Thursday, July 16, 2015

Populist But Also Idiosyncratic: Onto The Next, Next Level

Although most things other than printed matter don't sell well at Quimby's, occasionally people consign CDs and records. We do sell a CD and a record by Milwaukee rapper Juiceboxxx that must have been consigned with us around 2006 or so. I don't remember the exact date; I'd have to go back to work at sit down in front of the computer and take a look. Around that time a couple of my co-workers were folks that did a lot of DJing, and so it does not surprise me that we had more to sell at the time that might have been music-related. It tends to be that whoever is employed at the time puts their stamp on the store by reaching out to artists who are in their sphere of interests and acquaintance. Because the store sells a lot of items on a no-risk pay-as-it-sells consignment method, the store sometimes ends up reflecting the interests of the folks working there (at least to some degree).

Quimby's also sells a lot of art comics, some of which are by Providence, RI-based collective Fort Thunder and their brethren/sistren Paper Rad that garnered acclaim with hip comics enthusiasts and was included Whitney Biennal. At some point Juiceboxxx had some involvement with Fort Thunder; I think he may have dated somebody involved in that art scene and sort of incorporated the art and spirit of it as part of his own artistic expression. He uses Thunder in a lot of song titles and on his blog writes about how he's in the Thunder Zone, etc. It makes sense that Quimby's sells these types of comics as well as music by an artist that in some way has some artistic links to the comics.

The reason I bring the link up is because of the book I read recently, which was Leon Neyfakh's The Next Next Level: A Story of Rap, Friendship, and Almost Giving Up, which incidentally yes, we do sell it at Quimby's. I read it because I was sent a sample copy by the publisher (Melville House). They contacted the store to tell us one of their authors was going to be passing through town, and would it be OK if he stopped into the store to introduce himself. It's a thing publishers do.

I'm not sure I would necessarily have moved the book up to the front of my reading queue unless Melville House hadn't sent the author to visit me as well as a sample copy of the book, but I guess that's what publishers want, right? It stands to reason that a publisher would send a sample copy of a book to the person in the bookstore who does the ordering. I'll be honest though: I get sent a lot of sample copies of things from lots of publishers and distributors, and I don't necessarily read them all. If it does catch my fancy, I'll read the book and then sometimes get jazzed about it. Maybe I might even even blog about it. Then if I think it's a good fit for the store, I'll order it to sell because I think the customers might like it too. I might even pimp the book in some way to customers if I'm really into it, which might help sell the book (but not always). This is all exactly what publishers want to happen, and the entire time I am acutely aware of this. Well, guess what? If the book is actually good, then I don't mind this manipulative courting of me as a book orderer and seller. All of this being said, the sample copies of books all the publishers send aren't necessarily always good, and sometimes even if they are, and I order a title for the store, it might not necessarily sell. Sometimes we return books if they don't sell, and it might break my heart because it's a great book. I should also add that often great books sell well in the beginning but eventually the sales taper off because it's not new anymore, and all the people who are going to buy it from us have bought it. What can I do? The public speaks with their pocket books.

So anyway, Melville House sent me a sample copy of Leon's book, which at the time wasn't out yet (but is now) and then a few days later the author stopped in, who, among other things, is a reporter for Slate. (This particular publisher has sent authors to introduce themselves in the past, and they tend to be fun, arty people who write books that for the most part I like. I feel obligated to add that one time we did an event with a Melville House author who was French and who wrote a kind of steampunky book, and when he did the event he didn't know that the event was one where people were expecting him to read from the book. I guess the French tradition is only to sign books, n'est-ce pas? So I guess he was sort of taken off guard. Mon dieu!)

The The Next Next Level started out as an essay in the literary journal N+1, the very issue I have in my bathroom. I hadn't made it to that essay yet. In fact, that copy of N+1 has what in the magazine distribution industry call a "faced" cover, meaning that when a newer issue comes out, the covers of the previous issues are sent back to the distributor to prove they didn't sell, the price of which, is credited to the bookstore's account to use against future due invoices. That means the bookseller can take home the old issue with the missing cover. This also means I am perpetually an issue behind in all my magazine reading. If I have a faced mag or lit journal, I consume it with a much more sort of laissez-faire approach; I might get miso soup all over it at the kitchen table while reading it, or I might read it only when I'm in the bath, maybe getting water all over it. Sometimes it gets mildewy before I even get to finishing it. If I get to finishing it. That issue of N+1? Still haven't finished it. But I have gotten to that article since then.

When I met the author, I was charmed by the author's description of the book. He stopped by before the store opened, and we had a really nice talk. It was one of those discussions that I came away from it intellectually stimulated and totally inspired. Like, you know, Radiolab got mentioned. You know, one of those discussions. The perfect mix of highbrow and lowbrow, where the book was really just a jumping off point for a juicy pop-culture-and-this-is-how-it-relates-to-life sort of things, some of which I wish I'd written down after he left. Why don't I write down this shit right after it happens? And then later I remember so little of it. After I have a good discussion with somebody, I need to go write it all down before it falls away. But life does not unfold that way. I was at work, for one thing. (But! Also! Another point! Why do I always feel the need to document stuff? I've always been this way. I remember once as a kid deciding that it was important that I write down all the animals I could think of. And then I had anxiety about how overwhelming of a task it was. What was I going to do with the list anyway? Submit it for review to The Atlantic?)

BUT ANYWAY (again), ("anyway" should be tattooed on my body somewhere; it is my anchor for pulling me back into the main point of my articles, essays and conversations), the author told me about the book, which comes out of his personal experiences with Juiceboxxx, who he knew growing up as a teenager in the music scene in the Midwest. Leon goes on to have a very adult-y adult life and Juiceboxx continues onto an arty artist life. There's stuff about what happens when their paths cross and then don't cross and then cross again and so on. And it's kind of a coming of age book too. Later, after I read the book, I realized the book is kind of a meditation on living a life of art versus leading the life of one who consumes the art.

By the end of the discussion I had with the author, I was like, Maybe I better go spend some time with this music and with this book, and Leon said he would send me some links to get the real flavor of the music (I guess Juiceboxxx's amazing live performances are what really pulls people in initially), one of which was a Juiceboxxx performance on Chicago community access TV show Chic-a-go-go (one of the many projects of zinester/writer/auteur Jake Austen). This performance made me laugh, because one of the many awesome things about Chic-a-go-go is the fact that it's a kids show with performances that are kid-friendly but not necessarily directed at kids, the upshot being that punk bands will play but there will be little kids roaming around all over the place during the performance, often not necessarily even paying attention to the performers, which makes for hilarious and surreal viewing.

So then of course I looked/watched/listened to Leon's links and made a Spotify playlist, listened to the Juiceboxxx stuff we had at work (OK, maybe not the record; I'd have to lug that home where the turntable is, and I never think of it when I'm at work). It reminded me of a more sort of right-brained MC Lars, and there were some excellent jams that are definitely going on some future mixes. But even if I didn't like the music I probably still would have liked the book, because like really good writing, even if the topic isn't something that jazzes you, if the writing is compelling it doesn't matter. That Nick Hornby book Songbook? Great writing about music. Great writing, period. But the actual songs when you listen to them? Meh. But I'm alright with that.

There are many hilarious and pithy things in this book: the description of the difference between "genius" and "critic," how the author's wife leaves the room whenever he start talking about Juiceboxx, and the discussion of what name to exactly call Juiceboxxx (Juice? Mr. Juice?) (In an e-mail to Leon I suggested Olivia Newton-Juiceboxxx. I should add that Sir Juice-a-lot would also be awesome.)

When I told Leon that I found parts of the book really funny, he thanked me and said that it does not come naturally to him, which I found endearing. He also, in his book, talks about something else he doesn't feel natural doing, and that is dancing, which although I am a dance maniac, I still enjoyed his writing about it. On page 85 he writes:

Part of the problem might be that it strikes me as deranged and unethical to be moving around in ways that basically force the people in my immediate vicinity to imagine me having sex. The rest is that it's not in me, just like loving "Raw Power" isn't in me, as if I'm missing the receptors necessary to truly connect with music and with other people using nothing but my "body."

As you can see, I can't even use that word without putting scare quotes around it. It just feels gross to me, and reminds me, in an ironically visceral way, of how left out I have always felt in situations in which I was invited to undergo some physically transcendent collective experience.

Yessssss!! While it is true that I LOVE dancing (and even help run an all-lady dance party on Wednesday nights), it is also true that I am never comfortable where dance parties turn into everyone running in a circle during one of those new-folk-clap-along-jamborees, because it makes me super self-conscious that I'm supposed to look like I'm feeling ecstatically joyous; the self-consciousness I feel during it is more potent then the joy I'd supposedly be getting out of it; I can't seem to get out of my head on those type of scenarios. And I totally understand how for some people, it's really uncomfortable being commanded to dance, especially if you don't do it regularly or don't have a lot of moves in your arsenal.

I will also add that I'm not into being imperatively commanded to clap along/hoot/holler when a performer demands it from the stage. (I will only clap and hoot and holler of my own accord, thank you.) I will never respond when a performer asks for the ladies in the house to scream or when they shout, "I CAN'T HEAR YOU." I don't do call and response. Call me entitled, but I paid to see them, not to interact with them. That is, interact with them in any way other than enjoying their performance.

On page 87 I love this discussion of "dance punk" bands like LCD Sound System and how they're popularity was interesting because it suddenly became cool for indie rock fans to really "have fun" in a way that was about dancing, as opposed to just enjoying the music (although yes, I do like LCD Sound System). This made Leon feel guilty because he didn't enjoy dancing, which somehow made him feel like he wasn't enlightened. He felt a little betrayed by alternative culture. Here's the part I really like:

...The day I realized that the imperative to only ever follow your gut and never think about anything amounted to a kind of bullying -- was the day I finally became a well-adjusted, happy adult.

THANK GOD, somebody had to say it. "Follow your gut" in the context of "just let it go and dance" is not that easy for everybody. And I'm saying this as someone who who both leads weekly dance parties and meditates for 20 minutes twice a day. I'm not denying the existence of intuition, I'm denying the effectiveness of commanding people to "just don't think about anything."

On pages 104 and 105 Leon writes about Juiceboxxx's blog (where Juiceboxxx talks about the type of music he's really into, and how detail-oriented that interest manifests: ecstatic descriptions of mixes, recorded ephemera, etc.) He uses Juice's interests as they manifest on his blog as an example to illustrate the difference between "taste" and "preferences," Juice being the rare breed of someone who has the former though most people have the latter:

As far as I'm concerned, this is pretty much the definition of having taste. And to be clear, when I say "taste" I'm not talking about refinement but sensibility: an idiosyncratic but consistent mechanism that draws you to certain things in the world and motivates you to seek them out. Most of us don't have such a mechanism: instead, we have preferences, meaning we stick our heads out of our holes every once in a while, inhale whatever books, movies, music and TV shows are in the air as they fly past us in the form of Twitter links and magazine articles, and then decide what of it we like and what we like less. This is why, ultimately even those of us who self-identify as being well-informed and engaged in culture end up being into more or less the same stuff as all our friends and acquaintances.

This is probably true for me. I think most of the time, my "preferences" rule over my "taste" (do I even have any taste? I have begun to really question that). I guess sometimes taste will win the fight when I get really obsessed with something, but for the most part I'm so inundated with different types of media offerings (books, music, movies, etc.) that just sifting through it doesn't lend me time to get obsessed with something in particular, as of late anyway. Maybe I'm just obsessed with the sifting process.

On page 129, Leon talks about Juiceboxxx DJing:

Someone on Twitter, he remembers, said recently that a great DJ "keeps the girls dancing and the nerds Shazam-ing...the point being that the perfect DJ mix is populist but also idiosyncratic.

The perfect DJ mix is "populist but also idiosyncratic." YESSSSSS. So true. On Wednesday dance mixes I've noticed that successful dance mixes are ones that have both songs or artists people might sort of recognize but make sure to not have tracks that pander -- it's a fine line. When I DJ if I'm going for a populist angle, I might pick well known artists but lesser known songs by them. If it's a song that's been played before (yes, there's a database of everybody's songs played), I try to pick a remix or mashup of it -- just some version of it that is different. People want recognizability but they also want novelty. "Populist but also idiosyncratic." I've been using this quote a lot lately. It comes up in discussion of mixes, what songs to select for performing at karaoke or with the Blue Ribbon Glee Club, just, like everything.

In a lot of books I read the topics in the book end up being just sort of case studies about whatever the overarching theme the book is really about. I assume it isn't like the author is like "I have this point to make! And this music/movie/TV show I'm writing about illustrates my point perfectly!" Most likely, they're really into something, and when they're writing the book or essay about it, whatever that overarching "point" comes to be is usually the last thing that crystalizes -- the "SO WHAT" of the piece, as one of my teachers once said, the SO WHAT being the part of the piece  that says why the point they're making is important (such as "this novel subverts the role of bla, bla, bla, which is important because culturally, we tend to" and so on). I think that may be one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was that  Juiceboxxx was in some ways, almost incidental to some of the observations the author was making about life, media consumption, personal growth, and so on.

I think Next, Next Level is being promoted as being the sort of book that's in line with Chuck Klosterman or Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love, which I can totally see. It is true that I enjoy both, so I guess it would stand to reason that I'd like this one too.

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