Monday, August 7, 2017

The ‘Personal-Essay Boom’ is Over the Page: The Audio-Biography of Magnetic Fields’ 50 Song Memoir

Remember back in May when Jia Tolentino trolled the hell out of us stewards of the personal essay? In her article in The New Yorker, Tolentino crept up on the cadaverous subgenre, checked her watch all coroner-like, and declared the personal essay, then and there: dead. If you were on Twitter that day (we’re now 76 days “postmortem”), you may still be smarting from her claims. Tolentino borrowed perspective from Laura Bennett of Slate who unceremoniously pilloried the “first-person industrial complex,” suggesting it has become overinflated, passé: “There just hasn’t been much oxygen left for the kinds of essays that feel marginal or navel-gazey,” Bennett says, claiming that pitches nowadays “center on systemic rather than personal trauma, or on orienting personal trauma in our berserk new [post-election] reality.”

Still, there seems to be a terminological, if not taxonomical miscalculation in the New Yorker Article. As Zoë Bossiere writes on the Brevity blog: “Contrary to what many might believe, the personal essay is not a self-absorbed, navel-gazing reflection pool. Rather, the signature of the genre is its use of the self to comment on something larger than.” Bossiere enters the coroner’s exam room. Like a mother leaning over her son’s corpse, she checks for birthmarks, acne pocks, weird follicles. We hold out hope that the cadaver has been mis-ID’d, that the personal essay might still be at large. And then, Bossiere sees the stitching on the side of the torso, the cotton batting in place of its viscera. A decoy! As Bossiere puts it, Tolentino seems to be speaking of the click-bait confessional, not the well-crafted personal essay.[1] We sigh our relief. 


But what if it isn’t the ‘personal’ that is experiencing a slippage, but the ‘essay’ itself? What if, in this moment, we’re witnessing the transmigration of the memoir to a new medium? In recent years, there has been a preponderance of lyricists cornering the confessional market, baring their souls in high literary fashion.

I’m not just talking about Courtney Barnett’s seemingly misplaced rationalization of her grocery shopping habits at the beginning of a pop-rock song.[2] Or Chance the Rapper’s sentimental, yet vital memories of high school laced with shout-outs to proper nouns like Vic, Justin, and Mama Jan (whom he keeps forever to himself).[3]  Or even the preternatural straight-shooting proffered by Josh Tillman (moniker Father John Misty). No matter how gobsmacked you might be by the flickers of authenticity on I Love You, Honeybear, it’s so saturated in satire, irony, and cross-generational trolling that its confessional aspects are doomed (maybe even designed) to feel calculated. Instead, I’m talking about sincere sincerity whose contemporary emergence belongs to the vulnerable/“hypothermic” quaver of Conor Oberst or the haunting melancholy of Cat Power.

The recent album-as-memoir that most disarmed me was 2014’s Benji. On the LP, a sullen (as ever) Mark Kozelek (aka Sun Kil Moon) unleashes his own sad-sack brand of Proustian minutiae on his listener. Lampshade shopping. Crab-cake eating. Midnight RN shifts in Wadsworth, Ohio. Visiting his dad’s paralyzed friend in a basement in Steubenville. Kozelek’s lyrics are intentionally clunky and granular: 'And now when I watch “the Song Remains the Same' / the same things speak to me that spoke to me then / Except now, the scenes with Peter Grant and John Bonham are different from when I think about the dust that fell upon them.” Again, these are lyrics, not some unrehearsed opinions for the Letterman show. As the specificity unspools (see the Stuart Berman glossary to the “incomparably vast… lyrical universe” of Benji), it feels like Kozelek is achieving something rare. In his Pitchfork review of Benji, Ian Cohen writes:

Which leads to an important critical consideration: Do these songs resonate because we understand them to be true stories? We have little reason to doubt Kozelek’s authenticity, as Benji is full of proper nouns and historical facts that check out: Google some of the specificities mentioned during his eviscerating sexual inventory of ‘Dogs’ and you find that there is indeed a Tangier and Red Lobster near the Erie Canal in Akron.

Cohen’s question is a tricky one. Do these songs resonate because we understand them to be true stories? Well, yeah. But perhaps they don’t resonate as songs. With the telltale techniques of memoir, Benji signals to the listener: “You are reading this album.” Again, Cohen: “Benji trusts in the complexity… ingrained in anyone’s life story… More importantly, [Kozelek’s] storytelling has sharpened considerably… This is obviously brutal stuff. Its pacing, themes, and structure having more in common with cinema or literature than pop music.”   

And while Benji is just one of a recent slew of diaristic albums that could fit under the purview of New Sincerity[4] (music critic Mike Powell also identifies grief-laden Crow (Mount Eerie), Carrie & Lowell (Sufjan Stevens), and Skeleton Tree (Nick Cave)), it is the only one, compositionally, that aspires to full-fledged memoir. Powell, for his part, expresses his skepticism that frankness like Kozelek’s or Phil Elverum’s might all just be an indie treatment, a pretentious affect: “Indie culture tends to prize this kind of undecorated directness as a stand-in for truth, as though nobody has ever spoken clearly and lied.”

If I really calibrate my bullshit detector, I think there’s exactly one musician who passes the muster: Daniel Johnston. While critics have made (too) much of his mental health and “childlike” approach to songwriting, it seems to me that Johnston’s candor and austerity feels accidental, not constructed. Johnston has the uncanny ability to record pre-stylized tracks that are tenderly autobiographical, unequivocally suis generis. Johnston’s work, though, is prone to shapelessness, limbic redundancy—which might be a harsh thing to say of an artist whose first two albums were titled Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain. Listening to some of his minor albums may be reminiscent of swiping through a stream of selfies, struggling to notice what has changed from photo to photo. Still, one of the qualities that most excites me about Johnston as an artist is his ignominy. 

With so many musicians dabbling in the conventions of the confessional essay (and at an apparently volatile time for the form), it seems inevitable that one would finally declare their work actual “memoir.” In March of this past year, The Magnetic Fields released a commodious concept album entitled 50 Song Memoir whose fifty tracks are a chronological coursing through the fifty years of principal songwriter Stephin Merritt’s life. 

For starters, here’s a track-by-track analysis of the first decade (‘66 through ‘75) of 50 Song Memoir.


Stephin Merritt, up to 10 years old

Merritt’s memoir begins, conventionally enough, with the particulars of his birth. Born in 1966, Stephin Merritt was “Made in America.” Because his mother “never stayed anywhere more than two years,” Merritt was relocated from Saint Thomas to Yonkers to Baden-Baden in that first year (‘66). His challenge as a memoirist is considerable in these first tracks as he must account for his first years through the haze of infantile amnesia. In ‘67, Merritt imagines (speculative-nonfiction-style) that he will be reincarnated as a cockroach. He also makes the dubious claim that he was consciously vegan as a two-year-old. He sustains the whimsy as he recalls episodes (likely relayed to him by his mother) about an unreciprocated relationship with a mischievous cat they called Dionysus (‘68).

Up until this point, the lyrics have been logically retrospective or goofily experiential; it isn’t until 1969 (appropriately enough) that Merritt cultivates cultural range. It becomes evident that this memoir, like any other, will sprout antennae into the larger world, becoming considerably transpersonal. As early as ’69, Stephin Merritt is a student of history, epistemology, cosmology, aesthetics, etc. It seems to all be spurred on by the death of Judy Garland, a gay icon whose premature death coincided with the Sexual Revolution: “So put those feather boas on / Drink too much wine / And celebrate the revolution of ’69.”[5] Though Merritt’s mother’s VW bug flounders on the road to Woodstock, he’s still the bona fide child of a flower child. The transpersonal continues in the next track (’70) where, at a concert, he—as a child, not even four years old—hears Grace Slick presumably in opposition to the American presence in Vietnam (maybe even decrying the Mỹ Lai Massacre): “They’re killing children over there.” Since it’s not a Jefferson Airplane lyric, and likely an ad hoc in-concert haranguing of Nixon, the context is a bit opaque. Whereas a paperback memoir might provide some expository traces, this song leaves us guessing.[6]    

‘71’s track smacks of classic Magnetic Fields, a violin reflecting Merritt’s every word. In “I Think I’ll Make Another World,” he is initiated in the artist’s life. “It may not start out very large,” he sings of the humble origins of his forthcoming –topia. The romantic, escapist potential of art is sidelined, though, when in ’72, Merritt is sidled with (self-diagnosed?) Asperger syndrome. An arrhythmic Wurlitzer and foggy horn is reminiscent of a grotesque merry-go-round as he asks: “Eye contact for the autodidact… / Why must we make eye contact?” By ’73, it’s apparent that Merritt’s childhood is totally void of structure. Now located in Pa’ia, Hawaii (“hippie central”), he sings longingly that he “could have gone to a real school”; instead, he hitchhikes to a place where kids chant “kahuli aku / kahuli mai” and harvests magic mushrooms. Perhaps it’s here, in the midst of the commune, where music is so ubiquitous, that Merritt begins writing his own songs. We learn that the father-figure du jour—a trumpeter with a pork pie hat—has set music to one of Merritt’s lyrics to impress his mom. Rather than validate Merritt, it incenses him: “He stole my song / Better back off, mister.” Sure, the Freudian subtext is there. But really, I sense that Merritt is being more protective of his art.

What his childhood may lack in structure it certainly delivers in its wide exposure to sundry cosmogonies (‘74). Barely out of the preoperational stage, and Merritt is prematurely face-to-face with the theoretical, hypothetical, counterfactual, and abstract (all hallmarks of the formal operational stage of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development): theism, Karmu/black Christ, flying saucers, communist revolution, fairies, ghosts, reincarnation, heavenly hosts, science. The first decade of Merritt’s life concludes with a straightforward biography of his mother (’75). His singsong approach, accompanied by the tinkling of a music box, helps reveal his mother with a nonjudgmental attitude. A former English teacher who was fired for teaching Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Merritt’s mother transitioned into the life of a proud beatnik whose ideological malleability makes her a “moonie” in Merritt’s eyes.[7] From cults to ashrams, yoga to zen reiki, Vendanta to Tibetan Buddhism, Merritt witnesses his mother in a spiritual ricochet. She is surrounded by men in togas with Santa-like beards, chanting “Bhaja govindam.” Apropos her Vedic exploration, The Magnetic Fields goad with electric sitar. Through it all, Merritt defends her honor; in case we were thinking it, he clears the air by telling us what she’s not: she’s not a madam, not a hippie, not a drug user, not a loony. It’s a compassionate, sometimes funny portrayal of a mother whose open-mindedness has been occasionally disruptive for her ten-year-old son: “My Mom’s a little flaky / believes in everything / from auras to zen reiki / except crystal healing / she draws the line at crystal healing.”

‘75 My Mama Ain’t           [song]            [lyrics]

For a full track-by-track-by-track-by-track (x50) summary, see the NPR article by Barry Walters


It seems unconscionable to waste time debating whether or not it’s actually a memoir. Merritt says it’s a memoir, so it is. Simple enough. In just thirty minutes (that’s just one-fifth of the way through), you learn as much about Merritt’s childhood as you do from your standard memoirist. If all the framing is veracious, it seems that Merritt has been planning his memoirs since 1977: “When I write my memoirs /Which will be of course in verse,” Merritt sings. And why verse?

Clearly, musician memoirs have a staid audience. According to an article in The New York Times by Julie Bosman, “in a squirrely market for books, the rock memoir has taken off, spurring publishers to pursue more book deals with musicians willing to tell their stories.” Many of the musicians listed in the article—Sammy Hagar, Pete Townshend, Gregg Allman, Keith Richards, and Ozzy Osbourne—are baby boomers whose legacies have been cemented in the annals of rock. Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010) did the unthinkable by winning the National Book Award. Despite all the success of popular rock memoirs, nobody at Simon & Schuster, MacMillan, or Hachette expects the writing to be any good. By and large, these are memoirs written for posterity, not for the sake of literature.

Tom Carlson of TNYT acknowledges Smith’s literary chops in his review of Just Kids:  “What’s sure to make her account a cornucopia for cultural historians, however, is the atmosphere, personalities and mores of the time are so astutely observed.” Still, though, Carlson is suggesting Smith’s account will eventually relegate her to firsthand observer, and not as commentator herself. If the success of Just Kids is any indication, this is the most a musician can hope for her memoir. Recently, (Steven) Morrissey (a late Baby Boomer) released Autobiography for which G.P. Putnam’s Sons paid a handsome advance. John Williams (again, of the Times) opens his review by quoting Vladimir’s barb from Waiting for Godot: “No one ever suffers but you.” Considering Morrissey’s baritone talents in the studio, Autobiography is a tragically run-of-the-mill memoir. Whereas Williams mildly reproaches Morrissey for spending nearly as much time describing his legal battles with The Smiths' drummer as he devotes to his career with the Smiths itself, the book is far from a tour de force. To me, it’s a fair indication of Ecco publisher Dan Halpern’s concern that the rock memoir category is getting overcrowded: “In publishing, if something works, people keep doing it until it doesn’t work anymore. I have a feeling we’re getting close to that. I think the reading public is going to get a little worn out.”

With 50 Song Memoir, Stephin Merritt circumvents that overcrowding by sticking with what he knows best. Forget the fickle reading public. The listening public remains ever-eager to tune in to the latest from an indie juggernaut. If it’s a veritable twofer, a towering concept album and a memoir, then all the better. It’s far from a signal of Merritt’s complacency. In fact, this album is as demanding on the listener as it is on its performers. In an interview with VICE, Merritt compares it to a variety show. There are 50 instruments in play on the album—with seven instruments per song, and every instrument played just seven times. (If you’re doing the math, this leaves one track, “The Day I Finally…”—a harrowing track in which Merritt plays the one-man band to commemorate the onset of his depression.) These OuLiPo-like constraints endow the memoir with tones and textures that evolve in tandem with the musical landscape from 1966 to 2015.

With each disc spanning a decade of Merritt’s life, there are undeniable pivots in the evolution of pop music that coincide with important biographical junctures—from his queerness to his depression to his nascent status as indie darling. Some instruments are so important to his artistic career that he dedicates whole songs to them—as if the emergence of the synthesizer is a co-manifestation of Merritt himself. The lyrics to “How to Play the Synthesizer,” by the way, are not just homage (in the vein of Daft Punk’s docutrack on Giorgio Moroder, progenitor of EDM) but process analysis, a metacognitive essay/manual studded with imperatives:

Take a single oscillator / Producing a drone
Send it to the wave shaper / Altering the tone
This can be a triangle / Sawtooth or a square
Modulate the pulse width / Nobody will care
Now go to the filter bank / Low, high, band or notch
Fiddle with the cutoff point / Pour yourself a Scotch
Modern filters oscillate / All by themselves
It sounds like you're torturing / Little metal elves
Nextly, shape the envelope / AKA ADSR
Attack, decay, sustain, release / Which means how loud you are
One millisecond to the next / Whether you pluck or lurch
Or ooze like an organist / In a Venusian church

Merritt weathers disco (check out the earworm, “‘76: Hustle ‘76”), rock n’ roll (“‘79: Rock n’ Roll Will Ruin Your Life”), New Romanticism/new wave/synth pop (“‘89: London By Jetpack”), and run-ins with the avant garde (“‘89: The 1989 Musical Marching Zoo””). These eras, when combined with nightclub tracks about Danceteria and the West Village’s The Pyramid tell the composite story of Merritt’s musical education. By the last two discs, Merritt is less a consumer of this culture as he is a confident contributor to it. In “‘02: Be True to Your Bar,” Merritt is simply scrawling songs on napkins at his favorite gay bar in Manhattan.


Merritt has always been an enumerator. While 50 Song Memoir is unlikely to supersede the beloved cult compilation, 69 Love Songs, there is more at stake in this concept. That’s because, frankly, there’s more Merritt. In a Rolling Stone article (that now seems redundant), Merritt mined his previous 25 albums, struggling to find even 15 songs that had anything to do with him. “There were several albums that had no songs that had anything to do with me,” he said. He goes on to posit that his reticence is due to the fact that:

gay songwriters in general write character songs because they’re not really in a position to have mainstream success writing in detail about their own lives. Taylor Swift expects that teenage girls will identify with her songs, and teenage girls are by far the largest market for selling records and that’s fine. But I’m not in a position to decide that only gay men are going to be my market.

In his Slate review of 50 Song Memoir, Ron Carlson writes, “Not so long ago, to sing about queerness would have been confessional in the literal sense of admitting a crime.” Unwilling to take Merritt’s “anti-social leanings” at face value, Carlson connects the artist’s reserve to “the lineage of concealment and code (drag, camp, polari) throughout queer history.”

More generally, it probably matters that Merritt is a Baby Buster (Gen-X’er). Unlike would-be memoirist Steven Tyler, Merritt belongs to a generation of auteur songwriters who, as Carlson points out, “backed far away from explicit confession.” Preferring band names to given names, Carlson writes that these musicians elect to camouflage their biographies:

Like Merritt, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats for years loudly disavowed the biographical fallacy—the presumption that writers and singers must be soulfully chronicling their own lives.

It should come as no surprise then that days after 50 Song Memoir came out, Darnielle released his book of fiction, Universal Harvester. Even so:

… as the confessional 1970s receded safely far away, [even] Darnielle came around to explicit memoir.


As far as memoirs go, 50 Song Memoir benefits from the fact of its 50 songs; it keeps things moving along. With only one song reaching the four-minute mark (“‘77: Life Ain’t All That Bad”), most songs hover at 180 seconds. Because Merritt’s life is presented in these metered episodes, the memoir doesn’t suffer from the sludgy pitfalls of, say, a 50-page chronicle of a grudge between former bandmates (ahem, Morrissey).

As I look at the album art, an Edward-Hopper-looking painting[1] of Merritt at a café (think Nighthawks or Automat), I can’t help but wonder about persona. By sitting in the shadows, concealing a painful expression from the other patrons, the figure becomes accidentally foregrounded for the viewer. “If there are any lingering questions about how much of the man is crafted persona,” Williams writes in his review of Morrissey’s Autobiography, “this book should dispel them. Morrissey is Morrissey to the marrow.” I'd argue that this self-amplification is even truer in 50 Song Memoir.

What makes the album so endearing is that Merritt is willing to “go back” to the subjectivities du an—of ’66, ’76, ’86, ’96, ’06, and ’15—and rummage around. In the first ten tracks (analyzed above), Merritt, like James Joyce’s Dedalus-as-Baby Tuckoo, composes with intentional nursery-rhyme juvenilia. By 2001’s post-9/11 ode to Manhattan, Merritt has matured considerably, perhaps even “[learning] in [his] own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what is feels… [encountering] for the millionth time the reality of experience…” He doesn’t annotate from a distance nor does he handle the material of his life with mawkish sentimentality. Like Smith, who is “no nostalgist about her formative years,” Merritt curates a tender presentation of his life; unlike Smith, though, who has been in the public eye (often through the camera lens of her memoir’s co-star, Mapplethorpe) for decades, Merritt emerges from plain sight. It is not a ‘morality’ album (Cohen’s phrase), but, per the title of Carlson’s review of the album, Merritt’s coming out “—as Human.”

After 2.5 hours of the same bass-baritone, several critics have addressed their fatigue with Merritt’s voice. Listeners accustomed to the 40-minute album, then, will need to acclimate to the memoir’s agenda. Here, in 50 Song Memoir, is a sustained voice whose tonal and narrative consistency is meritorious, not monotonous. What makes the memoir innovative is that it is the first of its kind—published on disc, and energized by timbre.

[1] To entirely dismiss Tolentino’s provocative article would be flippant; there is an excellent gendered analysis about the rise and fall of the first-person as native to platforms like Jezebel, Slate, xoJane, and Buzzfeed.

[2] From Courtney Barnett’s “Dead Fox”: “Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables / and I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first / a little pesticide can’t hurt / never having too much money, I get the cheap stuff at the supermarket / but they’re all pumped up with shit / A friend told me that they stick nicotine in the apples.”

[3] From Chance the Rapper's "Acid Rain": "I miss my diagonal grilled cheeses and back when Mike Jackson was still Jesus… I still miss being a senior and performing at all those open mic events. High school, eyes closed, seeing arenas. And I still get jealous of Vic. And Vic still get jealous of me… And I’m still choosing classmates that wouldn’t fuck. Mom still thinks I should go back to school. And Justin still think I’m good enough. And Mama Jan still don’t take her meds."
[4] Predicted by David Foster Wallace in his essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” proponents of New Sincerity (also known as post-postmodernism or performatism) will be “born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels.”

[5] Merritt demonstrates his familiarity with the memoir genre as he alludes to Garland’s posthumous exposé of the film industry—in which she sought to tell her life story while giving Hollywood an ass-kicking comeuppance. As Garland put it, “I’d like to expose a lot of people who deserve it.”

[6] Sometimes the generous liner notes provide much-needed transparency. It’s hard to tell if they’re meant to supplement the memoir, or be a substitute for it.

[7] In The Concise New Partridge Dictions of Slang and Unconventional English (eds. Dalzell and Victor), a moonie is defined as “any blind, unthinking, unquestioning follower of a philosophy or person. An extension of the early 1970s labeling of followers of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.”


Lawrence Lenhart is the author of The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage. His prose has been published in Conjunctions, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Arizona, teaches genres at Northern Arizona University, and is reviews editor of DIAGRAM. He writes about islands and black-footed ferrets. [Twitter]

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