THE PLAYLIST HAS ARRIVED.
UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA MFA LIT BLOG
Arthur Russell on Earnestness (“Lucky Cloud”)
Something is missing in a lot of new music, and it is the same thing that’s missing in a lot of new writing. It’s Earnestness, also known as Sincerity, and I miss it. I know, I know, we’ve been talking about Earnestness’ antonym, Irony, since 2004 (too long now). And I know, I know, Earnestness is the new Irony in many circles (Miranda July & friends). But there’s nothing like sincere sincerity, the kind of sincerity that came before the Ironic Invasion, the kind that allows itself to say unabashedly “lucky cloud in your sky / a little rain / a lot of fun / ohh yeaah,” and when Arthur Russell sings this, you can’t deny your impulse to move your body in awkward yet good-feeling ways. Russell’s lyrics are so simple they’re complex, so off they’re on, and through all their oxymoronic pulls, they remain so true to themselves it’s addictively poetic, like when a baby draws with crayons. It’s the authentic and uninterrupted genius that comes out in the best artists: those who have taught themselves to unteach themselves. This song presents an essential lesson in creative approach: learn how everyone else does something (Russell dabbled in disco, for a weird moment), and then look back into yourself and ask: but how would I do it if nobody else was alive?
Notorious BIG on The Importance of Specifics (“Juicy”)
My most classic professor during graduate school (classic because he loved the classics) taught me an important lesson. “Don’t just call it a book,” he said. “Call it a red book. And then bring the red book back in the fourth scene, for resonance.” This is part of the bigger lesson referred to by second grade teachers and Iowa workshoppers alike as “Show Don’t Tell”. We want to be able to see a story, not just hear it, and we want to attach ourselves to concrete objects. This brings us to The Notorious B.I.G., in his red and black lumberjack, with his hat to match. It brings us to his Word Up Magazine and the fourteen karats in his baby girl’s ears, and all the other juicy (no pun intended) details in this quintessential rags-to-riches ballad. Biggie doesn’t just rap us his world, he shows it to us. We actually see him freezing on Christmas, crying on his birthday that no one remembered, and then, later, we are content to imagine his whole crew loungin’, celebratin’ the everyday with bottles of crystal. What my professor didn’t exactly talk about (due to its difficulty to describe, as it is more intuitive than anything) is the ratio of specific to general that really makes a good story. Biggie, like the best novelist or poet, combines meaningful details with broad strokes of general life observation. If life was all specifics, how could he ever “reach for the stars?” How could he not only spread love in the Brooklyn way, but in a truly universal, super-relatable (even for a white girl from California), ultimately touching and totally August of 1994 way?
Washed Out on Mood (“Feel It All Around”)
This song has the power to make New York City feel like California. Like California, it FEELS GOOD ON YOUR FACE AND BODY. It also feels good like a novel you can’t wait to start reading again, so much so that you open it in the most crowded subway, at risk of getting elbowed by your angry subway neighbor, in order to experience the pleasant and consuming mental and bodily sensation that you know you’ll get once you’re reading that book again. It’s the intro to Portlandia, it’s Sunday morning, it’s the sonic equivalent of sunlight. Feel it All Around is accessible and ambient enough to listen to while writing, and insular enough to make a crowded subway feel like your own personal vehicle that you’re driving down Highway One with the windows down.
Lana Del Rey on The Perils of Fashion (“Videogames”)
Lana Del Rey (formerly Lizzy Grant), has been getting her ass kicked by the New York Times. And by Pitchfork. And on Saturday Night Live. She has been getting her ass kicked in the way all you-tube grown stars might fear, by the in-print and live media sources whose opinion can still blow up their spot. Is it weird that I have her on this list, even though she has lip implants? Is it weird that I want “Videogames” to play at my wedding? Whatever. Aside from my actually loving this song, Lana Del Rey, much like her literary equivalent Marie Calloway, first held my attention in a reality-television-meets-soft-core-porn kind of way. I talked about her (and Calloway) for a number of days. They fascinated me, I hated them, I loved them. They had fake names and fake other stuff. They were so bland it was breathtaking. Each of these natural brunettes was and is testing out Donald Barthelme’s theory that “What is merely fashionable will fade away, and what is new will fade away…but the way I feel remains. ” (And judging from their pouts, they feel a lot.) They’re also showing us that failure, no matter how broad, is never total (you have only failed if people fail to talk about you, and even then, you are still smart enough to have substituted your beauty for talent – Lana Del Rey’s new album is now Number Two on the billboard charts). But what is actually important about these bombshells-of-the-moment is what is that in playing footsie with the world and then getting dumped in public, a truer part of them, along with a truer part of our culture, came out. We said: but what are we really looking at? Why are we spending our time on this? And then we answered the same way Barthelme did: because we feel abandoned, because we want to be loved.
Antony & The Johnsons on Love (“I’m In Love”)
You know how some people don’t believe in inspiration? They’re like, you just have to work hard, and that’s all that matters? That’s weird though, isn’t it? It’s like, we wouldn’t want to make things if we weren’t, at least sometimes, so deeply moved by the world and our own creative spirit that we simply had to sit down and MAKE SOMETHING. I recently realized that those moments of inspiration are much like those when you recognize or remember that you are in love. And if it weren’t for those moments of ecstatic clarity, none of us would ever want to be in love, (the rest of it is all dishes in the sink and body smell). “I’m In Love” inspires me and is inspired; true to love and art, it explodes with the deepest sort of yearning (he’s practically crying about having “been touched”), and yearning is where all moments of expression start. After that it’s just about putting everything you have in the world into the hard work of it.
Ashanti on Metaphor ("Baby")
“You’re like the lighter to my cigarette,” sang Ashanti in her 2002 hit jam “Baby”, and it’s been in my head ever since. This line is my idea of the perfect way to employ a literary device. The simile is straightforward, it really resonates (!), and it is unabashedly nerdy. Despite the fact that 70 percent of it is made up of the word “baby,” this song (and especially that line) makes me geek out on all the potential metaphors for love and life. You’re like the velcro to my velcro shoe? You’re like the tray to my microwave oven? You’re like the flash to my camera phone? You’re like the bottle to my baby baby baby baby baby…?
Wanda & Wonder on Magic (“Live a Long Time”)
A vital part of what makes magic magic is that it cannot be explained, and often the things we cannot explain are the things we fall in love with. Lucas Noah & Forrest Lewinger of Wanda & Wonder make the kind of music you can’t put your finger on – it flies around the room as if it has wings, and then it grows a unicorn horn, and then it lights a sparkler and spews confetti and then it moves its hips around as if it were hula hooping. Like a fortune teller’s ball or a mystical mountain lake, Wanda & Wonder use influence (from old school R&B to cheesy country) and reflection (echoes, layers, vocals like mountain ranges) to tell their story (a story from somewhere in the future, that no one else has told before). They also employ incredible slights of hand (they somehow pull an enormous sonic landscape out of a tiny electronic keyboard), and first class showmanship (Noah wears Swedish overalls and Lewinger dances like David Byrne). Whatever they do and however they do it, the magic is there, and magic - like talent or circumstance or light - is a vital, if unpredictable, part of what makes art art.
Olof Arnalds on Sound & Rhythm (“Klara”)
If Olof Arnalds and Joanna Newsom got into a cat fight, who would win? Newsom might take Arnalds down with an alliterative lyric involving a barnacle, but then Arnalds would fire back with a voice so garbled and sparse (and seductively Nordic) that Newsom would fall backward into her babbling brook. What’s more important, content or sound? What is it about strange, slightly off key voices that invite us to listen more closely? As writers, can we make a living off of sound? Are the lyric poets onto something?
The Dirty Projectors on Restraint (“Useful Chamber”)
Dave Longstreth knows how to freak out, but he also knows how to hold back. Equally important ends of the rock n’ roll spectrum, these energy/noise poles are what have pulled The Dirty Projectors into the surreal realm that they have come to inhabit; their withholdings mean as much to the music as the music itself does. “Useful Chamber” is a useful example of this, with all of its stops and starts and halts and releases. If you read Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From The Good Squad,” you might remember young Lincoln’s recounting of all of the great moments of silence in rock n’ roll history, his adding up of all the pauses to create one huge epic hush. Could we attempt this same exercise with literature? Could we take all the best line breaks, all the most satisfying cliffhangers, all the moments where the author could have gone on but RESTRAINED for our benefit, letting us rest in the moment between moments? Can we pause for a second and just think about that?
Avey Tare on Form (“Heads Hammock”)
“To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist.” Samuel Beckett said this, Avey Tare must have been listening. This song (and this album, and the whole Animal Collective posse’s portfolio) is all mess – scattered sounds and sporadic yelps and bubbling bubbles and sonic booms and synthesized swoops and cavernous echoes – but it is a mess with a mood. Avey Tare and company are masters of the mess, they’ve tamed it, so that it becomes smooth, whole, visceral, dramatic and totally new. Any artist working in any form can learn from this record: gather your world up, throw it into a pile, and slowly sculpt it into a new one.