Tag Archives: 33 1/3

Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson (33 1/3 series)

Carl Wilson’s book about Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk about Love is apparently the best-selling volume in the 33 1/3 series; of those I’ve read so far, it’s also the one that diverges most boldly from the usual parameters. Whether its success is because of its unusual approach, or simply because it’s about a best-selling artist, I don’t know; one would have to undertake the same kind of sociological survey of its buyers that at one point Wilson draws upon in relation to Dion’s audience.  My guess — by which I mean my prejudice — is that this sold to the usual 33 1/3 readership, and didn’t make great inroads into the Dion fanbase; but that’s just the sort of prejudice that Wilson seeks to examine.

Wilson 333 jacket

I was sceptical at first about Wilson’s style, and the way that he seemed to be stretching out relatively thin materials with verbal inventiveness; but I was gradually won over, especially by the ease and simplicity with which he applied Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas about taste to the question of why people identify with Dion and her music.  The sort of thing that annoyed me is best represented by the opening sentences of chapter 4:

Céline’s passage through the stations of Quebec’s fleur-de-lys-shaped cross, from shameful hick to emblem of national self-realization, tells one story about what Line Grenier calls the “usefulness of global pop.” But it explains less about the globalness of global pop; you could argue her rehabilitation at home reflects Quebec’s contentment to ride along with the steamroller of Anglo-American monoculture as it flattens the world, mowing down regional cultures like so many hectares of rainforest, clearing ground for a Starbucks at every river mouth and a McDonald’s at each desertified crossroads.  Indeed, being a stealth operative of globalization is the most substantial charge Quebec intellectuals still lay against her. (p.39)

I got the point at “Anglo-American monoculture”; the rest of that sentence is designed, if you’re charitable, to inflate the idea and make it memorable; or, less charitably, to pad out the paragraph to the requisite size.

The opening chapter begins very much in the first person, with Wilson recalling the 1998 Oscars, at which Dion was up against (among others) indie songwriter Elliott Smith in the Best Original Song category. Wilson’s extended account of that evening allows him to establish iconic representations of two major forms of taste in popular music: mass-market commercial pop, and self-consciously ‘minor’ indie work. The same Oscars also set James Cameron’s Titanic (in which Dion’s rendition of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ was featured) against Harmony Korine’s Gummo: again, mass-market vs. indie.  The rest of the book works to investigate why we create such oppositions, and to find a way of standing outside the reader’s presumed preference for the ‘elite’ segment of popular culture.

Chapter 2 offers more of an argument, an account of how taste is wrapped up with personal identity. Wilson is interestingly reflexive about how ‘difficult’, ‘underground’, and innovative music might signify: he admits that he prefers to write about ‘knotty music like art rock, psych-folk, post-punk, free jazz or the more abstract ends of techno and hip-hop’, and identifies his underlying justification for this preference in the idea ‘that “difficult” music can help shake up perceptions, push us past habitual limits’; in other words, though he doesn’t cite a theorist, the sort of justification for difficulty advanced by Victor Shklovsky in his essay ‘Art as Technique’ (1917). But for him, he realises, Dion’s music is more ‘difficult’ than any ‘postmodern noise collage.’  We might want to stop and ask whether those two kinds of difficulty are really the same, but Wilson strides over that problem, and launches himself into his ‘experiment in taste.’

Chapter 3 begins a strand in the book that considers the specifically Canadian aspects of DIon’s identity, and, within that, the the specifically Québécois aspects of it. Wilson outlines the division of the Canadian Francophone music market into ‘chanson’ (the more highbrow end) and ‘variety-pop’. International ignorance of Quebec means much of what Dion says doesn’t make sense to the outside world. North American cultural coding of music markets into ‘black’ and ‘non-black’ don’t have a space for Québécois.

Chapter 4, the one that begins with the overblown paragraph above, tackles Dion’s place in the international market.  Here, for a few pages, there is almost too much information, and too little digestion, as Wilson quotes eight accounts of Dion’s place in different national cultures from around the world.  I’d have welcomed a bit more analysis of the subtle differences between these quotations, but Wilson’s argument is that global hegemony is often complicated by creolisation: those in the Anglophone world who criticise globalisation presume that the world ‘will automatically become more like us‘ are betraying a chauvinistic assumption.  One version of the argument is that the music is consumed according to local practices, and the songs that become successful and for which the singer becomes known will depend on those practices; another version, which is relevant in Dion’s case, is that the global corporation selling her music will encourage her to record or re-work material for the tastes of local markets: she has approached Japan, France, and Latin America in this way.

‘Let’s Talk about Schmaltz’, the fifth chapter, provides some historical context for the American love of ‘parlor songs’ and other sentimental popular forms, with Charles Hamm’s study Yesterdays (1979) providing some authoritative support. It’s notable that these forms have often been associated with recent waves of immigrants, whether Irish, Italian, or European Jewish. ‘Céline Dion’s music and career’, comments Wilson, ‘are more understandable if she is added to the long line of ethnic “outsiders” who expressed emotions too outsized for white American performers but in non-African-American codes, letting white audiences loosen up without crossing the “color line”‘ (p.58). More immediate antecedents in the 1970s are found not in Barbra Streisand (too Broadway, too self-conscious), but in ‘the nostalgic showmanship of Barry Manilow or Neil Diamond’ (p.60).

Chapters 6 and 7 were less interesting to me: the first of them, ‘Let’s Sing Really Loud’, is about the bigness of Dion’s voice, and the troubling sense that there is no personality behind it.  In this, she may be contrasted again with Streisand: Streisand imposes herself on a song, while Dion appears to be the impersonal conduit for her material.  The following chapter is more theoretical, considering the apparent incompatibility of ideas of taste with ideas of democracy and popular satisfaction.  Vitaly Komar and Alexandir Melamid’s Painting By Numbers (1997) is Wilson’s key text here, with its hilarious statistical identification of the most popular possible painting, a ‘dishwasher sized’ picture of rolling hills, blue skies, and blue water (p.75).

Chapter 8 is where Bourdieu comes in explicitly. There’s a lovely concise analysis of the indie-kid cliché of ‘I used to like that band’ as meaning I used to like them ‘until people like you liked them’ (p.93): it’s all about differentiation of personal identities. I was also interested to read about Richard Petersen and Roger Kern’s idea of ‘omnivore’ taste, even if, on a little reflection, it’s only what Jean-Francois Lyotard had identified in the late 1970s as postmodern eclecticism: ‘one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong’.  The upper classes, rather than adopting the taste position of the snob, are now eclectic; Petersen and Kern speculate ‘that the shift corresponds to a new elite requirement to be able to “code switch” in varied cultural settings, due to multiculturalism and globalization’ (p.96). However, cautions Wilson, no one is a true omnivore: to have taste is to exclude (p.97).  Your omnivorousness is thoughtless in its eclecticism, while mine is carefully ‘curated’; your code-switching smacks of desperation, while mine displays the approved brand of self-aware irony. Or so I like to believe.  The chapter ends with Wilson following in Bourdieu’s path and analysing a market-research company’s account of the demographics of Dion’s American consumers.

In the next chapter Wilson as first-person persona looms larger again, as he attempts to go beyond the abstract market-research statistics and meet some real Dion fans in Las Vegas.  (Dion had a show there for several years.) Tragi-comically, as soon as he’s arrived he realises he can’t go through with it, and he ends up making contact through the internet with a very small sample of fans. Most interesting of these, because the most self-aware about how her love of Dion didn’t fit her interests in serious literature and experimental theatre, was the fourth interviewee. Her lack of patience with the way that ‘indie’ taste is just as motivated by external pressures as mass-market taste is a particularly illuminating confirmation of the more theoretical arguments in the book:

“the concept of trying to know who the next-big-thing is just seems so difficulty and exhausting . . . And if someone goes, ‘You don’t like that, you’re not cool’, I’m like, ‘I’m not cool. That’s okay.’  . .  I’m fine with my obsession because I don’t think it makes me any less intelligent.” (p.116)

(One might remark from that last phrase that this is someone whose sense of distinction comes from her belief in her own intelligence and sincerity, rather than from her sense of ‘taste’ being important.) Likewise:

“I just don’t like being told what i want.  It almost comes full circle: People who go out of their way to make sure they don’t listen to anything mainstream, they’ve been told, ‘You’re supposed to like this,’ and then they’re like ‘I don’t want to like this.’  But then these people have their own ‘Celine,’ and everyone is supposed to like that.” (p.116)

What this also points to is that, if we agree with Bourdieu, having good taste was never really about the internal possession of good taste, and was much more about the public display of that taste, the making of statements (explicitly or otherwise) that would help to differentiate you from others.

Chapter ten considers cover versions of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ in a punk mode, and asks what such ‘ironic’ reworkings of a mass-market song do in terms of cultural value.  There’s a good account of the way that elite culture disdains sentimentality as the worst possible aesthetic sin, and a sceptical step back to ask whether within elite taste ‘subversion’ fulfils the same function as sentiment.  And he notes, following Thomas Frank (The Conquest of Cool) and Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter (The Rebel Sell), that ‘anticonformist impulses are the octane of consumerism’ (p.125):

The kind of change implored in the music of strident sarcasm — freedom, equality, less authority — aligns handily with a ‘new economy’ whose trade and labor market needs require a more ‘flexible’, mobile, multicultural social structure (pp.125-6)

In other words, the slogans of enlightenment modernity have been co-opted by a consumerist modernity.

Chapter Eleven finally engages with Let’s Talk about Love on a track-by-track basis, but not in the usual 33 1/3 mode of close analytical reading, but in the form of a review for a fictional music magazine.   Chapter Twelve turns to larger questions: about the different ways that we might love music, and about the tragic decline of what Richard Sennett terms ‘public man’ (in a gender-inclusive way): we don’t have a democratic public realm: what Wilson means by democracy is not ‘a limp open-mindedness’ but ‘actively grappling with people and things not like me’ (p.151).

It’s often the case that a good 33 1/3 book sends me back to an album to listen to it again; ideally I hear things that I’d never heard before, or appreciate it with a new depth.  That was never going to be the case with Let’s Talk About Love. Not just because I have never knowingly heard the album or any of its songs, but because the object of the discussion isn’t so much the album as the things that surround it.  For all that Wilson engages with schmaltz and the distinctive qualities of Dion’s voice and her readings of established songs, it’s not the musical fine detail that he wishes to discuss; rather, it’s the fine detail of the social processes that shape her reception. Books in this series that focus on context at the expense of the music can be frustrating, but in this case Wilson’s approach has created a fascinating survey of the production of value in modern popular culture, and a good introduction to Bourdieu for a general readership.


Use Your Illusion I and II, by Eric Weisbard (33 1/3 series)

I not quite sure why I chose this 33 1/3 book; possibly I thought it might be interesting to read about music that I’ve never deliberately listened to.  My partner plays Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” from time to time, and I’m in some way fond of its closing section and the way it runs through every heavy rock cliché in the book and pushes them all that little bit further.  But “Sweet Child of Mine” didn’t appear on Use Your Illusion. The only track I’ve ever knowingly heard off it is the cover version of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”  I’d never been keen on heavy metal, even less so hair metal, and when the album came out in September 1991 I was mostly listening to indie rock. For me, 1991 was dominated by The Jazz Butcher’s Condition Blue and the Blue Aeroplanes’ Beatsongs. I was nowhere near the scene of the crime.

Weisbard 333 jacket

Weisbard was near the scene, and spends most of the book being embarrassed about the fact.  There’s some comedy in this, as in Geoff Dyer’s book about not writing a biography of D. H. Lawrence, but — in both cases — not enough to sustain a whole book.  The book begins with some interesting reflections on the larger changes in rock and its relation to rebellion and corporatist consumerism, and if there’s something worthwhile in the whole exercise, it’s Weisbard’s well-informed awareness of the historical moment of the double album: above all, the moment where the idea of releasing two double albums was possible, and necessary for the kind of band whose career was posited on excess, and where the gesture was about to expose the emptiness of the entire genre.  Part of Weisbard’s running joke is that the albums are just too long for him to be bothered listening to; back in 1991 he had made a manageable tape-length selection.  In Chapter 2 he runs through his reduced length version, before reminiscing about Spin magazine and its place in the historical moment of the early 1990s.  In this, Guns N’ Roses front man Axl Rose becomes symbolic of rock at the moment of its last gasp, where it (seemingly) can’t sustain the hopes that have been attached to it. At this point, Weisbard seems to lose interest, or focus, and although Chapter 3 has many anecdotes of Axl Rose’s infantile misbehaviour and wasted talent, and although these are incidentally amusing, the book becomes incoherent.  Chapter 4 takes us through the various ways in which band and record company repackaged the album.  Finally, in Chapter 5, we have the conventional element of a 33 1/3 book, the track-by-track discussion, here rendered unconventional by Weisbard’s reluctance to do it.  Inevitably, his accounts of some tracks are perfunctory; that wouldn’t be so bad were it not that he also gives short shrift to tracks that would be interesting to discuss within the frame that he had earlier established. He might, for example, have discussed the way that “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, in its bloated and epic scale, becomes “about” rock, about ambition, about the band’s ability to remould and remake Dylan’s song, and the way that in doing so it loses touch completely with the song’s emotional core; it becomes as self-referential as any postmodern ironist could wish, only without the ironic self-knowledge. There are signs in Weisbard’s book that an interesting work could be written about the Use Your Illusion albums, but this one is a missed opportunity.

Dangerous, by Susan Fast (33 1/3 series)

Even though I was never a Michael Jackson fan, Thriller was so omnipresent in the early 1980s, when I was listening to the radio a lot, watching TOTP, etc., that the music from that phase of his career feels quite deeply embedded in me, and even though he later became a figure of fun — “I’m forever blowing Bubbles” — when the music manifests itself as an earworm, the earworm is not unwelcome. That said, by the time Dangerous came out in 1991, my tastes had cohered around indie and its forerunners and I wasn’t taking much interest in chart pop.  I can honestly say I read Susan Fast’s 33 1/3 book without having listened to Dangerous, and I’m fairly sure I’d never even heard it.  And to my surprise, having read her book, I really wanted to listen to it.  That’s a rare achievement for a book in this series.  How does she do it?

Fast 333 cover

Parts of this book are fairly predictable academic stuff — identity politics, postmodernism, and so forth — but Fast does them concisely, and they earn their keep. The book is worth reading because, firstly, the passion of Fast’s advocacy of this album comes across, and by implication her feeling that we should take Jackson seriously as an artist across his career; and secondly, because she’s brilliant at evoking the music and at following up her evocations with analyses of what the music means.

At times Fast presupposes that we share her estimation of Jackson and the shape of his career, Early on, when she’s dealing with those critics who feel he went into a decline as soon as Thriller left the no.1 spot, she’s content to groan sarcastically “OK, got it.” But generally speaking she’s explicit about her position and her strategies, and in particular about the need to establish a new narrative to counter the one of Jackson as a weird recluse.

Fast argues that the album falls into four major chunks, and divides her book up accordingly. This thematic grouping gives her chapters some depth and length, which can be a problem in 33 1/3 books, where authors sometimes cram the analysis of the actual songs into a single chapter (which is never long enough), or sometimes give each song its own chapter (which makes for short chapters).  The first of Fast’s chapters, “Noise,” focuses on the opening group of tracks and the way their noisiness relates to hip-hop: one of Fast’s larger contentions in the book is that in Dangerous, Jackson revitalised his relation to African-American music. There’s some slightly stale discussion of what postmodernism was, and more purposefully, whether it’s a category worth using in relation to African-American culture; but where the chapter really takes off is in Fast’s discussion of the musical details of “Jam”.  She’s not afraid to ask us to listen to what’s happening on the sixth beat in a group of eight; not afraid to note how the melody dips down, in a blues style, from a C to a B.  This precision of detail complements Jackson’s own music, of course — as she puts it early on, his “love of crisp, staccato, complex, knock-you-down rhythms” (p.13) — but would be welcome in relation to anyone’s music. She’s also very good at recognising that Jackson’s voice was an instrument of great range and variety which he played with intelligence and skill: she’s good at evoking the changes of tone in his voice, even within a single song: “The woundedness and angst — and the clean timbre and heavy vibrato — give way to a choked up, stuttering and distorted sound the likes of which we’ve never heard from Jackson before” (p.41).

Ever since the appearance of the “Thriller” video, the appearance of a Michael Jackson album was a multi-media event, and so it’s almost unavoidable that Fast gives attention to other aspects of Jackson as an artist: to the “short films” that were made for some of the songs, to Jackson’s dance performances within them, and to Jackson’s changing image. While at times these discussions feel like a distraction from the music, Fast brings the same precision and insight to them that she brings to the analysis of the record itself. She sees his image as a carefully contrived work of art: “He revived and transformed soul man masculinity and played it against signifiers that were way outside its range: he mashed up traditional machismo with high femme glamour and soft-spoken sensitivity” (p.49).

The third chapter, “Utopia”, begins with a more general discussion of what Jackson was trying to achieve.  Should his work be dismissed as merely escapist? Is entertainment politically conservative? Against that position, Fast draws on Ernst Bloch’s account of astonishment to think about how it might be politically liberatory: ” Astonishment helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating present-ness and allows one to see a different time and place” (Bloch, quoted p.75). The more general discussion leads into an account of “Heal the World,” which Fast sees as the “thematic pivot” of the album; she sees the centre of the album as being composed of this and two other “utopic songs” (p.78). The musical analysis is sharp, particularly her account of the way that Jackson modulates up the chorus about four and a half minutes into the song. She’s away of the way that such modulations are conventionally used “to up the emotional impact with a bang” (p.83), and, by implication, how such conventions have become stale; and she argues that Jackson manages to refresh the convention by “absent[ing] himself completely from this uplifting moment” and, when he does appear, by singing with a curious degree of restraint.  What’s great about Fast’s analysis is the way that she combines a formal account of the device with a larger perspective on its conventional use and a careful analysis of what makes it distinctive in this particular instance.  Although I’d have happily settled for a slightly shorter book that gave less space to the “short films” and to Jackson’s image, I’d also have been happy to read more musical analysis.  Writers dealing with albums that have more complex lyrics often get so intensely focused on ideas, meanings, and ambiguities that they forget that they’re dealing with songs; they could benefit from reading about Dangerous.


Entertainment! by Kevin J. H. Dettmar (33 1/3 series)

Kevin Dettmar is an academic at Pomona College, California, who works on modernist literature, particularly James Joyce, but who has also written extensively on popular music, in magazines and in books such as Is Rock Dead?  (I was introduced to him briefly at the London Modernism Seminar and I contributed a chapter to the Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture that he co-edited with David Bradshaw).  His book on the Gang of Four’s 1979 album Entertainment! is one of the stronger ones in the series, and avoids some of the structural weaknesses that earlier volumes suffered from; but it still left me wanting something more or something different.

Dettmar 333 cover

I came to the book as someone who had heard the album a long time ago, and could see the merit in it, but never felt strongly about it one way or the other.  Dettmar first heard the album as an Anglophile Californian around 1980, and he begins the book from a personal perspective, confessing that the “strident mumblings of art students from Leeds” weren’t always fully intelligible — in the sense of fully audible — to him.  Through the book Dettmar has recourse to the  idea of the “mondegreen” (coined by Sylvia Wright in 1954), as a way of excusing his mis-hearings. It has a function similar to the “boy in the room” in Jonathan Lethem’s book on Talking Heads’s Fear of Music; Lethem is Dettmar’s colleague at Pomona, and is thanked in the Acknowledgements.   Like the “boy in the room,” the repeated recourse to the mondegreen risks being perceived as self-indulgent — one might be inclined to ask why Dettmar doesn’t admit he was wrong and write about the correct lyrics, rather than parade his errors as if they were virtues — but it gradually acquires significance in terms of the Gang of Four’s ideas about the nature of commodified entertainment:

The album’s made up of debate and dialogue: it’s not concerned with figuring out (never mind presenting) answers, but in opening up interesting questions, engendering productive confusion.  Part of this comes through the staccato syntax of the lyrics […]; part, through the staging of different voices and positions in the song […]. In part, too, through mondegreens: this isn’t something a band can program or plan, but when it happens, it’s another way of making  the listener an active producer of meaning, and co-owner of the politics of the songs. (p.140)

The structure of the book also owes something to Lethem’s, in that Dettmar intersperses his discussions of songs with short chapters on “Keywords,” inspired by Raymond Williams, much as Lethem intersperses his chapters with wider exploratory questions about the album.  The other innovative aspect, different from Lethem’s or any other book in the series that I’ve read, is Dettmar’s pairing of songs in each chapter.  While each song is given its own substantial sub-section in each chapter, this arrangement both allows for chapter of a satisfactory size, and more importantly allows Dettmar to break from the sequence of songs as given on the album and to make thematic connections across sides.  And while this rearranging of the album might seem a symptom of a culture of i-shuffling and MP3s, Dettmar is alive to the fact of Entertainment! being a vinyl-era artefact, and, for example, the first song on the second side being a key position on the album. (I’d have liked him to expand a little further on why that was so, and what listening practices were involved with vinyl.)

The keywords idea works well, except that the concepts chosen (Ideology, Nature, Theory, Alienation, Consumer, Sex), and / or the perspective  that Dettmar takes on them, are essentially sympathetic to the band and to the record.  For example, Dettmar uses the chapter on “Ideology” to think about “the popular image of a guy who uses the word ‘ideology'” as “a bit of a bore,” and to explore how Gang of Four avoided the earnestness that might have followed from their having such a clear political position:

No one buys an album, or attends a concert, to be scolded, and the ideological critique undertaken by Gang of Four always contains a wary consciousness of their own inability simply to quit those behaviours, to transcend those attitudes, that they critique in their songs as a species of bad faith (p.32)

These are keywords needed for a full appreciation of the record, but not necessarily the keywords that would provide a critical perspective on it.  How might the book have looked if Dettmar had explored, for example, the critical history of “reflexivity” in the post-punk era: the tendency of the more intellectual end of the music press to praise bands who were highly self-conscious about their processes and their position in the music industry; and who, more to the point, displayed that self-consciousness prominently. And how might it have looked if Dettmar had noted that such self-consciousness became just a little too straightforwardly assimilable into the discourse of literate rock journalism?  Other keywords that might be explored would focus on the music and the sound of the band and of others in that post-punk era: “funkiness,” let’s say, but also “space” to encompass the tendency of bands to eschew reverb and echo effects in favour of a hard, dry sound.  

Generally speaking, Dettmar’s account of the record is led by the ideas and the lyrics, and if you didn’t know the record you could be forgiven at the end for not knowing what it sounds like; more seriously, if you did know the record, at the end your understanding of the lyrics would be much deeper and more nuanced, but I’m not sure the same could be said of your understanding of the music, or of the lyrics as things that exist within music.  When he does talk about the music, it’s always interesting and attentive to detail: for example, the way that “I Found that Essence Rare” begins with the same four-note figure repeated sixteen times, and the difference it makes in the John Peel sessions version when they repeated the figure only eight times before properly beginning the song.  With sixteen repetitions

they begin to call attention to themselves . . . and to the structure of the song . . . and, by implication, to the structure of pop songs writ large.  It’s another example of Brecht’s “alienation effect”: when the opening phrase is played eight times, it’s invisible; when it’s held for twice as long, the listener is forced really to listen. It’s just one of the ways that Gang of Four messed with pop song conventions (p.111)

Dettmar is also alert to the way that the “drama” of “Damaged Goods” is sharpened by the technique of instrumental dropouts borrowed from dub reggae, as are other songs, though his conclusion on this point — that the effect is to provide “different kinds of framing for the vocals” (p.125) — is frustratingly generalized.  I’d have liked to hear more about what effects those altered frames have on the lyrics, and to hear speculation about how the lyrics might work differently with different frames.



Fear of Music, by Jonathan Lethem (33 1/3 series)

I hesitated before reading this one, on account of an Amazon review which complained that there was no original research into the making of the album, and implied that Lethem put himself and his own subjective response at the centre of the book. I probably should know Lethem’s novels, but I don’t, so Lethem himself isn’t of interest to me.  But I’ve enjoyed Kevin Dettmar’s book on The Gang of Four’s Entertainment, and in it Dettmar thanks Lethem, who’s a colleague at Pomona; and I’ve enjoyed the sheer variety of ways of writing about music that you find in the series, so I took the plunge.

Lethem 333 cover

The big conceit running through the book is that Lethem the narrator is also trying to account for and take into consideration the feelings of the person he was when he first heard the album, “the boy in the room” in 1979 in New York City.   At times the playing between the two positions is self-conscious and showily written, as in this passage in first “Prelude,” where Lethem recalls hearing an advert on the radio for the new album:

But we’re ahead of ourselves. The boy hasn’t heard Fear of Music yet, just the words “Fear” “Of” “Music”. (Is it “Fear-of” music?  Of what would “fear-of” music consist? Is fear made of music?  Can an album be afraid of itself?)  For the signal peculiarity of the long-lost Fear of Music radio spot is that though it was a commercial for an album, it didn’t consist of any actual music.  It was a map that not only wasn’t the territory, it didn’t consist of more than the word “map.” A connect-the-dot diagram with only one dot. An artifact inviting you to consider your now possible future encounter with a subsequent artifact.  To presume to say more would have been to betray the spirit of not-yet-knowing which still shrouded, for the boy in room, merely the whole area of everything that matters most: cities, drugs, sex, music, memories, life. (p.xi)

Reading this, I wondered whether this book was going to irritate me on an epic scale.  I turned out to be wrong.  Much later on (p.103), in his account of the song “Animals,” Lethem digresses self-indulgently into an account of himself as a forty-something father who walks the family pet and how he connects to the nine- or ten-year old proto-boy-in-room who also owned a dog.  The passage is witty enough in its own right, but I’m not sure it takes us any further forward in understanding Fear of Music.  But that passage isn’t typical.

If you recognise the boy-in-his-room a trope, then Lethem can largely be acquitted of the charge of self-indulgence.  The trope allows Lethem to negotiate between what he knows as forty-something adult and writer and what he residually feels because of the intense reactions of his teenage self, and as such it’s interesting and subtle.  There are songs that I heard with great intensity when I was fifteen or seventeen that still feel spine-tinglingly astonishing when I hear them again: I can’t be sure whether these are simply very good songs with sufficient depth to survive repeated listenings, or whether I’m simply being transferred back to the earlier state of mind. So I recognise the problem that Lethem’s dealing with, even if I wouldn’t have dealt with it this way myself. And I also suspect that the emphasis on personal response (setting aside the boy-in-room trope) allows Lethem more freedom when it comes to describing Talking Heads’ music. For though of course he has plenty to say about the lyrics and the underlying ideas, he’s also great at writing figuratively and evocatively about the way this record sounds:

The lunatic optimism of “Mind”‘s ascending guitar pattern and squirting keyboard noises (sound effects for screwball-comedy chemists brewing novelties in a beaker) together with the chipper can-do-ism of the rhythm section, present a burbling wind-up toy that mistook itself for a machine of some great and important purpose (p.22).

Judging by the singer’s tone of panic, those rays passing through paper and self and love affair all too absolutely unmake this song’s effort to “hold on”; the guitars, hypervigilant in their foxholes, seem to agree (pp.29-30).

There is a piano in “Heaven.” The guitars defer to it, This is “the slow song,” not because the tempo’s so different from “Memories Can’t Wait” or “Mind” (and “Drugs” will be far slower), but because the song demands it be understood that way.  The guitars, to this point always doubled up as if in laughter or gasping for breath, now unkink themselves, quit scratching and jeering (p.88).

While I could wish that Lethem would pursue these insights and ask how it is that a song can “demand” to be understood as slow, or how it is that a guitar “defers” to a piano, the basic means of evocation is great, and I wish there were more writing like this in the 33 1/3 series.  And as a one-time bassist, I like it that he’s appreciative of what’s going on down in the engine room, even when it seems to be a mutiny.

Lethem’s figurative mode of expression also allows him to slip some insightful hypotheses into the mix, giving the reader the option of moving straight on, or unpacking them at greater length.  E.g.:

Basically, “Cities” is “Life During Wartime”‘s younger brother, as disco is a younger sibling to funk, more frisky and free, not bearing so many of the burdens of its progenitors. Like a lot of younger brothers, “Cities” parrots some of its older brother’s cherished notions and cheekily contradicts others, or declares them irrelevant, not such a big deal (p.39)

The remark about funk and disco is almost throwaway, but worth chewing over.

Lethem’s approach to the lyrics has the virtues of flexibility and the vices of inconclusiveness.  He tends to quote single lines and playfully explore their implications, but is reluctant, perhaps reasonably enough, to make prominent claims about larger units of the lyrics. Perhaps that reluctance is acknowledges that the lyrics are always fragmented; “I Zimbra”, which he discusses in terms of Hugo Ball and Dadaism, is the most extreme instance.  The readings of the lyrics are an entertaining performance, but I’d be hard pushed to summarise Lethem’s argument.

The structure of the book is also well thought out: it’s basically a song-by-song account of the album, but the analyses of the songs are interspersed by more general reflections about the album: “Is Fear of Music a David Byrne album?”; “Is Fear of Music a New York album?”; “Is Fear of Music an Asperger’s Record?” and so forth. Sometimes these questions are prompted by the track that has just been discussed, sometimes their relation to the surrounding material is more arbitrary; but they allow Lethem to take a wider perspective about the band without straying too far from the record itself. And that’s another virtue of this book: it’s informed by a clear opinion about Fear of Music‘s place in the larger history of Talking Heads, but it’s still seriously interested in the record itself; the album isn’t just a pretext for larger musings about the band.

There isn’t any original research in this book in the sense that there is in J. Niimi’s book on Murmur, or Wilson Neate’s on Pink Flag: neither the musicians nor the technicians have been interviewed; Lethem hasn’t looked at contemporary reviews to see whether his views were typical or idiosyncratic.  But there’s research in the sense of thinking about the record, and thinking about how first responses survive in later listenings, and thinking about how to put all of these ideas and impressions into words.  As a book about popular music it’s not perfect, but it’s original and inventive.


Horses, by Philip Shaw (33 1/3 series)

Horses, by Philip Shaw (33 1/3 series)

Shaw Horses

I was particularly intrigued to read Philip Shaw’s 33 1/3 book on Patti Smith’s Horses (1975) because, like me, Shaw is an English Literature lecturer at a British university: he’s a specialist in Victorian poetry working at Leicester. The usual criticism levelled at literature specialists who take on popular music is that they focus on the lyrics and understand the music only as setting–something mentioned, for example, in at least one review  of Christopher Ricks’s Bob Dylan book.  Given that Patti Smith began in part as a poet, such an approach might be more excusable and more relevant than it would for bands where there lyrics are a pretext for a vocal performance; but not ideal. As it turns out, this book isn’t perfect, and the imperfections might have something to do with Shaw’s day job, but he does give a decent account of the music.

The track-by-track account of Horses is very much the end-point of the study. It was, of course, Smith’s first album, so much of the book is a patient and detailed account of how she developed her aesthetic in the years leading up to its recording.  Shaw frames his account with a sketch of his own first encounter with the record, one in which his teenage religious belief plays an important role; it complements Smith’s family background as a Jehovah’s Witness.  His opening chapter takes Smith’s performance at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery on 10 February 1971 as a pivotal moment: it allows Shaw to sketch the cultural context that Smith found herself in as she made her way in the New York music and arts scene.  It’s a really impressive and dramatic way of opening, made possible, as is much of the study, by a bootleg recording. Smith’s early career is as well documented as anyone might hope for.  Shaw ends by noting that the alliances and networks that Smith formed in her early years were crucial to her breakthrough: what he’s quietly aiming to do is qualify the idea that her success was the result of individual genius.

After this opening scene, Shaw backtracks chronologically to sketch how Smith came to find herself in St Mark’s in February 1971. We learn something of the influence of her father, mother, and sister, of the music she listened to, and of the working-class milieu in which Smith grew up.  Shaw is good at treating Smith’s self-mythologisation sceptically, while acknowledging the importance and value of such myth-making. However it’s in this chapter that one of the less successful (to my mind) strands of the book emerges, as Shaw tries to account for the power of music in terms of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the ‘semiotic’, a pre-linguistic babble that has strong associations with the maternal bond.  ‘Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!’, as they say on the Left Bank: it’s interesting to see the power of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ in these terms, but there’s an abrupt shift of discourse when Shaw does it, and the strand never feels fully integrated with the other materials.  I should say that my objection isn’t to psychoanalytic literary theory being used in relation to rock music; Shaw reflects very interestingly on the clash between the  kinds of visceral reactions we have to popular music and the cautious attitude to evaluation that characterises most academic engagement with literary artefacts. My problem is partly with the tendency of this kind of Kristevan reading to find the same thing wherever it goes, and that Shaw doesn’t allow himself space to think through the implications, or to make comparisons with other artists, in a way that would make the conclusions more nuanced and less generic. I wonder if what this appeal to theory stands for is the impossibility of finding a descriptive language to trace all the inspired things that Smith does with her voice and the inspired scratches and squeals that the guitarists produce, and the impossibility of finding a language that wouldn’t weigh down that inspiration with a clumsy pedantic heaviness.  But those inspired things aren’t the semiotic: they’re difficult to talk about, but they’re not beyond the symbolic order.

By the end of Chapter 2 we’ve reached the Spring of 1967, and Smith has moved to New York. Chapter Three takes us through the various alliances and explorations that Smith made in 1967-1972: Robert Mapplethorpe, Sam Shepard, the Chelsea Hotel, among others.  Shaw’s key texts are the poems Smith was writing at this time.  The Mapplethorpe connection is well known, but Smith’s period acting in Shepard’s work was news to me, and Shaw convincingly argues that it helped Smith become a compelling performer of her own work, inhabiting her songs and delivering contradictory feelings (p.57).

Chapter Four, covers the years 1973-1975 in which Smith moved from being a poet to being a singer and musician, and accordingly it’s in this chapter that Shaw begins to take music seriously as music. Smith secured a support slow for the New York Dolls, and Shaw is interesting on the ambivalent relation of the Dolls to the Rolling Stones, both ‘camp parody’ and an attempt to ‘rekindle the fire’ of 1960s rock.  He’s especially interesting on the influence of the film musical Cabaret (1972) in reviving the validity of cabaret song and Sprechstimme as a musical style: I can’t help wondering if there’s not a whole book to be written about Cabaret and 1970s rock music.  He’s also evocative about the way that in this period Smith learned to break with regular rhythm, both in her poetry and in her song performances:

Smith […] was allowing her voice to discover its own rhythm, choosing in the instant whether to slow down or increase the pace of a line, adding or deleting emphasis as required. But while this new voice was liberated, in formal terms, from the predictability of rock’n’roll, it was also, in its way, becoming more musical.  Partly through her interest in free jazz, and partly as a result of her ongoing fascination with torch song, Smith was learning how to measure a phrase, how to stretch or compress a syllable in order to convey a certain effect. (p.74)

Chapter Five brings us to 1975 and the recording of Horses in New York and a track-by-track analysis of the songs in their recorded versions.  Shaw is again convincing in his accounts of Smith’s vocal performances, and alive to her modulations of tone, but less detailed when it comes to the other instruments.  Here he is discussing part of ‘Gloria’:

In the space of a single line, for example, ‘I I walk in a room you know I look so proud’, the voice moves from an impassioned sobbing effect (‘I I walk’), to breathiness (‘in a room’), to hard and nasal (‘you know I look’), to clipped and cocksure (‘so proud’).  Further along, the sense of solitary defiance is emphasised by the casually slurred ‘I go to this here par-ty,’ the closed croaked effect of ‘bored.’ (p.104)

Shaw is more willing than some writers in this series to talk about the particular sequences of chords that are being played, and to speak about modulations; but very often his discussion of the music follows the discussion of the lyrics, and is less detailed, as if music were merely the setting for the lyrics and not a thrilling and energizing thing in itself.  One might argue this is appropriate to Horses, that what’s most original and distinctive about the album are the lyrics and the vocal performance, and that however brilliant the band were, they didn’t do anything that wasn’t implicit on the Velvet Underground’s studio albums; but they extrapolate certain elements from the Velvets, and are more various in their influences than that would make them sound.  And, listening to the album again, I wondered if there were even some things in Smith’s distinctive vocal mannerisms that Shaw hadn’t fully accounted for.

A short final chapter considers the reception of the album, though its chronological frame is restricted to 1975: listening to Horses again after reading the book I wished Shaw could have traced at least some of the lines of descent, influence and straightforward theft: I can’t help thinking that the Spacemen 3 borrowed a few chords from Gloria, and more importantly the spacious relaxed vibe of the opening; and more obviously, James’s Village Fire EP and their first album, produced by Lenny Kaye, owe a lot to Patti Smith.  I can see that such a task would be very open-ended, and frustrating because there would always be some line of influence that went unnoticed, some stray dandelion seed that landed on the other side of the fence; but it would make a more persuasive case for the importance of the album.

Pink Flag, by Wilson Neate

Pink Flag, by Wilson Neate

There’s a lot to like and a lot to admire about Wilson Neate’s Pink Flag (2008) in the 33 1/3rd series, and if in the end I have my reservations, they’re primarily reservations about the album, and reservations about the book only because Neate didn’t anticipate me as its reader.

Neate Pink Flag

Neate opens personally, narrating over two and a half pages how he first heard Wire, but the book really begins with the second chapter.  Here Neate introduces us to the band, member-by-member.  Doing this also enables him to establish some of the main reference points: the bands they were listening to in the 1960s and early 1970s; art school and Brian Eno. Here, as throughout the book, Neate draws on extensive new interviews with the band members.  Chapter three traces how they fitted into the punk scene, which they were part of, but which was settling into cliché by the time of their first performance. They were significantly older than many punk bands (the oldest, Bruce Gilbert, turned 30 in 1976), and their experience and their art-school background gave them some critical distance from the scene.  Chapter four gives us both an analysis of the main concepts at play in the structures of Wire’s songs, in particular, ideas about framing and subtraction.  And it also extracts the maximum comedic potential from the presence, personality, and removal of George Gill, one of the band’s guitarists in its early phase:

Gill was Keith Richards played by a Yorkshireman, a blunt, acerbic blues-rock purist …. flatmate Slim Smith remembers: “He was the college’s main rabble-rouser, always causing trouble in class and drinking heavily, which occasionally resulted in getting into fights.” Gilbert goes further, commenting that Gill often “looked like he was about to break into a fight with himself.” (p.59)

 The fifth chapter turns to the recording of the album. Neate points to there being disagreement about how important producer Mike Thorne was in creating Wire’s distinctive aesthetic and sound: the release in 2006 of their 1977 gig at the Roxy seems to have demonstrated that the band had nailed it before the producer became involved; on the other hand, the interviews with Thorne that Neate draws on throughout the book create a very sympathetic impression of him, both as regards the technicalities of production and the management of a band who were new to the studio environment and somewhat overawed by it.  There’s also a fabulous anecdote of Bruce Gilbert overindulging in Thorne’s herbal cigarettes on the first day to the extent that he thought they’d completed the recording and could pack up and go home.  (In fact the recording took about three weeks, with another three needed for mixing.)

The chapter of track-by-track analyses draws out the more general ideas in relation to particular songs, and sets further ideas in motion, placing songs on a spectrum of orthodox to experimental.  As there are twenty-one tracks on the album, each analysis is necessarily brief, some of them not more than a page, and in consequence, and by contrast to what went before, the chapter somewhat disjointed.  The final chapter, a mere six pages, considers the afterlife of the album, particularly as regards the revision of songwriting credits.  Neate takes what could is potentially a dry and technical question and uses it to reopen the larger conceptual issues underpinning Wire’s work — above all, what is a song — but it’s still not the conclusion I’d hope for in a really great book.

But I may not be Neate’s ideal reader.  I came to Wire relatively late, via their On Returning compilation CD, and have mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, they were capable of writing the most insanely catchy high-tempo guitar songs —  ‘Dot Dash’ in particular never fails to delight — but in spite of the energy and the at times snarly vocals, there’s something dry and cerebral about their work that means it feels one dimensional.  In this respect they’re like several other late 1970s bands: Talking Heads, another band with an art-school background, similarly accentuate the cerebral.  Likewise with them, I’m always pleased to hear their music, but in some way it doesn’t stay with me.

Neate’s book makes me admire Pink Flag more, but it doesn’t make me love it.  He does acknowledge that the band were sometimes ‘seen as too intellectual’ (p.40) and as ‘sterile’ (p.43), but his book isn’t designed to engage with those sorts of criticism: discussing Wire’s work in terms of framing keeps them at the cerebral level.  It’s much harder to devise a critical vocabulary that will allow the reader to recognise a flicker of an emotional reaction to a band and then to nurture that reaction into some kind of love for them. I wonder if, by interviewing the band and the producer, and building his book around those interviews, Neate got a narrow perspective, as any historian might if working with a limited set of sources.  There’s relatively little by way of quotation from contemporary reviews: how might the book have read if Neate had taken negative reviews as his starting point and worked outward from there?  Having said that, I’ve enjoyed Neate’s writing and analysis, and am tempted to read his later book, Read & Burn: A Book about Wire (2013).

Murmur, by J. Niimi

 Murmur (2005), by J. Niimi

Niimi Murmur

Carefully researched and attentive to small, significant details, J. Niimi’s 33 1/3 book on R.E.M.’s Murmur is one of the best I’ve read so far in this series; and if the four parts of the book aren’t quite integrated, that’s because there are genuine difficulties in trying to account for (i) the history of the band and their cultural context, (ii) the recording of the album, (iii) the album artwork and what it tells us about the record, and (iv) the lyrics.

The jacket of the book tells us that Niimi has worked as a studio engineer, producer, and engineer, and his LinkedIn page adds some detail, saying that he is drummer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, engineer, producer, etc., for Ashtray Boy.  I’m sorry to admit I’ve never heard of this band and their nine albums, but it’s clear that Niimi knows whereof he speaks.  The second chapter, the song-by-song analysis, is particularly impressive for its knowledge of recording techniques; in writing it Niimi has had the benefit of interviewing producer Mitch Easter.  So we find out, for example, that the acoustic guitar in ‘Laughing’ was achieved by having Peter Buck, Mitch Easter and Don Dixon all playing a guitar into a single mike, then recording another track with the tape speed tweaked minutely.  Or we learn that Bill Berry produced a particular pssh-pssh sound using some old oak flooring run through an over-modulated compressor. Niimi assumes that his readership is happy with some talk of ‘resolution back to the tonic chord’ and that sort of basic musicological vocabulary.

If there’s a concomitant problem in this chapter its that Niimi hasn’t at this point presented a strong thesis about the album, and so there’s a danger that we can’t see the wood for the trees, the oak flooring, and the Rotosound drum heads.  In this chapter of the book Niimi doesn’t aim to evoke the experience of listening to the album: I listened to it a lot at one time, but haven’t given it a spin for ten years or so; I found as he talked me through the tracks that I could recall some of the details, but less than was the case elsewhere in the book when he did allow himself a more impressionistic and evocative language.

Niimi begins the book with a narrative account of the coming-together of the band, their early gigs, and their recording of the Chronic Town EP: there’s a particular concentration on different recording studios and what they were able to offer, but not at the high magnification of the second chapter.

After the track-by-track analysis, the third chapter pulls back, considering in some detail the album’s cover image of the invasive plant kudzu.  There’s some (to my mind) digressive material (pp.55-61) on the cassette tape as a medium for the distribution of music (a wholly inadequate one when it comes to cover art), but kudzu takes Niimi to some interesting places: it opens up the question of the ‘southernness’ (in the American sense) of the album, and how far we can understand Murmur as ‘Gothic’.  There’s also a really interesting section (pp.74-8) on the phenomenology of reverb and the imaginary sound spaces that studios can produce, and a citation of an intriguing-sounding essay, David Rothenberg’s ‘The Phenomenology of Reverb’.  (Sadly the book has no Works Cited, but it seems as if the essay in question was first published in 2001, and has only ever existed on the internet; the version I’ve found post-dates Niimi’s book.)  Niimi’s technical knowledge comes into play here, but there’s a larger thesis at work, which instantly recalled the non-naturalistic spaces of Murmur and their unsettling effect on the listener.

The final chapter, on lyrics and interpretation, offers what might be the book’s standout contribution (if we were assessing it on scholarly grounds), in that Niimi identifies and summarises an essay that Stipe had read while a student, Walker Percy’s ‘Metaphor as Mistake’, The Sewanee Review, 66, no. 1 (Winter, 1958).  Unfortunately for anyone working in English Lit, the essay as summarised doesn’t say anything very distinctive: in short, there is a shaky if not arbitrary relation between signifier and signified, and this means that the reader will always be required to bring something to interpretation.  While this might have been a brave thing for Percy to write in the context of the New Criticism and the ‘affective fallacy’, by the era of post-structuralism, it was a familiar theme.  (I should, I admit, go and read Percy’s essay for myself.)

The chapter gets much better when it examines the lyrics themselves.  In particular, it makes some illuminating observations about the absence of the first-person singular and, in other ways, the impersonality of Stipe’s lyrics.  There’s an illuminating contrast with Gary Numan’s characteristic pose of impersonality and alienation — a dramatisation of alienation, or a thematisation of it — against Stipe’s more genuinely peculiar approach: ‘On Murmur there are words and there is singing, but there is no singer’ (p.100). This is insightful stuff, and I’m only sorry that by this point, Stipe and the words have become the almost exclusive focus: I’d have like the book more if Niimi had found a structure that enabled him to talk about the music and the singing and the words at the same time.  Perhaps longer track-by-track analyses might have allowed for a more holistic approach, though this difficulty with that form would have been that most of the main issues would have to be dispatched in the analysis of the first track, leaving the later analyses looking thin, or artificially looking for difference where none really exists.

Marquee Moon, by Bryan Waterman

Waterman MarqueeMoon

I’ve enjoyed reading Bryan Waterman’s Marquee Moon (2011), his account of Television’s 1977 debut album, but it doesn’t have the qualities of the best in the 33 1/3 series.  Waterman’s prose is sharp and to the point, and his scepticism about the band’s creation myth absolutely necessary in relation to an era and a musical movement where the modernist tropes of a break with the past were being recycled. What I’m not so sure about it is the amount of detail he goes into in relation to the early 70s New York music scene, and the networks that Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell worked their way into.  His knowledge of the different sub-scenes is admirable, as is his tracking of venues, musical styles and fashion statements, and he presents this information with admirable clarity, never allowing the detail to obscure the basic narrative of the band’s emergence.  But for all those virtues, I felt frustrated, waiting for a discussion of the music itself to come along.  It takes until p.156 (in a book with pp.211 of text) for the band to enter the studio to record Marquee Moon, and the track-by-track analysis doesn’t begin until p.163.  What we get is insightful, but only rarely do Waterman’s insights into the music and lyrics themselves seem to justify the detailed contextualisation that has come in the first five chapters.  What I wanted more of were moments like the one where Waterman finds a trace of New-York-Dolls-style campiness in the chorus to ‘See No Evil’, or when in relation to ‘Venus’ he notes the New York trend of name-dropping one’s contemporaries.  Although Waterman is alive to the ways the music and lyrics might reference other musicians and other genres, the range of  reference he finds in Marquee Moon suggests that the New-York-focused contexualization might have been too narrow: it’s not all the Dolls and the Velvets and Patti Smith; instead there are references to the Robert Johnson, The Yardbirds, and Richard Thompson.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh.  I’ve greatly enjoyed finding out about CBGBs and the New York scene in the early and the mid 1970s; if Waterman were to write another 33 1/3 book I would — depending on the subject — be interested to read it; but the book is a reminder of the gulf that separates contextual knowledge and formal analysis, and the difficulty of making the two connect.