Joshua James Amberson’s essay collection Staring Contest offers surprising and powerfully vulnerable insights into vision and sight.
I’ve often tried to keep music out of my personal essays and fiction. Music is a big part of my life, and I always worry that if I let it in it’ll just take over. My music-centric mind will get in the way, muddying my story or my line of thought.
When I started writing Staring Contest: Essays About Eyes—an interlinked collection about eyes, vision, and blindness—six years ago, I didn’t imagine music being a part of it. But for several essays in the collection, music ended up feeling like the perfect access point—both for myself and, hopefully, for the reader. I felt like it added levity, helped combat ocularcentrism, and provided a more bodily experience when I was getting too deep into my head.
All but one of these songs appear in the book itself, but their appearance is often just for a single line or a brief mention in a list. So it’s good to put a proper spotlight on some of the songs that weave in and out of the prose.
“Lost the Will to Live” – The Soul Brothers Six
I’ve kicked off a few mixtapes with this song over the years. I love how, musically, it brings the party—easily one of most underappreciated soul masterpieces out there, in my opinion—while the lyrics are about as bleak as pop-song lyrics come. (The line “You were my reason for wanting to live/now you’re the reason that I want to die” has always stuck out to me.) John Ellison’s falsetto is just so fragile and tender against this feel-good backdrop. To me, these opposing forces in the song create a deeper resonance—speaking perhaps to how crying is so often a mix of emotions, complex and untranslatable.
This was something I was trying to get at in the book’s essay on crying, “Dry Eyes”: Crying out of emotion can mean so much. It can have so many layers. Joy can arise during grief. Sadness can well up while we’re on the dance floor.
“96 Tears” – Question Mark and the Mysterians
In “Dry Eyes,” I make a case for what I call “the golden age of crying songs”: songs specifically about crying that came out in the ‘50s and started tapering off in popularity around the Summer of Love. I list a couple dozen tear-related hits that the Seattle oldies station played when I was kid—all of which I loved—but ultimately I end up focusing on Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” But each of the songs on that list deserve some attention.
“96 Tears” is one of those hits that’s so unlikely and perfect—an organ-driven garage rock tune played by the Saginaw, Michigan-based sons of Mexican migrant farmers, styling themselves after a Japanese sci-fi film, and becoming influential enough in certain circles to be thought of as proto punks.
“Eye Patch” – De La Soul
When I heard this at 18, I got the song’s cryptic, seemingly absurdist lyrics completely wrong—I thought it was about having a crush on a woman with an eye patch, rather than about a music industry trying to cover the group’s metaphorical third eye. My partner has been listening to De La nearly every day since Trugoy the Dove passed away a few months ago and—as sad as that loss is—it’s been such a pleasure to remember how casually intricate their songs were.
“Bette Davis Eyes” – Kim Carnes
One of the essays in Staring Contest follows the career of Bette Davis by way of her eyes—how she used them in her roles, how directors were emphasizing them in different ways, how the public and studio executives were commenting on them. Even though this song just makes a brief appearance at the very end of the essay, I inevitably ended up listening to it a lot.
I was tempted to put Jackie DeShannon’s original on here—a tonally opposite, Muscle Shoals-inspired ditty taking place in some imagined old-time barroom—since I would have preferred to not include such a ubiquitous pop song. But that just wasn’t the version that guided me through the essay.
I used to think of this as necessary cheese—a pseudo-deep pop song that will forever live on because it was, at one time, the biggest single of the year –but I started to appreciate its oddness, how the open-ended lyrics are so much more effective when there’s an air of anthemic importance surrounding them.
“Higher Ground” – Stevie Wonder
If lyrically up-for-interpretation pop songs are your thing, you can’t get much better than “Higher Ground.” I love how it leaves room for each listener to make their own meaning, to see the nuances of its mantra (“Gonna keep on trying, till I reach my highest ground”) in their own particular way. The song hints at reincarnation, sin, the cyclical nature of the universe, the societal roles we get trapped in—there are so many different ways you could make sense of its message.
The essay “Innervisions: A Brief History” came out of a writing assignment a friend gave me years ago. I’d just started working on this book, and we were talking about how disappointing it was that there were so few blind public figures that we/most people could name. Stevie Wonder came up, of course, so I told a story about how his Innervisions album sat prominently displayed in my childhood trailer and the relationship I had with its cover, as well as Stevie as a figure. He got excited and asked me to write my personal liner notes to the album. For what ended up being a relatively short essay, it took me years to finish his assignment. I tried to connect a dozen different threads, but had to whittle it down again and again.
Last Saturday (May 13th) was Stevie’s 73rd birthday, and it’s always a little bit of a personal holiday for me. How lucky we are to have him.
“Daydream (I Cannot)” – The Binary Marketing Show
While finishing the final edits of this book, I was helping curate a short retrospective of The Binary Marketing Show’s 20+ career of making singular, off-kilter experimental pop. So, while it feels a little cheap to throw in a project I have a stake in, it would feel wrong to not acknowledge how many hours they assisted in this book project. They felt like gentle guides, helping me along, posing koan-like puzzles for me to solve through their uniquely curious lyrics.
Everyone who worked on the book is very detail-oriented, so we spent a lot of time deep in the weeds. I absolutely loved the experience, but there were times when I couldn’t imagine an end to it, and the opening line of “Daydream (I Cannot)”—“Time keeps on persistently, like a child tugging at your sleeve”—was something I needed to hear. I played it countless times.
“Underachievers March and Fight Song” – Archers of Loaf
Perhaps one of the most far afield essays in the collection is called “The Idea of Doing Nothing at All,” which is largely about ‘90s slacker movies. The connection point to the larger theme is about image and how pop culture offers so many possible styles or looks that you can entertain for yourself. The slacker aesthetic of the mid-’90s was the first time one of these looks resonated with me, and the essay goes into how I carry that with me still and what that might mean or say about my approach to life.
The essay largely stays pretty close to the films, but music was such a big part of the aesthetic that it would have been an injustice not to let a few songs slip in. When I bought the Archers of Loaf album Vee Vee as a 12-year-old, I didn’t know how exactly to read this final track—its novelty song-adjacent music, its soaring whistles, its rally-cry chorus that sat on the edge of spoof—but I loved it. (Also, if you miss weird hidden tracks on CDs, you can relive it here.)