July 28, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Christy Wampole's essay collection The Other Serious offers a unique perspective on modern life, intellectual and philosophical, yet always entertaining.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Wampole is a sharp and original observer. Her essays crackle with metaphor and precision…. This is essential for anyone who cares about the future of America."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
A Serious Playlist
I had the idea once to write an autobiography composed only of a grid of songs, with the artist's name, song title, and the personal association I have with each one. This is one of those vague projects that will probably never materialize, mainly because most of the songs I'd want on the list are associated with the most confidential parts of my soul, things I'll never disclose to anyone. It's my policy to tell only things that would be more or less useless for a person trying to draft my psychogram.
For this particular exercise today – making a playlist for the wonderful Largehearted Boy Book Notes based on my new book The Other Serious: Essays for the New American Generation – I decided to focus on some songs mentioned in the book and on what I was listening to when I wrote it in the summer of 2013 in Berlin. A book is a product of an atmosphere. I'd never written a book before and I felt my way along in that very singular atmosphere, whose main characteristics were grief from the loss of someone important to me and the feeling of placelessness and timelessness that accompanies such grief.
"Walk Through This World With Me" by George Jones.
As I was writing the book, my grandpa died. Language can't accommodate death. This song always made me think of him for some reason, even though I don't remember him ever saying he liked it. (I discover that George Jones and my grandpa were both born in the early thirties in Texas and they died just a few months apart in 2013.) In the final essay of the book, I write about how I was visited over and over again by ladybugs after his death, which I took as a sign from him that everything was okay. He visited me in a dream and I got a glimpse of the other side, which doesn't look anything like it is typically imagined. There is no temperature and light doesn't behave in the same way as it does on this side. Everything had a purplish cast, an impossible color that might be called neon eggplant, and objects were simultaneously emitting and sucking up light. It was hard to take.
"Fallout" by Neon Indian
Every season, I go hunting for new music in order to create a kind of mood palette that I can associate specifically with Fall 2011, Winter 2015, or whenever. This is a habit I picked up somewhere along the way and I've found it to be very effective in anchoring memories to places and moments. I played this album Era Extraña by Neon Indian over and over in Summer 2013, and this song in particular brings back that time/space confluence in crystal-clear detail. I would write for hours, slipping downstairs to the Brezel Company on Lenaustraße to get my daily Kirschtasche (cherry-filled pastry) before returning to the computer. The German/Turkish actor Birol Ünel was always sitting down there chain-smoking, but I never got up the courage to say hello. We would have late breakfasts on the balcony, composed mainly of smoked fish and spreadable cheeses with horseradish, fig, or curry, mustard, and honey. As usual, we accidentally killed all the plants belonging to the people who owned the apartment. I discovered recently that the guy behind Neon Indian (Alan Palomo) is based in Denton, Texas, where I lived for ten years, all throughout my twenties. You can never replace the exhilaration of that period of your life. Denton created me. People who have lived there know what I mean. If you let it, this town transfuses you.
"Chilly Down" by David Bowie
This song from the Labyrinth soundtrack plays when the Fireys try to convince Sarah that she should take off her head. As a child, this was one of my favorite scenes, and the song, with its habit-forming refrain and its basic, joyful chord structure, always had me and my brother dancing around the living room, pretending that we, too, were Fireys. It wasn't until I started to do a close analysis of the film in my essay "You Have No Power Over Me" that I realized how much this scene and others, like when Sarah falls down the shaft of the Helping Hands, hint at gang rape. The film is full of these suggestive, symbolic scenes, making it one of the most "readable" movies of the 80s.
"Aux armes, etc." by Serge Gainsbourg
In the first essay called "The Glare of the Enlightenment," I do a close comparative reading of the French and American national anthems. The Marseillaise is gory, full of fear about the savages who will slit the throats of those you love. The triumphant French soldiers will water the fields' furrows with the impure blood of the enemy. Can you believe it? Impure blood? When I read the lyrics closely with my students, they are always unsettled by the butchery and the pre-Nazi language of genetic purity. Serge Gainsbourg picked up on all this and did a provocative reggae version of the Marseillaise at the end of the 1970s. Reggae is a music of peace, so the jolting juxtaposition of the violent lyrics and the chill beat, with Bob Marley's wife Rita singing backup, could not but offend the typical well-mannered bourgeois. To make matters better, Gainsbourg shrugs off the full refrain with an insubordinate "etc.," which he claimed was how the song's composer Rouget de Lisle had written the lyrics in the original manuscript. The history of civilization can be summed up this way: Culture happens, gets pissed on and spraypainted, and then cleaned up again by the defenders of propriety.
"Hot Knife" by Fiona Apple
I had never been into Fiona Apple when she got famous back in the 90s. In retrospect, I realize that something about her felt too familiar at the time (she and I were born a couple of months apart and were both bony, self-tormenting females who would have rather been alone), so I disregarded her, preferring as usual to surround myself with all that was alien and unfamiliar. I don't remember why, but I bought her album The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012) on a whim in Summer 2013 and found something genius about it. She doesn't try to sound pretty and her intuitions about chords are not like most people's intuitions. "Hot Knife" is the catchiest tune on the album, and I tried to focus on it in order push away thoughts of death and loss and mourning, the most available and eager thoughts that constantly imposed themselves on me after my grandpa left us. I realize now – just now, as I write this sentence! – that the album clicked with me precisely because it is an album of mourning, not of the death of someone but of the end of a relationship. I read somewhere that the songs are a response to a breakup she had with a writer, the Jonathan of one of the titles. A breakup is a mild death, perhaps harder to take because the separation is not definitive enough.
"I Don't Understand That Man" by U.S. Girls
If you put this song on in the background at night with all the lights out as you sit on the balcony in your thirties and talk to your best friend in the dark about the rough edges of life, after having made a pit stop at the Späti (late-night convenience store) to get Paprika chips or random Schnittkäse or a bottle of fizzy rhubarb juice, and having sat in the bushes with your feet dangling over the water of the Landwehrkanal at twilight for a couple of hours where you saw something bright and inexplicable fall from the sky which provoked a momentary gasp from the disheveled youth sitting all along the banks, and after having sifted out all of the daylight in Kreuzberg and Neukölln by walking through graffitied neighborhoods perfumed with the scent of strawberry Shisha, you might abandon your occasional thought that life has no meaning.
Christy Wampole and The Other Serious links:
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
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guest book reviews
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Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)