Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Jeff Chang takes aim on the Da Capo Best Music Writing series. (Funny, when I panned the most recent edition, edited by Matt Groening, I didn't mention any of this, though I suppose I could have. White man's privilege, don't'cha know.)

A few quickie thoughts and/or nitpicks, then:
*Jonathan Lethem's edition of the book was as good as it's gotten so far--his (the 2002 ed.) is easily the best of the series so far. (Conflict of interest alert: I'm friendly with Jonathan.) Though I suspect Chang was referring to polyculturalism when he said "as good as could get," rather than overall writing quality.
*I am greatly surprised whenever I read the words "Nick Hornby" and "topical" in the same sentence, but I suspect that's my bias more than anything.
*As a recent re-transplant to Seattle, I understand what Chang means about the series' New York-centricity--though I'll also freely admit to having that bias myself, at least as far as what I like in my music writing and/or coverage. (The fact that I only lived in New York a little over two years has little or nothing to do with this outlook; Minneapolis breeds rock critics like larvae--note metaphor, ahem--many of whom either have their sights set on New York, and sooner or later end up either writing for NY-based outfits or moving there. See myself, Jon Dolan, Laura Sinagra, Keith Harris [now in Philly], Mike Wolf, and Will Hermes, for starters. In fact, just see Peter Scholtes's piece on the "Minnesota rock-critic Mafia.") What Chang never mentions, though, is how New York writing differs from non-New York writing; I'd be interested in an explication of the difference(s), either from him or someone else. (Or everyone else.) And no, I don't mean English writing--Jeff is clearly talking about (American) coastal differences.
*As you'll notice from the pan linked above, I was not a fan of Lawrence Joseph's Detroit soul piece, but since Chang likes it so much I'll go back and give it another try, probably tonight, maybe later.
*A general observation: Hip-hop is indeed the biggest music on the planet, there are dozens of black or nonwhite-identified styles that have been overlooked in re: Da Capo's coverage--and without looking I cannot for the life of me remember one single country piece in any of those books. Country is not a genre I claim any expertise about, but considering that these are books aimed at an American market, that's as much an oversight as any, don't you think? (And naturally, as soon as I typed that, I remembered one: David Cantwell writing about "Help Me Make It Through the Night." Duh. But again, that's just one. Maybe I'm wrong.) This isn't to refute Jeff's point, either--just to point out that class would seem to have at least as much to do with the selection process as race, consciously or (more likely) not. See also the fact that Keith Harris's amazing piece on summer hits from City Pages--probably my favorite music article from 2002--didn't even get an Honorable Mention in the most recent edition of the book. Rockism appears in many more guises than just the marginalization of hip-hop, you know.
*Big points for pointing out Groening's asinine dismissal of the state of pop music today. It sure does seem "dismal," especially if you're not actually listening to any of it.
*Chang is right to call out pre-hip-hop-era biases, but I wish he'd picked better print-mag counterexamples. XLR8R and Urb are not very good magazines--the year-end issue of the former was one of the most embarrassing 2003 wrap-ups I've read anywhere (and believe me competition is NOT thin on the ground in that category), and despite the fact that I've contributed to the latter, in good conscience I had to stop buying it earlier this year. I do love Wax Poetics for the geekaholic vibe, but little in there has struck me as great writing-qua-writing. I also love Punk Planet for its sincerity and engagement level, though ditto. (Again, maybe I'm wrong--I'd hardly claim expertise in the latter, though I've read as much in the former as I have anywhere.)
*On that note, though, with both WP and PP the best stuff tends to be not the pieces themselves but the Q&A's, especially PP's, which tend to move out from the subject into wider terrain while WP's tend to root inward, e.g. "How does identity play into your music?" vs. "Who played bass on that ultra-rare indie 7-inch you released under a pseudonym?," both of which are GREAT ways to conduct interviews btw but HOLY FUCK is this becoming a tangent. Point being, there seems to be a bit of a bias in the Da Capo series against the straight Q&A format (exception: Vince Aletti interviewing Madonna in the first volume--about visual art, from Aperture, oooh how upscale, too bad it's not really one of her better interviews--which I suspect has more to do with Guralnick's biases toward writers of his own generation than anything) (and I love Vince Aletti, don't get me wrong, but still) in favor of big, overview-y pieces--the stock-in-trade of the New York Times and New Yorker. Which is why I suspect Toure's whatever-happened-to-Lauryn Hill story from Rolling Stone, a great piece, will end up in the next book faster than his Q&A with ?uestlove from The Believer, to my eye an even better one. (It's probably the single music piece I've re-read the most this year--a model of the form, two engaged minds digging deep into a subject they both love, and totally accessible on every level.) Not to mention the fact that the Da Capo series, whether us scribes/fanatics like it or not, are not aimed at us--they're aimed at Joe Starbucks and Jane Enpee-Arrrgh. They're middlebrow on purpose, because their intended audience's idea of cutting edge is, like, Aimee Mann.
*There's actually a piece in the most recent volume that leaves American shores--Susan Orlean's piece on an African record store in Paris from The New Yorker. Not that two pieces total is all that much better than only one, but still.
*I had NO IDEA about Raquel Cepeda's forthcoming book, and I am super-geeked over it now. (Actually, I think Jeff mentioned it once in a blog entry, but its full impact had not hit me the way the mention here does.) Between that, Tim Lawrence's (excellent so far) history of '70s disco, the new anthology about black rock and roll edited by Kandia Crazy Horse, and one or two things I'm probably forgetting, '04 looks like a hell of a good year for music books.
*Thanks a fucking lot for reminding me of John Mendehlsson's horrendous piece on N.W.A in that Hoskins antholo . . . anthol . . . OH MY GOD MAKE THE PAIN STOP! (Chang, I know you big-upped the Weekly's year-end issue and all, but after this, man, I dunno . . . we'll see if I do YOU any favors in the future.)
*I would heartily disagree with Chang's assessment of Pazz & Jop of late "seem[ing] to describe only the tastes of those who already do or would like to write for the Village Voice," because the people who tend to write for the Voice, especially under Chuck Eddy, tend to have some idiosyncrasies tastewise, which is not something I would accuse a consensus that picks Yankee Hotel fucking Foxtrot as the best album of the year (or Elephant or Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, whichever ends up on top this year) of. Or maybe I'm just in Voice-contributor denial.

All of that out of the way, this was pretty much on point. And I'm especially glad to see this appearing (a) in a print venue that its author actually got paid for, (b) around now, the period when year-end madness is at its height re: music lists and/or assessments of the year just past, and (c) as a result of something Chang wrote in a blog, simply because I'm all biased toward my fellow bloggers and shit. (Not that I update mine in any kind of fucking way, really, but you guys know how busy I am, right?)