Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Stephin Merritt

A lover’s lies

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Over the last month, I’ve been listening endlessly to 50 Song Memoir, the sprawling autobiographical album by Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. Like much of his work, it’s both technically exquisite and cheerfully uneven, with throwaway novelty tracks alternating with songs that I don’t think I’ll ever forget, but it’s clearly a landmark in the career of one of our indispensable artists. One of its best features is a thick accompanying booklet, in which Merritt walks his good friend Daniel Handler through the stories behind all five discs. It’s totally fascinating, both for its insights into craft and for its uncharacteristic moments of introspection. But it also includes an anecdote, which Merritt shares only in passing, that has been on my mind a lot, particularly in light of what I’ve been discussing over the last few days:

[The song] “Lovers’ Lies” is a boyfriend who, it later turned out, was a pathological liar. Dale Peck has a whole chapter about him. Apparently he went out with Dale Peck before he went out with me, which I didn’t know at the time…So he allowed everyone to believe that he was HIV-positive, because he was an AIDS activist, and it just seemed simpler. But he was not in fact HIV-positive, and eventually that got out, and he became a pariah, persona non grata, and had to leave the area.

Handler doesn’t ask for further details, and the conversation quickly moves on, leaving the story to stand enigmatically by itself. And the song doesn’t add much to the picture.

Merritt doesn’t mention any names, but he provides more than enough information to identify the individual under discussion, who is also thanked in the liner notes to one of his side projects. (I don’t particularly feel like naming him here, either, so I’ve quietly edited some of the passages that follow.) Dale Peck—a literary critic whom I previously knew best for calling Rick Moody “the worst writer of his generation”—tells the story in his book Visions and Revision, a long excerpt of which appeared a few years ago in Out. In his memoir, Peck recalls that the activist “was the first person I slept with who told me he was HIV-positive,” and that he also claimed to have been the son of a Holocaust refugee, a survivor of English boarding schools and mental institutions, and the victim of a beating in Boston. But after cataloging his friend’s remarkable background, Peck concludes:

Everything I’ve just told you is a lie. The Judaism—the Holocaust—the move to England and the nervous breakdown, the time spent in a mental institution and hustling on the streets, and above all the HIV infection: Every last detail—save, perhaps, his name—was a fabrication, invented for who knows what reason and perpetuated with some major or minor variations not just with me but with all of ACT UP…I don’t believe it was empirically necessary for [him] to adopt the identity of an HIV-positive person in order to become the kind of AIDS activist he became. But he did, and he immersed himself in his role to such a degree that he put himself at risk.

And he was no ordinary fabulist. Peck tells us that he was “also one of the nine or ten most important AIDS activists in the United States,” and in David France’s How to Survive a Plague, we hear more about the scale of this ongoing act of impersonation:

It was thought that he was the sickest member of the HIVIP support group—he had testified as an AIDS patient under oath before Congress and issued a famous dictum to fellow activists, “HIV Negatives Get Out of Our Way”—but in fact he had never been infected at all. David Barr, the support group founder, pieced together the deception through inconsistencies in his stories, the vagueness about his doctor visits, his secrecy about lab results. I was incredulous when confronted with these facts…For almost a decade I watched him partake in some of the most instrumental skirmishes that revolutionized science and medicine. I watched his work save lives. He could have accomplished as much as an openly HIV-negative man.

And France’s thoughts on the reasoning behind this deception are particularly significant: “What drove him, I guessed, was a peculiar kind of thrill-seeking behavior. There was no more immediate battle in this epic war than the one to survive. For young men it was an almost romantic race against time. I can imagine, but not fully understand, a compulsion to feel those stakes very personally.”

Peck makes a similar point in his memoir: “From the beginning of the epidemic part of the fascination with AIDS was the desire to have it. To live with it? To die from it? I suspect it’s probably neither, which is to say, I suspect the HIV these men wanted was the phantasmic kind that brings ‘meaning’ to life rather than sickness or pain or death.” And it makes for a striking contrast with an argument advanced by Susan Sontag in AIDS and Its Metaphors, which was published toward the end of the eighties. After noting that such diseases as tuberculosis and syphilis have been romanticized for their associations with emotionality or creativity, to the point of creating “syphilis envy,” Sontag writes: “But with AIDS—though dementia is also a common, late symptom—no compensatory mythology has arisen, or seems likely to arise. AIDS, like cancer, does not allow romanticizing or sentimentalizing, perhaps because its association with death is too powerful.” Sontag was clearly wrong about this, and it’s even possible to recognize this impulse in more recent cases of activists who altered or embellished aspects of their identities—some blatantly, others less so—in what Eve Fairbanks of Buzzfeed calls a mindset “that makes having endured harrowing circumstances seem almost necessary to speak with any moral authority.” But it may have been something even more fundamental. As Peck writes of one pivotal moment:

[The activist] said he had something to tell me and even as I guessed from his tone what it was he said: “I’m positive.” I use quotation marks here because I know these were his actual words: I recorded them on a piece of yellow paper ripped from a legal pad that I later tucked into a new journal. I was a sporadic journaler at best, usually starting one when I felt that something momentous had happened, and I knew that something momentous had happened here. Not that I had slept with an HIV-positive person, but that I had met someone great. Someone about whom I need manufacture none of my usual illusions to love.

Written by nevalalee

September 28, 2018 at 9:07 am

The survivors

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Note: This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Very by the Pet Shop Boys. Today I’ll be publishing the last in a series of posts devoted to the legacy of my favorite album of all time.

Every subculture begins as a strategy for survival, although not everyone arrives at the same set of tactics. In the oral history The World Only Spins Forward, the author Madison Moore describes one possible approach: “Fabulousness becomes, if I may, a giant fuck you to the norms. People emerge out of that. You emerge because you’re tired of hiding. It’s so much easier to be normal, to fit in, to repress yourself.” Brian Herrera, an assistant professor of theater at Princeton, makes a similar point:

You could see the cues, the winks, ways to tell that someone was gay, and you could read that as speaking to you as a gay male person without ever having to name it. In that register, the realm of the fabulous became one of the ways that you could signal that you were in on the joke, you got the joke, you were in some ways making the joke. People like Sylvester. The Village People. Camp was a building of a vocabulary of critical connoisseurship that was celebratory, that was ours.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner refers to writing as a yoga, or a way of life in the world, and you could say much the same thing about the notion of camp, which was invented by men and women who had to develop superhuman capacities of mental and emotional endurance. As Prior Walter says as he hears the sound of beating wings at the end of Millennium Approaches: “My brain is fine, I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure.”

But not everyone reacts to pressure in the same way. In the passage that I quoted above, Moore continues: “A lot of folks, people who embrace fabulousness, are attacked on the street and feel the need to wear men’s clothing, ‘safe’ clothing, as a way to get from A to B, and then when they get there, they bust out.” Yet there’s something equally compelling about those who hold themselves in reserve. The Pet Shop Boys were defined in the early days by reticence and irony, which was wildly misinterpreted by listeners who took “Opportunities” and “Shopping” at face value. Part of this stance stems from what Nabeel Zuberi, as I noted here yesterday, calls “a repression that is part of that residue of English nationalism’s effect on the body,” but it also reflects something in particular about Neil Tennant. In his landmark interview with Attitude, he set himself pointedly apart from the kind of world that Moore and Herrera evoke:

I’ve never wanted to be part of this separate gay world. I know a lot of people will not appreciate hearing me say that. But when people talk about the gay community in London, for instance, what do they really mean by that? There is a community of interests, particularly around the health issue, but beyond that what is there really? There’s nightclubs, drugs, shopping, PAs by Bad Boys Inc. Well…I’m sorry but that isn’t really how I define myself. I don’t want to belong to some narrow group or ghetto. And I think that if they’re really honest a lot of gay people would say that they felt like that as well.

And no matter how you feel about this, the result was a body of work—at least for its first decade—about survival in plain sight. It was about getting from A to B.

The ensuing web of strategies—the detachment, the reserve, the use of technology to conceal overwhelming emotion—is a big part of why the Pet Shop Boys have always been important to me. I’m not comfortable with labels, but if pressed, I would say that I identify as bisexual, and I’ve never been entirely at home in my own skin. The world that their music creates also speaks to a certain kind of introvert, and more recently, I’ve been struck by its parallels to the science fiction community, in which many of the same qualities were channeled along somewhat different lines. Science fiction appealed strongly from the beginning to readers who saw themselves as outsiders, and with a slight change of label, it offered a secret inner life with affinities to what Stephen Spinella describes in The World Only Spins Forward: “Because it is something that can be masked and hidden, there are issues of a dual nature to your presence. You’re living a double life. There is something fabulous about that. There is something outside the norm of living in that mysterious mindset.” When you walk around the World Science Fiction Convention, you see a few fans at the extreme of fabulousness, along with others, like me, who look more like they might be treating everyday life as a form of cosplay. Both cultures also have a vested interest in technology. Science fiction has often been more comfortable talking about machines than about people, and Tennant, Lowe, and their contemporaries were drawn for some of the same reasons to the synthesizer. It was private, anonymous, a reaction against the cult of the self in rock music, and it offered forms of expression for people in solitude. As Stephin Merritt puts it in the wonderful song “Foxx and I,” his admiring ode to the original frontman of Ultravox:

Anyone can change into a machine
Girl or white, black or boy
Dull or very strange, into a machine
Come with me…

I’m perfectly aware, of course, of the differences between these two cultures, as well as the forms of exclusion that can develop even within a community of those who identify themselves as outsiders. But they both offer fascinating insights for anyone who cares urgently about the forms that cultural survival can take. (There are countless others, obviously, but these are the two that happen to have been most important to my own life.) I like to think of myself as a rational person, but I’ve recently begun to realize how much of my view of the world was based on wishful thinking, and I’m starting to confront the real possibility that it will continue to get worse for the rest of my life. This only raises the huge unresolved question of how to live under such circumstances, and I’m still trying to figure it out. And while I’m not the first to take refuge in the consolations of art—my favorite books, movies, and albums nearly all emerged from conditions of existential crisis—I feel obliged to point to one possible line of defense that was designed to be overlooked. In my eyes, Tennant and Lowe’s music exemplifies a certain kind of courage that prefers to go unrecognized. Very marked the point at which those impulses were transmuted into something more liberating, and ever since, the subtext of their early songs has become text, perhaps because their audience now consists largely of the community in which Tennant was never quite sure he wanted to be a member. Some of these later albums are great, and hugely meaningful to me, but it’s the version from Please through Very that sticks with me the most, and which seems to have the most to say to us now. Wryness and understatement may not seem like weapons, but like AutoTune, they have their place, and they served their users well enough at a time not unlike our own. The sense of liberation expressed by Very strikes me now as premature, but not wrong. And I hope that I can hear it again one day.

Quote of the Day

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A major songwriting technique for me is to imagine the songs that other people have written according to what the album covers look like, especially in the record sleeves that used to come with the albums, with advertisements for other records especially for inspiration…A picture of Papa John, a beach photograph. By “Papa John,” I mean, from the Mamas and the Papas of course…In the case of the song we’re supposedly discussing, I just tried to imagine what Papa John would write based on that photograph.

Stephin Merritt, in the liner notes to 50 Song Memoir

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

American Stories #9: 808s & Heartbreak

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

If there’s a common thread that connects many of the works of art that I’ve been discussing here, it’s the way in which our private selves can be invaded by our lives as members of a larger nation, until the two become neurotically fused into one. This is probably true of all countries, but its deeper connection with the notion of personal reinvention feels especially American, and no celebrity embodies it as much as Kanye West. It might seem impossible to make sense of the political evolution of a man who once told us that President Bush didn’t care about black people and then ended up—despite the efforts of a concerned time traveler—taking a very public meeting with Donald Trump. Yet if one of our most ambitious, talented, and inventive artists can be frequently dismissed by critics as “oblivious,” it may only be because he’s living two years ahead of the rest of us, and he’s unusually committed to working out his confusions in public. We should all feel bewildered these days, and West doesn’t have the luxury of keeping it to himself. It might seem strange to single out 808s & Heartbreak, which looks at first glance like his least political work, but if this is the most important album of the last ten years, and it is, it’s largely because it reminded us of how unbearable emotion can be expressed through what might seem to casual listeners like cold detachment. It’s an insight that has crucial implications for those of us who just want to get through the next few years, and while West wasn’t the first to make it, he was remarkably candid about acknowledging his sources to the New York Times:

I think the fact that I can’t sing that well is what makes 808s so special…808s was the first album of that kind, you know? It was the first, like, black new wave album. I didn’t realize I was new wave until this project. Thus my connection with Peter Saville, with Raf Simons, with high-end fashion, with minor chords. I hadn’t heard new wave! But I am a black new wave artist.

This is exactly right, and it gets at why this album, which once came off as a perverse dead end, feels so much now like the only way forward. When I think of its precursors, my mind naturally turns to the Pet Shop Boys, particularly on Actually, which was first released in 1987. A song like “Shopping” anticipates 808s in its vocal processing, its dry drum machine, its icy synthesizers, and above all in how it was widely misconstrued as a reflection of the Thatcherite consumerism that it was criticizing. That’s the risk that you run as an ironist, and West has been punished for it more often than anybody else. And while these two worlds could hardly seem further apart, the underlying impulses are weirdly similar. New wave is notoriously hard to define, but I like to think of it as a movement occupied by those who aren’t comfortable in rock or punk. Maybe you’re just a huge nerd, or painfully shy, or not straight or white, or part of a group that has traditionally been penalized for expressing vulnerability or dissent. One solution is to remove as much of yourself from the work as possible, falling back on irony, parody, or Auto-Tune. You make a virtue of reticence and understatement, trusting that your intentions will be understood by those who feel the same way. This underlies the obsessive pastiches of Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, whose 69 Love Songs is the other great album of my adult life, as well as West’s transformation of himself into a robot programmed to feel pain, like an extended version of the death of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. West has taken it further in the years since—“Blood on the Leaves” may be his most scandalous mingling of the political and the personal—but it was 808s that introduced it to his successors, for whom it serves both as a formula for making hits and as an essential means of survival. Sometimes the only way to make it through the coldest winter is to turn it into the coldest story ever told.

All his little words

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Stephin Merritt

Yesterday, I listened to most of the album 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields, which I hadn’t played in its entirety in a couple of years. I happened to think of it because it struck me that Stephen Merritt is exactly the kind of voice we all need to hear right now: wry, ironic, detached, and endlessly capable. His career has been defined by its productivity and by an inhuman degree of versatility, as if Merritt were determined to prove in practice what he once stated in “The Formulist Manifesto,” which is that all pop music, even the kind that affects us the most profoundly, can be reduced to a handful of technical tricks. He’s probably right. Yet as I took in the album again, I was hit by the realization, which I seem fated to periodically rediscover forever, that this is the most moving music that anybody has made in my lifetime. And its power is inseparable from how mechanical it all seems. In an awestruck review, the critic Robert Christgau marveled at how its three discs—“one-dimensional by design, intellectual when it feels like it, addicted to cheap rhymes, cheaper tunes, and token arrangements, sung by nonentities whose vocal disabilities keep their fondness for pop theoretical”—had upended all his preconceptions about how art was supposed to sound. What it really suggests, at least to me, is that our most deeply held feelings are artificial, too, or at least shaped to a frightening extent by pop music’s gorgeous lies. Which doesn’t make them any less meaningful. And it’s why I’m more excited about the upcoming album 50 Song Memoir, in which Merritt devotes one autobiographical track to every year of his life, than any new release in a long time.

What’s most notable about it, of course, is that it’s a musical memoir from an artist who, until now, has been steadfast in his refusal to reveal himself. For its first two albums, The Magnetic Fields hid behind the shiny, slightly opaque—but often heartbreakingly beautiful—voice of Susan Anway, and it wasn’t until she left that Merritt began to sing. (In retrospect, the abrupt transition from Anway to Merritt feels like a great gag in itself, like going from the angel at the top of the Christmas tree to a toy robot whose batteries were slowly running down. Unlike Bon Iver, Merritt didn’t need to process his voice to make it sound like a found object.) Later, he would often outsource the vocals to the likes of L.D. Beghtol, Shirley Simms, and, above all, his agent Claudia Gonson, who might have the loveliest voice of its kind since Neil Tennant. He also refused to be pinned down to any one sound, although the fact that his personality shines through every track, regardless of style, is as compelling an argument as I can imagine for the existence of artistic sensibilities that transcend genre. The very good documentary on his career, Strange Powers, reveals as little about its subject’s personal life as possible. His most emotional songs carry the implication that he might be pulling our legs, while his parodies and throwaways are where I suspect he might be the most heartfelt. And all of his albums, with one major exception, are a little “disappointing,” in the sense that any given day of one’s life is slightly disappointing. Whatever sense I have of Merritt comes less from any individual song than from all of them remembered simultaneously, like the character in Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a vinyl record on his wall so that he can gaze at it and enjoy the music all at once.

69 Love Songs

Yet it’s typical of Merritt’s slipperiness and infuriating cleverness that he transforms the whole notion of an autographical album into a stunt in itself. Judging from the five tracks that have already been released, this is a memoir written with the help of a rhyming dictionary, which might well be the only kind worth hearing. Merritt’s one real weakness as a songwriter—and I have to think hard to come up with one—is that the joke is often all there is: once you’ve heard the title of “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” or “My Husband’s Pied-à-Terre,” you basically know what the song is about, since Merritt can always be trusted to execute a precious conceit to perfection. But that’s how life is, too. When you stand back far enough, most lives are similar enough that at any given moment, when you describe the setup, any objective observer should be able to come up with the punchline. The only person who can’t see the humor is the one whose life is under consideration. In his review of one of the first albums by The Magnetic Fields, Christgau says of Susan Anway: “She’s proud to play the puppet.” But we’re all puppets of pop music. There are enormous swaths of experience that Merritt politely declines to cover, but for much of our lives, we talk to one another in song lyrics, our souls given temporary animation by the passage of a radio single from somewhere out in the ether. In practice, it usually has less in common with, say, “Layla” than with a plinky novelty track picked out on the ukulele. Merritt recognizes this and, in his odd way, honors it. And it does more to give dignity to human existence than the stark sincerity of a band like Arcade Fire, which I also love.

Which is just to say that Merritt’s memoir is also my own. I first discovered 69 Love Songs in my twenties, and it felt like I was among the last in my circle of friends to hear it, although it had only been out for two or three years. (So much time has passed that it feels now like I was listening to it almost from the beginning, which is scary in itself.) At the time, Merritt was about as old as I am today, and the album feels like a soundtrack to that chapter of my life, filtered through a weary wisdom that was telling me truths that I wasn’t ready to hear yet. Listening to it, I’m reminded of the poem by A.E. Housman—the poet and classical scholar who was once described by a colleague as “descended from a long line of maiden aunts,” and who feels weirdly like one of Merritt’s spiritual precursors—that begins:

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away…”

“No use to talk to me,” Housman says, and he was right. Poetry, like pop music or philosophy, is full of the sort of information that can’t be taught to us, but only recognized after we’ve learned it firsthand, and it can take a lifetime to tell the difference between its pretty fables and its most agonizing truths. Merritt’s music feels like two hundred ways of saying what Housman expresses in sixteen lines, and now that I’ve made it to the other side, I can only murmur: “And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.”

Written by nevalalee

February 8, 2017 at 9:29 am

Listen without prejudice

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George Michael

In The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson says of Tuesday Weld: “If she had been ‘Susan Weld’ she might now be known as one of our great actresses.” The same point might hold true of George Michael, who was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou and chose a nom de mike—with its unfortunate combination of two first names—that made him seem frothy and lightweight. If he had called himself, say, George Parker, he might well have been regarded as one of our great songwriters, which he indisputably was. In the past, I’ve called Tom Cruise a brilliant producer who happened to be born into the body of a movie star, and George Michael had the similar misfortune of being a perversely inventive and resourceful recording artist who was also the most convincing embodiment of a pop superstar that anybody had ever seen. It’s hard to think of another performer of that era who had so complete a package: the look, the voice, the sexuality, the stage presence. The fact that he was gay and unable to acknowledge it for so long was an undeniable burden, but it also led him to transform himself into what would have been almost a caricature of erotic assertiveness if it hadn’t been delivered so earnestly. Like Cary Grant, a figure with whom he might otherwise seem to have little in common, he turned himself into exactly what he thought everyone wanted, and he did it so well that he was never allowed to be anything else.

But consider the songs. Michael was a superb songwriter from the very beginning, and “Everything She Wants,” “Last Christmas,” “Careless Whisper,” and “A Different Corner,” which he all wrote in his early twenties, should be enough to silence any doubts about his talent. His later songs could be exhausting in their insistence on doubling as statements of purpose. But it’s Faith, and particularly the first side of the album and the coda of “Kissing a Fool,” that never fails to fill me with awe. It was a clear declaration that this was a young man, not yet twenty-five, who was capable of anything, and he wasn’t shy about alerting us to the fact: the back of the compact disc reads “Written, Arranged, and Produced by George Michael.” In those five songs, Michael nimbly tackles so many different styles and tones that it threatens to make the creation of timeless pop music seem as mechanical a process as it really is. A little less sex and a lot more irony, and you’d be looking at as skilled a chameleon as Stephin Merritt—which is another comparison that I didn’t think I’d ever make. But on his best day, Michael was the better writer. “One More Try” has meant a lot to me since the moment I first heard it, while “I Want Your Sex” is one of those songs that would sound revolutionary in any decade. When you listen to the Monogamy Mix, which blends all three sections together into a monster track of thirteen minutes, you start to wonder if we’ve caught up to it even now.

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley

These songs have been part of the background of my life for literally as long as I can remember—the music video for “Careless Whisper” was probably the first one I ever saw, except maybe for “Thriller,” and I can’t have been more than five years old. Yet I never felt like I understood George Michael in the way I thought I knew, say, the Pet Shop Boys, who also took a long time to get the recognition they deserved. (They also settled into their roles as elder statesmen a little too eagerly, while Michael never seemed comfortable with his cultural position at any age.) For an artist who told us what he thought in plenty of songs, he remained essentially unknowable. Part of it was due to that glossy voice, one of the best of its time, especially when it verged on Alison Moyet territory. But it often seemed like just another instrument, rather than a piece of himself. Unlike David Bowie, who assumed countless personas that still allowed the man underneath to peek through, Michael wore his fame, in John Updike’s words, like a mask that ate into the face. His death doesn’t feel like a personal loss to me, in the way that Bowie did, but I’ve spent just about as much time listening to his music, even if you don’t count all the times I’ve played “Last Christmas” in an endless loop on Infinite Jukebox.

In the end, it was a career that was bound to seem unfinished no matter when or how it ended. Its back half was a succession of setbacks and missed opportunities, and you could argue that its peak lasted for less than four years. The last album of his that I owned was the oddball Songs from the Last Century, in which he tried on a new role—a lounge singer of old standards—that would have been ludicrous if it hadn’t been so deeply heartfelt. It wasn’t a persuasive gesture, because he didn’t need to sing somebody else’s songs to sound like part of the canon. That was seventeen years ago, or almost half my lifetime. There were long stretches when he dropped out of my personal rotation, but he always found his way back: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” even played at my wedding. “One More Try” will always be my favorite, but the snippet that has been in my head the most is the moment in “Everything She Wants” when Michael just sings: Uh huh huh / Oh, oh / Uh huh huh / Doo doo doo / La la la la… Maybe he’s just marking time, or he wanted to preserve a melodic idea that didn’t lend itself to words, or it was a reflection of the exuberance that Wesley Morris identifies in his excellent tribute in the New York Times: “There aren’t that many pop stars with as many parts of as many songs that are as exciting to sing as George Michael has—bridges, verses, the fillips he adds between the chorus during a fade-out.” But if I were trying to explain what pop music was all about to someone who had never heard it, I might just play this first.

The way of the gun

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David Carr

Like many readers, I first encountered David Carr through his longtime work as The Carpetbagger, in which he brilliantly covered the annual insanity of the movie awards season for the New York Times. Show business reportage, like media journalism in general, is a funny thing: by definition, all reporters are members of the media, and there’s a tendency among writers, myself included, to think we can write in an informed way about the entertainment industry just because we happen to have a blog. As a result, there’s an endless supply of this sort of coverage, especially around Oscar time, and most of it is pretty superficial. Yet it’s all still oddly readable: I’m more likely to scroll through a shoddily written piece on Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne’s prospects for Best Actor than, say, an article on tort reform, just because the subject matter lends itself to painless, disposable consumption. What made Carr so extraordinary is that he took a beat that was inherently forgiving, at least when it came to momentarily sustaining a reader’s attention, and made it so smart and memorable that you had to take notice. His name quickly became one of five or so bylines in the Times that I was happy to see whenever it appeared, and I was sorry when he stepped back from awards coverage a few years ago to focus on other subjects.

Yet he never went away, and it was only after his sudden death yesterday that I and so many others realized how subtly he had become a part of our lives. The day he died, I’d read no fewer than two of his pieces—one on Brian Williams, the other contrasting the unexpected departures of Williams and Jon Stewart—and there’s no question that I clicked on them mostly because of his name. Just the day before, I was scrolling through some notes I’d made on his excellent memoir The Night of the Gun, which I’d read while doing research on addiction for an ongoing writing project, and only last week, my wife and I were laughing over an anecdote about Bob Odenkirk’s recent visit to Chicago:

“Do you have The Night of the Gun by David Carr in paperback?” Odenkirk asks the woman behind the counter at Powell’s Books on South Halsted Street…Nope, just hardcover, says the smiling employee, who may or may not recognize him. “Nah, forget it,” says Odenkirk, who’s considering adapting Carr’s addiction memoir as a screenplay. “I don’t wanna lug that thing around.”

“And so the movie was never made,” I joked. But I hope it will be. I’ve read a lot of books on addiction, but Carr’s is by far the best, and its emphasis on the verification of even his most personal memories makes it a model not just for similar accounts, but for autographical writing of any kind.

The Night of the Gun by David Carr

The Night of the Gun makes most other addiction memoirs seem lazy, just as Carr’s writing on the media made you realize how forgettable much of this kind of work could be, but that’s what he did for a living. Any consideration of his legacy has to begin with the apparent contradiction between his life story, which his book relates in grueling detail, and his beat, which saw him cranking out a few hundred words at a time on gossip from the red carpet or selfie sticks. Yet both were a matter of talent elevating the material when lesser writers would be content to coast. Addiction memoirs are like media coverage in at least one way: there’s an element of voyeurism to both that make the result more interesting than might have been honestly earned. Carr wasn’t the type to settle for that, and you couldn’t read his articles without reflecting that maybe, just maybe, the media deserved to be written about by someone who had seen and experienced more than what he’d seen in movies and on television. He kept the two sides of his writing life separate, but both emerged from the same restless curiosity, and we all felt it. Carr was never exactly a celebrity journalist, but his name was a sign of quality that most of the more famous players he covered would have had reason to envy.

And what really set him apart was the fact that he never regarded substance abuse as a form of life experience or legitimacy, as so many other authors of addiction memoirs—especially those of a younger generation—implicitly do. Addiction didn’t make him a good journalist; if anything, being a good journalist was what allowed him to describe his own addiction so honestly, and to lay out its logic in ways that I’ll never forget. (He’s particularly good in describing how drugs offer a form of structure to those who crave it, leading to a life that is remarkably organized, or in contrasting the “pickling effect” of heroin, which renders its users passive and harmless, to the “ripping and running” of cocaine, which tends to leave scars. It’s also a very funny book: by his own account, Carr wrote a lot of it while listening to The Magnetic Fields, and he and Stephin Merritt share a gift for the ironic understatement of tragedy.) Carr collapsed suddenly at the office last night, and while it’s tempting to romanticize this a little, as if all working journalists secretly wish to die in harness, I have no doubt that he would have said that he’d prefer to be with his family. He leaves behind one excellent book, a body of great work written on deadline, and a sense that there was a lot left that he had to say. And I’ll miss him.

Written by nevalalee

February 13, 2015 at 10:02 am

Behind the jukebox

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Pet Shop Boys

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What bands deserve musicals?”

In theory, a jukebox musical should be a wonderful thing. The songs, presumably, are good enough to have won the affections of a generation of listeners, and even before the show premieres, they’ve been tested under fire. If they’re all by the same artist, or emerge from a world with a common sensibility, evocative stories will naturally suggest themselves: Drive All Night, the Bruce Springsteen musical, never made it past the workshop stage a decade ago, but we all know intuitively what it would have been about. In the hands of a capable author, a collection of prewritten songs can serve as a promising source of constraints, and even encourage the breeziness and looseness of structure that so many good musicals have in common. It’s no accident that the greatest of all movie musicals, Singin’ in the Rain, was essentially conceived in the jukebox format: the script was written on demand to accommodate existing songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, and if the result is so intoxicating, it’s partly out of the sense that so much magic was lying around the MGM backlot, just waiting to be picked up.

Of course, jukebox musicals are usually anything but transcendent in practice, generally for three distinct reasons. At its worst, our familiarity with the songs is substituted for the heavy lifting that an original musical requires to draw in the audience: like a comedy that falls back on easy cultural references in place of real humor, a jukebox musical turns into an exercise in recognition, providing a sort of simulation of emotional engagement instead of the real thing. Hearing a famous song emerging from the mouth of an actor onstage also violates one of the central illusions of the musical, which is that the music represents a spontaneous outpouring, a way to express feelings that can’t be conveyed in any other form. Finally, in an ideal musical, as Stephen Sondheim notes, each line ought to advance emotion, character, or story, rather than serving as an exercise in virtuosity for its own sake. A song originally recorded to occupy a spot in a studio album can’t be expected to carry a narrative in which it was never meant to appear, and even if it fits reasonably well, it tends to feel like it’s just marking time.

Stephin Merritt

Still, it seems likely that we’re going to see many more jukebox musicals. Broadway is like any other form of show business: with costs escalating and audiences diminishing, it seems safer to stick with an established brand than to convince theatergoers to take a chance on something new. Hence the endless string of musicals based on established properties, no matter how improbable—Carrie, Rocky, Spider-Man—and the reliance on existing back catalogs and songbooks that can be relied upon to sell tickets. It’s understandable, but it also ignores one of the most seductive aspects of the musical, which is its underlying strangeness. All theatrical genres involve some suspension of disbelief; at the end of the day, we’re looking at painted performers exchanging lines on a clearly artificial set. A musical emphasizes that weirdness, reminding us with every number that we’re witnessing a heightened, externalized version of our own inner lives. It takes real craft and heart to entice an audience into taking that leap, and if it tries to trick us into thinking that we’re just seeing a concert with dramatic interludes, something crucial is lost.

An ideal jukebox show, then, would be built around a body of work that is already predicated on that strangeness, in which singing one’s feelings is both vaguely absurd and unavoidable. That sounds a lot to me like the Pet Shop Boys, who, in fact, already have a jukebox musical of a sort—Closer to Heaven, which combines original songs with tracks from the Nightlife period. It’s a nice little soundtrack, and it comes from a duo whose sensibilities have always been ironically theatrical, but I don’t play it much these days, perhaps because it’s a bit too polished and professional. (This is why I suspect that a Stephin Merritt musical, which might sound great in principle, would fall flat on the stage: he’s so facile a writer that we’d end up with a series of clever pastiches, rather than the awkward unburdening of feeling that give musicals their most unforgettable moments.) What I’d love to see is a musical that comes more from their secret heart, perhaps the B-sides collected on Alternative, tracks recorded for the anonymity and solitude of the club that only uneasily work on stage. Because a great jukebox musical shouldn’t come from the jukebox at all, but from the deep cuts, the private moments, that allow us to feel as if we’re encountering these emotions for the first time.

Developing the edges

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Stephin Merritt

Of all the pieces of writing advice I know, one of the most useful, at least in terms of immediate applicability, is that you should strive to omit the beginning and end of each scene, and jump from middle to middle. (I’m pretty sure that the original source of this admonition is William Goldman, either in Which Lie Did I Tell? or Adventures in the Screen Trade, although for the life of me I’ve never been able to track down the passage itself.) This only means that when you’re writing a first draft, your initial stab at the material has a way of gradually ramping into the chapter or sequence and then ramping down again, as you work your way into and out of the events taking place in your imagination, and in the rewrite, most of this material can be cut. In its simplest form, this involves nothing more than cutting the first and last few paragraphs of every chapter and seeing how it reads, a trick I first learned from David Morrell, author of First Blood. This expedient got me out of a major jam in The Icon Thief—the first third of the book never really flowed until I ruthlessly cut the beginning and end of each scene—and ever since, I’ve made a point of consciously reviewing everything I write to see if the edges can be trimmed.

Like any good rule, though, even this one can be overused, so I’ve also learned to keep an eye out for the exceptions. In screenwriting parlance, a story that dashes from one high point to another is “all legs,” with no room for anything but the plot, which robs the reader of any chance to process the incidents or get to know the characters. Usually, when you’re blocking out a story, lulls in the plot will naturally suggest themselves—if anything, they can start to seem too abundant—but it’s also worth asking yourself, when a story seems to be all business and no atmosphere, whether you can pull back slightly from time to time. In other words, there will be moments when you’ll want to invert your normal practice: you’ll cut the middle and develop the edges. This results in a change of pace, a flat stretch that provides a contrast to all those peaks, and it allows the reader to regroup while setting the climaxes into greater relief. (In musical terms, it’s something like the hypothetical song that Stephin Merritt once described, which moves repeatedly between the first and fourth chords while avoiding the fifth, creating a sense of wandering and unrealized expectations.)

Jessica Paré and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

There are other benefits to focusing on the edges of the scene as well, particularly if you’ve explicitly stated or dramatized something that might be more effectively left to implication. I’ve quoted the director Andrew Bujalski on this point before, but I’m not ashamed to cite him again, since it’s one of the most interesting writing tidbits I’ve seen all year:

Write out the scene the way you hear it in your head. Then read it and find the parts where the characters are saying exactly what you want/need them to say for the sake of narrative clarity. (E.g., “I’ve secretly loved you all along, but I’ve been too afraid to tell you.”) Cut that part out. See what’s left. You’re probably close.

This is especially true when it comes to elements that inherently grab a reader’s attention, like violence or sex. These are powerful tools, but only when used sparingly, and novels that contain too much of either can seem exhausting. In particular, I’ve learned to save extended depictions of violence—which might otherwise overwhelm the kinds of stories I’m telling—for two or three climactic points per novel, while writing around it as much as possible in the meantime.

And final point to bear in mind is that when we look back at the works of art we’ve experienced, it’s often the stuff at the edges that we remember the most. Mad Men, for instance, has increasingly become a show about those edge moments, and I can’t remember a single thing about the Liam Neeson thriller Unknown, which is crammed with action and chases, except for one quiet scene between the two great character actors Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz. A truly great artist, like Wong Kar-Wai at his best or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in A Canterbury Tale, can even give us a story that is about nothing but the edges, although this is probably something that only geniuses should attempt. Even for the rest of us, though, it’s worth acknowledging that even the most crowded, eventful story needs to make room for anticipation, pauses, and silence, as Moss Hart understood. So the next time you’re reading over a story and you find your interest starting to flag, instead of ratcheting up the tension even further, try restructuring part of it to emphasize the edge over the center. In many cases, you’ll find that the center is still there, exerting its gravitational pull, but you just can’t see it.

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2014 at 9:36 am

Reflektions on a life in art

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Reflektor by Arcade Fire

Earlier this week, like just about everyone else I know, I picked up a copy of Reflektor, the fourth album by Arcade Fire. This isn’t a review, necessarily: I’ve listened to the album in bits and pieces, but I’ve only had the chance to play it straight through once, for some of the same reasons that have made it hard for me to watch an entire movie at home. And this is a band that has taught me to question my initial impressions. When The Suburbs was first released, it struck me as weaker than their previous two albums; now, it feels like their strongest work, and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is my favorite song of the decade. Reflektor certainly doesn’t lend itself to easy evaluation: it’s a double album, with the majority of its tracks pushing the six-minute mark, and the early reviews have resorted to all the usual adjectives—it’s sprawling, messy, flawed, indulgent, as if that weren’t true of all albums this length. Some are already calling it Arcade Fire’s Kid A, but its real counterpart, if you want to stick to Radiohead, is Hail to the Thief: it isn’t trying to reinvent pop music as we know it, but with its big, ragged tracks organized around the seed crystal of a memorable hook, it’s systematically pushing the boundaries of what we recognize as familiar.

In short, I like it a lot, and it confirms Arcade Fire as one of the two contemporary bands whose work I’ll always rush out to buy on the first day. The other is The Magnetic Fields, or, more precisely, the music from the mind of Stephin Merritt, whose Future Bible Heroes side project released a wonderful album earlier this year. At first glance, Merritt and Arcade Fire don’t have much in common, but to my ears, they’ve come to define two extremes of the kind of music I—and a lot of other listeners—care about so deeply. Merritt writes tight, spare novelty songs, the best of which often sound as if they were composed and recorded on a Casio keyboard; Arcade Fire throws everything into the mix, with lush, passionate orchestrations designed, at least in the early days, to have an entire auditorium singing along at the top of its lungs. (One of my favorite concert memories is seeing them play here in Chicago, with the crowd repeatedly trying and failing to join in at the right moment for the initial “Hey!” in “No Cars Go.”) Merritt is primarily a brilliant lyricist who writes catchy tunes as a sort of metacommentary on how cheap a resource a melody can be; Arcade Fire’s lyrics, while heartfelt, are usually the weakest link in their songs, which exist mainly to generate overpowering sonic emotions. And so on.

Stephin Merritt

But I wouldn’t want to give either of them up. It’s fascinating to think of how they might approach similar material: Reflektor draws heavily on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with a nod to Marcel Camus’s movie Black Orpheus, and while I can easily imagine Merritt writing a song on the subject, it would probably end up being a rhyming dictionary exercise on the word “Eurydice.” (“Idiosyncrasy,” “conspiracy,” “bureaucracy”—it practically writes itself.) If you like, you could even see them as dueling expressions of the existential and ironic philosophies of life. To Arcade Fire, the moral choices each one of us makes are crucially important, and we need to behave as if we were setting an example for the entire world. Win Butler, their lead singer and lyricist, is intensely concerned with the inner lives of children, with nature, with all we destroy in the name of progress. Nothing could be further from Merritt. When his songs aren’t talking about other songs, they’re focused on the sly dissection of a moment, on how our deepest feelings are shaped by the formulas we’ve heard on the radio, and, with rare exceptions, even his most emotional tracks are delivered with a wink: we’re constantly asked to consider how he does what he’s doing. It’s pop music written for other writers, which isn’t to say it can’t be moving. When Merritt allows real feeling to slip through, it means a great deal, and the result cuts even deeper than an Arcade Fire song that urges us with all its heart to feel the plight of the powerless.

Yet in their very different ways, the Magnetic Fields and Arcade Fire are linked by a sense of the overwhelming importance of music to how we think about ourselves. For Arcade Fire, this drama is played out within the context of individual songs, each one of which insists it could change your life; for Merritt, it’s a lifetime’s work, with every two-minute throwaway serving as another brick in an edifice that the artist is patiently building. Merritt never tries to pack everything he knows into one track: instead, he stands back and invites us to consider what it really means to devote one’s life to something as absurd as pop music. Of the two, I suspect that his work might end up being the most lasting, at least for me, if only because I relate more to his vision of an artist who is one step away from being an ingenious hack. It’s a recipe for a life in art, or for keeping one’s sanity in the face of the hollowness of the entire artistic enterprise, while Arcade Fire is a dream of how urgency, passion, and technical virtuosity can transform us into something more, if only for the space of a song. Both attitudes are necessary, and the ideal would be a band or artist who embodies both ends of the spectrum, alternatively or all at once—arch detachment balanced by passionate emotion, distance tempered by vulnerability, irony framed by compassion. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can even dance to it. And I have a feeling it would look a lot like the Pet Shop Boys.

How I learned not to play the ukulele

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Stephin Merritt

A few years ago, I bought a ukulele. I’m still not entirely sure why. For a long time, I’d wanted to pick up a musical instrument, and after briefly toying with the idea of the musical saw, I settled on what seemed like a reasonable option, probably inspired in equal parts by Stephin Merritt and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. I also may have been swayed by the fact that my apartment at the time was only a few blocks from the Old Town School of Folk Music. Later, when my wife and I moved to Oak Park, I was delighted to find myself just up the street from a music store that offered ukulele lessons, which seemed like nothing less than a sign from the universe. Before long, though, I’d set my ukulele aside, after little more than a few halfhearted attempts at tuning. A few months later, the music store in my neighborhood closed. And the ukulele is still gathering dust in my closet, along with more than a few other discarded attempts to turn myself into a more interesting person.

I don’t think I’m alone here. Like most people, I’ve always been envious of anyone who can display a mastery, or even a basic proficiency, in a small, ingenious skill, especially because my own supply of parlor tricks is laughably small. I can’t juggle, or do magic, or solve a Rubik’s Cube, even though I’ve had friends who can do all of the above, and more. Every few months, I’ll be bitten by some unexpected bug, inspired by how temptingly simple it seems: all it takes is practice and the right book of ten easy lessons. On a somewhat higher level, for instance, I’ve recently become interested in the idea of learning how to code, since I’ve long been struck by the parallels between what I do as a writer and what good programmers do for a living. As a result, I’ve been poking around various sites for advice on whether to start with Java or Python, and which books on the subject, if any, are worth reading in their own right. But I have the uncomfortable feeling that this, too, will end up in the same dustbin of attractive but unfulfilled notions.

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

And it isn’t too hard to figure out the reason: I’m just too busy writing. Every year or so, it seems, I hit a point in my own work where I start to feel a little confident. Maybe I’ve made a sale or two, or written a draft of a novel that I can actually bear to read  again, and it occurs to me that I’ve got this writing thing figured out, at least within my own considerable limitations. That’s usually when I start dreaming about taking up eskrima or learning how to draw from life. Inevitably, though, there always comes a moment when I realize how little I really know. Usually, it’s when I hit a plot problem that I can’t solve to my satisfaction, no matter how many times I take a crack at it, or when my latest draft comes back with three pages of notes that are annoying but undeniably on the mark. Whenever that happens, I have no choice but to drop whatever fascinating hobby I have in mind, put the ukulele in the closet again, and get back to work. And this has happened often enough that I’m skeptical that I’ll ever learn any of the wonderful skills that populate my daydreams.

But I’m ultimately okay with this. When I was growing up, I wanted to be able to do pretty much everything, but I’ve since realized that it’s hard enough to do just one important thing well. Writing is challenge enough for a lifetime, and although I’ve mostly given up on my adolescent dreams of becoming a true polymath, writing, at the very least, has turned me into a generalist. I may not be able to do anything else, but I continue to grow as a writer in incremental ways, and I’ve developed a few useful tricks. Sooner or later, of course, the tricks I know turn out to be not enough, which forces me to learn a few more, and this doesn’t leave much time for anything else. Still, I take consolation in the fact that I get to play this great game, and that the amount of mental energy I’d expend elsewhere might be better put to use on what I care about the most. I still dream of picking up that ukulele again, in a kind of idealized retirement that will probably never come. But I have to get a lot of writing done first.

Written by nevalalee

April 15, 2013 at 8:45 am

The strange powers of Stephin Merritt

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If there’s a single image that lingers in my mind from the documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, it’s the shot, from the very beginning of the movie, of a stack of rhyming dictionaries. It’s hard to imagine seeing a similar sight in the apartment of a self-consciously solemn lyricist like, say, Win Butler of the Arcade Fire, but Stephin Merritt, who may be our greatest living non-hip-hop rhymer, has never been afraid to acknowledge his sources. (Sometimes he even cites them directly in the lyrics, as in “Let’s Pretend We’re Bunny Rabbits,” in which the sudden appearance of “Abbots, Babbitts, and Cabots” appears to be a direct reference to Merriam-Webster’s Rhyming Dictionary.) Every fan has his or her own favorite Merritt rhymes, of course: I’ve always liked “So you’re brilliant, gorgeous and / Ampersand after ampersand,” but another contender, from the new album Love at the Bottom of the Sea, is “Let Laramie take care of me until they bury me.”

I’ve written before about the curious hold that Merritt has over my imagination, not simply as one of the best songwriters of his generation, but also as one of the most productive. Merritt has spoken candidly about his love of cranking things out, as well as his desire to write a dozen Hollywood musicals, and he’s undoubtedly capable of it—it’s the rest of the world that needs to keep up. His most famous work, 69 Love Songs, is basically a concept album about productivity, in which it’s impossible to separate the album itself from the story of its composition. Yet Merritt wouldn’t occupy his current cultural position—which, while far off the mainstream, seems assured of its permanence—if he hadn’t written some of the most moving love songs of the past two decades. He’s a model of how professionalism and reticence can be a cover for blinding emotion, and even if the process behind his songs can seem artificial, the life they strike up in the mind of the listener is very real.

That’s why it’s often dangerous to judge a new Magnetic Fields album too hastily. Merritt’s latest release has already garnered some rather disappointed reactions from those who were expecting a return to form after the studied acoustic sounds of his last three albums, which were often wonderful, but uneven. Love at the Bottom of the Sea—the title of which seems to hark back to Merritt’s earliest songs, which sounded as if they were recorded on the lowest deck of the Titanic—has the feel of classic Magnetic Fields, but it’s also detached and pointedly impersonal, at least at first listen: its fifteen tracks, none much longer than two minutes, are icy, flawless novelty songs, with each working out the one joke in its title (“I’d Go Anywhere with Hugh,” “My Husband’s Pied-a-Terre”) with a thoroughness that seems both methodical and effortless. Merritt’s technical skills have never been higher—he’s the ultimate song-generating machine—but it’s easy to wish that he’d given us another song like “It’s Only Time.”

Yet this almost misses the point. All of Merritt’s albums are minor by design, except 69 Love Songs, which proves that three minor records can add up to one major one. His songs are designed to be throwaways, except when one of them sticks. The sheer volume of his output guarantees that he’ll be responsible for several dozen songs that I’ll enjoy forever—he’s a living exemplar of Dean Simonton’s rule that quality is a probabilistic function of quantity—but it also means that he’ll have twice as many disposable tracks. (This is why seeing the Magnetic Fields in concert, with a set list apparently drawn by random from Merritt’s entire catalog, can be such a frustrating, though weirdly charming, experience.) And I don’t think he’d have it any other way. One rhyme after another, Merritt is building one of the most durable legacies in pop music, with each album an installment in the ongoing project of 195 Love Songs, and counting. And fortunately for us, we can slice them up any way we like.

Written by nevalalee

March 8, 2012 at 10:33 am

The Formulist Manifesto

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All art aspires to the condition of Top 40 bubblegum pop…Sample formula: A song based on a slow unchanging repetition of first and fourth chords will express a calm wandering quality with eternally unrealized expectations which combines well with a text suggesting analogous emotions. Anyone with a very basic music education can use this formula to write any number of songs with an outcome known beforehand…Formulism is the artist as smart shopper…We the formulists (with a sigh of relief) renounce the deluded striving of moderns for self-expression through novelty. We accept all foregoing and contemporary expression as a set of templates.

Stephin Merritt, “The Formulist Manifesto”

(For more thoughts on the genius of Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, please see here and here.)

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March 4, 2012 at 9:50 am

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Learning from the masters: Stephin Merritt

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Like most people, I first caught up with Stephin Merritt, best known as the creative force behind The Magnetic Fields, sometime after the release of 69 Love Songs, which is simply the richest album of pop music released in my lifetime. Since then, I’ve endlessly explored Merritt’s work—including his many side projects, notably Future Bible Heroes, sung by the always charming Claudia Gonson—until his songs have taken up permanent residence in my subconscious. And more than any other contemporary songwriter, Merritt has consistently made his own creative process the secret subject of his music. He exemplifies songwriting as both an art form and a craft, thanks both to his productivity and his remarkable technical skill.

His productivity is perhaps the important thing. Although he’s slowed down a bit since 69 Love Songs, Merritt remains more than capable of cranking things out when necessary, and sometimes it shows—his discography is full of charming but disposable novelty songs. And yet the fact that he’s writing novelty songs at all is striking in itself. I love Arcade Fire, for instance, and yet it’s hard to take them altogether seriously when every song sounds like the second coming of Christ. By contrast, it’s impossible to imagine Merritt coming off as bombastic or sanctimonious. His prevailing mode consists of light, facile irony, and he seems more interested in superficial cleverness than anything else—until, of course, he blindsides you with emotion.

And the effect is a cumulative one. Merritt was especially smart, or fortunate, in conceiving a magnum opus that played to his strengths, which are productivity and understatement. 69 Love Songs manages to seem epic while being composed of the most modest parts imaginable, like a cathedral built out of matchsticks. Maybe a quarter of the songs are throwaways, and even some of the strongest tracks (“The Book of Love,” “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” “Yeah! Oh Yeah!”) feel like clever realizations of a single image or conceit. And yet their very modesty is appealing. Individually, the songs feel tossed off, almost like divertissements, but taken together, they seem as big as all of pop music. (As David Mamet points out, the nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it has to look like a nail.)

Of course, this productivity wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t harnessed to an impressive level of technical skill. Merritt is massively informed about the history of music, and although he never seems to strain, his bag of tricks, both musical and lyrical, is deeper than that of almost any other active songwriter. Part of the fun of listening to his songs is the obvious pleasure he takes in rhyme, genre, song structure, and ironic pastiche. Like the Pet Shop Boys in their classic period, he understands that irony and detachment can be more affecting than simple earnestness. (After spending much of the week listening to 808s & Heartbreak, I can’t help thinking that Merritt could do amazing things with Auto-Tune.) And when he does decide to pull out all the stops—as in “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” possibly his most underrated song—the result is stunning.

With his recent albums, Merritt has begun to move toward a lusher, more acoustic sound, but I still prefer his earlier work, where the songs sounded like they’d been recorded with a Casio keyboard on the lowest deck of the Titanic. (Get Lost, probably his strongest conventional album, represents an ideal balance between the two extremes.) And he still seems capable of almost anything. If great drama, to quote Mamet once again, consists of people doing extraordinarily moving things in the simplest manner possible, then Merritt isn’t just one of our finest songwriters—he’s one of our best storytellers of any kind.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2011 at 9:01 am

Quote of the Day

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I don’t think there are any clichés I try to avoid. As soon as I spot a cliché, I go for it. I feel like clichés are the most useful thing in songwriting. They’re the tool on which you build all the rest of the song. Clichés that other people should try to avoid, I suppose, are rhyming “dance” with “romance,” or putting the word “love” at the end of a line and having to rhyme it. That’s about it. If you want to write a love song, you need to not try to write it for a particular person in a particular situation. It needs to be vague, otherwise you’re going to fall into trap after trap of trying to rhyme with somebody’s name. Keep it vague.

Stephin Merritt, to The AV Club

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2011 at 8:26 am

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