March 15, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
John D'Agata cements his status as a master curator and champion of nonfiction with The Making of the American Essay, the final installment of his trilogy of anthologies of essays.
Vivian Gornick wrote of the book:
"John D'Agata is America’s most intellectually eloquent reader of the essay. His passion for the form has led him to search for and discover a treasure trove of what the genre is capable of. With this third and final volume of his long labor of love he gives us a defining work of reference that will serve generations to come of essay readers the world over."
I've got a large cabinet in my living room that holds a few hundred CDs, and whenever I host parties for our writing program my students inevitably form an inquisitive crowd around it. I think some of them are intrigued by it as a curiosity of inefficiency. They stand around it with beer bottles, examining it as if it were an art installation that was commenting on the uncomplicated naivete of a bygone era.
But there are some students who get bolder, who kneel down closer to the cabinet's shelves, trying to investigate just what kind of music is worth devoting so much space to. They pull CD cases, boxed sets, and long accordion folds of liner notes off the shelves, asking me if I can still remember when music first went digital. If they only knew I still have a Discman in one of the cabinet's drawers.
The truth is I've never gone digital. I once read that the style of clothing that a person wears can sometimes reflect the period in that person's life when they last felt happy. If you wear flannel, you liked your 90s. Skinny jeans and leggings, the aughts. I'd like to think that I'm plenty happy now, but my CDs would suggest that the music died for me sometime in the early 2000s, when Whitney Houston stopped regularly recording new music and her management settled for repackaging her greatest hits in a shameless and endless series of compilation CDs.
At our parties, someone inevitably pulls Whitney off the shelf and comes looking for me in the kitchen. "John," they say, waving a CD in my face. "What's this?"
I'm supposed to have more sophisticated taste in music, but Whitney makes me happy—she has always made me happy—and these days I'm especially loyal to happiness.
These days, instead of waiting for someone to try to embarrass me about my love for Whitney, I load a DVD into my television and let one of my video recordings of Whitney in concert entertain my students during parties. I've got Whitney in Tokyo, Whitney in South Africa, Whitney in Virginia, Rio, and L.A.
Recently at one of these parties I walked over to a group of my students who were crowded around the TV instead of the CD cabinet. Whitney was in a lime green body suit, serenading some mustachioed sailors at a 1991 concert at a military base just after the First Gulf War. The sailors are young, baby-faced, the same ages as most of my students, and in the recording they look like they're genuinely enjoying Whitney's concert. They've just come back from war, hard-edged, fresh from killing, yet they're standing below Whitney at the foot of the stage with their arms reaching out for her and tears in their eyes.
I wanted to know whether my students were watching Whitney with the same kind of genuineness that the sailors were watching her, or whether my students were transfixed in an entirely ironic way. Because it's hard to tell with kids these days.
I asked one them, "Are you guys enjoying this? Am I converting anyone?"
And the student replied quickly, "I think you are! Yeah."
At the end of the day, I think an anthology is an attempt to convert us too. I think that if it's intimate, idiosyncratic, and deeply impassioned, a good anthology can feel as transcendent as a really good concert can. It should riff off old standards, surprise us with weird covers, and introduce us to brand new voices, sounds, and ways of being in the world.
In the spirit of being open to conversion therefore, I asked three of my current and former students to try to convert me with song recommendations that I might like and that could go well with these essay anthologies. Jenna, Bryn, and Landon are all brilliant and wildly passionate writers. Each of them also has an interesting relationship with music—a direct one, an indirect one, or even just one I've imagined.
Jenna, for instance, worked as an undercover fashion model for many years, exposing some of the less glamorous aspects of the fashion industry for the magazine Jezebel. One of the perks of the job however was getting to share a glass of scotch with Jay-Z at a party. Bryn grew up in L.A. with kids whose parents were all bigwigs in the mainstream music world, but now she contributes to Pitchfork, Noisey, and Rookie where she champions very indie artists. And Landon introduced himself on the first day of class as a drummer in a two-piece band called Disappearing People:
"What kind of band is it?" I asked.
"Krautrock," he replied.
"You know, like psych punk."
"I don't know what that is either."
"It's punk," he said. "But loud."
The Next American Essay (2003)
The first book in this series, The Next American Essay, came out in 2003. I hadn't met John yet when the book came out; I was in my last year of high school, living in Geneva, protesting the Iraq war, and still pretending I like pot. I didn't yet know that I would go to college in a state called Iowa, where John was still a 20-something with two books to his name applying for a teaching position. When this anthology came out I didn't yet know that taking an essay writing workshop with John on a whim my first year of college was going to — no joke — change the course of my life.
Re-reading this book, the essays John picked (which I love) and the master essay he weaves through them (ditto), I was struck by the ambition of the project. It's punchy and smart but sometimes also prickly. So I thought about songs that convey a similar sense of youthful, almost crazy ambition.
Here are three songs by artists I love from their first albums. These are songs, then, that were written and recorded in that liminal period after the artists themselves thought they knew — but before the world had any idea — exactly what they would become.
Janet Jackson - "Control"*
Fiona Apple - "Criminal"
Kanye West - "Get Em High"
*Okay, Control is technically Janet Jackson's third album — but it's the first album she makes after wresting control of her career from her father, Joe Jackson, the first album she largely co-writes, and the first album that starts to expose the scope of what it is she wants to do. So I call it a first.
The Mountain Goats - "Fall of the Star High School Running Back"
The Mountain Goats are a band from Claremont, California, whose 2002 concept album All Hail West Texas is, as written on the album cover, the story of "fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and locked treatment facility for adolescent boys." The song I've chosen has no chorus, only verses that cycle through the seasons of a year to recall what happened to the star football player who sold acid to a cop and ended up in prison. It was recorded on a boom box. The instrumentation is bare. The song is entirely driven by the story that unfolds in a series of dates and details unhindered by rhyme. An epitaph for someone still alive, "Fall of the Star High School Running Back" uses character, narrative, and the devastating simplicity of cause and effect to eulogize a legend that could've been.
I'm not entirely sure why this song sprang to mind when I first considered a musical paring for The Next American Essay, but I've decided to honor the accident. Maybe it's because the song was made around the time that the book's chronology begins. Or because it seems consonant with certain provocatively quirky essays herein (like Wayne Koestenbaum's "Darling's Prick). Or because it manages to straddle some line between befuddling and heartbreaking. Or because, like so many of the essays in this collection, the song resists easy categorization. Maybe it's Bruce Haack's own difficult-to-pin-down identity; he did music for The Mister Rogers Show, scored commercials for Kraft Cheese and Parker Brothers Games, made children's albums with an elementary school teacher named Ms. Nelson, and, on the side, recorded dark, experimental albums with names like Electric Lucifer and Haackula, using home-made synthesizers. Or, maybe it's just because of the spectral quality of the song's Theremin, which seems so perfectly to enact the mood of essays in this book, like Joe Wenderoth's directive in "Things To Do Today," the last essay in the anthology: "weep new syllables."
So now it's 2009. I have graduated from college, into a recession, and all the magazines and newspapers I would like to be writing for are instead laying people off or shutting down entirely. I am living in New York City working the wrong job, a job that has nothing to do with writing, and every once in a while John is writing to ask what I'm working on these days. But these emails — like the belief in me that they evince — only make me feel ashamed.
A second anthology comes out, The Lost Origins of the Essay, but I don't read it. That's a shame, because, as I learn years later, it's great: international, weird, ancient, expansive, dazzling. A book-length argument for a new understanding of the term "essay" — an understanding I'm sure John would say is in fact not new, is in fact super old — that winds its way through four millennia and five continents.
So these are some songs (international, weird, etc) that I love. Also, 2009 is the year I quit that job and start to freelance full-time.
Guided by Voices - "I Am a Scientist"
The opening line to "I am Scientist" by the prodigious rock band Guided by Voices states exactly how an essayist ought to think: "I am a scientist, I seek to understand me." The French definition of essay is "to try," and this song explores the existential thrill of trying to figure that out through the 20th century means of a journalist, a pharmacist, and of course, a scientist. Seeking to understand the universe and our particular place in it is something essayists have been grappling with since before Plato, but Pollard uses taking pills, taking notes, and talking though song as a metaphor for the ways we try to read the essay of ourselves.
"Come Wander with Me" (1964), written by Jeff Alexander, sung by Bonnie Beecher
I choose this song because it contains the same kind of invitation that's implicit in every essay. The OED tells us that to wander is to "move hither and thither without fixed course or certain aim," "to roam, ramble, go idly and restlessly about." And while the precise contours of a given essay's wandering must be particular, the apparent movement of a mind on the page, the serpentine "hither and thither" of a working consciousness, is nevertheless something that is meant to be shared. This song was written for an episode of the Twilight Zone, in which a stranger happens upon a woman in the woods, who intones a mournful melody. Eventually, we learn that the words of the song foretell the stranger's fate, and that the narrative we see playing out is cyclical; it has happened before and will happen again. The episode's revelation, in other words, is of a tradition uncovered. I think The Lost Origins of the Essay proffers a similar surprise, stretching our sense of a genre's beginnings.
The Making of the American Essay is published in the spring of 2016. John is the director of Iowa's nonfiction M.F.A. program and now I'm graduating from Iowa for a second time.
This year I'm working on a big project about art — a topic that, like music, a few years ago I would have thought wasn't mine to write about, was something that belonged only to "cool" people — and I no longer care if anyone thinks I'm boring for not liking pot.
The Making of the American Essay, it strikes me, is by far the most American of this trilogy. So here are three American artists. And again, one of them has an asterisk, but Blood Orange is, to my mind, unquestionably a New Yorker who happens to have been born in London. This is a fundamentally optimistic book and so I tried to choose songs that feel in some way oriented towards the future.
Regina Spektor - "Ghost of Corporate Future"
What I love about essays is that they allow us to travel without ever really going anywhere. Perspective is key to the sense of journeying that an essay provides us; it's a writer's most powerful mode of transportation. I think the spirit of fiction in nonfiction is what allows us to transcend the "now" in an essay, and what will always allow essays to continue developing non-traditional forms of storytelling. This song by Regina Spektor is told entirely from the perspective of someone else. The middle-aged man depicted in the lyrics never actually leaves the subway platform, but Spektor guides him in song through several places he could possibly end up. This urban update of a Christmas carol uses the power of narrative voyeurism to comment on the socio-economic trappings of suburban life and the disillusioned American dream.
Since jazz is the musical form most closely aligned, in my mind, with the essay (both are always in motion, always thinking on their feet), not including a jazz track here would amount to criminal negligence. I've therefore decided to sidestep my original choice (The Beach Boys' "Cabin Essence," which evokes frontier America and the building of the transcontinental railroad, and which, like an essay, was an attempt, albeit a failed one, since SMiLE, the project it was a part of, dissolved before its release). I've opted instead to go with a song that affirms John Ashbery's imperative, the last of the book's three epigraphs: "Make it sweet again." This exquisite tune was recorded in the time of free jazz, which was making jazz new but, in the eyes and ears of many, running the genre off its rails. Enter Dexter Gordon, steeped in the tradition of Lester Young and Ben Webster, whose languorous tenor mirrors the movement of the sweetest kind of essaying. And while this volume, the last in D'Agata's trilogy, maps the development of the essay in America, it also carries with it appropriate ambivalence. Ambivalence is in the blue bones of Dexter Gordon, and at the wailing heart of "Tanya," recorded during Dexter's fifteen-year self-imposed exile in Europe, because of his own country's deaf ears.
Jenna Sauers is a student at the University of Iowa, from which she will be graduating this year with an MFA in nonfiction. She's a freelancer who has written for GQ, The Observer, The Village Voice, Bookforum, and elsewhere.
Bryn Lovitt is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa who now lives and writes in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Noisey, Rookie, SPIN, Salon, Vanity Fair, VICE, and elsewhere.
Landon Bates is a graduate student at the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. He writes for the alternative weekly Little Village, and still sometimes plays with his Oakland-based band Disappearing People.
John D'Agata and The Making of the American Essay links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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