Saturday, February 10, 2007

This Book Will Change Your Life

For one of my classes this semester, "Arts and Arts Criticism," each student has to read a book by a critic in his field. I chose "Love is a Mix Tape" by Rob Sheffield.

I devoured this book. I would have finished it sooner if it wasn't for silly things like classes and an internship. I found myself taking the local instead of express subway just to have more time to read. As I told somebody the other day, I loved this book so much that it is hard for me to talk about it. But since I'm presenting about it on Wednesday, I better figure out how.

Rob Sheffield is a contributing editor at "Rolling Stone." He has written for various publications including "Spin" and "The Village Voice." When he was 23-years-old (in 1989), he met a girl named Renee. He married her in 1991 and she died unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism in 1997. In "Love is a Mix Tape," he explores his grief using 15 mix tapes. This is the bravest work by a music critic that I ever read.

Although I am reading this book for a criticism class, this is in many ways the opposite of criticism. Criticism, in the strictest terms, is supposed to be objective. Sheffield looks at every piece of music in the most personal way. And he doesn't write about it in terms of whether it is "good" or "bad," but what it means to him. The very idea of creating a mix tape is a way to make a piece of music belong to you, by fashioning a new way to listen to the songs.

There is one particular tape that he made over a year after Renee died. "This is a classic example of a tape that tries to ruin a bunch of great songs by reminding you of a time you would rather forget," he writes, "Sometimes great tunes happen to bad times, and when the bad times is over, not all the tunes get to move on with you... Individually, all the songs on this tape make me smile, but lined up in this order, they make me shudder..."

Almost as much as this book is about Renee, it's about the music of the '90s, and Sheffield is also dealing with the grief of the end of the '90s:
"I get sentimental over the music of the '90s. Deplorable really. But I love it all. As far as I'm concerned, the '90s was the best era for music ever, even the stuff I loathed at the time, even the stuff that gave me stomach cramps. Every note from those years is charged with life for me now. For instance, I hated Pearl Jam at the time. I thought they were pompous blowhards. Now whenever a Pearl Jam song comes on the car radio, I find myself pounding my fist on the dashboard, screaming, 'Pearl JAM! Pearl JAM! Now this is rock and roll! Jeremy's SPO-ken! But he's stil al-LIIIIIIIVE!'"

This book is just as funny (as you can see from the previous passage) as it is heartbreaking. Sheffield knows how to write funny without being obvious or over-the-top, and he writes beautifully about loss without being manipulative.

Perhaps what I love most about this book is that Sheffield doesn't discriminate when discussing music. He admits to loving top 40 radio, he even admits to loving "MMMBop," and he devotes equal time to these as to Nirvana or the Beatles. While there are some jabs at bands like Cheap Trick, he doesn't resort to snark.

I'll leave you with one line that pretty much sums up the book. It's a line for anybody who has had to deal with the pain that comes along with listening to music that is reminiscent of someone or something that is no longer around. "I knew I would have to relearn music, and that some of the music we'd love together I'd never be able to hear again."

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