August 12, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Pasha Malla is an exciting, fresh new voice in fiction. His debut short story collection, The Withdrawal Method, has been justly lauded by critics and showered with awards. These stories mix the familiar with the fantastic in the same vein as George Saunders or Lorrie Moore, but with Malla's distinctive and inventive storytelling skills.
The Toronto Star wrote of the book:
"In his debut short story collection, The Withdrawal Method, Pasha Malla braves sex, death, prolonged illnesses, fraught familial relationships – even a natural disaster. A polished, confident storyteller, Toronto-based Malla steamrollers through uncomfortable situations and everyday horrors with the sang-froid of a crime reporter. He shares what he sees in graphic, lurid detail and dispassionate language."
There's a story I've been trying to write for a long time, one I've done several drafts of and was at one point hoping would make it into my collection. It wasn't ready, though, when I handed the manuscript in last winter—and it still isn't finished a year and a half later. For whatever reason, I just can't get it right.
The story is based around the music I liked when I was in the eighth grade. So, I suppose, it's based on me in the eighth grade, as I think adolescence is defined more than any other time in our lives by the cultural artefacts we attach ourselves to. At that age we're searching for and grasping at anything that might help us figure stuff out, and often we identify with things that articulate aspects of our personalities we aren't even aware of yet.
In 1991, the music I identified with, more than anything else, was New Jack Swing.
The invention of New Jack Swing is credited to Teddy Riley, front-man of Guy, a trio that included Aaron Hall and, initially, Timmy Gatling, who left the group in 1990 and was replaced with Aaron's brother, Damion. Riley describes NJS in a New York Times interview as "music that puts the ingredients of gospel, rap, R&B and pop-jazz together, with a little funk here and there." Drum machines, synthesizers and samplers provide the backdrop to harmonized vocals, and songs generally fit into one of two categories: dance tracks, which often featured guest rappers, and love ballads. New Jack Swing represents, I believe, everything that has ever been right about pop music.
In 1991 there was another type of music that was gaining popularity, a Seattle-based breed of distorted guitar rock that would eventually (and unfairly, I think) define the supposed "sound of the 90s." But it was a sound I didn't understand. What was to like about music made for elbowing strangers in the necks? Music was for singing, music was for dancing, and, maybe most of all, music was for romance. I was an ungainly little guy in gigantic, plastic-framed glasses: nerdy, hairy, awkward—but also implacably horny, pretty much a walking wet dream. I needed as much assistance getting girls as I could find. Making out to the Screaming Trees was not an option; Johnny Gill, however, had a voice like mood lighting, like a reclining chair slowly lowered to a horizontal position, like drinking champagne in a bathtub filled with champagne. To get girls, your music had to be smooth (especially if you were funny looking). New Jack Swing was smooth. Grunge, conversely, would have helped me about as much as full-body acne.
Although its echoes can still be heard in today's singers (R. Kelly) and production (Timbaland), as a stylistic genre, NJS feels forgotten—much like its pre-eminent medium: the cassingle. These little gems were less than five bucks and the B-side was often an instrumental version so you could drop your own vocals. Which I did—a lot. In the eighth grade, every day after school my friend Jeff and I would head to my basement, where we'd pump the karaoke mixes and belt our little lungs out, blissfully oblivious to the homoerotic subtext of two pubescent boys performing synchronized dance-moves and crooning, "I just wanna lay your beautiful body down by the fireplace, baby." But it was all in the service of something larger: getting in touch with a culture and style that attracted ladies like beautiful flies to silk-shirted shit. If the videos were any indication, we'd have them crawling all over us in no time.
Jeff and I sublimated all this into carefully considered mixed tapes. These we recorded from our collective library of cassingles, crafted specifically to soundtrack make-out sessions. A perfect mix would start slow, climax only slightly, and, when one side of the cassette ended, auto-flip over and flow right into the next track—which, of course, saved you the hassle of getting up mid-make-out to change the tape. And while all this might sound sort of pathetic, Jeff and I actually did have girlfriends for most of the eighth grade; these rotated every few weeks, as was the way among all our classmates, male and female, New Jack Swingers (us) and not (everyone else). On basement couches (everything underground, always) we'd cuddle up with these girls, and then try to get their shirts off to the pre-programmed harmonies of Keith Sweat, Jodeci, and After 7.
The story I still want to write is set against this backdrop: it's 1991 and a pair of thirteen year-old boys, (slathered in Drakkar Noir, hair chopped into flattops) aren't just taken in by New Jack Swing—they're living it. They buy every East Coast Family cassingle they can get their hands on, learn every lyric and corresponding dance-step, dress and walk and talk the part. The most crucial part of being NJS, of course, is the theme of every song: loving women right, from head to toe, all night long (baby). And so these kids are hellbent on enticing girls into dimly lit subterranean make-out lairs, where, of course, they cue their mixed tapes and commence seduction—but, naturally that's far less memorable or important than the relationship between the two friends, how they're brought together by this music. Although that's pretty much where it ends. I've got the set-up and the characters, but I've never been able to craft much of a narrative, and every time I try I pull up short; something just seems wrong.
Recently, I've tried to convince friends who didn't listen to artists like Hi-5 and Mint Condition of their important (and largely ignored) place in contemporary music. New Jack Swing, I tell them, has been subsumed into a larger genre (R&B) in a way that other musical styles of the same era haven't: while we have the catastrophe of "post-grunge," NJS is rarely acknowledged when we talk about, say, Destiny's Child's "Survivor" or Usher's "Nice and Slow." But these arguments are lost on my pals, folks who in 1991 were grunge rockers or rave kids. They don't care; they find the NJS aesthetic cheesy and hopelessly dated. Associative cultural reference points—Arsenio Hall, Boomerang, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—they similarly deem to be decent ironic kitsch, but not much else. They're wrong, but it's a tough fight against folks so steeped in cynicism. And, sure, while couplets like "Let me kiss your tears, erase all your doubts/ Cuz for you I'm here, you won't be without" aren't exactly Neruda, there's something undeniably sweet and romantic about the total lack of irony that characterizes the era. Isn't there?
If I ever finish it, I'd imagine my friends will want to read my NJS story as much as they want to hear my rants about Dangerous being Michael Jackson's best record. (Quickly: in his only concerted attempt as a solo artist to engage with popular black culture, at the advice of Quincy Jones, Jackson hired Teddy Riley to produce his eighth studio album; the result, Jackson's finest, most ambitious and contemporarily relevant work, won both Best Album and Best Single at the 1991 Soul Train Music Awards—and, with 32 million copies sold, could well be considered the zenith of the New Jack Swing period). Other than grunge and the beginning of "the golden era of hip-hop," 1991 seems to represent a moment in time that people would rather forget. Even folks I know who owned New Jack City on VHS are embarrassed by this phase in their lives. They've become hardened and cynical, and the photos of themselves rocking purple Cross Colors jeans and a "Homey Don't Play that T-shirt" only inspire shame and regret—one woman I know even threw out her TLC cassettes!
So I'm aware of the audience I'd be facing were I to actually write and publish this story. But that's not what's holding me back. I think the problem is that I idealize 1991 so deeply that were I to really tackle it with fiction, everything might be ruined. New Jack Swing is so hopeful, so positive, so rooted in having a good time (and making sure your lady has a good time, too) that I'm afraid the anti-sentimental tendencies I've learned to apply to fiction writing might upset that beautiful balance. Teddy Riley, Babyface and their followers might, to skeptics, only exist as a flicker in the history of popular music—a brief period to be regarded as awkward and embarrassing—but I will always look back on with warmth and affection. I think of it like puberty: the eighth grade was a time in my life full of discomfort and insecurity, but which I'd much rather remember as nothing but wonderful. My friendship with Jeff, kissing girls on mouldy furniture in the dark, dancing and singing great music—it's so much better, and I think, equally real, to remember myself as a kid in a silk shirt and Reebok Pumps and a flat-top haircut who—sweetly, innocently—convinced himself a little bit too early that he was becoming a man.
Pasha Malla and The Withdrawal Method links:
CBC Book Club lists by the author
Crooked House interview with the author (conducted by his mother)
The Danforth Review interview with the author
Maud Newton interview with the author
The Morning News articles by the author
recommended Reading interview with the author
Tasting T.O. interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy: