From our “Why’s this so good?” archives, a handful of great reads on music by Lil Wayne, James Brown, Britney Spears and Sly Stone, deconstructed for craft and significance by the New York Times’ Margaret Ho, Vela’s Eva Holland, the New York Times’ Jenna Wortham and The Atavist’s Charles Homans. Bonus: a short play list.
In No. 70, the New York Times’ Margaret Ho does the rundown on David Ramsey’s “I Will Forever Remain Faithful,” an Oxford American piece on the rapper Lil Wayne. Ho especially admires Ramsey’s “mixtape approach,” writing:
Each numbered vignette effectively acts like the track to a CD. (The “montage” has a long history. Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker profile of the painter David Salle is just one example.) In framing his piece as if it were a mixtape, Ramsey sets a rhythm that’s not unlike listening to, well, music. He cuts to 1, 2, then 3 and so on. Snapshots of his time teaching fifth-, eighth-, and ninth-graders filter by in fast takes, and we’re left to piece together the bigger picture. Rather than have us seek out Weezy’s songs, Ramsey does the next closest thing: He brings Weezy to us.
Pair with: “The Game — My Life”
In No. 68, Vela’s Eva Holland looks at Jonathan Lethem looking at James Brown, via the Rolling Stone profile “Being James Brown,” and digs the otherworldliness aspect of Lethem’s central thesis. An excerpt:
The time-travel theory also explains the existence of what Lethem calls the James Brown Zone of Confusion – that is, Brown’s forgetfulness and occasional historical revisionism. It smoothes over the awkwardness of watching James Brown fumble and preen like any other once-great old man. It makes his angry outbursts in the recording studio, his strange “raps” and his odd asides to “Mr. Rolling Stone” much less embarrassing for us to read. James Brown at 72 could be a pretty pathetic spectacle, but Lethem’s theory rescues us from that discomfort while still allowing him to share every squirmy detail. “We all dwell in the world James Brown saw so completely before we came along into it,” he writes. “James Brown, in turn, hasn’t totally joined us here in the future he made.”
Pair with: “It’s a Man’s World” (James Brown and Luciano Pavarotti)
In No. 19, The Atavist’s Charles Homans goes deep on George W.S. Trow’s coverage, in The New Yorker, of Sly Stone’s wedding, writing:
If Talese presents Sinatra as the unknowable center of a small human solar system held together by the gravitational force of his fame, Trow does the opposite: He presents Sly Stone as an almost inert body, which but for the efforts of his attendants would plummet out of the firmament of popular culture. Trow’s subject is not the force that a star exerts on his retinue, but the Sisyphean effort required to keep the star aloft.
Pair with: “I Want to Take You Higher”
In No. 28, the New York Times’ Jenna Wortham admires the Vanessa Grigoriadis take on Britney Spears, from Rolling Stone:
The challenge of any journalist tasked with writing a celebrity profile is to tell readers something they don’t already know, and I’m not talking about revealing the little-known fact that your subject is actually a devout vegetarian who wanted to figure out a way to test pharmaceuticals without harming animals when she grew up, but got discovered in a shopping mall in Wyoming and things took off from there, and boy, wowee, isn’t life a strange and bizarro ride. No. I’m talking about getting an accurate portrayal of what celebrities’ worlds are like and satisfying our insatiable appetite to know what it is truly like to be famous, what life is like when all of your wildest dreams come true.
Pair with: “Passenger”