The ones that struck a chord
Reflecting on how Eurythmics taught him about the ironic power of fakery, Daniel Handler describes record albums as “pegs on which to hang stories.” In “Heavy Rotation,” 20 contemporary writers hang stories -- of alienation and identity, of growth and nostalgia -- on a particular music collection. Editor Peter Terzian largely succeeds in his goal of bringing music and literature together. What could have been a crop of fanboy/girl exercises is a collection of informed essays that offer personal insight and literary merit.
“Heavy Rotation” features essays on 11 bands, four singers, three soundtracks, a trio of singles and an archival collection. A distinctive feature of this anthology is that the contributors are not primarily known for their music writing. Most are novelists (including Colm Toibin, Joshua Ferris and Kate Christensen), and the journalists are better known for their writing about literature, with the exception of music critic John Jeremiah Sullivan. Sullivan’s album of choice is a Revenant Records release of prewar country blues (1897-1939), and he most convincingly portrays the cultural -- rather than personal -- importance of an album.
Personal narrative is the prevalent form in the collection, although Terzian has managed to select a wide variety of anecdotes and angles. There is enough stylistic diversity and experimentation to keep things interesting. Many contributors naturally chose to focus on the pivotal moment in their adolescence when a particular album conveyed them across the crucial threshold between child and adult. Through identification with the singer-songwriter, the faults and weaknesses -- the humanity -- of the idol often served as reassurance to the uncertain teen, whether it was Joni Mitchell bringing comfort to Toibin in a small Irish town or Jermaine Jackson as a source of pride for Martha Southgate in an American rust-belt city.
In his introduction, Terzian explains how listening to music as a youth made him feel like he “was learning about . . . the many different ways of living a life.” As the adult writers reflect on their obsessive teen selves, there is a poignant nostalgia. In his fond remembrance of discovering mod culture through the Who’s album “Quadrophenia,” critic James Wood wonders if he can still sing the lyric “thank God I ain’t old” from “Sea and Sand” without hypocrisy.
“Heavy Rotation” also shows how an album can sneak up and cause unexpected changes in an identity already established. In a candid and moving contribution, Claire Dederer describes how the demands of her grown-up life made her feel she had become a “soulless roaster of chickens.” She felt she “was missing the essential quality of a listener: a soul.” Her essay describes how she was dragged to a production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the “painted-up, red-mouthed, big-top artifice” mercifully returned music to her.
An unintended pleasure of the collection is that it provides a narrative history of music’s technological journey over the last few decades. The writers navigate the transition from vinyl to cassette to compact disc to MP3. The first essay opens with Benjamin Kunkel flipping his tape of the Smiths’ 1986 release “The Queen Is Dead.” Soon, Kunkel made the move from communal cassette to “a private indulgence, Walkman listening.” Other writers describe not being able to understand the lyrics of their special life-changing album until it came out in a newer technology and with the benefit of “decent earphones.”
Whether playful ‘80s kitsch, classic rock standards or obscure minor label gems, each album in the collection inspires a different flavor of personal epiphany. A conspicuous omission, considering the collection’s time frame of the last 30 years, is an entry on a hip-hop album. For example, although more than one writer mentions Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” as influential, it is never discussed at length.
On the whole, “Heavy Rotation” is an engaging meditation on how a discrete selection of songs can alter a listener’s impressions and identity. An album can provide profound connection to a specific person, or it can be significant for its role as the soundtrack to a very particular time or place. In many of the essays, the chosen album encapsulates a powerful yet transient emotional landscape in an individual’s personal history. Perhaps this is why several of the writers compared the discovery of that monumental music to falling in love.