a love letter to to our best curators

by s.

This week, Anna brought me to see Johann Johannsson perform with an orchestra as soundtrack to a silent film about Scandinavian coal miners by Bill Morrisson. I loved it and loved her more for it, and yesterday I mentioned it in conversation to Mike and found myself frantically emailing myself the barrage of YouTube links that he immediately sent my way. It occurred to me that my problem in life is that I’ve spent too much time knocking back beers with boys who want me to love Guided By Voices and not enough time launching full-on searches for people who speak in beautiful cultural languages I don’t understand. I thought about all of the people I really, really like, and they all have this thing in common.

Not terribly long after I turned twenty-one, I met a fortysomething ethnomusicologist at a Pernice Brothers show at Maxwells and we started to talk, unsurprisingly, about music. It happened that we shared a favorite songwriter, and from there it felt like we had a lot to say. Back then, there were a few really special things that I could do that the people who know me now have never experienced. I could, for example, speak at length about German aestheticism or the definitions of specific Greek words or Baudrillard’s simulacrum. I could quote full passes from Franny and Zooey. Those things may not be terribly surprising. I could also sit down with you at a bar and drink a few drinks and tell you a lot of things about the effect of Mitch Easter’s production on power pop as we know it and how great his band Let’s Active was and how Mitch Easter is basically the coolest thing on the planet. That night, I certainly had that conversation with my newfound ethnomusicologist friend.

There is this, though: I had not actually ever listened to a Mitch Easter song. I was young and insecure and under the impression that in order for people to take you seriously, you needed to be able to talk about Mitch Easter. I had this impression solely because of a songwriter I did know by heart, one who introduced me to about a million names via liner notes, interviews, and a peculiarly fun feature on his band’s website that he called “Ask Scott.” His two bands, Game Theory and the Loud Family, were among my favorites, and I took his word as gospel at every opportunity.

The songwriter in question, Scott Miller, recently published a book based on the obsessive year-end lists he became popular for on “Ask Scott.” Music: What Happened? reads at once like an uber-informed playlist of songs we should all know by heart, and also like the diary of a man who doesn’t really mind when he gets it wrong. There are moments when he discusses what he assumes a song is about without seeming to know that public knowledge says otherwise, his selections are heavily lenient on his own collaborators, and he says things like that The Dismemberment Plan’s “You Are Invited” is a precursor to LCD Soundsystem and counts this as the song’s one demerit. Still, it seems to me that this sort of casual but obviously wildly intelligent sense of curation is the sort of thing we might need in order to stop thinking of “curation” as a dirty word.

Where Miller gets it right, he does so wonderfully. He speaks, for example, about the 1997 Neutral Milk song “Naomi”: “On Avery Island sounds like everything was recorded deep into saturation, which is just the right thing for the exhilarating launch moment leading into ‘I’m watching Naomi full bloom’.” On Badfinger, in general: “Poor Badfinger.” On Augie March’s “Little Wonder”: “The surprise section of the song that goes into the muted-trumpet jazz blues line, with the room reverb, is a great ear-opening production touch.” On William Shatner’s cover of Pulp’s “Common People”: “By the time Joe Jackson appears out of nowhere to sing the chorus out-of-his-mind greatly, you realize all bets are off for this amazing piece of music, and perhaps life in general.” Eventually he even comes to his senses and includes LCD Soundsystem’s “Drunk Girls”, admitting that “it would sure be weird I was slow to notice that James Murphy and Kid Cudi were actually the people carrying the torch for pop rock.”

What you start to notice, though, when you are me and you are reading this book by someone whose recommendations for books and music you once took as gospel, is that it’s mostly a reminder of all of the things I’ve already grown to love. By the time he gets to the 2000s, I’m all caught up: I know all of these songs and I have my own opinions about them. His knowledge will always be vast and there are things that he can tell you about at least two decades of rock music that I could never articulate, and he can certainly tell you about the greatness of Mitch Easter with the informed nature of someone who has actually listened to Mitch Easter, but at some point in life, we tend to catch up with our heroes.

At that point, it becomes necessary to let people drag you to places they think you need to go, and it becomes your responsibility to find people willing to do the dragging. And in case you are worried about Outgrowing Things or Moving On or losing a sense of self in the process, I can tell you that there is one very important thing that most of life’s curators have in common, and that is Brian Eno.