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Cryin’, Dyin’, or Goin’ Somewhere: A Country Music Reading List

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

There’s an old chestnut that says the older you get, the more you like country music. Even if you don’t relate to the guitar twang or the singers’ white rural experience, age lets you relate to the stories of struggle, heartbreak, and loss.

My dad raised me on old jazz and country, and his talented pianist brother Rick played country music professionally, from the dive bars of Phoenix, Arizona to Waylon Jennings’ touring band. Dad’s family were rural people from Oklahoma farms who moved to rural Arizona, then to the city. No matter how long he lived in Phoenix, he never lost his love of country humor or oration. Dad always said: People in country songs are either cryin’, dyin’, or goin’ somewhere. He also told an old joke: What happens when you play a country song backwards? You get your horse back, you get your wife back, you get your job back, and you sober up.

Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys were his favorite because they had the danceable, upbeat rhythm of jazz, but Dad loved different types of country. He didn’t like Johnny Cash, though. Cash didn’t swing. I’ve always owned old country albums, including Johnny Cash. My rock ‘n’ roll and jazz albums just got more play until time proved the old wisdom. Dad’s been sick for a few years. The blue chords of jazz resonate with me more than the saddest country ballad, but as I lose him in stages, and as I’ve labored and lost through the years, I’ve reached that age where I relate to country’s heartbreak more than I would like.

Country is a rich tradition that deserves an equally rich literary tradition. Collected here are some of my favorite stories that explore and celebrate it. Too many of my favorites do not appear online, like David Eason’s Oxford American “That Same Lonesome Blood,” about singer Steve Young, Barry Mazor’s “Make Me Wanna Holler: Loretta Lynn” from No Depression, and John Biguenet’s “The DeZurik Sisters: Two farm girls who yodeled their way to the Grand Ole Opry.” You can find them in copies of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing anthologies. The online pieces here should leave you shopping for copies.

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Constant Sorrow” (David Gates, The New Yorker, August 13, 2001)

Ralph Stanley was one of the architects of Bluegrass whose band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, revolutionized American vernacular music and took them all the way to Carnegie Hall. Born in southwestern Virginia, the legendary banjo picker still lived out there at age 74 when David Gates profiled him. Gates is a journalist and novelist who used to work for Newsweek, but he’s also a skilled country musician who can stay up jamming into the wee hours. I briefly played drums with his Bennington College country band one semester, and he’s as lively a musician as he is brilliant a music writer. For this story, Gates accompanied Stanley on a tour and joined him at services at Hale Creek Primitive Baptist Church. It’s a fascinating read from a person who loves country music so deeply he wants to understand it from the inside.

A Lone Star State of Mind” (Mitch Myers, Magnet, September 24, 2002)

Texas multi-instrumentalist Doug Sahm was a legend during his 50-year recording career, and he remains a legend now, long after he died. Hailing from San Antonio, Sahm embodied Texas’ multicultural identity, playing everything from fiddle to steel guitar, and honky-tonk to Cajun to 60s psychedelic music. He’s known as a country musician, but his interests and abilities make him more of an American mutt, spanning genre, and bigger than Texas. Writer Mitch Myers untangles the myth from the musician, and finds good reason for the self-destructive Sahm’s enduring stature. Sahm was what Myers beautifully describes as a “redneck-hippie“ and “fast-talking cosmic cowboy,“ back when country musicians could have more fluid identities than the modern, stifling big hat/American flag/pickup truck strictures. Sahm’s body of work is all over the place, and Myers worked hard to make sense of it all. “In a world where American music martyrs like Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons command respect in terms of comprehensive reissues,“ he writes, “there’s no retrospective boxed set being planned for Sahm.“ This story led me to Sahm’s music, which I’m still discovering.

Imagining the Delmore Brothers” (William Gay, Oxford American, April, 2003)

Those who love Southern literature know Tennesse’s William Gay as a singular gothic novelist and short story writer. He published his first book at age 57. I’ve read his collection I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down multiple times, and I rarely do that. Thankfully he wrote nonfiction about music for the Oxford American, which he rarely did. His 2000 music piece “Sitting on Top of the World“ is not online, but his essay “Imaging the Delmore Brothers“ is equally fine work that imbues the musical past with life, and includes a surprising family connection to these musicians.

There was a great deal of Southern music recorded in the ’20s and early ’30s, until the Depression threw the skids to it. There were string bands beyond counting, and in Mississippi everyone seemed to have a guitar, and the blues seemed to be seeping out of the earth itself. This early Southern music had a common ancestry: endlessly recycled lines of poetry that had become a sort of archetype, or a code you could decipher with a guitar and a little skill.

The Delmores fused all these elements and brought something new to the mix—a tight, sweet harmony that had never been recorded before.

A long time ago I asked my mother, “What were they like back then?“

“Well,“ she said, “they were just nice soft-spoken country boys. Except when they played music. Then it was like they were…taken over or something.“

Sex, Heartbreak and Blue Suede” (Robbie Fulks, GQ, July 2003)

When Chicago musician Robbie Fulks got invited to play at Nashville’s venerated Grand Ole Opry, the Carnegie Hall of country, he couldn’t figure out why. A self-described “pop-punk-hillbilly obscurity,“ he uses the opportunity to tell the Opry’s story, how this sacred institution shaped American music, diverged from modern mass-market country, and why its culture of authenticity and respect still matters. This is a fun, on-the-ground story about a place whose history is alive and kicking.

LMPC via Getty Images

Push Play” (Chris Dennis, Guernica, April 6, 2020)

Dolly Parton is pure country but bigger than country, because she is bigger than life, and yet, you can’t talk about country music without talking about her. And are more sides to her career and influence than a hundred stories can contain. In this personal essay, one young man looks at his past tastes to explore the role Parton played in his ideas of masculinity and difficult coming out. “I think part of my magic, if I have any at all,” Parton once said, “is that I look totally fake but am so totally real.”

Living with Dolly Parton” (Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads, October 16, 2018)

Parton’s music and persona are easy to love, but they are not always easy to love publically, and as our tastes change with time, we often see our favorite musicians’ flaws. Like Chris Dennis in Guernica, professor Jessica Wilkerson reconciles with Parton and her own past fandom, asking difficult questions in this very probing piece: “I needed to confront Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness.“

Dolly Parton was one of two women I learned to admire growing up in East Tennessee. The other was Pat Summitt, head coach of the Lady Volunteers, the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team. One flamboyantly female, the other a masculine woman. Both were arguably the best at what they did, had fantastic origins stories of hardscrabble lives in rural Tennessee, and told us that with enough grit and determination, we could succeed. Queer kids and nerdy girls, effeminate boys and boyish girls who desired something more than home took comfort in their boundary crossing. From these women they learned that they too could strike out on their own while maintaining both their authenticity and ties to home.

This would be a trio of Parton stories, but Kimberly Chun’s excellent “Touched by a Woman: Dolly Parton Sings ’bout Peace, Love & Understanding” in Creative Loafing is not online, but it deserves a shout out, because it’s fantastic.

Willie Nelson at 70” (Gene Santoro, The Nation, October 30, 2003)

Lots of legends aren’t on this list: George Jones, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff. As with Dolly Parton, you can’t talk country without talking Willie Nelson. I’ve put these three Nelson stories in chronological order, to see him age, though in a sense, Nelson always seemed old to me. The country-stoner legend marked his milestone birthday with the two-CD The Essential Willie Nelson. Musician and critic Gene Santoro took the occassion to assess Nelson’s career, his appeal, and his enduring legacy. This is what the best reviews do: start small and go large, from a timely peg to a timeless exploration. An Austin-based source told Santoro: “Willie is the Buddha. He’s also a duet whore.” “In terms of consistent quality,“ Santoro writes, “he’s right, but Nelson’s duets, which have included outings with Charles, Cash and Dylan as well as U2 and Julio Iglesias, if nothing else do reveal Nelson’s prismatic musical curiosity.“

All Roads Lead to Willie Nelson” (Patrick Doyle, Rolling Stone, September 4, 2014)

The life story of the country music great, now 81. “Over the course of 30 interviews with his friends, family and band members, a lot of the same words come up – generous, charismatic, loyal and, as Keith Richards has said, ‘a bit of a mystery.‘”

The ranch and surrounding area are known to locals as Willie World. Nelson also owns Pedernales Cut-N-Putt, a nine-hole course you can see from his house. Next to that is a recording studio, and condos for friends, family and longtime crew members. Poodie’s Hilltop Roadhouse, a burger joint full of old Nelson posters and stage props, opened by his late stage manager Poodie Locke, is down the road on Highway 71; Nelson has been known to drop by for a surprise set. Drive to downtown Austin, and you’ll find the new Willie Nelson statue on Willie Nelson Boulevard.

With his youngest kids, Lukas and Micah, grown up and out of the house, Nelson spends his rare nontouring days driving around, listening to his Sirius XM station, Willie’s Roadhouse, sometimes going off-roading and carving out paths. “I’ve thought I was going to die a few times with him in the truck,” says his daughter Paula. “He’s like a kid, doing the whole cowboys-and-Indians thing. It’s his playground.”

Trigger” (Michael Hall, Texas Monthly, January 21, 2013)

Since buying it in a Nashville guitar shop in 1969, Willie Nelson has played the same Martin N-20 classical guitar. He named it Trigger. “Trigger’s like me,” Nelson told reporter Michael Hall. “Old and beat-up.”

Willie became the guitarist he is by playing this instrument, which he has worn and shaped with his own hands, working his very personality into the wood until it sounds like no other guitar on earth. Most nylon-stringed guitars have a rich, round tone, and they are difficult to tell apart. Trigger is so distinctive—low tones that thump like they have mud on them, high ones that chime like glass—that you can hear one or two notes on the radio and know immediately whom you’re listening to.

No guitar is as beloved—or as famed. On Trigger’s face you can see the topography of modern music, the countless hours Willie has spent playing country, blues, jazz, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, swing, folk, reggae, thirties pop, forties pop, and eighties pop. Trigger was there at the very beginning of outlaw country. He was there at the first Farm Aid. And he was there when Willie serenaded President Jimmy Carter. He has shared stage and studio with Ray Charles and Bob Dylan. He has hung from Willie’s neck as tens of thousands of fans sang along to “Whiskey River.” And he has sat in Willie’s lap as Willie comforted friends, such as the time the two of them played “Healing Hands of Time” to Darrell and Edith Royal in their home after their daughter’s death, and then again nine years later after their son’s death.

Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton backstage at the 53rd annual CMA Awards, 2019. Robby Klein/Getty Images for CMA

Come Here My Song” (Aaron Gilbreath, Longreads, June 11, 2015)

The first story I ever wrote for Longreads was about country music. It uses a night at Trout’s, the last original honky-tonk in California’s rural San Joaquin Valley, to explore the unique sound and origins of California country music, particularly Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. I’d traveled to Bakersfield to do some reporting for a book about the region, and I started my two-week reporting trip at Trout’s. Instead of living country music history, I found a tightknit, fun-loving community of karaoke singers who revealed as much about this evolving region as it did about country.

Branded Man” (Andy McLenon and Grant Alden, No Depression, November 1, 2003)

Speaking of Bakersfield: When you sing ”Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys,” let’s never forgot Merle Haggard. Yeah yeah, this song’s not about him, but country wouldn’t be country without him. For No Depression, the magazine that celebrated outlaw and underground country, two writers celebrated California’s rural poet, the son of cotton pickers, who brought a lot of poetry and rebellion to country, and made California a place for serious country music, as much as others had made it a place for pop songs and folk tunes. Here writers Andy McLenon and Grant Alden make a serious case that, in their words, ”Merle Haggard is our greatest living singer and songwriter. Country singer and songwriter, if you must limit him. Just do not argue the point.” Take that, Waylon and Willie.

For Women Musicians, Maybelle Carter Set The Standard And Broke The Mold” (Tift Merritt, NPR, August 13, 2019)

“If Maybelle Carter — mother of country music, without whom country and rock and roll guitar would not exist — can’t make the great guitar player list, how can women musicians expect to be seen at all?”

Despite her many decades in the business and so many records sold, Maybelle Carter hardly received any honors during the peak of her career. Today, decades later, many, many more women are on the road; I imagine that would make Maybelle deeply happy. Women managers, women running production, sound and lights, women booking venues, women playing bass, women drummers, women rocking, women raising children on the road: We are Maybelle’s spiritual granddaughters. In the next 20 years, we will continue to bloom in music. But more and more, the world listens to music without context, without credits — no players, no provenance, no lineage — despite that information being readily accessible to us all. Social media allows everyone their own center stage; self-aggrandizing without depth perception — without a deeper sense of context in the present or in the history that has come before us — is an accepted way of moving through the world. This makes it even more essential to note how deeply the work of Maybelle Carter contributed to the music that follows her — for both women and men. Acknowledgement for the work of women — seen and unseen— is the only way to push this story forward for the daughters to come.

The Story of Country Music’s Great Song Writing Duo” (Dylan Jones, Longreads, September 2, 2019)

Every genre has its iconic songs. Country has countless. One of them is called ”Wichita Lineman.” Although the title suggests football, the lineman in this song worked on electric lines along a highway. Written and recorded by Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell, this is one of the most iconic songs of the 20th century, surprising as that sounds, and author Dylan Jones wanted to understand why, and how it came into being. The book he wrote about the song, Wichita Lineman, tells an incredible story of hard work, musical brilliance, and pure luck. We ran an excerpt.

Shelved: Jimi Hendrix’s Black Gold Suite

Larry Hulst / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | March 2019 | 20 minutes (3,275 words)

 

On a blustery winter day in February 1970, Rolling Stone managing editor John Burks entered a New York apartment on East 37th street. “Inside his manager’s neo-turn-of-the-century apartment, on a sofa near the radiant fireplace, sat Jimi Hendrix, in a gentle, almost reticent frame of mind,” Burks wrote. “The light snow had begun to fall. You could see that through the narrow slits where the curtain allowed the merest sliver of daylight and streetscene to penetrate into the gloomy dark room.”

Burks was brought in to provide the centerpiece for a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign: a feature story about the reforming of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience. The group, consisting of Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding, and drummer Mitch Mitchell (both of whom were white) had disbanded the previous autumn. Since then, the rock ‘n’ roll guitar virtuoso had busied himself by befriending other African Americans: Trumpeter Miles Davis, jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and (according to Burks) “living and jamming with an all-purpose crew of musicians — everything from older black gentlemen from the South who played blues guitar, to a band of avant garde jazz/space musicians under the general leadership of a flute player named Juma — and talking about coming up with something new.”

Read more…

For the Thirsty Girl

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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | April 2019 | 9 minutes (2,387 words)

“She’s got the nerve to say / She wants to fuck that boy so badly.” These are the lyrics to the titular track from Third Eye Blind’s 2003 album Out of the Vein (stay with me). They are written by Stephan Jenkins, who has admitted his three-year relationship with Charlize Theron acted as inspiration. Whether or not that particular song is about her, one thing is clear: Charlize Theron knows she wants to fuck a specific boy, even if she is uncertain who that boy is. “I’ve been single for ten years, it’s not a long shot,” she said recently in some interview, dorkily referencing the title of her new film, which is about a presidential hopeful who falls for Seth Rogen (why not?). “Somebody just needs to grow a pair and step up.”

Charlize Theron is thirsty. That surprises people. And by people, I mean me. How is it possible that Charlize Theron has to desire at all, considering she is so desired herself? (Doesn’t one negate the other?) You could sense an army of unworthy men clutching their collective pearls in response to her statement. That this statuesque blond with the kind of face you only see carved out of marble not only has to, God forbid, ask for it, but that she can speak like a sailor about it, shatters the pristine image of beauty — no wants, no desires — she otherwise projects. Theron’s words jolted us back to her humanity. The balls she asked for were the balls to approach her with desire, knowing that she has the power not to desire in return. Charlize Theron is dictating the expression of her thirst, but also the man who is worthy of it.

If the original iteration of “thirst” was a plunging desperation, this one is an uplifting affirmation. NPR traced its root, “thirst trap,” back to 2011; but Jezebel actually defined the singular “thirst” first in 2014, as lust “for sex, for fame, for approval. It’s unseemly striving for an unrealistic goal, or an unnecessary amount of praise.” This was the definition picked up in 2017 by The New York Times Magazine, imbuing thirst with negativity. But in the intervening years, women got a hold of it. These women, objects for so long within an atmosphere of men’s ambient lust, emerged to twist thirst from a cloying wish into full-bodied desire. Out of the wreckage of male toxicity, they used thirst to mark the men who remained worthy. There’s a reason Theron is still single — few men can step up. What’s more, in a world run by female desire, some are terrified of being left unwanted if they do.

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It’s hard to get a clear picture of female desire across a history mostly seen through the male gaze, afflicted as it was with the rare myopia that focuses only on the virgin and the whore. So you had virtuous, prim, usually classier orderly women who were worth marrying, and sinful, messy, gutter-dwelling hysterics who were worth a quick screw, and that’s it. If a woman expressed desire and wasn’t faking it for money, she was a deranged man-eater, like a witch or a harpy. Men’s lust was natural, women’s was the most unnatural. Eventually, fandom offered a means of escape. “While it was risky for individual women to lose control or to surrender to passion, there could be safety in numbers,” wrote Carol Dyhouse in Heartthrobs: A History of Women and Desire. So women swooned all over the place for Franz Liszt in the mid-19th century before having a collective orgasm over Vaslav Nijinsky, then Rudolph Valentino — the first man (the first person) for whom the word “sexy” was deemed worthy of use. What these men had in common was fluidity — of gender, of sexuality, of race. “I hate [him],” cartoonist Dick Dorgan wrote of Valentino. “The women are all dizzy over him.” Real men hated this new masculine ideal because real women wanted it and they couldn’t deliver. So they took sexy back. The Hays Code put women who wanted sex in movie jail and in their place installed women with whom men wanted to have sex.

The new “sexy” icon became Marilyn Monroe, described by Molly Haskell (From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies) as “the lie that a woman has no sexual needs, that she is there to cater to, or enhance, a man’s needs.” It is a meandering but fairly unbroken line from Monroe to reality star and one-time child bride Courtney Stodden, who has not only physically fashioned herself into her idol, but also appears as troubled. In a recent interview with BuzzFeed, the now 24-year-old pitied her boyfriend for not cashing in on his expectations. “He thought he was going to get in a relationship with this hot young celebrity who’s all sexual and fun,” she said. “He gets in there and I don’t have sex, I’m a mess, and I’m crazy.” So, not really much change from the original dichotomy, the one which limits big-busted babes like her, like Kim Kardashian-West, to conduits for sex. The latter can launch her career off a sex tape, while Jennifer Lawrence, the slapstick virginal non-bottle blonde, can almost be undone by a couple of photos. And forget being a woman who has sex with more than one man; Kristen Stewart had to apologize publicly for that, forced to do a glorified perp walk in a world where husbands have had mistresses longer than Edward Cullen has been undead.

Almost every article I read about female sexuality cited Freud — specifically his inability to figure out what women want. It says a lot that on this subject we are still deferring to a psychoanalyst who predates women’s liberation. It served men like Freud and those who followed him to theorize that women had a lower sex drive (unproven and kind of the opposite), were more romantic than randy (unproven and kind of the opposite), because it meant women could not use men for sex the way men used women. Yet, as Psychology Today reported back in 2013, “If women believe that they will not be harmed and that the sex will be good, their willingness to engage in casual sex equals that of men.” Relax, bros, rape culture keeps that in check. “It is anti-sex and anti-pleasure,” writes Laurie Penny. “It teaches us to deny our own desire as an adaptive strategy for surviving a sexist world.” And now you can stop relaxing; since women have begun dismantling that world, they have also begun releasing their desire — these days better known as thirst.

Some men think the objectification of women has simply turned into women’s objectification of men, but that’s not what thirst is: Where the male gaze limits women to the flesh, the female gaze fleshes men out. Famous guys provide an aspirational model, with women filling in the holes with their wants, showing real guys how to enhance themselves to satisfy women like Charlize.

We have women of color to thank for pushing men to meet us halfway. Their brand of lady thirst went mainstream in 2017, the year ELLE announced “the Golden Age of Thirst Journalism,” and BuzzFeed got celebrities to read “thirst tweets” — their fans’ horny messages — and launched the “Thirst Aid Kit” podcast. That show centered on the famous crushes of hosts Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins, from established hunks like Chris Evans to pensive actors of color like John Cho. “We are two straight black women talking about lust and desire and sexuality,” Adewunmi told Salon last year, “and all these expressions of humanity [are] not something that has traditionally been given to black women.” In their wake, black Canadian writer Kyrell Grant quietly articulated the concept of “big dick energy” (in reference to recently deceased chef Anthony Bourdain). “It’s a phrase I’d used with friends to refer to guys who aren’t that great but for whatever reason you still find attractive,” she wrote in The Guardian. But while black women are stereotyped for being game, they aren’t expected to set the rules. The Cut sought to profit off the term without crediting Grant, effectively muting her, though it was writer Hunter Harris whose desire was more directly silenced.

Vulture’s resident thirst critic — “i have something adam can drive” — was suspended by Twitter last week amid protests by fellow writers. “JUSTICE FOR HUNTER HARRIS, a thirst maestro and one of the funniest people on this hellsite,” Alanna Bennett tweeted. I DM’d Harris for the details of her suspension and she told me that a photographer had issued a copyright complaint about an image she used last summer in a tweet on the “secret romance” between Rihanna and Leonardo DiCaprio (she can’t remember the exact words and, because Twitter removed it, she can’t check). Around the same time that this happened, Quinn Hough, the editor of a tiny online film and music publication, Vague Visages, went viral (in a bad way) after pulling a strong anti-thirst stance on Twitter. The tweet in question has since been deleted, but Hough told me via email that he’d written “a poorly worded thread after seeing tweets from young critics that I thought were excessive and wouldn’t necessarily be acceptable in a professional environment.”

With women being the ones who thirst tweet most visibly, Hough’s comments were interpreted as an attempt to police women’s desire. “I just get very angry at any kind of sex-shaming because I’ve been told my whole life that if I express sexual desire, I’m a slut or dirty,” Danielle Ryan tweeted in response. “It really comes across differently to women.” While Hough’s site may be small, he still acts as a gatekeeper in the world of criticism, a conduit to larger more established outlets. His discrimination against what appeared to be young female writers, was a microcosm of a wider systemic double standard, particularly when he claimed, “Critics can say anything they want, but expressing sexual desire for subjects will minimize their chances for a staff position somewhere.”

This is where Hunter Harris resurfaces. The simultaneous timing of her suspension with the Vague Visages pile-on acted as a trigger for women accustomed to being muted, turning a copyright notice into a symbol of the suppression of black women’s desire. Meanwhile, other Twitter users expressed their delight at Harris’s expulsion. “It’s sad that @vulture encouraged her psychosis, but will probably be looking to dump her, now that @hunteryharris got her twitter account suspended,” wrote one guy who goes by Street Poetics (“PhD in These Streets”). A man he referenced in that same tweet, Jurg Bajiour, responded, “It’s true. @hunteryharris seemed to want to show me that it was *her job* to endlessly horny-tweet about actors.” (Harris denies this).

The missives were rich considering male film critics readily maintain staff positions despite waving around their boners in their actual reviews. “I didn’t miss Lynda Carter’s buxom, apple-cheeked pinup,” New York’s David Edelstein wrote in his Wonder Woman review. You may remember him also writing of Harry Potter, “prepubescent Watson is absurdly alluring,” in a review that originally appeared in Slate in 2001 and resurfaced after his Wonder Woman hard-on. Compare this to famously thirsty film critic Pauline Kael, whose books boast titles like I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: “There is a thick, raw sensuality that some adolescents have which seems almost preconscious. In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta has this rawness to such a degree that he seems naturally exaggerated.” There is a lot of sex here, but Kael is not the subject, Travolta not the object, and it layers rather than reduces. In fact, Female Film Critics’ Twitter poll on critical thirst — “What do you think of ‘thirst’ in film criticism?” — which followed the Vague Visages controversy, attracted 468 votes with a runaway 44 percent responding, “A grand tradition (Kael!)” Still, Hunter Harris admits she felt odd being erroneously credited as its icon. “i dont want to be like a martyr for the horny cause lmao,” she told me via DM, “but it is very nice that ppl are defensive of woc being openly desirous !”

* * *

While thirst is most common in the field of Hollywood celebrity — ground zero for idolatry — it has recently moved into politics, a place where masculinity has increasingly become a bone of contention. At one time we thirsted for Justin Trudeau’s “it’s 2019” yoga moves; more recently that thirst turned toward an emo crossdressing Beto. “Ojeda and Avenatti as candidates are like the guy who thinks good sex is pumping away while you’re making a grocery list in your head wondering when he’ll be done,” political analyst Leah McElrath tweeted in November 2018. “O’Rourke is like the guy who is all sweet and nerdy but holds you down and makes you cum until your calves cramp.” While politicians have an extensive history of abusing their positions for their own sexual gratification, this explicit dispatch from the beltway still left a number of us open-mouthed. Yet this is where we are — in the context of a presidency rife with toxic masculinity oft expressed in terms of sexual harassment, good sex acts as an analogy for progressive politics.

Over the past couple of years, women have also elected Noah Centineo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeff Goldblum, and Mahershala Ali as worthy of their thirst. Like the men who have historically inflamed female desire, they represent an aspirational form of masculinity, one which counteracts the retrograde misogyny trumpeted by the president. The thirst women express for these men’s physical form is informed by the men’s insides as much as their outsides. And the strongest men do not shrink at the prospect of not measuring up, but adapt the way women always have. In this new world, on the red carpet for their shared movie, Long Shot, Charlize Theron’s Alexander McQueen gown is matched by Seth Rogen’s Prada suit. “I was highly aware I was going to be standing next to Charlize for a lot of pictures,” Rogen said at the time. “I always have that image in my head of Beyoncé next to Ed Sheeran in a T-shirt, and I don’t want that.” Finally, it’s no longer about what a guy wants.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

Where Have All the Music Magazines Gone?

Getty / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Aaron Gilbreath| Longreads | December 2018 | 25 minutes (6,357 words)

When other writers and I get together, we sometimes mourn the state of music writing. Not its quality — the music section of any good indie bookstore offers proof of its vigor — but what seems like the reduced number of publications running longer music stories. Read more…

The Fault in Our Stars: On Fake Celebrity Interviews

Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | November 2018 | 11 minutes (2,670 words)

“I play with my breasts, not to show off but to demonstrate a kind of revulsion. I simply transform myself into a voice for all the tormented souls of this world.”

That’s Courtney Love in 1996 in SZ, the magazine belonging to one of the largest newspapers in Germany, Süddeutsche Zeitung. It sounds a little crazy, but then, she’s a little crazy. And anyway, Tom Kummer, the Swiss journalist who attempted to style himself after Hunter S. Thompson, always filed outlandish exclusives and cover stories like this from Los Angeles — Pamela Anderson on her aching implants, Mike Tyson on eating cockroaches, Bruce Willis on immorality. From the mid-nineties to 2000, he was kind of a celebrity himself. Beloved by editors, he also wrote for the German magazines Der Spiegel and Stern and Switzerland’s Die Weltwoche. In fact, it was in the latter that, roughly two years before the Love interview, he wrote, funnily enough: “She plays with her breasts not to show off but to demonstrate revulsion. She wants to embody the voice of all tormented souls in the world.”

Tom Kummer had been flagged for fabrication before, but it wasn’t until an exposé in Focus magazine in 2000 that it was confirmed: he had never interviewed Love, or Brad Pitt or Sharon Stone or Kim Basinger, or anyone really. SZ followed with a breakdown of his deceit, like The New York Times would with Jayson Blair in 2003; it published an apology for the “falsified” stories and fired editors Christian Kämmerling and Ulf Poschardt. You would think Kummer would at least nod at contrition — like Janet Cooke in 1982, like Stephen Glass in 1998 — but he took the Jonah Lehrer route instead and talked boundaries. He even had a name for his approach: borderline journalism. “I wrote impressionistic, creative, literary descriptions of the life of stars in the form of so-called interviews,” he told The Guardian in 2011, adding, “Everybody loved my stuff and I guess they were addicted to some kind of illusion that stars should talk like I made them talk.” He claimed he was never asked for proof, that his editors had approved of his methods. As Stern’s publisher told the Times, they — Kummer and his editors — “appeared to have a different idea of journalism.” Read more…

Derivative Sport: The Journalistic Legacy of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace in New York City's East Village, circa 2002. (Janette Beckman/Redferns)

By Josh Roiland

Longreads | December 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)

At a hip Manhattan book launch for John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2011 essay collection Pulphead, David Rees, the event’s emcee, asked the two-time National Magazine Award winner, “So John…are you the next David Foster Wallace?” The exchange is startling for its absurdity, and Sullivan shakes his head in disbelief before finally answering, “No, that’s—I’m embarrassed by that.” But the comparison has attached itself to Sullivan and a host of other young literary journalists whom critics have noted bear resemblance to Wallace in style, subject matter, and voice.

When Leslie Jamison published The Empathy Exams, her 2014 collection of essays and journalism, a Slate review said “her writing often recalls the work of David Foster Wallace.” Similarly, when Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life appeared a year earlier, a review in the L.A. Review of Books proclaimed: “If Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace had a love child, I thought, Michelle Orange would be it.”

Wallace was, himself, a three-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, winning once, in 2001; yet he compulsively identified himself as “not a journalist” both in his interactions with sources and reflexively as a character in his own stories. Nonetheless, he casts a long shadow in the world of literary journalism—a genre of nonfiction writing that adheres to all the reportorial and truth-telling covenants of traditional journalism, while employing rhetorical and storytelling techniques more commonly associated with fiction. To give better shape to that penumbra of influence, I spoke with Sullivan, Jamison, and Orange, along with Maria Bustillos, Jeff Sharlet, Joel Lovell, and Colin Harrison about Wallace’s impact on today’s narrative nonfiction writers. They spoke about comparisons to Wallace, what they love (and hate) about his work, what it was like to edit him, their favorite stories, posthumous controversies, and his influence and legacy.

Joel Lovell only worked with Wallace on one brief essay. Despite that singular experience, Lovell’s editorial time at Harper’s and elsewhere in the 1990s and 2000s put him in great position to witness Wallace’s rising status in the world of magazine journalism. He was unequivocal when I asked him which nonfiction writer today most reminds him of Wallace.

Joel Lovell: The clear descendant is John Jeremiah Sullivan, of course. For all sorts of reasons (the ability to move authoritatively between high and low culture and diction; the freakishly perceptive humor on the page) but mostly just because there’s no one else writing narrative nonfiction or essays right now whose brain is so flexible and powerful, and whose brainpower is so evident, sentence by sentence, in the way that Wallace’s was. No one who’s read so widely and deeply and can therefore “read” American culture (literature, television, music) so incisively. No one who can make language come alive in quite the same way. He’s an undeniable linguistic genius, like Dave, who happens to enjoy exercising that genius through magazine journalism. Read more…

The End of ‘Rolling Stone’ As We Know It

33-year-old editor and publisher Jann Wenner at the 1979 relaunch of 'Look' magazine, which would last only a year. (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis)

In the end, Jann Wenner was always going to sell Rolling Stone. The current timing is certainly unprompted and a bit of a surprise — Wenner, along with his son Gus, the president and chief operating officer of Wenner Media, announced this week the magazine is now open for bids — but there had been indications in recent years that the once groundbreaking magazine would soon be top edited by someone other than Wenner.

Wenner has passed on opportunities to sell Rolling Stone in the past, including an offer of $500 million that he turned down two decades ago. But in 2017, the timing was too good to pass up. This year is the 50th anniversary of Rolling Stone‘s founding, and not only is the occasion being marked with an HBO documentary co-directed by Alex Gibney, Knopf is publishing the first major Wenner biography this fall, written by Joe Hagan. (Full disclosure: I fact-checked the book.)

Read more…

R.E.M.’s Political Songs Still Resonate Today

Credit: Flickr/Rodrigo Siderakis

Never before has a rock and roll band been as lyrically political as R.E.M. From Murmur to Fables of the Reconstruction, Green’s “World Leader Pretend” and “Orange Crush” to Automatic for the People’s “IgnoreLand,” R.E.M. is the only band of the 20th century that legitimately crossed over from rock to pop and could appeal to hardcore college radio denizens as well as teens who first heard of the Athens-based quartet while surfing the mainstream radio dial.

What other band could draw tens of thousands and sell out arenas with lyrics like, “These bastards stole their power from the victims of the Us v. Them years/Wrecking all things virtuous and true/The undermining social democratic downhill slide into abysmal/Lost lamb off the precipice into the trickle down runoff pool.”?

Read more…

John Oliver on the Media’s Struggle to Confront Disinformation

Did you share the general shudder when Kellyanne Conway introduced the idea of “alternative facts”?

It’s just a framing device, an ear-catching phrase, but it’s nothing new. The content of what she’s wrapping a bow on is something that everyone has been bearing witness to. We’ve had 18 months of feelings over facts. The only thing that’s remotely new about it is the location that it’s coming from.

Is interviewing her essentially pointless?

In general, it’s very dangerous to keep the old campaign architecture around with this presidency, to have an eight-person panel on CNN debating whether or not he said something. “Did he or did he not do this thing we watched him do?” There’s actually serious harm in that discussion. And, yeah. I really don’t see the point of talking to Kellyanne Conway because her language jujitsu is so strong. You know she can look you in the eyes and tell you the opposite of what you just saw happen, and she will be more confident in her answer than you are in your question.

-John Oliver, in a wide-ranging Rolling Stone interview with Brian Hiatt, on how his weekly HBO show Last Week Tonight will need to adapt to the chaos of the Trump Administration. His season four premiere attempted to tackle the question of Trump and reality:  Read more…

The Month That Killed the Sixties

Clara Bingham Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul | Random House | May 2016 | 30 minutes (8,161 words)

 
Below is an excerpt from Witness to the Revolution, an oral history of the political and cultural movements of the 1960s and early ’70s. In this excerpt, witnesses recall the month when everything seemed to fall apart. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

 

You can jail the revolutionaries, but you can’t jail the revolution.

—FRED HAMPTON, SPEECH, 1969

*

December 1969 was plagued by violence and despair. As bloodshed in Vietnam escalated, so did violence at home. The ranks of Americans who considered themselves “revolutionaries” swelled to as many as a million, and militant resistance threatened nearly all government institutions related to the war effort. Nonviolent civil disobedience of just months earlier, with the October and November Moratoriums, had evolved into violent clashes with police, rioting, arson, and bombings. In the fifteen-month period between January 1969 and April 1970, an average of fifty politically motivated bombings occurred each day.

At the vanguard of this domestic rebellion was the Black Panther Party, which, in reaction to police brutality and FBI harassment, publicly declared war against the police. Two dozen Black Panther chapters had opened across the country, and in 1969 the police killed 27 Panthers and arrested or jailed 749. J. Edgar Hoover announced that the Black Panther Party was “the greatest threat to [the] internal security of the country,” and he assigned two thousand full-time FBI agents to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, and otherwise neutralize” the Panthers and other New Left organizations. In a 1969 speech to Congress, Hoover declared that the New Left was a “firmly established subversive force dedicated to the complete destruction of our traditional democratic values and the principles of free government.”

Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged on. From 1961 until 1971, the U.S. military dropped more than 19 million gallons of toxic chemicals— defoliants or herbicides, including Agent Orange—on 4.8 million Vietnamese. In 1969, 11,780 American troops were killed, bringing the death toll to 48,736. It was not a festive Christmas for those in the peace movement. John Lennon and Yoko Ono displayed huge billboards in Los Angeles, London, and other cities that read: “War is over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.” On New York City’s Fifth Avenue during the holiday shopping rush, a woman blocked the street with a sign that read, “How Many Shopping Days Until Peace?” Read more…