2020 Best Books: Music Book Recommendations : Pop Culture Happy Hour Every year, NPR brings together some of the best books in a searchable, explorable guide called the Book Concierge. It can help you find exactly the read you're looking for. Today we're talking about some of the best books for music lovers that show up in this year's guide.
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Book Concierge: Music Book Recommendations

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Book Concierge: Music Book Recommendations

Book Concierge: Music Book Recommendations

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Every year, the NPR Books team puts together an indispensable resource called NPR's Book Concierge. It lets readers find book recommendations while filtering by topic, length, genre and more. One of those topics is music, which allows the NPR Books team and the NPR Music team to form an all-powerful Voltron of useful recommendations. I'm Stephen Thompson. Today on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, we are talking about great books about music from this year's Book Concierge. So don't go away.


THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining me today, we have a super-sized panel with four of my treasured colleagues from NPR Music. Ann Powers, welcome.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hello, Stephen.

THOMPSON: Lars Gotrich.


THOMPSON: It's great to have you. Lyndsey McKenna.


THOMPSON: And Marissa Lorusso. Hello, Marissa.


THOMPSON: It is great to have you all here. So there is no way to get to every music-related book in the latest edition of NPR's Book Concierge. We have been doing a Book Concierge for eight years now. And I count 18 music-related books from this past year alone. But we did want to pick a handful of our favorite highlights. Marissa Lorusso, I'm going to start with you. Tell me about one of your favorite music books of the last year.

LORUSSO: All right. Well, one of my favorite music books of the last year was "Glitter Up The Dark" by Sasha Geffen. The book traces the history of gender fluidity in popular music. Sasha is a journalist and music critic whose work I've been following for years. And a lot of their writing focuses on the relationship between gender and pop music, so they were an ideal person to write this book.

"Glitter Up The Dark" covers tons of examples of musicians who transgress gender norms and help us think about gender differently and tries to answer questions about why music, in Sasha's words, has so often served as an accomplice to transcendent expressions of gender. So they do this wide historical sweep from the Beatles to Prince to Bowie to house and disco to contemporary artists like Sophie or Janelle Monae or Frank Ocean. And then something that I love about this book is that Sasha also looks at artists like Nirvana or the Ramones or Donna Summer, who aren't necessarily gay themselves, but have something to teach us about gender performance and expression, too.

I think Sasha is really great about writing technically about music in a really inviting way. They write about, you know, the way writing and production and performance can really manifest or embody these different kind of aspects of queerness or identity. And then I love the way that they try to answer these questions about the relationship between gender and pop music, and why pop music is such a place for gender expression. They talk about fandom, and the way fandom can help us, you know, find different identities and find community, the way that music creates these subcultural safe havens. And then they also just write about the kind of freedom inherent in musical performance and the way that that allows artists to express their identities and push at the boundaries of kind of acceptable gendered behavior. It's a really fascinating book, and I super, highly recommend it.

THOMPSON: Thank you, Marissa. Now, you mentioned the, like, broad historical sweep. Where do they begin?

LORUSSO: They start with the Beatles. In the introduction, they talk a little bit about early blues music and Ma Rainey...


LORUSSO: ...And kind of the way that that set the stage for popular music and gender transgression. But I think the first chapter of the book dives right in with the Beatles. And honestly, you know, it's hard to find a new take on the Beatles, but the way that Sasha reads gender expression into the fandom of the Beatles and the music of the Beatles really felt fresh to me.

THOMPSON: Nice. That's "Glitter Up The Dark: How Pop Music Broke The Binary" by Sasha Geffen. Thank you, Marissa.

LORUSSO: Thank you.

THOMPSON: Lyndsey McKenna, what's - give us your pick.

MCKENNA: All right. Well, my pick also has a little something to do with the Beatles. My pick is Maria Sherman's amazing, incredible boy band retrospective. It's called "Larger Than Life: A History Of Boy Bands From NKOTB To BTS." So that's New Kids On The Block to BTS, for those that might not know. I think that Maria Sherman might be the first writer who has ever compared two of the Backstreet Boys members to Marx and Engels...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

MCKENNA: ...Which gives you a little hint of, like, what kind of writer Maria Sherman is. She's a contributor to NPR Music and to lots of other music publications. And I feel like - like what Marissa said in the way that Sasha is uniquely qualified to write "Glitter Up The Dark" - Maria Sherman is the perfect writer for this book. She says that One Direction ruined her life. So if you are the kind of music fan who has ever fallen hard for a boy band, then you get it.


MCKENNA: Like, boy bands have ruined my life, too, so Maria and I are on the same page there. Get this book, crack it open with a bottle of rose, like, put on your sad light if you're a seasonal affective disorder-type person and need a little light. Like, this is frothy and it's fun, but it's also really smart and sharp.

She addresses the way that boy bands engage with Black music while excluding Black artists. She talks about sort of, like, some of the socioeconomic ramifications of boy band culture, stan culture. She talks about what financially there has been to gain for folks involved in that industry. And it's also just fun.

Like I said, it's informative. It traces all sorts of boy bands across history. But it's also something that if you're a fan and if you're a person who's engaged with boy band culture either as a fan or as just someone who's witnessed it, you'll get it. You'll see yourself in this. I love that Maria, in an interview that she gave with Ari Shapiro, she gave this line, when you find the right song from a boy band, you can be free from pretention for 2 minutes and 43 seconds and give in to that joy. And this book is about giving in to that joy in a book-length tome.

THOMPSON: Yeah, she is a fantastic writer. You can read an excerpt from "Larger Than Life" at NPR Music. That is a great place to start if you want to kind of get a feel of just the kind of writer Maria Sherman is. She is so smart and so funny and just - she knows this topic so passionately and wonderfully. That's "Larger Than Life: A History Of Boy Bands From NKOTB To BTS."

Lars Gotrich, give us your pick.

GOTRICH: So if you don't know anything about my history, I grew up in Georgia and I went to school at the University of Georgia in Athens. So when the author and historian Grace Elizabeth Hale announced a book called "Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, launched Alternative Music And Changed American Culture," well, this was bound to be one of my favorite books of 2020. Athens, Ga., there's a lot of lore about the way that music from that town and specifically bands like R.E.M., B-52s, and Pylon, how it felt like a new Southern Bohemia when, especially in the early '80s, everybody was looking to New York or LA for new culture and for alternative culture and for different ways of thinking. And Grace spends a lot of time kind of, like, digging into how they were basically in a town that didn't have a lot going on and just had a bunch of artists and was a cheap place to live and how these folks could make something out of nothing and how it basically came - was inspired by not only the punk movement of the late '70s and the idea that anybody can make art, but she also makes connections between the music scene but also the University of Georgia Art School, which at the time was really building more experimental programs around how they taught their students, not only how they consumed art and made art but also how it can exist in several different mediums.

And so Grace will go on long tangents just about the art school itself. Now, she does spend a lot of time with R.E.M. as you probably should in a book about Athens. The thing I enjoy about her take on R.E.M. is that she does it with equal admiration and annoyance. But she also spends a lot of time with the smaller bands that maybe you haven't heard of, like Bar-B-Q Killers and Love Tractor and the Squalls, bands that maybe you didn't hear about but were very key components of the Athens '80s scene. And not only the bands, but, like, she spends a lot of time with the painters and the poets and the photographers and folks like Carol Levy and the person who printed the 10-issue magazine Tasty World and really paints this extremely detailed picture that feels very personal because she was also a participant in the scene as a young college freshman who I think wanted to be a business major and completely went on a different path. And not that I was a business major when I came into the University of Georgia, but as soon as I was exposed to the Athens music scene, my trajectory just completely changed.

THOMPSON: Nice. Well, it's funny, when you mentioned bands like Love Tractor, Ann and I, the oldest members of our panel, were nodding knowingly.

POWERS: Love Love Tractor.

THOMPSON: So that is "Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music And Changed American Culture" by Grace Elizabeth Hale. Thank you, Lars Gotrich. Ann Powers, why don't you close us out?

POWERS: The book I chose, Stephen, is by Shana L. Redmond, and it's called "Everything Man: The Form And Function Of Paul Robeson." I don't know how familiar you all are with Paul Robeson. He was a towering figure of 20th-century culture, an actor, a musician, an athlete, just, you know, a legend in his own time who was also a very political person and has faded somewhat from view, I think, in the 21st century. Shana Redmond, who is one of my favorite scholars of African American life and culture, brings Robeson back to life by looking at his afterlife. So what I really love about this book is it's not a straight biography of Paul Robeson. It's not going to tell you how, you know, he starred in "Porgy And Bess" and he, you know, was really outspoken in his radical political views and was essentially kind of exiled for it by the American government. It's not going to tell you that story as much as the story of the afterlife, how he has a sort of ghostly presence in the culture today. And what I love about this book is not only what I learned about Robeson and about his appearances in film or how other writers and artists have taken him up as a character but about biography itself. Because what Shana Redmond is doing with this book is confronting what biography is. She is thinking about how our favorite artists, our favorite popular cultural figures, live on in so many ways and how their images are distorted, enhanced, changed by technology. She looks at hologram technology and thinks about Paul Robeson as a hologram. She thinks about what recordings do. She thinks about film. And it's such a rich exploration not only of this essential and somewhat forgotten figure but of what it means for an artist to live on after their death.

THOMPSON: Nice. That's "Everything Man: The Form And Function Of Paul Robeson" from Shana L. Redmond. Ann Powers, thank you so much. If you want more music book recommendations or book recommendations in other genres, I will say the Book Concierge does include the Mariah Carey book.


THOMPSON: Make sure to check out NPR's Book Concierge. You can find it online at npr.org/bestbooks. Thanks to you all for being here.

MCKENNA: Thank you.

GOTRICH: Thank you.

LORUSSO: Thank you.

POWERS: Thank you, Stephen.

THOMPSON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you right back here tomorrow.

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