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Music Theory

  Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002
Jonathan Lethem (editor)
Da Capo Press, 2002
Rating: 3.7

Posted: December 16, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Writing about popular music is a tricky proposition. Especially if you want to do it well, in a way that will hopefully touch readers in the same way that music touches us. There are countless newspapers, magazines, web sites (not this one, hopefully) and other forums scattered across our great land, littered with examples of uninspired (and uninspiring), poorly thought-out album reviews and artist interviews: some self-consciously pander to their readers' supposed sophistication level (any of the countless British guys' mags, major newspapers targeting everyday readers who don't want to be challenged); others work within a too-confining genre framework (heavy metal magazines); others just employ flat-out bad writers and/or oblivious editors.

True, there are tons of worthy forums as well, but unless you have nothing better to do, you're likely not all that current with all of the choices available. Who's got the time and resources to sift through The New York Times, Salon, The Oxford American and countless alternative weeklies? Who has the patience to sort through Rolling Stone and Spin for ever-diminishing returns, or mine sites like the clique-ish Pitchfork for the all-too-rare occurrence of real insight amid the amateurish quota-fillers?

The beauty, then, of an anthology like the annual Best Music Writing collection from Da Capo Press, is its admittedly quixotical attempt to cull the strongest, most insightful and hopefully even moving pieces into one yearly volume. Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002, guest-edited by acclaimed novelist Jonathan Lethem (Gun, With Occasional Music), does an admirable job of living up to its titular manifesto, which is certainly welcome news. But it's that very title that occasionally trips up the proceedings; that word best is an awfully tricky one.

Simply put, there are a few different strains of "good" music writing on display, and they're not always complementary. For instance, there's Charles Aaron's "Don't Fight the Power," originally printed in Spin, a humorous and heartfelt ode to the classic power ballad. But Aaron overreaches, broadening his definition of the "Power Ballad" (note his use of caps) to include songs from Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Staind. He does touch on the classic power ballad as most of us understand the term -- the paradoxical Bic-lighter moments that introduced the otherwise (allegedly) hard-rocking likes of Poison and Warrant to the masses. But in widening the tent to include the likes of Eminem's "Stan" and Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge," Aaron seems to recast every rock song that chugs along at something slower than mid-tempo, and dilutes his defense of such balladry's redeeming properties. "(Power Ballads are) about shattering illusions of perfection and immortality. When these songs ambush you in the backseat of your parents' car, or after your true love calls you an asshole on a busy sidewalk, or when you're eating chicken wings alone at Chili's, a sense of relief can engulf you," he writes. As you can see, "good" writing, in this case, refers to Aaron's easy, accessible style, rather than the strength of his reasoning.

Then there's Nik Cohn's "Soljas," a sort of cinema-verite that flits between the perspectives of a handful of people surrounding New Orleans' gangsta-rap culture (most notably as practiced by Cash Money Records). Cohn does manage to squeeze in a bit of journalism, introducing newcomers to the particular roots of the Crescent City's unique strain of the genre, and detailing the rise of Cash Money's masterminds. But the reporting is obscured by a very hip-hop kind of grandstanding, as Cohn relies on the flash of his multiple points of view to move readers without actually offering them something resembling his own point of view.

Not all of the show-off stuff collected here is detrimental. Sasha Frere-Jones' "Haiku for Eminem" is affecting, if entirely contrived. And Kate Sullivan's "J.Lo vs. K.Sul," a first-person examination of the deadening cult of celebrity by which magazines like Rolling Stone make us feel inferior to the Jennifer Lopezes of the world, makes a strong case amid its grating, personal journal-style sermonizing.

Thankfully, and of course, Best Music Writing 2002 is ultimately redeemed by writing that lives up to the book's title in the best way. There's some good writing to be read here, from "It's Only Rhyming Quatrains, But I Like It," John Leland's dissection of the ongoing debate as to whether rock lyrics are poetry, to Mark Jacobson's "Tangled Up in Bob," a harrowing look at the underworld of Bob Dylan fanaticism. Likewise, Joey Sweeney's "Days of the Nu" (a critical look at the somber "nu metal" genre), Simon Reynolds' slightly fawning but informative Radiohead article "Walking on Thin Ice" and "Gettin' Paid," Kelefa Sanneh's intelligent breakdown of "Jay Z, criminal culture, and the rise of corporate rap" -- all are strong examples (among many more) of music writing at its best: equal parts engaging, informative and thought-provoking.

Given its almost impossibly subjective mandate, Lethem manages to keep Best Music Writing 2002 on the right track more often than not. For every puzzling error (Steve Erickson's narcoleptic list of 100 quintessential Los Angeles tunes), there's a moment of true brilliance (The Onion's "God Finally Gives Shout-Out Back to All His Niggaz") or surprising wisdom from the mouths of fans ("Strokes Thread," a series of postings from That balance makes this recommended, if just short of essential, reading for anyone enamored of music and the criticism, journalism and philosophizing of those who write about it.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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