Recently, there’s been a major uptick in contemporary authors trying their hands at music writing—or at least writing more frequently about popular music. However high-toned the results may be, their essays tend to be as uneven as any other species of music writing, which isn’t surprising: Music is the toughest of the arts to capture in words, with the added disadvantage that critics don’t get the word-count-eating luxury of recounting plot, unless an album comes with a compelling backstory.
As the subtitle of Peter Terzian’s collection Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers On The Albums That Changed Their Lives indicates, this collection’s backstories are the writers’ own, and the book works best when the authors move away from straight-up memoir—or, as Daniel Handler’s bravura assessment of Eurythmics’ Savage puts it, “When you’re seventeen you can drive around at midnight listening to anything and your life will change.” Handler’s oblique angle—Savage “didn’t change my life in a moment of personal crisis or epiphany,” but by seeping into his outlook and commingling feeling with artifice—is matched by Clifford Chase’s impressionistic fragments on The B-52’s and his final year in the closet (“I’m not describing a straight path toward anything, rather a series of windings”) and Stacey D’Erasmo’s tricky, dexterous take on the difference between relating to Kate Bush’s The Sensual World 20 years ago and not quite doing so now.
More straightforward accounts predominate here. A few are fairly ordinary diary-of-me-then vignettes (Benjamin Kunkel on The Smiths, Kate Christensen on Rickie Lee Jones), but others resonate deeper. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay on American Primitive Vol. II is tremendous: a travelogue about going to interview John Fahey—whose label, Revenant, issued the compilation—that spins out into deeper assessments about the meanings of American song. Todd Pruzan writes a beautiful account of a longstanding friendship with a New Zealand woman set to the soundtrack of the NZ film Topless Women Talk About Their Lives. Lisa Dierbeck presents a tough account of a teen life lived in the mirror image—even before the album appeared—of the tough first Pretenders album. Asali Solomon’s sharp firsthand account of racism in the Dominican Republic is set to a Gloria Estefan record. And Pankaj Mishra’s ode to ABBA’s Super Trouper is a snapshot of a rapidly modernizing India in the early ’80s, when the tape Mishra picked up at a marketplace became a totem of a new world to be—and not just inside the album’s grooves.