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Random Rules: Amanda Petrusich


The shuffler: Amanda Petrusich, a rock writer who contributes regularly to Pitchfork and Paste—and occasionally to The A.V. Club. She's also written two music-appreciation books. The first was a contribution to the 33 1/3 series about Nick Drake's Pink Moon; the second, It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, And The Search For The Next American Music connects Americana's present and past via Petrusich's first-person accounts of traveling through the country, learning about the history of her favorite music. She was a natural to take her iPod for a spin.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, "Breakdown"

Amanda Petrusich: I'm super-excited this song is playing, because I fucking love Tom Petty. I sometimes think that Tom Petty's Greatest Hits is my favorite record of all time. One of the funny things I've always enjoyed about this song is that Tom Petty seems to acquire this really weird accent. It's like half Jamaican, half Eastern European. And I don't think it's something he re-creates on any other track, but he definitely does it here, and I always enjoy it. I also really like the way he screams "Baby!" after the second verse. This is just such a good song. I love Tom Petty.

The A.V. Club: Are you a big sing-along-in-the-car person?

AP: Big time. I'm a pounding-the-steering-wheel, hollering-in-the-car kind of driver. Which is unfortunate because I live in New York now, and there's way less opportunities for that sort of thing. But yeah, Tom Petty is great driving music; it's great anything music.

AVC: Can you do that sing-along thing on the subway? People do that, right?

AP: People totally do that. God, there's people always singing along. I'm not one of them, because I get a little embarrassed. But there's definitely a guy at my gym who plays air drums and sings very loudly out loud on the exercise bike while listening to his iPod.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, "Band Introduction"

AP: This is like 24 seconds of introducing the guys in the band. [Laughs.] That's funny. I've always loved that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has a banjo player who they introduce here. This is from Made In New Orleans, which is a very cool box set that came out after Katrina. It includes old Polaroids and Mardi Gras coins and various other ephemera from Sea-Saint Studios. Which was under 10 feet of water or something, and this was a fund-raising effort that they released afterward.

AVC: Have you been to New Orleans many times?

AP: No, actually, miraculously I've never been. Although I'm going this October, which I'm incredibly excited about. I think it's going to be great.

AVC: Why are you going?

AP: I'm writing an article for Preservation Magazine, which is the magazine for the National Trust For Historic Preservation. I'm actually writing about Mississippi hill-country blues, but I'm flying into New Orleans and then I'm going to drive up through Mississippi and kind of do a travelogue thing. But first, I'm going to spend a few days in New Orleans, just for fun.

AVC: That sounds like a fine life.

AP: [Laughs.] I know, I can't complain. I've been very spoiled with opportunities to drive around listening to music. Which is, of course, one of my favorite things to do.

Jerry Lee Lewis, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"

AP: This is from Jerry's The Country Collection. This is an incredibly sad song; this song kind of makes me want to die in the way that a lot of Hank Williams songs kind of make me want to die, because they're just so good and so sad. I also really like Elvis Presley's version of this song, which is on the Aloha From Hawaii LP. That record, actually, incidentally, has one of my favorite LP covers. I don't know if you've ever seen it; it's Elvis floating in space to kind of demonstrate the live-via-satellite component. This is a beautiful song, an incredibly sad song. Hank Williams has those, you know, drinking-yourself-to-death songs.

AVC: As a fan and critic of new music, are you of the popular opinion that this old music is in some way inherently better?

AP: I know what you mean. I don't know, I'm kind of a sucker for old music. But at the same time, I think people who say that stuff are sort of crazy. There's something really tragic about that, about not being able to find the new and exciting music that's happening now. So no. I listen to a lot of old songs, but every year, I find like three or four albums that just blow my mind. So I'm all for contemporary music, sure. I do have a lot of old songs on my iPod, though.

Kanye West, "Can't Tell Me Nothing"

AP: All I can think of now when I hear this song is that video parody with Will Oldham and Zach Galifianakis. Have you seen that video? He has "turd" written on his face, and he's driving a tractor, and Will Oldham's wearing those really small orange shorts. It's entirely eclipsed any other impression I had of this song. I do remember, the first time I watched that video on YouTube or whatever site it was posted on, people in the comments being really confused, especially by Will Oldham. There was a lot of speculation about whether he was Amish. "Is that dude Amish?" and then the next person would be like, "I don't know, he's using a chainsaw, so I don't think so." Which I thought was pretty great. This is a great song independent of that video, although that's really all I think about now. Sad.

Red Red Meat, "There's A Star Above The Manger Tonight"

AP: An oldie, an oldie but goodie. I'm a big Califone fan, so I sort of got into Red Red Meat through them. I guess it was Tim Rutili's previous band. This is a weird song. That was a weird record, There's A Star Above The Manger Tonight, but I really love it. Califone, and Red Red Meat too, tapped into a sound that I really like, this tenuous, very scrappy, dirty sound that I'm totally into. That kind of goes back to the old music debate… This sounds otherworldly and sort of dangerous in the way that a lot of early Delta blues does. That's what kind of draws me to that old music too, that sort of tenuous nastiness. I think I like music that's a little scrappy, that sounds like they're about to fall apart.

AVC: They sort of pre-dated the freak-folk thing a little, and were maybe a little bit ahead of—

AP: Yeah, absolutely. In the book, I interviewed Tim Rutili a little bit about that stuff. And he listens to a lot of that music, like The Anthology Of American Folk Music, the blues, some of that really weird North Carolina fiddle music. Califone is a very contemporary-sounding band, but I think very much informed by that. And yeah, sure, that's the exact same thing freak-folk guys are doing.

Jackie DeShannon, "Laurel Canyon"

AP: She wrote with Randy Newman, she dated Elvis, she opened for The Beatles. Underrated, I think in some ways. Someone should write a book about her. She wrote that song "Bette Davis Eyes." I don't know, maybe someone has written a book about her already. But anyway, this is one of her rare solo albums. She's got this kind of effortless, sort of husky voice, it's really lovely. I like this song because I like songs about California.

AVC: What other songs about California can you think of that you love?

AP: Randy Newman, "I Love L.A." That's a great song. There are a lot of Tom Petty songs about California. Oh God… I'll have to make you a mix. I should make you a great California mix, 'cause there's a lot of good ones.

Waylon Jennings, "Sally Was A Good Old Girl"

AP: We are getting a lot of old songs today. This song is hilarious. The first line of this song, at least as Waylon sings it, is "Sally used to carry my friends to school, Sally was a big ol' girl." And I don't think Waylon wrote this song, but I'm almost positive that he wrote that line. Waylon Jennings was an incredibly funny guy, which I think is something country music is lacking in these days, which is too bad. Country music's gotten kind of serious. I feel like it used to be a little bit sillier, maybe a little bit more fun.

Ashlee Simpson, "Little Miss Obsessive"

AP: Okay, this one's a little embarrassing. Actually this is not embarrassing, because it's a good pop song, it has a great chorus. I find Ashlee Simpson to be, in general, a sort of weirdly engrossing public figure. Which is strange, because objectively, I think she's probably not very interesting at all. But I totally watched her reality show when it first came on MTV, and she had this kind of great, petulant little-sister faux-rebellion thing going on for a while. Which seemed at the time very real to me, in an Angela Chase sort of way. You know, "I hate my parents, I'm dying my hair and painting my nails black." I'm not sure that I like the new-wave Ashlee Simpson with that weird guy.

AVC: They dress up like they're strange and rebellious, but really they're incredibly normal.

AP: What do you think—you think they sit around the dinner table at night, watch the local news?

AVC: They probably don't, but that's probably what they want to do.

AP: Yeah, you're probably right.

AVC: That's my theory. I'm working on a book about it.

AP: [Laughs.] I'm looking forward to reading that book. Well. I'm glad that I just admitted that that's on my iPod.

The Stooges, "L.A. Blues"

AP: Look, I've just earned back some of my credibility. This song is insane. Kind of what I love about The Stooges is that they were insane in this really literal way. Like, only insane people would write and perform this song, which I think is the last song on Funhouse. Which also brings up the question, what is the proper context for "L.A. Blues"? What are you supposed to be doing while you listen to this? Because I think it has no structure and is mostly squealing and noise. Considering it's the last track on the album, I feel like you've probably already been up to some mischief, so it's kind of an odd denouement. I don't know. It's a tough place to end, but it's a great song. I love The Stooges.

AVC: Do you ever listen to your iPod on shuffle, or is this an unusual exercise for you?

AP: I never listen to my iPod on shuffle. At the risk of sounding old, I'm not a huge iPod person. I kind of only listen to my iPod on the subway, or occasionally when I'm running. I don't know, when do most people listen to their iPods, probably the same story, right?

Hazel Dickens, "Coal Tattoo"

AP: That's another weird old song. This is from the Harlan County U.S.A. soundtrack. I don't know if you've ever seen that movie, but it's this Barbara Kopple documentary from the '70s about coal mining and union struggle. And it's really heartbreaking. It's one of those movies that, whenever I feel whiny about my job or anything, I think "At least I'm not coal mining." It's really excruciating. There's a scene in the beginning of the movie where they are sending these workers down into the mine, and they're on a conveyor belt. They kind of dive down face-first on this little conveyor belt. If you're at all claustrophobic, it's kind of the worst thing you'll ever see. But Hazel Dickens is great, Hazel Dickens is one of my favorite vocalists, and she sings in this way that's sort of raw and honest. It's almost not singing at all, she's almost just hollering, it's got this field-holler vibe that I sort of miss. Women vocalists, at least, have since moved away from that. Now there's a lot of pretty sounds. Hazel Dickens is kind of an ugly singer. But there's something beautiful about that, of course. I saw her perform a couple of years ago, and it was really amazing.

The White Stripes, "Hotel Yorba"

AP: An oldie but goodie. I like The White Stripes. I think they've been maligned since their beginnings. This is kind of a fun song, I like it a lot. I can't think of anything interesting to say about it. It's good to, you know—it is what it is, it's The White Stripes. Sorry, that's a terrible answer. It's angular. No, just kidding.