December 6, 2007

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Best Music Writing 2007, edited by Robert Christgau and Daphne Carr (Da Capo Press, 2007, 348 pages)
Reviewed by Eric W. Saeger news@hippopress.com

This is to your average music fan what Whitman’s Samplers are to regular folks who dig chocolate. I don’t believe for a second that people who buy magazines like Spin actually read the overlong articles about bands they don’t like or care about, but everyone has a weird friend who has all sorts of time to invest in forced expeditions off their beaten path. Mental junk food quickly forgotten, their paltry lessons left unlearned, articles about Barbara Streisand and Jay-Z do find their way into the consciousnesses of Radiohead and casual jazz listeners, but it’s a put-on, you know, an eminence front.

With the direction the Village Voice Media music department has taken — toward reader hand-holding and away from obscure Pitchfork-Media-bait bands no one in their right mind has ever heard of, meaning most of the writers needed to get fired — there’s a big red lighted sign pointing to an article the “self”-exiled Christgau chose to include which was written by new Voice music editor Rob Harvilla. Never mind that the piece, written about brain-damaged Bronx rapper Kool Keith, is a rock-solid example (indeed the only template a writer would ever need, to which I can attest, being that I’m the Mike Timlin in the bullpen of one Voice-affiliated paper) of Village Voice Snark v. 2.0: observer as straight man who’s appropriately horny and street-wise as prescribed.

Christgau and the fired Voice writers got themselves into this mess, of course, unlike Chuck Eddy, too smart and good for his own good, who demanded that his writers not write about bands only writers care about. I caught Christgau once comparing such-and-so band to an alt-pop bunch whose MySpace Friend total was barely into the low three digits. Now that’s helpful buyer guidance.

Any way you slice it, though, this book does pay tribute to one of the most thankless tasks on Earth, music writing. For that, it’s comparable to the Best Chinese-Language Animal Documentary Oscar award, another thing you’ll never get exposed to unless you desperately want to. Look at the sad endings of the great rock writers: Lester Bangs, dead from treating a cold with Darvon and Valium while a Human League album played in the background. Chuck Eddy, single parent, suddenly jobless, with no P.O. box to which bands can send albums if he gets his act together later. Me, distressingly handsome and witty, but no telethon to host.

Christgau’s forward includes the shocking news that rock has no political effect anymore. True in America, but not, you know, everywhere else, where war and violence aren’t reduced to jingoistic clichés stickered on the bumpers of SUVs that belong to people who fear knowledge. Arye Dworken points this out in a story about Israeli rappers, who worry aloud about a Holocaust against the Palestinians but are equally stressed about car bombs. “We have so much to say,” says Nafar, the biggest Arab-language rapper on the planet. “The second I have nothing to say, we talk about bling-bling, and then it’s pointless.”

Read that again.

The new model of American cocaine rap gets a nice historical capsulation from XXL’s Kris Ex, who adds some admonishments about little kids getting shot, but throws up her hands in the end because “they’re selling fantasy and we’re buying.” Word.

The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones yammers on and on about Mariah Carey, concluding that Carey is “essentially an R&B singer.” Get where way too many of these award-winning thingamajigs tend to go yet?

Other eye-opening revelations: James Brown, months before he was dead, was formidable and unpredictable (you guessed correctly, of course, that this was reported by one of the Rolling Stone hacks, the only creatures allowed all-access visits to the recording sessions of super-huge legends because, well, because). Here’s a killer flow from a Nation scribe: “Beyonce is part of a tradition of black women’s musical expressions of personal and political discontent.” (Oh. Unlike the ghetto queen beating the pants off the local ice-hard male MCs in spontaneous battle raps, you mean?) And lastly, Barbara Streisand — man, she’s famous and stuff. CEric W. Saeger