May 3, 2018
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Lucas Mann's brilliant Captive Audience is a thoughtful and insightful exploration of both his marriage and reality television. This book cements his status as one of our most talented writers of creative nonfiction.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"If Mann doesn't quite elevate reality TV to an art form—and that’s unlikely his intention—he makes a persuasive argument for readers to sit up and take notice. The cultural implications are perhaps more potent than we’d like to believe. An immensely captivating consideration of reality TV and a moving reflection on marriage."
I hardly ever listen to music when I'm writing anymore — usually I'm out in a public place eavesdropping on people; for some reason I find that less distracting. But a huge part of my writing routine is walking to and from wherever it is that I'm trying to actually write. For Captive Audience, I got into the habit of walking to the Providence Athenaeum library, which is about two miles away from my house. This time felt crucial and always had a soundtrack, which shifted over the course of writing and editing. Captive Audience is about watching reality TV and it's also about my relationship with my wife, and the ways the bizarre, performed intimacies of the shows we love have been a backdrop to our lives. Often, it felt really daunting to write at this fault line of intimacy and sincerity and performance, to try to voice the trashy sentiment that is so intriguing to me about reality TV and then render myself at the same potentially embarrassing emotional pitch. Below are some of the songs that I listened to over and over again, walking to and from writing. I didn't realize it at the time, but I think they ended up functioning as a collective mantra to open up and get messy on the page, to not always hide behind performed intelligence and instead aspire to be big and raw and sometimes goofy and often messy, like a good pop song.
Julien Baker, "Rejoice"
I've been obsessed with Julien Baker while working on this book. I love the emotion that she wrings out of every lyric and chord — it's always right on the line of being solipsistic, but it's so sincere and smart, so quietly forceful. I think I listen to her to figure out how she does it, but I haven't yet. The songs seem almost structure-less, too, which appeals to me. She just swirls around these images and keeps building meaning and momentum. She seems fearless, which I am totally not as a writer, but it's nice to have something to aspire to.
Kanye West, "Highlights" and "FML"
Pretty much every song from The Life of Pablo could be on this playlist. I was listening to it constantly when working on early drafts of the book, and I think it's a truly transcendent album. From a literary perspective, the combination of rawness and bravado with which Kanye narrates his own life is amazing; I can't think of anyone else who pulls it off quite like him. You can hate him, pity him, laugh at him, and be dazzled by him in the span of thirty seconds. Plus, from the reality TV standpoint, I got really into the way Kanye locates himself in the Kardashian universe in this album: on the one hand pleading to get away from it, on the other hand stoking some of his songs with the kind of salacious details that have made his wife's career. There's this amazing riff in "Highlights," when he gets into Rob Kardashian's weight issues and then starts musing about what he wants from his own trainer. And I just think "FML" is stunning. Kanye talking about his Lexipro prescription — what could be better than that?
This album, Melodrama, came out when I was frantically working on edits and questioning every decision I made in Captive Audience. I liked it so much that it actually managed to cheer me up and de-stress me for a little while. "Supercut" is my favorite song on the album — it's a perfect summer pop song with these weird little hitches added in that complicate things at exactly the right moments. This album came out when she was twenty! What am I doing with my life?!
The National, "Sorrow"
I've loved this song for a long time, but it became particularly important for me after I saw an installation by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson at a museum in Reykjavik. He filmed The National performing "Sorrow," over and over again, for six hours. I got sort of hypnotized by it — it's the simplest, quickest song, and it just kept looping, and the band got more and more tired, the voice started straining, hitting the same morose tonal note, but the performance deepened instead of getting boring. That was really helpful for me to think about because as a writer it's easy to assume that repetition of a tone or a mood on the page is always stagnant, or only suggests a limitation on the writer's part. I was hung up on that insecurity. It's freeing to embrace the potential beauty in making the audience return to the same note, live in that same emotional space, as the pressure mounts.
The Cure, "Pictures of You"
I might as well lean into the very obvious sad boy theme at this point. The Cure will always make me feel many melancholy things, which is a pleasurable experience in its own way. "Pictures of You" is my favorite Cure song, and I listened to it a lot when I was just starting to conceive of Captive Audience. I love the way the song lingers and thrums along, this idea of looking longingly at an image until if feels like you're living in it.
Prince, "The Beautiful Ones"
This song is so goddamn electric. It's like smelling salts for the creatively blocked.
The Magnetic Fields, "Papa Was A Rodeo"
If my wife and I have a band that feels like ours, it's The Magnetic Fields. "Papa Was a Rodeo" is my favorite song of theirs, probably my favorite love song ever. It's weird and sweet and epic, and I want to curl up in the lower register of Stephin Merritt's voice.
Leonard Cohen, "Chelsea Hotel"
I am always amazed at how frank — mean, really — this song is. It's like Cohen walks into the lovely, candle-lit room of nostalgic lost-love songs and turns on a fluorescent light. Every line in the song is intentional, crystalline and stripped of bullshit. It's that feeling of reading an essay that makes you love, envy, and fear the writer all at once.
Carly Rae Jepsen, "Favourite Color"
This is the polar opposite of "Chelsea Hotel." But Carly Rae Jepsen makes fantastic music. Walking around and listening to this song makes your day better; it's everything that a slow, buzzy, dreamy pop song should be, and particularly useful to ease the trip home after a frustrating writing session.
Counting Crows, "Anna Begins"
Trying to write honestly and earnestly about reality TV (and love, for that matter) ended up being an exercise in humility. There's a ton of vulnerability in talking about what moves you, all the naked particularities. Often, I ended up having to fight off freshman year feelings of taste insecurity, that sense that if you liked heady, heavy stuff it made you a smart, maybe unimpeachable, person. It's pretty easy to fall into that trap on the page — Look at me, I'm a cultural critic! As an explicit push against that, I started listening to the Counting Crows, a band that once meant a lot to me, that I pretended to think was a joke. And you know what? It was great! Fuck the haters: Adam Duritz forever!
Lucas Mann and Captive Audience links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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guest book reviews
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weekly music release lists