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November 20, 2018

Elisa Gabbert's Playlist for Her Essay Collection "The Word Pretty"

The Word Pretty

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

Elisa Gabbert's The Word Pretty is one of the year's best essay collections.

Sven Birkerts wrote of the book:

"Gabbert is a critic and literary essayist for our post-everything times. She writes with focused yet relaxed intimacy about all aspects of the ‘writing trade,’ and her eye for detail and nuance is evident from the first page. This is one of those books where you tell yourself you will take a break soon, but then don’t."

In her own words, here is Elisa Gabbert's Book Notes music playlist for her essay collection The Word Pretty:

A Karaoke Playlist

I hate that complaining about how busy or stressed out you are always comes off like a power brag—still, this year has been one of the busiest and most stressful of my life (sorry). Even though I felt like I didn’t have time for anything, I found the time to do a lot of karaoke, which is a very good way to stay out too late and ignore your problems. I do karaoke so often that I barely even have a go-to song. Here is a selection (seriously! not exhaustive!) of the songs I sang at karaoke over the past couple of years, while I was writing many of the essays that ended up in The Word Pretty.

“Ain’t No Sunshine” – Bill Withers

The semantics of the phrase “my song” are interesting; this isn’t my favorite song (what is a favorite song?), but whenever it comes on the radio or over the loudspeakers in a bar I always say, “This is my song!” When I’m singing along in my car, I can do all twenty-six “I knows” without losing my breath, but it’s harder at karaoke, when you’re louder and under pressure. Fun fact: I once sang the titular lyric as “anal sunshine” the whole way through to amuse some friends; I don’t think anyone else noticed.

“Edge of Seventeen” – Stevie Nicks

Stevie Nicks’ lyrics are fucking poetry. “And the days go by like a strand in the wind” – a strand in the wind? What does that mean? It reminds me of Wallace Stevens: “The hair of my blonde / Is dazzling, / As the spittle of cows / Threading the wind.” And this part – “The clouds never expect it when it rains, but the sea changes colors, but the sea does not change” – feels like a stanza right out of Prufrock. It reminds me of what may be my favorite lines in all of poetry, lines I can read over and over and over again and never tire of, though I never seem to remember them word for word: “I have seen them riding seaward on the waves / Combing the white hair of the waves blown back / When the wind blows the water white and black.” Also, not to be the most obvious, but both Prufrock and “Edge of Seventeen” are about the eternal footman. I grow old … I grow old …

“Patience”/“Sweet Child O’ Mine” – Guns N’ Roses

I have a lot of feelings about Guns N’ Roses, and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is one of my all-time favorite karaoke songs. Sometimes I sing it as a kind of anti-dedication to a friend of mine who hates it; sometimes I just sing it because I love it. Either way, I always try to do my version of the Axl snake dance during the opening guitar riff, which Slash apparently made up as a joke. Once I sang it in front of a room full of strangers, and a few minutes later, on the street, one of them told me very earnestly, “That was a good song choice for you.” As though the performance had revealed my whole personality.

“Patience” is clearly the superior song—in fact I’ve decided it’s peak GNR, everything else is too early or too late. I’ve been obsessed with the video for years, and I guess I’m not the only one. A Twitter friend told me she used to watch it every night before bed. Her favorite part, she said, was Steven Adler lighting candles, like, to have something to do, since there’s no drums in the song. She also told me she read that Slash was in a bad mood that day and didn’t want to film, so to placate him they told him he could play with snakes. My favorite part is the scene where Axl is watching the “Welcome to the Jungle” video—a video quoting its own band, like Shostakovich symphonies quote themselves. In any case, I’ve only sung “Patience” at karaoke once. Everyone in the bar seemed totally bored for most of the song, the way Axl is bored with himself on TV, the way Slash is bored with all the babes in lingerie—until I got to the shrieky part, what John Jeremiah Sullivan calls “the dark, unresolved coda” of the song, when everyone suddenly sat up. It was worth it, but I’ll probably never sing it again.

“The Waiting” – Tom Petty

This was like my theme song for a while this year, when I had a book proposal out on submission and woke up between 3 and 4 a.m. more nights than not. The waiting! It sucks! But when I’m anxious, sad, underslept, hungover or some combination of the above, blasting Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits reliably makes me feel five times better. It’s a true life hack.

“How Soon Is Now” – The Smiths

Same theme as above, I guess: time is a bitch. I’ll also go down in history as loving songs of desperate supplication. Interestingly, I only recently discovered I had the lyrics to this song wrong my whole life. I always heard the opening lines as “I am the sun and the air.” Turns out it’s a Middlemarch reference: “To be born the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer, and inevitable heir to nothing in particular.” Guess what? I’ve never read Middlemarch.

“Boys of Summer” – Don Henley

Again, it’s not like I have a signature karaoke song, but if I have one, it’s this—one of those songs that inexplicably makes me nostalgic for eras I never existed through, memories that aren’t my own. It’s partly the black & white video, the little kid with the drum kit (in my mind he really looks like Don Henley?), that couple running around on the beach for all the world like they’re in From Here to Eternity. The chorus is almost too high for me, which helps, because strained vocals are emotional. I love how everyone tips their head back to sing along with “Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.”

“Kiss Off” – Violent Femmes

One of my first and most successful forays into broadening my repertoire, and possibly the most enthusiastic reception I’ve ever gotten at karaoke—people, like, wanted to shake my hand. Guess I got lucky with a Gen X-y crowd (I’m cusp, myself). “Blister in the Sun” is unaccountably more popular as a karaoke song and maybe as a song in general. Obviously, the counting part is everything. (I admit to practicing it that afternoon.)

“Party in the USA” – Miley Cyrus

This is probably as tailor-made for karaoke as songs get, but slightly challenging; that whiny chorus really taxes old vocal chords. I just want to say that I love when songs mention other songs or musical artists by name (“and the Britney song was on”), and country artists are the best at this. See Garth Brooks’ “Much Too Young to Feel This Damn Old” (“a worn-out tape of Chris LeDoux”) or the more recent “Song for Another Time” by Old Dominion (too many references to list).

“Father Figure” / “I Want Your Sex” – George Michael

Back when I did karaoke less, I would have said “Father Figure” was my go-to song, but I got kind of tired of it—tired of singing it at karaoke that is. I will never tire of the song, the only and best weirdly epic pop love song with incestuous overtones and a church choir of my heart (sorry, “Like a Prayer”). One of my frequent karaoke companions counts “Faith” as a standard, but one day I realized I had never seen anyone do “I Want Your Sex”—a song so dirty that, as a kid, if my mom walked in while I was watching the video, I’d quickly change the channel (conveniently, on our cable box Nickelodeon was only one channel away from MTV). Satisfying mostly for the “c-c-c-c-c-c-come-on!” which is marginally easier to nail than Axl’s “Sha na na na na na na na na na knees.”

“Wanted Dead or Alive” – Bon Jovi

This is another song I do when I don’t feel like trying very hard; it’s extremely in my range and I know it extremely by heart. I really love the video too, the epitome of the '80s trope of the all-depleting tour: all that black & white footage, the live shows, the screaming, crying fans, hysterical really, with their undying love and handmade signs, the band with their sweaty hair and plastic cups and skin-tight pants, the pensive gazing out of bus windows and exhausted dragging of selves up steps on the tarmac to a tiny plane. Sucks to be famous!

Elisa Gabbert and The Word Pretty links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

The Millions interview with the author
Read It Forward interview with the author

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for The French Exit
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for L'Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Largehearted Boy List of Online "Best Books of 2018" Lists

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

Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
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guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
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weekly music release lists

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