, you might find this a good thing, but in the end, it makes a concept like this book a hopeless exercise in quixotism.

RATING 6 / 10