January 1, 2009

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Best Music Writing 2008, edited by Nelson George and Daphne Carr (Da Capo Press, 2008, 360 pages)
By Eric W. Saeger letters@hippopress.com

The universe collapses into itself again this year as we indulge in the ritual that equates to dancing about dancing about architecture — writing about music writing.

One thing that needs to be cleared up first is the “year” component: we’re talking about writing that was done in 2007, not 2008. It’s an understandable necessary evil of marketing.

And wow, no lack of instructive content in this ninth attempt. BMW2007, as selected by that year’s guest editor, Village Voice (now NPR) stuffed-shirt Robert Christgau, was an irritating collection of self-indulgent essays that seemed more interested in showing off Christgau’s encyclopedic range than actually helping readers understand the general music environment. BMW2008 spares us the Streisand fluff pieces, pointless performance-art monkeyshines (okay, Nunzilla is here, but they’re a true-blue bull in a china shop) and all the other baloney that made its predecessor into what amounted to an awkward, unfocused, particularly tedious section of the Voice. This year’s comp is fascinating, timely and educational.

In brilliant contrast to Christgau’s look-at-my-hipness, author/critic Nelson George wants to fix things. Off the bat he submits a piece by Zoilus.com’s Carl Wilson that slides indie rock under a microscope and discovers that it’s developed a new great weakness: no longer is the problem just race, as in there’s little musical soul in what Deerhoof does, it’s also class: the growing number of trust-fund ninnies bent on turning underground rock into a wine-tasting party for “hip” sales managers and corporate accounting droids. I like to think I came close to this discovery a year or so ago while being inundated with those disgusting solo albums from Broken Social Scene’s crew, but Wilson enunciates it perfectly.

In the thankless task department, Chicago Reader contributor Noah Berlatsky more or less successfully defends the giant glossy reviled freak known as contemporary R&B. URB magazine’s Brandon Perkins descends into a fanboyish Number 23-like spiral in the sidebars of his Wu Tang Clan interview, but it’s nevertheless an edifying ride.

Some of this is mandatory reading for people in bands, such as Nadia Pflaum’s exposé on Kansas City rappers getting ripped off by fake promoters, while a first-person account of an American Idol tryout reveals a blackheartedness that might dissuade newbies from bothering to waste the day off from work. And if there’s a common theme, it’s that the Internet has almost completely taken over the marketing, promotion and distribution of music. This is seen in an interview with a band that’d be penniless without MySpace and a story on a producer-composer team who couldn’t live without emailing their digital music to people gussying it up halfway across the world.

A lot of ink is used on wayward heroes Sly Stone and the utterly destroyed but still functional Grandmaster Dee, whereas none is wasted on any mummified superstar — what a thankful difference a year makes. A+Eric W. Saeger