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.”
Mark Greif, co-founder of n+1
“Give Me the Cure,” Fugazi, from Fugazi (1988)
Reputedly, this song is about AIDS. It’s the most compressed account I’ve ever encountered of the horror of being sick in an era when our expectation is that everything you can get sick from will eventually have a cure. You might be the one to die because you’ve come too early or because “they” don’t care about the likes of you. That intrusion of human power—a power you can’t reach—into the already unbearable thing that’s between you and fate, or you and nature, or you and God . . . that’s what I hear in the song.
Asali Solomon, author of Get Down
“Volverás” (“You’ll Be Back”), Gloria Estefan, from Mi Tierra (1993)
“Volverás” evokes a grand tradition in Spanish lyrics that revels in telling a callous lover that he (or she) will be sorry. I love that the song is not sassy—instead, it’s a slow, mournful number with wailing Spanish guitars that builds to a crescendo. It uses a blues-like alchemy to suggest that there is great power in being spurned. It can even make you prescient enough to look into the future and see your stupid ex crawling back.
“Marry Me Dusty,” Miaow, from Priceless Innuendo (1987, unreleased)
If you were a gay music lover in the late ’80s, you had your Communards, your Erasure, and that was about it. Even those out-and-proud bands mostly trafficked in second-person pronouns, so the straights could listen along without a fuss. Cath Carroll, frontwoman of the London-based indie band Miaow, sang about things you never thought you’d come across in a pop song: cross-dressing lesbians, bisexual love triangles, Sapphic frolics at the Hampstead Bathing Ponds. The would-be lead single from Miaow’s never-released debut album (the demos of which stream on Carroll’s website), this ode to Dusty, the great gay chanteuse, evokes drag bars where “the girls in the backroom/Would lacquer up their hair and sing/’Won’t you marry me, Miss Springfield?'”
Claire Dederer, author of the forthcoming Poser: A Memoir in Twenty-Four Yoga Poses
“Wig in a Box,” from the Hedwig and the Angry Inch original cast recording (1999)
Alone in the trailer park, abandoned by her lover, her dick sawed off in a botched sex-change operation, Hedwig is feeling blue at the beginning of this song. All she wants to do is sit around drinking vermouth, but she stirs herself to put on her wig—and lo, she is transformed! She unleashes the chorus, a screamingly catchy sing-along. It’s almost too catchy. In fact, I’m not really that crazy about the chorus. What I love is the intro, when Hedwig is forcing herself to get it together. “Put on the wig,” she tells herself. “You know you’ll feel better.” I love that moment, when she wills herself to transcendence.
Todd Pruzan, author of The Clumsiest People in Europe
“Not Given Lightly,” Chris Knox, from the Topless Women Talk About Their Lives soundtrack (1997)
Did statisticians chart a spike in New Zealand’s birth rate 20 years ago? It was 1989 when a recovering punk named Chris Knox trotted out this drowsy, irresistible love song, opening his honey-voiced blues with a shy, sleepy nudge before grinding it into a joyous, full-throated serenade. (A serenade to his wife, no less: How punk is that.) “This isn’t easy,” Knox apologizes—”I might not write another”—but his good work is done.