“Writers love music,” observes Peter Terzian in his introduction to Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives. “A good ear is almost a requirement of the job; the best writing has voice, has rhythm.” Indeed, John Ashbery has spoken of his poetry’s indebtedness to music, and Samuel Beckett gave precise attention to the cadence of his plays. In Heavy Rotation, however, technical discussions have been traded for highly personal—and highly readable—accounts of the relationship between music and literature.
For anyone interested in what cultural producers are listening to, it’s interesting to note that the records chosen in this anthology—by writers including Colm Tóibín, Kate Christensen, James Wood, and Martha Southgate—are not particularly hip, and more often than not, the selections mark a particularly vulnerable period in one’s past. Despite variations of geography (the Dominican Republic, India, Canada, Ireland) and cultural context, these painful stories take place in such uninspired realms as dorms, suburbs, and small towns; loneliness, anxiety, and the general outsiderness of youth pervades. The book is far from mopey, though, and meaningful transformations do occur: An encounter with music often becomes a key to another way of being.
Sheila Heti’s wistful essay on a childhood obsession with the Annie sound track culminates in a mortifying experience singing on a low-budget Canadian TV show, souring her on celebrity idolatry ever since. Daniel Handler selects a particularly underwhelming album by the Eurythmics, 1987’s Savage (an “amuse-bouche of irony that folds in on itself for no reason except to engage and amuse”), as a turning point in his intellectual sensibility. He has good memories tied to way cooler groups such as Suicide, Sparks, and the Clash, he writes, but “when you’re seventeen you can drive around at midnight listening to anything and your life will change.” Savage, however, was unexpectedly formative, “like a book changes lives: slowly, purposefully, insidiously.” The album’s theme of fakeness introduced the Lemony Snicket author to the idea of “irony and showmanship as honesty and truth” and taught him that “looking askance at things is in fact the best way to look at them directly.”
Some pieces read more like experimental fiction than personal essays. Clifford Chase recounts his anguished college years struggling with the possibility of being gay in terse but astonishingly vivid snapshots, and Alice Elliott Dark’s heartbreaking story of how she considered George Harrison an imaginary father figure unfurls in dense, unparagraphed text written in the second person. John Haskell is one of the few who references the avant-garde. He recalls that hearing Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” informed his first serious attempts to write “in a musical way, to express . . . life.”
Some contributors shift from the inward-gazing “I” to cultural or critical analysis: Wood dilates on the mod craze and the Who’s Quadrophenia, Stacey D’Erasmo paints early-’90s conservatism while listening to Kate Bush’s The Sensual World, and John Jeremiah Sullivan traces the mutations of folk and blues lyrics in Revenant’s American Primitive series. The beauty of Heavy Rotation, however, is the general refrainment from both hyper-nerdiness and the overblown language that saturates much music criticism, past and present. I take it as a sign of the subject being placed in good, literary hands.
Todd Pruzan’s essay “Mental Chickens”—on the sound track for the 1997 film Topless Women Talk About Their Lives, featuring music by a group of seminal New Zealand bands—is one of the most moving contributions, particularly because the essay’s tragic event occurs after several enthusiastic pages about the Kiwi independent-music scene. Topless Women is hardly a favorite, Pruzan writes, “but after ten years, I can finally nail down its place in my autobiography. It’s the album that brings me closest to that opening bell on my first New York decade,” and—after the deletion of old correspondence, including an e-mail that bore news of a death—it is “the only concrete link with an absent friend.”
Heavy Rotation is suffused with a keen earnestness, but the skilled, measured writing keeps the book from tumbling into a well of sentimentality. Still, it is difficult to put the book down without having been moved—or without jotting down a few albums to listen to (such as an unknown British outfit called Miaow, Terzian’s own contribution to this collection). Writers are often asked which authors have influenced their practice; Terzian’s book testifies that it may also be worth asking for a playlist.
Nicole Lanctot is a writer living in Brooklyn.