Last Week's New Yorker Review: June 5, 2023
You can get your own little freaky food.
Last Week’s New Yorker, week of June 5, 2023
“Soul Survivors” - Burkhard Bilger spins Stax records, on the occasion of a seven-disk release of demos, painstakingly restored from a scattered archive. It is physically painful to read this without being able to listen to the demos Bilger references. (The relevant material is all included on Written In Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos, which comes out on the date above.) The published recordings he notes, even the rare ones by Deanie Parker, are on YouTube, and they’re simply glorious. (That’s two links — click both, if you know what’s good for you.) I don’t really understand why this piece came out so far in advance of the album — building hype for a pop drop is one thing, but major sections of this piece, especially toward the end, would clearly benefit from the demos’ availability as reference. Maybe the piece was pushed forward for the Music Issue — if so, that alone makes the concept a failure in my book. (As you’ll see below, I didn’t enjoy most of the other music features, regardless.)
Even without access to that key material, though, this piece is a stunner. Its success stems from Bilger’s brilliant structural choice to begin with the story of Deanie Parker as a historical A-plot and music historian Cheryl Pawelski’s professional history and quest to restore the Stax demos as a nerdy musical B-plot, before merging their worlds two-thirds of the way through. (The lead photo could almost count as a spoiler — though somehow I was still surprised by the Stax reunion, or, at least, its timing and purpose in the narrative.) Bilger manages to stuff this story to the brim with quotes, all full of personality. (Chosen nearly at random: “Here’s the thing you must understand. Jim Stewart would have volunteered to be in a fight with a bear to get the best song for Carla.”) Yet the piece never feels merely like an oral history, because Bilger isn’t content with straightforward chronology. Instead, he manages to build both toward the present, in which Pawelski and the Stax writers are listening to recordings, and toward specific moments in the past, moments where “the dream of music as a refuge from racism and violence” were shattered. Bilger writes, “The Stax demos traced the full arc of that history — from hope and denial to disillusion and protest.” But history is just a scatter plot of moments, a dusty stack of tapes in non-chronological order. It takes a storyteller like Bilger to build an arc. Just wait three weeks — then listen.
“No More Rules” - Benjamin Wallace-Wells reads two books of political philosophy which chart the path of libertarianism in America. Legible, erudite, even pretty fun! After a lurid Norquistian prelude, Wallace-Wells keeps things chronological, and instead of picking a single main argument, he hunts around for points to make as he progresses toward the present. He’s not especially interested in ideological arguments; the piece is heavy on the history of political philosophy, the game theory, so to speak, of libertarianism. That may frustrate doctrinaire readers, but it lets Wallace-Wells dive into the tactical maneuvers that often underlie even philosophic political positioning, as when he points out that Murray Rothbard, who appears radically doctrinaire, wasn’t actually a purist, but a maker of “power plays” which “stem from a recognition of political weakness: like a remora, libertarianism had to attach itself to a host.”
“Reduce, Retain, Remember” (Talk of the Town) - Nick Paumgarten sifts through the sanitation department’s archive. Really charming — something the emphasis on waste disposal, oddly, adds to. It's a smart move by Paumgarten to not tell any shit jokes.
“The Pit and the Podium” - Alex Ross spends a few days at Lincoln Center, and is left cold by much of what he sees. It’s always interesting to compare Ross’ takes on the Met’s operas to Justin Davidson’s in New York; Davidson, who’s also an architecture critic, tends to focus on sets and settings, while Ross tellingly states, in this review, that “the ultimate test of a staging is not its intrinsic entertainment value but its suitability as an arena for voices.” I don’t really have any use for Ross’ quibbles over amplification or casting choices, though they have a charming provinciality: Probably, the people at The Met are reading, and regardless, it’s fun to imagine them doing so. (E.g, Kyle Ketelsen, who apparently “deserves better roles,” slapping the page and shouting, “See?!”) But it doesn’t leave Ross much time for stylistic analysis. Still, he ends up basically on the same page with Davidson: The Giovanni succumbs to its “relentless, nearly colorless austerity,” the Magic Flute to its similarly monochrome, “frantic, let’s-put-on-a-show spirit.” The first third of the review concerns Ross’ dismay over a “clinical and detached” Gustavo Dudamel Mahler; this is also entertaining in a local-gossip way (the music critic might hate the new conductor!) but doesn’t inspire Ross’ most legible prose to those not trained in classical theory (I have no idea how to listen for the “grace notes before wide leaps in the first violins” that Bernstein emphasized and Dudamel apparently neglects.)
“Letting Go” - Lauren Michele Jackson reads Joanna Biggs’ new book, a memoir-via-biography of nine women writers. Has a very bumpy middle, in which Jackson struggles to summarize the sections on George Eliot/Marian Evans. [editor’s note: The same person, as I was reminded after publishing the newsletter…] It’s not a good idea to try to provide précis of what are already hugely condensed capsule biographies; Jackson should have focused on Biggs’ story, since her conclusions revolve around it anyway. The busy reader can skip to the brief final section, which is a clever, loving, and all-encompassing critique of Biggs’ project, one that correctly identifies the intellectual grounding it might, at times, be trying to obscure.
“Shooting Star” - Hanif Abdurraqib aches to Christine and the Queens’ new album Paranoïa, Angels, True Love. This really ought to be longer, so Abdurraqib can discuss the form and style of the new record for more than a single line. The artistic background is helpful (I especially like the memory of the 2015 show, Christine “standing at the front of the stage or dancing in a wash of blue light,”) but eats half the brief piece. Abdurraqib’s personal, elegiac connections toward the end are mostly beautiful, too, but they can’t function well without being more directly grounded in analysis of the music they’re dissecting, and there’s no space left for that. I’m unsure, too, about the final paragraph, in which Abdurraqib says that “like many queer artists before him, [Christine] expands the possibilities of his work by choosing to become someone new… People do this organically, without putting a name to it. I’ve left behind my recklessly grieving self many times…” There is a slippage of meaning here, one that allows the writer to take ownership of a narrative that might not be his to claim. Transformation can look like many different things, but this doesn’t mean that different transformations share more than a connecting metaphor.
“The Song” (Talk of the Town) - Sheelah Kolhatkar chats with Gloria Gaynor. She seems nice!
Skip Without Guilt:
“Pleasant Sorrows” - Amanda Petrusich meditates to the new Paul Simon album. At first, this especially religio-philosophical Simon offering seems a good match for Petrusich, who is reckoning with her own “major loss” — “the real deal,” as Simon calls it. This isn’t referenced directly in the piece, but it’s unignorable for anyone who read her recent profile of The National. But Simon demands an interpreter who’s closely attuned to his sly humor, and Petrusich, in a serious mood, takes him very seriously, missing, for example, what I see as slight bitterness in the line “Heaven is beautiful / it’s almost like home,” which his wife Edie Brickell sings. (Oddly, the piece says that “he,” Simon, sings it — perhaps overzealous editing.) That’s to be expected; it’s in line with most coverage of the record.(Petrusich says it “would be tempting” to compare the record to L. Cohen and D. Bowie’s dual 2016 epilogues; the Times’ review is tempted, at excruciating length.) This isn’t close to Simon’s best work, but unlike Kim Petras or Matty Healy, I’m more interested in what Simon has to say than in how his music sounds. Maybe Tolentino and Petrusich should have swapped assignments.
“Pop Up” - Kelefa Sanneh bops with Kim Petras. Look, I mean, good for her. It’s clear Sanneh is having a fun time, dropping the full text of some goofy tweets he found (Petras “put her CLIT directly on the mic for 2 hours and hit record,” she put out “some of the highest quality pop songs in the world for… me and 7 other gay guys… then [became] a world famous trailblazer for the worst song ever made,”) and although Sanneh doesn’t succeed in making a case for songs like “Coconuts” (apparently a “fan favorite single” which combines a mirthless single entendre with inanimate disco pastiche transparently self-plagiarized from producer Dr. Luke’s earlier smash hit “Say So,”)or even for Petras as a personality (she seems blandly self-assured, mostly, which is perfectly fine in a pop star, just not in a profile subject) he does manage to make the case that the viciously catty world of pop fandom can, from a different light, look sort of fun. So I was willing to give this piece the benefit of the doubt until I Googled it and found out Sanneh is… cue the horror movie sting… a straight man with a wife??!
“Front Man” - Jia Tolentino tries to win Matty Healy’s “persona games.” The reason this piece ultimately falls flat is because it mistakes something fundamental to every celebrity profile ever written for something unique to Healy (of The 1975), just because he does more bits about it than most pop stars. I’d describe this thing as: “I thought I was taking a peek under the mask, but it turns out there’s another mask underneath — and maybe the mask on top is actually more revealing — or maybe not!”True, Healy and possible paramour Taylor Swift write songs directly about this conundrum, but this is in no way groundbreaking or clever; if anything, it speaks to an intellectual shallowness that they have to be so literal (and, weirdly, given their reputations, over-sincere) in their probing of personae. It doesn’t help that Jack Antonoff is in Healy’s ear, correctly assessing that many listeners “assume a cynicism that is literally not there” before giving the terrible advice that the band should render obvious that lack of bite by making a “straightforward album, as simple and as complex as a perfect slice of pizza.” I have one question: Has Antonoff tasted British pizza?
“The Trials of Ed Sheeran” - John Seabrook attends the trial in which “Thinking Out Loud” is tested for infringement of “Let’s Get It On.” I’ve been pretty closely following this trial since it first popped up four years ago, mainly through music YouTuber Adam Neely’s continuous coverage. I don’t think there’s enough complexity to the case to sustain an article this long or in-depth; in my opinion, the case against Sheeran mostly rested on the fact that his song is worse, which isn’t actually evidence. He’s an easy heel, but his songs are copying styles, not instances. The only section which was largely new to me concerned the background of Ed Townsend’s daughter, who’s leading the suit. That brief biography is fascinating (the relevant section begins “Ed Townsend had two sons,”) and she emerges as a largely sympathetic character amidst slimy lawyers and, even worse, financiers like David Pullman, who Seabrook misses the chance to really fillet.
“One for the Money” - Evan Osnos books “privates,” in which pop stars perform for wealthy audiences, at a variety of gigs not open to the public. I liked this piece more when it was a semi-blind item in the Today in Tabs Discord about Flo Rida playing a genomics convention. After that, it was a fairly extensive Vice article by Kyle MacNeill with less new-journalism scene setting but many of the same details, down to the focus on Flo as the consummate “private” performer. Osnos treads the same ground until the midway point, when he starts annoyingly conflating indie artists placing songs in ads with the pop movement toward privates. After noting how little money musicians are making overall, Osnos bafflingly adds that “viewed in that light, private gigs can start to feel like something close to justice.” I’m not sure how a tiny group of famous musicians making semi-shady dough provides any benefit to the vast group of struggling musicians who can’t appeal to private bankers, in part because their music isn’t as generic as Flo Rida’s. The interview with Scaramucci toward the end is, admittedly, entertaining, though it adds nothing to Osnos’ thesis. Otherwise, this is confused and redundant.
Emily Nunn’s “The Department of Salad” is one of the best “commentary plus recipe”-style newsletters around. (It’s also kind of a big deal — as the Times profile attests to.) I recently made a surprising and wonderfully bright riced cauliflower/celery/apricot/pistachio concoction Nunn selected; it was a breeze and delicious. This is all to say that it’s a pleasure to count her as a reader! This week she left brief thoughts on Dorothy Wickenden’s profile of Stephen Satterfield, agreeing that it lacked something: “I wanted more more more.”
Joanna writes, re: Rachel Aviv’s story on Alice Sebold, “I remember when The Lovely Bones was a bestseller and everyone recommended it and I didn't read it because it was about a murdered child and I had a young child. It's quite weird to see it with a different perspective. But the pain is still there.”
What did you think of the music issue? This is a new unifying concept for the magazine, if I’m not mistaken; is it a keeper, or should it be a one-off? As you can see, I didn’t much care for most of the feature pieces; for me, an issue like this is a wonderful opportunity to give space to some weirder and less-heard musical threads, so ending up with four feature pieces centered on major, fairly traditional pop stars (and their managers,) each of which had at least some redundancy with things I’d already read, is disappointing. It might as well be called The Music Business Issue.
Well I thought I heard the captain say: Pay me my money down.
Sanneh addresses, but doesn’t center, Dr. Luke’s repugnance and alleged assault of Kesha, and Petras’ defenses of him.
To Tolentino’s credit, I was at first so annoyed by this piece I was going to have my entire review read “Christ, what an asshole.” But the stuff on Healy’s early years, from the childhood Truman Show anecdote (which I don’t entirely buy, though I guess that’s appropriate) to the band’s original Emo names, is all genuinely illuminating and well-written.