Artifacts Only: On Jonathan Lethem’s “Fear of Music”
By Evan KindleyMay 1, 2012
Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem
THE LONG-PLAYING RECORD ALBUM AND THE BOOK are the two great "dying" cultural forms of the early 21st century. Assailed on all sides by digital piracy, global economic turmoil, and unexpectedly mercurial consumer bases, the two have been in critical condition for a decade at least. But, as natural as it is to compare them, these twin terminal cases are essentially different. The album is a much newer arrival on the scene (the first LP appeared in 1948, the first book in the seventh millennium B.C.), and also seems to be passing away much faster: dying young, as it were. In one sense, the latter isn't ailing at all; while books have certainly gone and will continue to go digital, there have been few serious challenges to the Book as Form. Even ebooks are, for most phenomenological intents and purposes, books, and no one seems terribly eager to overthrow the tyranny of the 40-to-60,000-word chunk of text, divided into sections and justified with margins.
The Album as Form, on the other hand, really is in trouble; not only are albums not selling to casual fans in anything like the quantities they once did (with the exception of outliers like Adele), but even serious, deeply committed listeners are less and less inclined to organize their consumption of music into roughly 40-minute chunks, preferring their units of attention shorter (the single track) or longer (the stream or playlist). This is not a sudden change, though it is a lately accelerated one: AM radio begat the mix tape begat the iTunes playlist begat musico-social networks like Spotify and This Is My Jam.
Still, hardly anyone denies that the Album as Form is a useful, even necessary, organizing concept for both music criticism and everyday fan discourse, if only for historical reasons. If past practitioners thought of their work as oriented toward the 10- or 12-song value pack, then it makes sense that we should, too, the same way we struggle to get our heads around 17th-century sonnet sequences. The more interesting question is: what will happen to such notions as the contents of our musical archive become increasingly atomized. Do we need the idea of the whole in order to appreciate the parts?
The modest success of Continuum's 33 1/3 series seems to argue that we do, at least for now. Since 2003, the series has provided a momentary stay against the confusion of a world without albums. (There is an irony, of course, in the joining together of these two dying forms: is this supposed to help the album's prospects? Or is it like pouring water on a drowning man?) The form of the 33 1/3 book, like that of the album itself, is at once expansive and rigidly defined: a book-length essay on a single LP or CD (phonomonograph?), most often written by a music journalist or academic, comprising some combination of personal testimony, cultural history, "close listening," and trivia. (Only the last element is indispensable.) The quality of individual titles has been all over the place, partly as a side effect of overproduction (there have been 86 titles in the past eight years, with five more planned for the spring in addition to Lethem's), but the best — by writers such as Carl Wilson, Daphne Brooks, and the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle — have realized the format's possibilities in varied and surprising ways.
Jonathan Lethem is, by a couple of orders of magnitude, the most famous writer to have published a 33 1/3 volume, and Fear of Music, his tribute to Talking Heads' third album, is something of a watershed for the series. He clearly knows this, too, and the knowledge makes Fear of Music a more anxious, self-aware text than many of its brethren. Or rather, it expects you to be aware of the particular self that's holding forth here: this is not just some Talking Heads fan (or fannish talking head) talking at us; it's Jonathan Lethem, Major Author.
Though publishing a writer of Lethem's stature is new for 33 1/3, Fear of Music is not entirely new territory for Lethem. He's written quite a bit of music criticism (The Ecstasy of Influence collects nearly a hundred pages' worth of it), and in the past year he's already published a similarly proportioned analysis of John Carpenter's They Live for Soft Skull's "Deep Focus" (a series that owes much to 33 1/3, itself modeled loosely on the British Film Institute's long-running Classics series). But record albums, with their precise demarcations between tracks, make an even better arena for his taxonomic, detail-obsessed intelligence than films, with their continuous moment-to-moment flow. In Fear of Music, Lethem alternates chapters that attempt some form of holistic assessment ("Is Fear of Music a David Byrne Record?" "…a Science Fiction Record?" "…a New York Record?" etc.) with those that zero in on one track and interpret it to within an inch of its life. This strategy solves the structural problem posed by the series' format (what to do besides go down the track list and gush?) while emphasizing the casual scale-jumping fundamental to the album form: the ability to toggle from part to whole and back again without strain. At any given time, then, Lethem is trying to write about all of Fear of Music (and not just about it: "I didn't want to write about Fear of Music, I wanted to write Fear of Music"), but is also keenly aware that all he has to focus on are details. You can only really listen to one song (in fact, one moment!) at any one time.
Bloviating about an album's Gestalt is easy enough; for any good music critic, dealing with the small stuff is the real test, and it's in describing Fear of Music's finer points that Lethem proves himself. Always handy with the aperçus ("if all art aspires to the condition of music, all Talking Heads' music aspired to the condition of gallery art"), he only occasionally falls back on X-crossed-with-Y reference pointing, a common vice of lazy music critics. (When he does, they're usually on the mark: "'Cities' runs the Velvet's 'Rock and Roll' straight into K.C. and the Sunshine Band's boundless groove" or "basically, 'Animals' is [James Brown's] 'Super Bad,' played super badly.") And, for a nonmusician, he's impressively attentive to the nuances of band dynamics. For example:
There is a piano in "Heaven." The guitars defer to it. This is the "slow song" ... Someone better send a memo to the rhythm section ... The drummer stiff-arms the subject matter ... He just martially toughs it out, fingers in his ears while he chants "rock song, rock song, rock song" all the way through ... Even more rudely, the bass player's just doing way too much, blobbing all over the track with webby all-thumbs footprints, gurgling and belching and totally earthbound.
More predictably, he's an insightful analyst of David Byrne's lyrics; I especially love his catalog of "Fear of Music's characteristically equivocal and tenuous 'coping' statements" ("Everything seems to be up in the air at this point" ... "some good points, some bad points," et al.), the gist of which Lethem summarizes thus: "Here's the good news: Dreadful outcomes are far from certain! Much remains open to negotiation! ... A prevalence of these moderate, forestalling, or placating phrases is one of this band's true signatures."
Like most music critics, Lethem has his helplessly impressionistic moments ("[Air] is a cartoon vehicle, as drawn by some anonymous genius in the Hanna Barbera empire") and his hyperbolic ones ("'Memories Can't Wait' is a fucking disaster area, a black bubbling cauldron full of barking dogs and backwards masking" — and here I always thought it sounded like a garage band hacking out Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady"). Very occasionally, he'll tease us with an anecdote from the recording sessions: "the singer, reportedly, did calisthenics before stepping to the mike, then jogged in place to keep from regaining his breath while he sang ['Drugs']"; or how Brian Eno rescued the melody of "Heaven" from oblivion after overhearing Byrne humming it while washing dishes.
But those coming to Fear of Music primarily for such historical tidbits will be disappointed. At times, inevitably, we're learning more about Jonathan Lethem and his obsessions than we are about Talking Heads. A key theme of Fear of Music, Lethem points out, is departure from New York, a matter, not surprisingly, that's been much on the author's mind lately. For Talking Heads, this is part of a larger narrative: that of the Baltimore-born, RISD-educated, Manhattan-identified David Byrne coming to terms with suburban America, which culminates in the divisive 1986 film and album True Stories. Lethem places the song "Cities," which weighs the pros and cons of moving to London, Memphis, and a few other locales ("I will find a city, find myself a city to live in") in "a lineage that describes the long-term accommodation of Talking Heads' cosmopolitanism to the fact of the heartland, the house-training of their nervous New Yorker's grievance against wide open spaces." (Others in this series include the first album's "Don't Worry About the Government," More Songs About Buildings and Food's "The Big Country," and "Heaven" and "Life During Wartime" from Fear of Music itself.)
It's more than incidental, of course, that Lethem's recently found a new city to live in himself. In 2011, Lethem moved from Brooklyn — his hometown, and the setting of his breakthrough novels Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude — to Claremont, California, where he accepted the position of Roy E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College. It's difficult to read all the attention to travel, departure, accommodation, and adjustment and not wonder about how Lethem's getting along in his new digs in Claremont. The album's next track after "Cities" — "Life During Wartime" — is in turn described as "Talking Heads' equivalent of Bob Dylan's 'Positively Fourth Street': an I'm-Breaking-Up-With-My-Old-Scene song. (Give No Regards To Broadway, Forget Me In Herald Square.)" Is Fear of Music, then, Jonathan Lethem's I'm-Breaking-Up-With-My-Old-Scene book?
If it is, of course, then Lethem has picked the most "New York" of all possible bands to mark his goodbye to all that. (He says it himself: "Talking Heads were the definitive New York rock band. Manhattan band, if you wanted to give the outer boroughs to the Ramones.") His point, though, is that, in the late '70s and early '80s especially, Byrne and Talking Heads were working overtime not to emphasize but to overcome their association with New York. "A suspicion appears already to have been sneaking over [the] songwriter," Lethem writes, "[that] believing New York City was the city of the future — or, at least, that it was the only city of the future — might have been ... nearsighted and self-congratulatory." All that said, Lethem's book is less about simply leaving New York than it is about departure in general, and about growing up. Toward the end, he reflects that
[m]y biggest surprise, coming full circle to Fear of Music and to Talking Heads generally, was how often in their work I felt the throb of Bob Dylan's "Don't Look Back" or "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," or the bluesman's refrain of "always leaving home." That note of permanent goodbye, where a potentially tender feeling makes itself callous in order to spare sentimentality, to circumvent wallowing ... Who are we people who sometimes need to destroy and depart, who find that losing things — people and cities, time and mind — is often the only way to taste having had them at all?
Increasingly, this seems to be Lethem's major subject: Moving on. Not looking back (until you suddenly, helplessly do). In his ongoing, astonishingly prolific middle period, he is constantly sniffing around the Bildungsroman: most obviously in The Fortress of Solitude (which arguably initiated this phase) but also in Chronic City and in several of the essays and occasional pieces recently collected in The Ecstasy of Influence. Fear of Music continues this retrospective trend; and, in this seemingly slight book, Lethem has made (or perhaps refined) a crucial realization, which is that, in the hipper precincts of the developed world in the early 21st century, one's Bildung is more likely to be summed up by the continuing career trajectories of musicians, filmmakers, artists, and maybe even novelists than it is by any single static work of fiction; and that the claim of works of fiction to coherently represent growing up has, therefore, become subject to a new kind of challenge. Art still matters to our sentimental educations, but the ex post facto guides to growing up that we find in novels by Goethe, Flaubert, Joyce, and Bellow have given way to minute-by-minute status updates, and the sages of old have lately been replaced by hordes of fellow travelers. We still look to art to help us grow up, to help us navigate what Lethem calls "the universal human experience of outgrowing one's original family and venturing forth into the world at large." But the signal difference is that, today, we don't expect the artists to have already done the growing up themselves; indeed, we'd rather they didn't. It's not retrospection or wisdom we're looking for, but company.
It's question-begging, of course, whether or not this is really a "universal human experience" — plenty of people never outgrow their original families, and don't want to — but it's what interests Lethem, and he's entirely convincing in his assertion that it interests, or interested, David Byrne as well. These growing pains manifest on several levels, not least in the internal politics of the band: "David Byrne didn't want to become the nerd Mick Jagger," Lethem writes:
For it was Jagger's fate to be seen as somehow both apart from, and utterly incomplete without, his musical collaborators, even as the potential meaning of the Rolling Stones' music became more and more a product and symptom of Jagger's projected persona, circumscribed by its established interests and attitudes.
This inscribes Fear of Music in the well-known tale of the power struggles between Byrne and bassist Tina Weymouth over the direction of Talking Heads, which was increasingly perceived as — and, arguably, increasingly operated like — Byrne's backing band. But it also writes Lethem, and his recent westward emigration, into the Talking Heads story. The novelist's persuasive interpretation of Fear of Music as a Fear of Maturity Record emerges, as he freely admits, out of his own rather narcissistic identification with it.
But even though Lethem claims he wrote his book "in exclusive consultation with Selfipedia," it's not quite right to resort to the usual critical canard about "Fear of Music being as much, or more, about Jonathan Lethem as it as about Talking Heads. As in most critical/artifactual encounters where both sides are worth their salt, the "text" puts up quite a bit of generative resistance. David Byrne, it turns out, is a tricky character (or a "slippery person," to paraphrase the man himself) to choose as a mirror: not just because his own personality is so powerfully idiosyncratic, but because so much of his work, as Lethem recognizes, is about not being able to mirror others, to identify or relate. The one piece of biographical data Lethem allows himself to run with is Byrne's idle speculation in recent interviews that he may have, or have had, a mild form of Asperger's syndrome. These remarks prompt a whole chapter: "Is Fear of Music an Asperger's Record?" In "What I Learned at the Science-Fiction Convention," from The Ecstasy of Influence, Lethem has already proposed that "Genius Asperger's might be the defining artistic room tone of our time," and Byrne's self-diagnosis provides an opportunity to pursue this intriguing thought further. Certainly the definition of the Asperger's aesthetic given there — "cognitively astonishing accounts of living in a world to which one does not fully belong, the terms of which one cannot fully discern or trust" — applies perfectly to Byrne's work, and to Fear of Music in particular: "With its air of list-making rigor, its doomed authority, this collection of songs might have special capacities for sorting the stuff of the world into manageable boxes, like a child's dinner plate with barriers to keep the peas from the potatoes."
I think Lethem is wrong, though, to conflate this kind of autistic rigor with solipsism, which he defines elsewhere in Fear of Music as "the suspicion that you are everything." People with Asperger's syndrome (stipulating for the moment that it actually exists, a fact both Byrne and Lethem allow themselves to doubt) don't believe they're at the center of the universe; they merely lack the affective equipment to access all its other inhabitants. Lethem may be deeply interested in this kind of solipsism, but I don't think Byrne is; I'd argue rather that he's notably nonsolipsistic for a singer-songwriter, notably interested by and attracted to the lives of others, though he has to struggle harder than most to access them. A film like True Stories, flawed as it is, exemplifies this: its studied, almost anthropological fascination with Texas seemed condescending to some, but to me it registers as Byrne searching for points of connection with people and customs that appear alien to him; to learn, as he once sang in "The Big Country," "how these things work together." It's the aesthetic of Genius Asperger's, if you like, raised to the level of an ethical stance.
Lethem, though, presents a different kind of case. The peculiar figure he cuts in 21st-century letters is this: at once an inheritor to what his Pomona predecessor David Foster Wallace called "the Great Male Narcissists" (Mailer, Updike, Roth) and a helplessly geeky comics-and-sci-fi-besotted super fan. But these two sides of his Janus-face, which he struggles to reconcile in The Ecstasy of Influence under the sign of the elephant and the termite, are, perhaps, not so far apart to begin with. What is a fan, after all, but someone who has invested a tremendous amount of social energy — the energy ordinarily spent on making oneself agreeable to one's peers, or pleasing a boss or a lover — in art produced by someone else, art which has, strictly speaking, nothing at all to do with your own life. The fan elects to spend his or her time experiencing this art, thinking about it, evaluating it, and often (but not always, and not necessarily) talking about it with other fans: this is where fandom can shade into the kind of sociality that "regular people" are prone to.
Though fandom can seem utterly self-obliterating — so that everything that might be unique about you is absorbed into your appreciation of the work of someone else — it is also, at root, narcissistic. What you're doing, in fact, is deciding to spend time not with other people but with something that seems to you to reflect your essence so intensely that it helps you become more like yourself. "In a sense Fear of Music and I are like Groucho and Harpo, meeting one night in that doorway that pretends to be a mirror," Lethem writes toward the end of the book. "The false reflection displayed to me a self that was just enough off-register to be completely revealing. Yet this was only possible because we met at a time when we were both wearing the same disguise."
What to make of a diminished format? Over time, habitual ways of organizing experience become ceremonial ways of marking prestige: our living rooms turn into libraries, our playgrounds into mausoleums. Lethem knows this as well as any other fan, and an elegiac tone crops up in Fear of Music at unexpected moments, as in his discussion of "Electric Guitar," "the official worst song on the album." "What is it about 'Electric Guitar' that triggers defensiveness and embarrassment?" he asks. "Surely it's something more than finding it tucked away in nearly any album's official 'hiding spot,' one-song-from-last, neither fish nor finale. What's the word? Oh, yeah, penultimate." Surprisingly, though, this consideration of the worst song on the album unfolds into one of the best moments of the book:
Yet whether it's "Electric Guitar" that's guilty or not, let's sing a tiny ballad to "the worst song on the album," a fragile and beautiful notion owing its life to the unlikely demands of a listener for perfection and completion, in a region of the insistently irregular, impure and unlikely. Forget "concept albums" — album is itself a concept. Hardly a natural form, not sun or moon, not some inevitable God in our fannish sky. There used to only be "songs" — hits, singles, filler — jumbled into saleable compendiums, in a format called a "long player." Then someone — Beatles? Dylan? — raised the stakes. And lately, the stretchiness and permeability of new formats and modes of transmission renders the concept antique. "Worst song on the album" means as little, probably, to an LCD Soundsystem fan as it did once to a Bo Diddley fan. (Or should.) Yet that window between the two is where my sensibility ran into Fear of Music, and likely yours too. And truthfully, that window between is where Fear of Music is conceived and presented itself to us. And more, how we adore our disappointment! Our love wouldn't be complete without it.
The historical accident of a half-century of sequencing decisions — "This song sucks, but it has to go somewhere, so let's bury it near the very end" — has produced a cherished nugget of pop lore savored by generations of fans: the "official hiding spot" for "the worst song on the album." Without the shelter of Album as Form, where will all the worst songs go? What will happen to the character-building disappointments devoted fans like Lethem so adore? Is the album, too, something we have to depart from and destroy in order to savor having tasted? We can't know the answer yet; check back in 25 to 50 years. In the meantime, add Lethem's Fear of Music, and Talking Heads', to what remains of your collection; it wouldn't be complete without them.
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