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This fact is lost on neither Mike Saunders ("Disney Dreams Up the Best Radio Station in 30 Years," Village Voice) nor Gilbert Garcia ("The Tao of Esteban," Phoenix New Times). The former article appears on the surface to play the anti-teenpop card by "pretending" to actually like Backstreet Boys and corporatization, then in a nice stroke of reverse irony also manages to contextualize and pay homage to the teen-driven AM airwaves of yesteryear.
Garcia's piece chronicles the improbable ascent of flamenco guitarist-cum-easy listening schlockmeister Esteban, in the process bringing together several disparate strands: an insular music scene's petty jealousy towards a local success story, the bizarre synergy between QVC marketing and the housewife demographic, and how a musician who dresses like Zorro defiantly and serenely pursues his Velvet Elvis-like Segovian muse. (The week after the New Times article ran, the paper's letters section was crammed to Jerry Kleinian proportions with pro- and anti-Esteban missives.)
Other highlights among the 27 essays: "Inappropriate Tactics" (Open Letters) by Robbie Fulks, a musician (see: "Alt.country" above), who vividly bemoans his self-employment status in the midst of an IRS audit while serving as the rule-proving exception to the foregoing irony comments. Eric Boehlert's "Invisible Man: Eminem" (Salon.com) refreshingly dwells not upon the Free Speech vs. Decency debate but instead reports on how critics covered the controversy. Who watches the watchers, indeed! Rian Malan's Rolling Stone piece about the tangled history of the song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", titled "In The Jungle," weds passion to research and should be required reading for any budding music scholar. Plus, assorted famous pundits (Greil Marcus on Sleater-Kinney; Anthony DeCurtis on Johnny Cash) and lesser-knowns (David Rakoff on Barbra Streisand's farewell concerts; Jonathan Lethem on the Go-Betweens' reunion), all of whom manage, in varying degrees, to echo the words of a character in Almost Famous: "Did you ever love something so much it hurts?"
Lester Bangs' old drinking buddy Richard Meltzer, however, turns out to be the book's conscience, and his "Third Spud From the Sun: Cameron Crowe Then and Now" (Chicago Reader) a de facto love letter to music critics whom he calls spuds. It's possible he's just being ironic. No matter. Concludes Meltzer, following a lengthy anti-Crowe harangue, "SPUDS. They're there to keep the rest of us honest. So don't fall down on the job, y'hear?"
True story: The same day the Da Capo book landed on my desk I received a phone call from a friend whose 16-year-old daughter writes for a school newspaper, saw Almost Famous and now wants to be a rock critic. Is there a book or career guide, she inquired? Like, say, how to pull together punk, bluegrass and Krautrock in a 250-word review? How to interview the dork from Third Eye Blind? How to calibrate your internal bullshit meter so you can tell the difference between celebrity journalism and criticism that's from the heart?
I flashed back to myself at 16, planted in my bedroom poring over copies of Creem, Fusion and Crawdaddy. Then I replied, "Let's get her a few good anthologies of classic music writing. Heck, the Bangs bio too. This kind of stuff can't be taught. It's gotta be absorbed."
Fred Mills is the former music editor for Creative Loafing, as well as editor of Magnet and a widely published music writer nationwide.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (Knopf, 208 pages, $18)
Sewing Up the Wounds of Revolution
By Bruce G. Nims
Though freedom of speech is hardly a reality in the so-called New China, no Chinese person with whom I spoke during my visit to that country in 1996 had any problem referring to the Cultural Revolution with anything but shame and distaste. From 1966 to 1976, Chairman Mao Zedong, China's revolutionary leader since 1949, essentially gave over government power to a small clique led by his wife to institute a radical socialist leveling of Chinese society. This inner circle, who became known as the infamous "Gang of Four," organized an army of youths the Red Guards to purge China of anything that smacked of the aristocratic or bourgeois. The fanatical campaign that resulted destroyed untold numbers of priceless cultural artifacts and attempted to eradicate any vestiges of "foreign capitalist influence." The Red Guards also subjected educated Chinese people to rituals of public humiliation, as well as relocation to the countryside for forced labor, which would supposedly "re-educate" the "bourgeois intellectuals" into a proper appreciation of the virtuous peasantry, uninfected by the dangers of literacy and independent thought.