Photo credit: Willy Somma
I started work on this book of essays right after Trump was elected, so the theme of the book quickly went from “What’s wrong with our culture?” to the much more desperate “How did we land here?” and “How do we navigate this poisonous world?” The music I listened to while writing was often angry and sad, but it also tended to hint at some way to survive in a world gone mad.
"Should Have Known Better" by Sufjan Stevens
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I could listen to the outro of this song on an endless loop. The melancholy of the first half of the song segues into a fragile acceptance: Nothing can be changed, so focus on the present moment (“Don’t back down, concentrate on seeing the breakers in the bar, my neighbor’s greeting, my brother had a daughter, the beauty that she brings, illumination.”) What’s pure and instructive about this song is how Stevens recognizes that letting in the present doesn’t mean forcefully bending reality into a positive shape, a common American compulsion I address in my book. It means tuning in and noticing what’s there, good and bad, ugliness and beauty, grief and joy.
"Everything Is Free" by Gillian Welch
Welch is mourning the new state of the world, but she’s also realizing she knows how to survive — she always has — by going back to basics: “Never minded working hard, it’s who I’m working for.” This song is about working with what you have, whatever it is. Even the title “Everything Is Free” doubles as a way of saying that you can still get everything you need, if you slow down and focus on the small glories of being alive.
"Greatest of All Time" by Archers of Loaf
This song is basically the ’90s rock version of an essay in my book called "The Popularity Contest," which examines how our culture treats popularity and quality as interchangeable. But I also find the scratchy vocals and messy guitar sounds of the ’90s refreshing against our current backdrop of sterile, vacuum-packed pop production.
"The Greatest" by Sia
Even though the title is similar, this song feels like the opposite of the last one: Here is a modern pop star on an earnest quest for greatness. That said, the more you dig into this song, the more you discover that Sia seeks on an internal map of greatness, one that exists outside of the world’s notions of what’s valuable. The point is to disregard the popularity contest so you can focus on your work, reaffirm your stamina, and strengthen your faith in yourself. The bottom line is that you’ll make it. When everything is going to hell, you’re still standing.
"Pilgrim of Sorrow" by ArchiveX
The vocalist and musician behind ArchiveX reminds me a lot of Jeff Buckley. Here he’s grappling with the challenge of navigating a world that feels bereft of comforts, but there’s this billowing sense throughout that some kind of salvation is lurking at the edges of the frame. In each chapter of my book, I tried hard to move beyond a dark diagnosis of what’s shallow and twisted about our culture, toward some ways that we might address or at least cope with those ills in our individual lives.
"Loro" by Pinback
I’m a huge Pinback fan and this is one of my favorite songs of theirs because it blends this mood of melancholy and longing with a sort of graceful resignation. Even though the lyrics are hard to understand (Are they talking about science? Outer space? Love? Loneliness?) there’s this feeling that in the natural order of things, despair and joy are always dancing together. (Okay, apparently I sound like a New Age author from the ’80s when I write about the music I love.) The mood of this song reminds me of the end of my essay, “Adults Only”: You can choose to hate yourself for your dyspeptic nature indefinitely, or you can resolve to find something small that brings you satisfaction in the present, in spite of everything.
"House of Diamonds" by Bowerbirds
The moral here takes that Pinback track a step further, and dovetails nicely with my chapter, “A Scourge of Gurus”: In order to avoid feeling dwarfed by the sparkling capitalist strivers around you, you have to open your eyes, reaffirm your private belief system, and recognize that you’ve already emancipated yourself from that corrosive path.
"The Recipe" by Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar
Just to complicate things, here’s Dr. Dre talking about being so damn rich he can “buy that ocean,” bathe in ladies, smoke fat blunts in the sunshine, etc. Even so, something about this old school bass line and the lazy pace combine to form a kind of sonic carpe diem for me. But there’s also an anger underneath it that feels bolstering instead of negative; in a complicated world that treats you like you’re invisible, pursuing your simplest desires can feel revolutionary. (Yes, I do live in L.A., but no, I didn’t just smoke a blunt before I wrote that.)
Symphony No. 41 in C Major (Jupiter), K. 551: IV. Molto allegro by Mozart
I listened to Beethoven and Mozart on an endless loop while I was writing this book, and I couldn’t believe how good it felt to dive into the same symphonies over and over again. Each time they just got richer and more gratifying. It’s impossible to pick a favorite of Mozart’s since everything he wrote was incredible, but I’m just going to be predictable with this one: Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter) feels like breathing in centuries of heartache and loss and transcendent happiness, in one fell swoop. I don’t think I could really connect with music this brilliant until I understood at some gut level that I had a right to it, that it wasn’t just some old white man’s world and it belonged to me too. My book is all about moving past the feeling our culture gives us that we can’t understand or touch anything unless we own it. Eventually, you have to redefine ownership for yourself, and redefine where you end and the rest of the world begins. In other words, this whole world is all yours already, you just have to reach out and feel it for yourself.
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is a columnist for New York
magazine and the author of the upcoming essay collection What If This Were Enough?