Lit Seen: A Heavy Rotation Playlist

Pink air! Origami irony! Writers on the albums (and songs) that shaped them.

Writing about music for a living has long ranked, prestige-wise, somewhere between dealing drugs and prostitution—the operative assumption being, basically, that anyone desperate enough could do it if necessary. And while many literary bios, from Susan Orlean's to Theodor Adorno's, include the obligatory note about detours in music criticism en route to actual, respectable careers, the two are rarely synonymous.

Rock writing, as Peter Terzian dryly notes in the introduction to his new anthology, Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives (Harper Perennial, 297 pp., $14.99), doesn't often provide "the emotional heft of contemporary fiction"—a charitable understatement that finds its converse in Terzian's observation that "few novels and poems and memoirs of literary quality" have ever been written about pop music, either. Occasionally, the two trades meet somewhere in the middle—Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," say, or Jonathan Lethem on James Brown in Rolling Stone. But mostly, they don't. Enter Heavy Rotation, in which non–rock-writer heavyweights like James Wood and Colm Tóibín try their hand at the genre, writing about records ranging from ABBA's Super Trouper to Miaow's never-released Priceless Innuendo. It's the first anthology of its kind. And though Terzian's contributors are largely dilettantes (20 professionals, for instance, surely wouldn't have missed the incidence of something as game-changing as rap music), it's mostly just a relief to read music criticism that does not employ the word "skronk." For kicks, we asked 10 Heavy Rotation contributors for their favorite tracks off their chosen albums. Their picks and a streaming playlist are below.

John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son

"It's Cold in China Blues," the Mississippi Moaner, from American Primitive Vol. 2 (2005)

"The Mississippi Moaner" was a record-company stage name given to the pre-war bluesman Isaiah Nettles, of whom we know almost nothing. He was young. He played at railroad stops, where he'd put bottles on his toes and dance. In 1935, in a Jackson music shop, he did four songs for the Vocalion label, two of which got released. One is a fun, forgettable Blind Lemon impersonation. The other is this wild masterpiece. "So cold in China, birds can't hardly sing/So cold in China, birds can't hardly sing/You didn't make me mad till you broke my diamond ring."

Clifford Chase, author of Winkie

"Planet Claire," the B-52's, from The B-52's (1979)

From my dorm-room window in California, this song reverberated past redwood trees and down meadows of wildflowers. I was 22 and closeted. "Planet Claire" represented both where I needed to go—a world whose air is pink—and where I had come from—the first beeps seemed to be calling from childhood itself: bongos, sci-fi organ, the Peter Gunn bass line. Fred Schneider's faggy deadpan confirmed a subset of irony I'd long enjoyed but never knew existed out in the world: We're making fun, but also enjoying the objects of fun—the essence of drag.

Alice Elliott Dark, author of In the Gloaming

"Don't Bother Me," the Beatles, from Meet the Beatles (1964)

I picked George as my Beatle at first sight, so I was predisposed to love this song, the first he'd officially written and recorded with the group. I was too young to take the words to heart—I imagined I was the offstage girl who was the only one for him. Now, when I listen to it, I hear the first inklings of the mordant darkness that was the flip side of George's spirituality. He said he didn't think this was a good song. Yet if there is another pop tune that better embodies the nightmare of cold, dismissive rejection, I haven't heard it.

Daniel Handler, author of Adverbs

"Shame," Eurythmics, from Savage (1987)

Even 20 years ago, you couldn't dance to this—the shimmery chorus was maybe fast enough, but the blank, sparse funk of the verses slowed your high-tops down—and yet it's a dance song, with the thunk-thunk-thunk of a drum machine, diva lyrics, and the gospelly backup vox calling "Shame!," the watchword of late-'80s gay culture. This is Savage in a nutshell: an abstraction of pop music and its motives so mannered and arch that the irony folds in on itself, like an origami swan. Askance is the only way to look at the world, says Annie Lennox, or, to put it in her own words, "All you need is love." 

Sheila Heti, author of Ticknor

"You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," from the Annie soundtrack (1982)

Last year, I spent the summer in Williamsburg. One day, I decided to play a game as I walked to the L train. I smiled at everyone I passed. No one smiled back. So I played it the next day, and the next, always with the same result: a slight raise of the chin and a glance away. Give me a break, darlings! Don't you remember Annie? There's only one antidote to your misguided attitude: "Who cares what they're wearing/On Main Street or Savile Row/It's what you wear from ear to ear/And not from head to toe/That ma-ah-ah-ters."
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