Suspicious Minds

Some of the best books invoking pop this year didn't write about music so much as write around it. In these authors' hands, music becomes a catalyst, an illustration, a character, even a friend.

Geoff Waite, Nietzsche's Corps/e (Duke) A heady academic exploration of the supposed death of communism as seen through the lingering influence of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche. But for all Waite's professorial arguments, he's one of us. His fat tome is a pop lover's dream. He notes that the song "Funeral," the Mekons' meditation on Marxism -- "How can something really be dead when it hasn't even happened? ... This funeral is for the wrong corpse" -- poses a question political theorists of late seem to ignore; the next few swirling sentences paraphrase Miles Davis and cite dub master Linton Kwesi Johnson. This is the only philosophy book I read all year that begs for a soundtrack.

Anonymous, Primary Colors (Random House) Back when Bob Dole was picking on the Geto Boys for exercising musical free speech, I kept thinking of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice maxim: "The man that hath no music in himself,/ Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,/ Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils." The thing about Bill Clinton is that he's a man with a song in his heart. OK, so it's Fleetwood Mac, but still. Joe Klein's, I mean Anonymous', compelling fictionalization of the 1992 presidential campaign may or may not always accurately represent the president's horror and heart, but one passage struck me as true. The narrator, a campaign aide, takes a ride with the governor who would be prez: "I rode shotgun; the governor drove -- and sang. He had the radio turned way up. He sang tentatively on the new songs, more confidently on the oldies. He turned the radio down when 'Achy Breaky Heart' (which was just gathering steam about then) came on. 'I hate that goddamn song,' he said. 'I have always hated gimmick songs, even when I was a kid -- "Purple People Eater," "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window," the Singing Nun. People should have more respect for music than that. You know, it's like politics. You should always have respect for what you're doing, respect the ceremonies and rituals, respect the audience.' "

Tim Dlugos, Powerless: Selected Poems 1973-1990 (Serpent's Tail/High Risk) Anyone who pays attention to the way cultural artifacts bob and weave through our lives at odd, often lyrical moments understands how conducive they are to poetry; those moments are poems. Baseball games, radio shows, and a painting by Matisse stand out here not as pretentious objects of scrutiny, but rather, as ordinary details in the texture of Dlugos' heartbreaking urban existence. The funniest piece finds him on a train in which all the passengers resemble public figures, from Brian Epstein to "Dad" on Dennis the Menace. The last entry, "D.O.A.," engages the film noir of that title and seamlessly, warmly illustrates the way in which even a second-rate movie can speak to a predicament. Dlugos, who was then dying of AIDS, finds in Edmond O'Brien's character's search for his own murderer a sympathetic parable. But the poet's approaching death can't be blamed on a man he can hunt down and kill, only on something as wispy and impossible to prosecute as "a kind of love."

Karal Ann Marling, Graceland: Going Home With Elvis (Harvard) Elvis wasn't just a singer. He was a whole, complicated, bright and shiny package -- the hair, the clothes, the cars, the house. University of Minnesota professor Karal Ann Marling drives up to Graceland as a fan, and that's how she goes home. She somehow manages to avoid that racist condescension inherent in many a Northerner's condemnation of the Big E's Southern flash, while at the same time keeping her squeals of delight intact. "Graceland's no void," she writes. "It's full of things." Serving up a playful but profound sense of history, Marling makes the much-maligned house come to stand as a symbol for desire -- Elvis' and ours.

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

 
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