I offer this brief post partially for the benefit of my students – and for my own interest in copying out some succinct, succulent writing on music. Last year I read the fascinating book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by music journalist Carl Wilson. (I hope Mr. Wilson doesn’t mind me copying out a few of his words – strictly for educational purposes!) A book, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, centered on that bloviated mistress of ersatz emotion-pop, Celine Dion. Erm… did I just lose all my hard-earned “jazz blogger” cred?

In a desire to discover what goes into the construction of our personal “tastes,” Wilson took it upon himself to spend a year with the very music he found the most “tasteless” (namely, Dion and her legions of fans), and the results are both hysterical and illuminating. I haven’t come across a more entertaining explication of the socially constructed nature of “taste,” and Wilson’s tone combines a taut mixture of academic analysis and journalistic page-turning. For a further goof, click here to view Wilson’s equally funny public dismemberment by that acute social critic Stephen Colbert.

One afternoon early in our relationship, my future ex-wife and I were lazing around her small apartment, listening to music. Testing boundaries, I began teasing her a bit about her music collection, mostly thrift-shop copies of 50s crooner and rock’n’roll records, a quaint-seeming fixation for a twenty-four-year-old downtown novelist. She went over to the suitcase record player and put “Oh Boy” by Buddy Holly under the worn-out needle:

“All of my life I’ve been a-waitin’
Tonight there’ll be no hesitatin’–oh boy!
When you’re with me…”

And she sang along:

“Stars appear and shadows are fallin
You can hear my heart a–calling
A little bit of lovin’ makes everything right
I’m gonna see my baby tonight!”

She loved it, she said, because it was the truth. There was nothing more layered or contradictory to say. “Oh boy!” expressed exactly how she felt, right there and then, about me.

I don’t think I have ever been more moved, even in our wedding vows, by a profession of love. I’ve seldom felt so honored, so human, so sure that merely human was enough. That it did not remain enough, that there would be a sadder side to the story, does nothing to mar it, nor to diminish one watt in my memory the soft autumn light that fell across her face as she sang Buddy Holly’s words to me.

What do I love about this passage? For starters, its simplicity. His use of imagery. Specificity of language. But mostly, the way Wilson uses storytelling to illuminate a major analytical point – that music has the potential to cut through to a core of emotion like few things in our lives can. In class, I often bring up that oft-cited writing rule “show, don’t tell,” and I still don’t know of a better way to connect emotionally with readers, regardless of the nature of your audience. The mild, sad snark of “my future ex-wife” – I love how Wilson’s mastery of language allows him such a wide range of tone and subtext, while expending a mere 3.5 words. And that deft, poignant turn at “that it did not remain enough” – a subtle nod toward the universality of love and loss.

One of the points I attempt to impress upon students – and continually remind myself – is that pop music can color the context of our lives as much any other cultural influence, and that writing about music from this perspective is far more interesting than dry biography. It’s about relevance, and I think relevance comes most directly from a) lived experience and b) speaking honestly about that experience. Without that thrift store-bought Buddy Holly record, Wilson’s bittersweet story loses its meaning and impact, and ultimately this is one of music’s great gifts to us: its ability to penetrate layers of emotion, experience, and memory which might otherwise remain unpassable.

Cheers, all.