Six Books That Music Lovers Should Read

Of all art forms, music is uniquely linked to memory. It’s sewn into the fabric of everyday life: think of the mixtape you made for your first crush, the pop star whose posters were plastered in your teenage room, the album that got you through your divorce, the jam- Band Whose Tour You Followed Country. All offer tantalizing glimpses into your past – and present – ​​self.

No wonder, then, that the best music writing gets personal. The author can turn herself into a prism, breaking up her subject and allowing us to see its components. Why does this song move me? She asks. Why am I interested in this band? And the most important: Why should we care? The ability to answer that last question can separate a good critic from a great one.

Musician and philosopher Patricia Herzog wrote in her 1995 essay “Music Criticism and Musical Meaning”: “For interpretation to be convincing, it must be based on intense appreciation – yes, on love.” These six books masterfully explore what the songs we appreciate (and in one telling case hate) revealed about us.

The cover of Go Ahead in the Rain
University of Texas Press

Lead the Way in the Rain: Notes on a Tribe Called Questby Hanif Abdurraqib

Abdurraqib’s musical writing proves that criticism and memoirs are inextricably linked. His essay collections, A little devil in America and They can’t kill us until they kill usexamine the work of artists such as Aretha Franklin, ScHoolboy Q, Don Shirley and Carly Rae Jepsen as closely as the author himself. Go ahead in the rain, his tribute to pioneering hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, is another shining example of this distinctive approach. As a “really weird” teenager in the turn of the ’90s, forever hooked to his Walkman, Abdurraqib fell in love with the group – particularly founding member Phife Dawg – because he sensed that “they, too, were walking a fine line Madness.” Even at his most introspective, Abdurraqib embraces nostalgia without succumbing to it, honoring the fandom’s experience while questioning it. The book is ultimately an elegy: A Tribe Called Quest disbanded in 1998 and Phife Dawg died in 2016, shortly after the band reunited to record their first new album in 18 years. “There will never be another group like A Tribe Called Quest,” Abdurraqib writes. With Go ahead in the rainhe manages to both celebrate their achievements and “put them to rest”.

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Let’s talk about love: A journey to the end of taste, by CarlWilson

Opening this pivotal entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ book series (each focusing on a single record), Wilson — a critic and fairly omnivorous music lover — professes his hatred for Quebec pop diva Celine Dion. The book, he says, is an “experiment” designed to answer questions about taste, fan base, and popularity based on Dion’s 1997 album let’s talk about love as a case study. Wilson seeks to uncover the reasons for the power balladeer’s remarkable popularity, mining philosophy, sociology, history and his own Canadian roots. He speaks to die-hard Dion fans and even attends a show at her Las Vegas residency, a “multimedia extravaganza” that surprisingly “brought a few tears from the newly-divorced author.” Dion’s appeal proves more complicated than expected, and his lines of inquiry lead him towards the end of the book to examine the very purpose of music criticism itself. Wilson, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly come off as a Dion convert, but he does acknowledge that their widespread appeal is not only valid, but valuable. “There are so many ways to love music,” he concludes.

The cover of Nina Simone's Gum

Nina Simone’s chewing gumby Warren Ellis

In 1999, Australian musician Warren Ellis attended a performance by Nina Simone. After the show, he sneaked onto the stage and stole a piece of chewing gum that Simone had stuck to the bottom of her Steinway. Twenty-two years later, Ellis’ obsession with this piece of junk yielded these mixed-media memoirs that weave text and imagery to glorify the everyday objects and experiences that represent “the metaphysical made physical.” In it, he tells how he took Simone’s chewing gum on tour, wrapped in the towel she used to wipe her brow with during the concert — a “portable shrine” before storing it in his attic for safekeeping and eventually making one Cast of it for posterity. He describes the concert with pious zeal – it was “a miracle”, “a communion”, a “religious experience”. He’s confident enough to know that his devotion is strange, but not confident enough to let it stifle the joy it brings him. In a 2019 screenshotted text exchange with friend and frequent collaborator Nick Cave, Ellis reveals he kept the gum. “You worry me sometimes,” Cave replies. “Haha,” Warren texts back. “I think I do.”

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The cover of I Had to Find a Way to Survive
University of Texas Press

I had to think of a way to survive: Via Trauma, Persistence and Dolly Partonby Lynn Melnick

During what she calls “the worst year of my adult life,” Melnick, a poet, visited Dollywood, country icon Dolly Parton’s theme park in Tennessee. Part retreat, part pilgrimage, her journey has inspired her to write I had to think of a way to survive, a memoir that brings her harrowing story into conversation with Parton’s biography – and discography. In 21 chapters, each cleverly linked to a different song (the book’s structure alone makes it worth picking up), Melnick, a self-confessed “die-hard Dolly fan,” tells of a life that characterized by drug addiction, domestic violence and sexual abuse. Along the way, she looks to Parton as a role model for resilience and draws lessons from her nearly six-decade career and interviews. She also resolves the tensions in Parton’s hyper-feminine personality, leading to a broader view of women’s self-formation. The author writes with remarkable vulnerability and frankness, but is careful not to let the often painful memories she recounts cloud her critical eye. Moving gracefully between confessional and analytical registers, her prose is both sharp and heartfelt.

The cover of My Pinup
new directions

my pinupby Hilton Als

Als’ ambivalence toward Prince’s shifting personality drives this slim memoir about aura, authorship, and authenticity. As a young man at the turn of the ’80s, Al admired the singer-songwriter’s embodied black queerness with his bombastic androgyny and genre-bending virtuosity, and was struck by Prince’s way of breaking the rules of race, gender and sexuality disregarded to “remake black music in his own image”. So he experienced a sense of betrayal when he was responsible for albums such as e.g 1999 and Purple Rain, Prince opted for tailored suits and poppy hooks. “He was like a bride who had left me at the altar of difference to accept what was expected,” writes Als. “Could my strange heart ever let go of that and forgive him?” The parasocial relationship Als has with Prince is a rich site for study, both on a personal level (What does it mean to feel hurt by someone you don’t know ?) so much power of representation?). That parasociality is finally shattered when Als is sent to interview his idol during Prince’s 2004 musicology Trip. This is where the book’s confused, conflicting sentiments come to a head. During their interview, Prince asks Als on a whim to write a book with him; As contradicts. “I couldn’t look at Prince,” he writes. “I couldn’t look away either.”

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The cover of Why Solange Matters
University of Texas Press

Why Solange matters by Stephanie Phillips

In this installment of the University of Texas Press’ Music Matters series, Phillips makes a compelling case for singer-songwriter Solange as one of our most important and ambitious chroniclers of black womanhood. Phillips, a musician who plays in black feminist punk band Big Joanie, draws extensively on her own experience of navigating mostly white musical spaces to trace Solange’s tense history with — and radically challenging — the music industry. Originally from England, Phillips is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, which helps illustrate Solange’s impact beyond America on women in the black diaspora. Phillips’ analysis, for example, of When I get home, Solange’s feature-length ode to her hometown of Houston, explores the artist’s use of and transcending cultural idiosyncrasies. But she has a special reverence for Solange’s “zeitgeist-changing” third album, A seat at the table, which Phillips says “felt like it was written especially for me” when she first heard it. From across the Atlantic, she writes, ” Solange gave me space to learn how to … love my crazy black girl self.”

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