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April 7, 2015

Book Notes - Lizzie Skurnick "That Should Be a Word"

That Should Be a Word

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

For a couple of years, Lizzie Skurnick's "That Should Be a Word" column in the New York Times Magazine was the second thing I read in the Sunday paper (after the Book Review, of course). The words (and definitions) Skurnick imagined were always creative, socially relevant, and humorous.

That Should Be a Word collects those pieces and adds many more.

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Lizzie Skurnick's Book Notes music playlist for her book That Should Be a Word:


Until I wrote this list, I had not realized how many of the songs I love involve wordplay. Or are, as an old this poetry professor, "incantatory." Or are art songs, or lieder. Or are built on a driving beat because they are, as a friend kindly puts as, "muscular Top 40-dominating dude rock." With a strong counterpoint. With the kind of lyrics you find yourself thinking over and over again at inappropriate times—because, is there any appropriate time to be thinking, "And I with a heart/not softer than a stone" to yourself?

None of this, I now see, is very different from how my brain starts tinkering with a word-to-be—immediately recruiting rhymes and rhythms and synonyms to the task. (Frittata? Mittata! To burn yourself on something you didn't want to eat, anyway? I'm at Le Pain Quotidien.)

Whether the list below comprises a kind of practice or relief, I don't know. Try singing, "Well he says he hasn't got nothing/but he seems to possess less/he walks through the door/like a tapdance with death!" to yourself for a few years, and let me know how the wordplay goes.


"Jzero" by Cat Stevens
In the first few weeks of my son's life, I was obsessed with getting a copy of this record—allegedly for him, but mostly because I could not stop looping the phrase, "Well I don't eat a lot/I do work for nothing, so/if there's a job/I can fill the gap". Yes, I just realized why.

"Allentown" by Billy Joel
Give me a singer imitating a failed industrial machine, and I'm on board.

"I Made a Lover's Prayer" by Gillian Welch
One cold winter after a bad breakup in an apartment building where I knew no one, I survived by listening to this song, followed by Wrecking Ball, over and over again. (Then I would watch Vertigo, or Pride and Prejudice, or the dance scene in Ocean's 12, over and over again too. But song snippets in scenes that make you cry from movies is another list.)

One night, I opened the door to the young woman who lived below me. She looked keyed up and vaguely wild-eyed, but, instead of asking me to turn it down, she asked, with great intensity, "What are these songs?" I told her, and she thanked me, drifted off, and went downstairs, presumably to her iTunes.

"Kid Charlemagne" by Steely Dan
It was hard to choose one Steely Dan song, because I will just listen to Steely Dan all day. You can, because each song has a different (frequently bizarre) mood. "Kid Charlemagne" takes the laurels, because it has the odd effect of creating suspense by seeming like a cult movie you should have seen. What San Francisco nights? What low-rent friends? How did they die? I'm going to ask my neighbor.

"Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" by Elton John
Because I'm 41, I listened to this the most on my mother's cassette tape, which had long ago lost not only the plastic cover but all identifying material. Therefore, for years, I thought "Back to the howling old owl in the woods/Hunting the horny back toad" was "Back to the Alamo [?] out in the woods, huntin' and fightin' like crows." Which I think is a fair substitution.

Kindertotenlieder: Wenn dein muterlein by Mahler
When I was first pregnant, there was nothing I liked better than to walk around Liberty State Park listening to the oboe snake around. Until I stopped, for obvious reasons.

"Jesus Children of America" by Stevie Wonder
First of all, what is the syntax of that title? I love it. Say it again. Also: "Tell me junkie/if you're able/are you planting your cards/on the table/are you happy when you stick a needle in your veins." Holy hell—Stevie is not playing around with this one. Switches from major to minor frequently; strong counterpoint; Jesus on the Cross; sign me up. (See also: "All Day Sucker, Too High.")

"Monkey Man" by The Rolling Stones
I have a friend who claims that Nirvana's "Come As You Are" has the sexiest open to a song ever. No it doesn't. This has the sexiest opening to a song ever.

"Widmung" by Schumann
I don't think you should marry unless you want to sing, "Mein Guter Geist, Mein Besres Ich" to—at—your intended at least once.

"Hot Freaks" by Guided By Voices from Bee Thousand
In grad school, I had a professor who told us the point of formal verse was to "free up the muse"—i.e., distract the conscious mind so the subconscious could create (presumably better) poems. I'm taking a stand that not even caring when when you record a piece of music has the same effect. I don't mean jamming; I mean literally not caring. It is the only explanation for the brilliance of "I will be eternally hateful."

"No. 13 Baby" by The Pixies
I love how the guitar wears out that small bit of melody. I love the counterpoint. I love the slant rhyme of "I made a mistake/I'm in a state." (Is it just "I'm in a state"? I'm not looking it up.) And I love the trippy ending, which is the music I hereby choose for literally any fuzzy image of me on a beach with the sun refracting into the lens.

"Under Pressure " by David Bowie
Is the friendly version of No. 13 baby.

"Losing True" by The Roches
If I got together all the moms I grew up with in the 70s and assembled them to sing, I like to think they would sound kind of like this. The Roches have that old-school folksinger habit of gunning the note with a little gas to make sure it gets up the hill: it's full of deep feeling, but not particularly dignified. Like some people I know.

"The Void" by The Raincoats
Speaking of giving a note a little bit of gas to get it up the hill. The Raincoats always sound like they are singing over a room in which people haven't quite quieted down, and by the time the people do, they wish they hadn't. Too bad, people!

"Stayin' Alive" by The Bee-Gees
I never dream of an old cop picking me up in a dive bar and correctly performing the dance moves with me to this song across the floor, never.

"Nocturne," by Samuel Barber, performed by Robert Alexander
I actually cannot think of any less nocturne-like than this song. It is more like a composer so agonized he cannot write a nocturne slowly losing control of it in the most glorious way. You are not going to close, my love, your traveling lids. Not during this song.

"If You Leave Me No" by Chicago
Everyone has a song they deserved to dance with their crush to, in a basement, long ago. The only difference between us is I have told you mine, and you have not told me yours.

"Our Lordly Hudson" by Susan Graham
Bit of trivia: Laura Bush, after this album came out, invited Graham to come sing at the White House. In the program, you can see Colin Powell looking pained and George Bush looking (as he often did) as if he was trying to arrange an expression that approximates a sentient being. Laura Bush alone is consumed with passion, swaying slightly. The American songbook isn't for everyone, but those of us it hits, it hits hard.

"And the Green Grass Grew All Around" by Jewel
My son has very particular music tastes, and they do not always intersect with mine. (When Pandora's Toddler Radio puts on "Happy," for instance, he has the reaction most of you killjoys probably do.) But I enjoy failing to recite germ/wing/bird/egg/nest/branch/limb/tree/hole every time, because apparently I have to count it from the front until the entire succession of phrases is mesmerized in full. I can't recite the alphabet backward, either. If I could figure out why I can't do these things but why I can spell what I'm saying out loud as I go without thinking, I feel like this would explain a lot.

"Happy" by Pharrell
See above.

"Figure 8," Blossom Dearie from Schoolhouse Rock
I was one of those children that liked to make myself cry for amusement. Blossom Dearie does the trick here.

"You Are My Sunshine"
When you have a kid, it is necessary to have songs you can stand to hear. You need a song that you will sing, that the babysitter will sing with you, that will fill you with the desire to bounce your glorious child up and down on your hip instead of wondering how long it will be until you can flop on the couch and watch Downtown Abbey.

This is not that song. This is a song that in a few words from sunshine to one's head in one's hands while one is weeping, and I don't know why this is a song for children.


Lizzie Skurnick and That Should Be a Word links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's website

BookTrib review

Longreads interview with the author
Weekend Edition interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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