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August 22, 2016

Book Notes - Jennifer Keishin Armstrong "Seinfeldia"


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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's book Seinfeldia is an engaging and entertaining history of the sitcom that changed television forever.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Her book, as if she were a marine biologist, is a deep dive...Perhaps the highest praise I can give Seinfeldia is that it made me want to buy a loaf of marbled rye and start watching again, from the beginning."

In her own words, here is Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's Book Notes music playlist for her book Seinfeldia:

I write books about TV shows, but music plays a huge part in my process. When I'm writing the cultural history of a show, I want to evoke the time in which it was made, and pop music is a powerful way to do that.

But when I was writing my most recent book, Seinfeldia, the playlist wasn't entirely self-evident Seinfeld wasn't a music-driven show like its contemporary Friends. For the definitive playlist of middling '90s radio rock, please unearth the Friends soundtrack CD—incidentally, one of the first CDs I ever purchased. (Bonus: You get audio clips of Friends scenes in between songs!) But Seinfeld included its share of musical references: George's answering machine referencing cheesy '80s classic "Believe It or Not" from The Greatest American Hero, Elaine fighting a boyfriend for "ownership" of the Eagles' "Desperado." Here, some of the show's signature tunes and other '90s songs that inspired me while writing.

"Morning Train (9 to 5)" by Sheena Easton from Take My Time
George Costanza gives us some surprisingly—or more like ironically—mood-lifting music. In this case, Easton makes going to work sound just delightful, perhaps because she gets to be the one "waiting for him" while he takes that morning train in this regressive setup. Nonetheless, work is momentarily lovely for George in a snappy montage—after he's discovered that pretending to be disabled makes him the most popular guy at his new office. If this doesn't make you want to sit down and write a book about Seinfeld while totally ignoring throwback lyrics, nothing will.

"Two Princes" by Spin Doctors from Pocket Full of Kryptonite
One of the Seinfeld writers told me that the show was written by people in Los Angeles in the '90s about their time living in New York in the '80s. Hence all the '80s music on the show—they were too busy making TV in the '90s to notice any of the pop music happening then. So to evoke the actual time when the show was on, I give you the bubbly 1993 radio hit "Two Princes," from an otherwise forgettable album by an otherwise forgettable band. Just go ahead now!

"Believe It or Not" by Joey Scarbury, theme from The Greatest American Hero
Oh, you weren't inspired enough by "Morning Train"? Okay, how about this ridiculously catchy, ridiculously '80s anthem from a ridiculous 1981 show? It also served as inspiration for George's delusionally grand answering machine message on Seinfeld.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana from Nevermind
Nirvana defined rock in the '90s the way that Seinfeld defined comedy. Because I was in college in the '90s, I loved Nirvana. (I still do.) I spent a lot of time while writing this book—more time than the subject warranted—trying to figure out how these two relics of the '90s fit together. They have some similarities, best exemplified by Nirvana's breakthrough hit—namely, heavy use of irony and self-awareness. But Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was primarily a romantic, all about feelings, something Seinfeld eschewed. And the grunge aesthetic represented in the classic video for "Teen Spirit" is as opposite from Seinfeld as you can get. Still, if you're explaining the '90s to aliens via only two cultural artifacts, you can't do better than Seinfeld and Nirvana.

"Desperado"/"Witchy Woman" by the Eagles
These appeared on two different '70s albums by the Eagles, but in the Seinfeld world they're A and B sides that belong together. In the episode "The Checks," Elaine dates a guy obsessed with "Desperado" and uninterested in sharing "Witchy Woman" with her as "their" song. It's Seinfeld's weird, wonderful tribute to the power of music.

"Even Better Than the Real Thing" by U2 from Achtung Baby
U2 was everywhere in the '90s, just like Seinfeld. This hit's title encapsulates Seinfeld's magic formula: Take real, everyday irritations and blow them up into epic storylines.

"Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega from Solitude Standing
No Seinfeld soundtrack is complete without this number paying tribute to the Manhattan restaurant that served as the exterior for Monk's. It's actually called Tom's Restaurant, and Vega wrote this ditty, which she originally recorded a cappella, about the time she spent hanging out there. There have been approximately a zillion versions and samplings of this song since then, all of which I wrote about here. My recent favorite cover came from Britney Spears and dance music legend Giorgio Moroder.

"Why" by Annie Lennox from Diva
It's a 1992 soft radio hit. It could be George's battle cry.

"Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" by Green Day from Nimrod
This is super-complicated irony, '90s-style that takes some explaining. So: The title of the Green Day song tells us it's ironic, right? But the song itself, if you don't know the title, plays like pretty straightforward sap, with a seriously earnest acoustic guitar line and lyrics that might just signify a mature response to a breakup. The interpretation is up to you, folks! Then: The editors putting together the Seinfeld retrospective clip show that ran just before the very, very hyped finale used this maybe-complicated song for the most traditional montage full of cast members hugging and laughing together … for a show built on the premise of "no hugging, no learning." Then they played this tearjerker right before the cynical, damning finale that sends its beloved four main characters to prison for being terrible people. Ergo: This song is one of the main reasons people hate the finale as much as they do. But that might just be perfect.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Seinfeldia links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
New York Times review
Wall Street Journal review
Washington Post review

Guardian profile of the author
Here & Now interview with the author
Slate interview with the author
WGN Radio interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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