Literary Magazine Primer: DaCapo Best Music Writing
Like many aspiring writers, I didn’t start at the top. I started being published at university. My first pieces were in a music magazine I co-edited with some friends, a publication committed now only to our collective memories, résumés and the bowels of the National Library.
I kept writing about music – missives and opinions now thankfully buried under acres of mouldering street press. However, I stopped not long after I realised I would never be able to write about it any better than I did then. Too many hours reading the tripe of my compatriots and being overawed by Lester Bangs’s cough medicine writing sealed my fate. For me, rock writing was dead.
And yet, and yet, and yet I still have a soft spot for the DaCapo Best Music Writing collections (or should that be compilations?). These bumper books showcase the best music writing, ostensibly from around the world but really from and for the most diverse market: the United States.
So what are Americans’ ideas and perspectives on music? Well for starters, Johnny Cash and James Brown appear to be bigger than Jesus, or is that John Lennon? On top of that, hip-hop dwarfs our ‘own’ skip-hop, both in style and substance. The music scenes in the books aren’t just popular music; they cover classical, jazz, country, soul, doo-wop, roots, the blues, and an occasional article on the little-known sub-genre of indie rock. They do tend to show their age at times: the 2001 issue quaintly discusses (insert relevance warning to readers younger than 20 here) Napster.
The best writing in these collections comes in a few guises. The first are those where they pick particular musicians and show readers something they haven’t seen before. The best of the bunch concerns the “Indian” organist Korla Pandit, found out later to have no Indian blood in him at all. The Shaggs article by Susan Orlean also helps to illuminate the story everyone professes to know, but rarely understands.
The articles discussing the mechanics of the industry provide a fascinating glimpse into the ephemeral nature of the business. ‘Who’s That Girl’, by Lynn Hirschberg, follows one teen idol’s attempt to come up with a marketable ‘look’, shuffling and sorting through a number of different guises in an attempt to gain fame. It helped me understand the business and why I hate that type of music so much.
Others, like Nick Southall’s ‘Imperfect Sound Forever’, explain clearly why some music sounds better on record than CD. Forget bit rates and the ‘warmth’ of an analogue studio; it’s more to do with how loud the music is recorded. This has been a common complaint among many true sound aficionados on the recent Beatles money-spinning re-releases.
It’s not all gold, though. The articles on Roky Erikson and Daniel Johnston, while revealing, feel like the same article with some names and verbs changed to protect intellectual copyright. Similarly the “I’m just an ordinary writer hanging out with a band/singer, and guess what? They’re ordinary like me!” articles seem lacking in much beyond fawning desire over writers meeting their idols. The only saving grace of Sasha-Frere Jones’s hideously bad articles is the hope they give me that one day I too can write for The New Yorker.
Thankfully it isn’t all chin-stroking and whinging. Humour pays a welcome visit. The 2001 issue features a hilarious interview with the lead singer of discount bin band Third Eye Blind. The interview takes him to task on the shallowness of his music and his offensive preening and posturing. That he rises to the bait – explaining among other things that his leather-clad macho man strutting is about empowering women – makes it so much more amusing.
They also often feature articles from The Onion, parodying country and western music and hip-hop or God giving it all up for his supporters. My favourite article, describing the carnage after a roof collapse at a Yo La Tengo show, had me self-consciously checking my glasses and T-shirts.
That last thing is what I want with music writing. Not someone to describe to me what it felt like for them to be there, but to make me feel like I’m there. Thankfully these collections generally do.
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