they can’t kill us until they kill us

The last book I read in 2017, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, is also one of the best books I read in 2017… and probably one of the best I’ve read in the last few years, period. From the book’s jacket:

In an age of confusion, fear, and loss, Hanif Abdurraqib’s is a voice that matters. Whether he’s attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or discussing public displays of affection at a Carly Rae Jepsen show, he writes with a poignancy and magnetism that resonates profoundly.

In essays that have been published by the New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, among others—along with original, previously unreleased essays—Abdurraqib uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves, and in so doing proves himself a bellwether for our times.

Wow, you guys. Just wow. I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want it to end. I extra love that I hadn’t heard anything about They Can’t Kill Us until I randomly saw it at my favorite bookstore and bought it on a whim in November. This collection is full of moving, insightful observations about life, culture, society, and more that touched me deeply. I identified with how clearly and specifically music has impacted Abdurraqib’s life, because it has for me, even if our tastes and the music that shaped us growing up (for me the ’90s, he writes here mostly about ’00s) are slightly different. Doesn’t matter, I’m always down to read and learn about music and life experiences outside of my own experience and comfort zone.

Abdurraqib’s essays use the music fan/listener experience as the impetus to discuss a variety of issues, not least of all is racism in America, of which he has a unique perspective as a black Muslim man. These essays aren’t strictly about politics, religion, and race, though. He also goes into depth on loneliness, grief, loss, and even hope with his own personal stories as examples, like the deaths of his close friends and his mother. And then there’s the writing. Abdurraqib is a poet, and while there aren’t any poems in the traditional sense in this collection, his prose reflects his poetic style:

The world is undoing itself & I must tend to my vast & growing field of fears. In this new country, a nightmare is nothing but a brief rental home for the mind to ransack & leave the sleeping body unharmed. (139, “There Is The Picture Of Michael Jackson Kissing Whitney Houston On The Cheek”)

But our best work is the work of ourselves, our bodies and the people who want us to keep pushing, even if the days are long and miserable and even if there are moments when the wrong side of the bridge beckons you close. (77, “Brief Notes on Staying // No One Is Making Their Best Work When They Want To Die”)

Nina Simone rode away on the troubled ocean, standing on the deck of a black ship, looking back while a whole country burned, swallowing itself. (198, “Nina Simone Was Very Black”)

There are so many pieces I loved in They Can’t Kill Us. The ones that resonated the most with me were those on grief, creativity, heartbreak, and striving for optimism. The ones I learned from most were those of his perspective on racism and religion. The one about Allen Iverson’s crossover hit on Michael Jordan was brilliant, as were so many others. I think if I have one tiny criticism, it’s that I wish there had been more women artists present… the music he filters his topics through is mostly rap and punk, which are, of course, still male dominated genres. Even so, They Can’t Kill Us a near-perfect book. It reminded me a lot of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Read those, and read this.

Read in December 2017.

mini-reviews: i’m just a person and mo’ meta blues

Two of my favorite books read in 2016 were celebrity memoirs. I read them both after I left Kansas City, one while I was in Madison for the summer and one after moving to Singapore, but both still stand out to me a year later.

I admit I’m not a die-hard fan of stand-up comedy, but there are a select few comedians that have reached me through their work—Marc Maron, Trevor Noah—and Tig Notaro ranks highly. I watched her great Netflix special Tig in 2015, and have been following her since. While much of the material in i’m just a person is familiar to fans from Tig and her stand-up routines, this raw, personal memoir is still worth a quick read. She talks more about her childhood and 2012, her horrible year battling disease and dealing with a breakup as well as her mother’s death. I was really inspired by her tenacity through tragedy, and how she makes her painful stories and vulnerabilities relatable and entertaining. [Read in July 2016.]

I’ve loved The Roots for a long time and I had been meaning to read this one for a while, and with all my newfound free time in Singapore last year I finally got to it! I found Questlove’s Mo’ Meta Blues just a delight. Questlove is more charming, humble, and thoughtful a human being than I ever realized. He keeps this book light while still deep-diving on certain topics at the same time. His philosophical musings about the states of pop culture, hip-hop, and music criticism are intelligent and spot on. I loved that he started each chapter with a question, and I think my favorite parts were his recollections of certain critical albums in his life. [Read in November 2016.]

the first collection of criticism by a living female rock critic

With the ubiquity of online shopping, I really miss wandering into a bookstore and “discovering” a new book for which I’ve never seen a review, never heard of before, and just picking it up on a whim. Do you miss that sometimes? I know I can still do that, but still. It’s somehow not the same. Anyway, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper was a rare pleasant bookshop discovery for me last year. Edited from Goodreads:

Jessica Hopper’s music criticism has earned her a reputation as a firebrand, a keen observer and fearless critic not just of music but the culture around it. […] Through this vast range of album reviews, essays, columns, interviews, and oral histories, Hopper chronicles what it is to be truly obsessed with music. The pieces in The First Collection send us digging deep into our record collections, searching to re-hear what we loved and hated, makes us reconsider the art, trash, and politics Hopper illuminates, helping us to make sense of what matters to us most.

I was initially attracted by the cover and assertive title when I came across it at A Room of One’s Own, my favorite bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin, which I have to hit up every time I’m in my hometown for a visit. I admit I had never heard of Hopper before, not so much because she’s a critic that is a woman but because I don’t read Pitchfork or other music ‘zines—not regularly anyway, not enough to follow or even become acquainted with the names of certain writers. As a music reviewer in Kansas City myself at the time, I simply couldn’t resist buying The First Collection. I’m so glad I did because not only did this collection speak to me as a reviewer and critic, but also as a feminist and a woman whose adolescence was shaped during a certain period of popular music history covered here by Hopper.

Right off the bat, Hopper clarifies that she is, of course, not the first female music writer. The title serves as a call to recognize those who came before her and question why women aren’t more visible in this field. Hopper’s writing throughout the essays in The First Collection is pointed and distinctive, and I especially enjoyed her personal musings on her relationship with music. I wasn’t a Riot Grrl in the ’90s and punk isn’t my taste per se, but the feminist messaging certainly spoke to me then and Hopper’s insights on this subject affected me now, too. I don’t remember every essay (there are many), but the ones that still stand out to me a year after reading The First Collection are those about Miley Cyrus, the commercialism and corporatization of punk and alternative music festivals (Vans Warped Tour, Lollapalooza), the making of Hole’s Live Through This (even though I can’t stand Hole!), and her trip to Michael Jackson’s hometown after he died. The best and most thorough piece, though, is her interview with Jim DeRogatis about R. Kelly’s sexual misconduct and assault of underage black girls, who received no justice and whose lives were basically ruined (DeRogatis is the one who originally broke the story).

The First Collection was one of the best books I read in 2016, and I sure hope this book, Hopper, and her predecessors inspire a new generation of women music writers in the future.

Read in March 2016.

lexicon of musical invective

Nicholas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective was a composer’s delight! It was the perfect blend of criticism and humor, and also had colorful language and great insight into the general mindsets and opinions of music and performance practices at the time of each inclusion. I admit I could only read the book one short segment at a time as its content was overwhelmingly negative. That said, it was still interesting to read the cutting personal attacks on the composers rather than critiques just about the music or the performance. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in music history and criticism. This should also be required reading for every composer!