Here's my 4Columns review of Lesley Chow's You're History, a new book from Repeater, which as I've noted here before is a wonderfully original and surprising take on pop music, that creates a counter-canon of non-verbal bliss, a pantheon of ecstatic "oohs" that includes Chaka Khan, Neneh Cherry, Sade, Janet Jackson, Tom Tom Club, Azealia Banks, TLC, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj. You don't have to rate all or indeed any of those artists to enjoy the author's enjoyment of them - the vivid precision with which she zooms in on their mouth-music magic, the exquisite attention paid to the non-signifying, synesthetic and purely sensual properties of singing.
An argument for pop performers who treat lyrics as “pretexts to juice up the mouth” and “awaken muscle memory” mimetically in the listener, rather than the transmission of clearly articulated meanings, You're History is a proof-of-concept alternative to what Chow calls "the rationalizing impulse that dominates writing on popular music". The book is mostly a celebration, but it's also entertaining for its occasional swipes at good-on-paper artists (e.g. Janelle Monae) whose themes and stances inspire dissertations, but who are deficient in the textural scrumptiousness and tyrannical presence that commands fascination. Masterpiece-weary myself, I also nodded vigorously when Chow asserts her bias towards "the one-off hit more than the tempered masterpiece.”
After half-a-century of serious writing about pop and rock, it can seem like the whole history is sewn up and there’s nothing left to be said. But as you close Chow’s book, you feel the complete opposite: there’s so much more to explore and uncover.
Chow is a film writer as well as pop critic, which made me wonder how she might apply her approach towards movies. I've long been fascinated by the way we simultaneously appreciate the skill that an actor applies to the creation of each character, while also taking pleasure in what is unchanging from picture to picture and role to role. The way a certain actor’s face crinkles when they smile or frown; the wonky stresses and swerves in the gait of speech; the husky wheeze of a laugh, the tangy aroma of a voice; movements of hands or eyes. However much the thespian tries to dissolve their self into a role, they only have the same physical materials to work with: "the grain of the person" to twist Barthes famous formulation, and which is flexible and malleable only up to a point... the outer fabric of self resists the histrionic exertion, the artistry of becoming other. For the viewer, there's a delicious doubling of perception, a tension between the actorly performance and magnetic presence. These are faces and bodies we like to look at - not necessarily because they're beautiful or sexy - voices we like to hear, almost regardless of the context.
An interview with Chow at Todd Burns's Music Journalism Insider