Writers as Rock Stars: Introducing Liner Notes, a Music Column for Writers
Recently, I went to Terminal 5, a music venue here in NYC, to see UK singer Lianne La Havas perform live. I stood behind my diminutive partner while we watched roadies set up the sound for Lianne. I swayed from the Maker’s Mark I had ingested, which then combined with the two beers I consumed earlier at dinner. Twenty minutes later, Lianne took the stage. Or rather, as the audience eager to hear her voice, we relinquished the stage to her.
As she performed — singing pitch perfect notes while playing lead guitar — I remembered why I enjoy LIT, my reading series in Brooklyn. I want literature to have the same cultural cachet as music. I underestimated the challenge of presenting literature as performative art — essentially, presenting literature as music — since writers aren’t entertainers. Some writers struggle with social anxiety, or shyness, or stage fright. Yet, I think of LIT as a place where a writer can get on stage and pretend to be their favorite emcee, or singer, or comedian, or anyone in “showbiz.”
I want writers to be rock stars, to seek out fame, though I know this is wholly antithetical to the (self-perpetuating) image of the squirrelly, pasty writer, a meek mouse shivering in the cold. (To say nothing of an American cultural landscape that makes room for only a handful of literary personalities. Writers would make great reality TV stars, if given the chance.)
I want writers to be rock stars, to seek out fame, though I know this is wholly antithetical to the (self-perpetuating) image of the squirrelly, pasty writer, a meek mouse shivering in the cold.
I want to be famous. I want to be known. If fame is the necessary evil to being read by as many people as possible, so be it. These are reversals from positions I’ve once stated, and tweeted, and I worry how this will be received by my peers. There’s an immediate, though subtle, rejection of stardom, or the admission of wanting stardom, within literary circles, as if the desire is somehow lowbrow. I have no data or details to support this claim, only my gut and my exposure to writers over fifteen years. Besides, the closest thing to “literary stardom” is, I suppose, Junot Diaz packing a lecture hall. But he ain’t packing stadiums, and I like to dream big.
Junot is a patron saint of my literary generation — writers of color, hip-hop lovers, to start — so in my mind, he should sell out stadiums. Hundreds of thousands of screaming people should be waiting in lines wrapped around city blocks, just to hear him read. The imagery is ridiculous, but this is the natural, logical conclusion to fame and literature in these modern times. Everything today is outsized, even celebrity, and there’s no sign of a slowdown or retraction, so why fight it? A Pulitzer Prize novelist should be revered as much as Kanye, but we don’t live in that world yet.
Until then, we’ll shape a literary reading around Kanye or Rihanna. When we host our readings, we marvel at our audiences: a blend of races and nationalities, seemingly growing in size with each event, and the people are young, and not everyone in attendance is a writer, or an editor, or perhaps even cares about literature. The crowd is chill, and they come because our events incorporate a live DJ, and they come because they’ve heard about us, and they come because they know they’ll have fun. They come because we’re different, and sometimes difference, a change from the expected, the old institutions, is all that is required to get people excited. We are authentically “us” and this is why they come. The writers get on stage and, energized by the venue, the music, the crowd, give all of us their best effort, and this is why they come.
Literature as music, as performance. This is what we do at LIT, an alternate universe where Zadie Smith should be on the Terminal 5 stage like Lianne La Havas, her very presence like shock therapy to the crowd, as she prepares to read us the word. We rabid literature fans are waiting for the word. Every book we open embodies our bodies entering church for worship. Novels evoke prayer hands. Poetry, the psalms. Literature as gospel? No, literature worshipped as the expansion of human consciousness. Stories fuse us together, and we storytellers should try to reach the masses, not each other.
We rabid literature fans are waiting for the word. Every book we open embodies our bodies entering church for worship.
But maybe I’m tripping. So, fair enough. This column is the intersection of music and literature, an old symbiosis. We will meet here monthly to fall in love, I hope. I’ll talk to other writers about music, and write about it here. Maybe I’ll talk to musicians about literature, and write about it here. I’ll talk to myself about music and literature, and write about it here. I’ll do what is expected, but sideways. On an angle. Slanted. Liner Notes is the text accompanying the music, the performance.
I never wanted to become a music columnist, or had any notions of utilizing my writing — one love — to converse and discuss music — my second love — but I’m happy I stumbled into the opportunity. When The Toast and Roxane Gay collaborated to launch The Butter, I immediately balked at the prospect of my writing for the venture, mainly for two reasons.
One, Roxane is my mentor and my friend — a label I rarely use — and I pay respect to our personal relationship. I try to maintain a distance in our professional lives, as if we aren’t that close, or just “Twitter friends” because I’m weird, and I protect the relationships I most cherish. I don’t want to be seen as riding coattails. There’s no country for sycophants, but I often worry about the wrong things, as she would tell me.
Two, I was tired of personal essays — or the brand of personal essays I felt I was known for: messy, unwieldy, morose, melancholic, cerebral and dense, with literary flourishes in the language that impressed no one but myself. A shadow of sorts over the prose, as if someone gently shaded the words with a pencil, this writing style was misaligned with my real life, where I was increasingly happy, light, and craving new experiences, new directions.
I solved both hang-ups. The Butter was open to column pitches via Submittable, so I shot my shot. I pitched a music column, said I wanted to do it personally because it was a “challenge” and a “departure.” I chose music because it meant I would have to get out of my head, leave the cerebral, navel-gazing prose on the shelf — as much as I reasonably can — and engage with the outer world, with external objects. As far as I could tell, no one on The Butter wrote exclusively about music. And if the pitch was rejected, cool. No harm, no foul done to a personal relationship.
About a year later, when I felt I hit my stride with the column, I received word that The Butter was to cease publication. My first thought, initial shock notwithstanding, was “Well, I guess I need to move Liner Notes.” I make a note of this because in hindsight, I’m surprised I didn’t hang up the proverbial jersey, as I’m wont to do with side projects. Liner Notes quietly, surprisingly, became something bigger than just another “project.”
For one, Liner Notes’s time with The Butter introduced me to a brand new audience, and I hope all of you are still with me. Second, I’ve come to enjoy the challenge of finding my footing with Liner Notes, and I’m happy all of you are still with me. Finally, Electric Literature is the best place to continue with Liner Notes, next to the great columns The Blunt Instrument and New Suns, and I’m happy to be here with them.
Still, a part of me wants to take a chance. I like to dream big.
What if Liner Notes became the place to read about music, about music creators, about music and pop culture?
What if Liner Notes became the place to read about music, about music creators, about music and pop culture? Electric Literature is, as far as I’m concerned, the premiere site for online literature, for the intersection of literature and pop culture. Much like LIT, what would happen if music lovers, who might not care about Purity and MFAs, visited this site and mixed with writers (who might not care about Purity and MFAs)? I want music lovers to come to Electric Literature to see how we “literary types” approach music, this colossal church fixed in the center of pop culture. That’s the deal, one big dream. Meanwhile, I hold out hope for the other big dream. We writers are going to become rock stars one day. Watch.