Brandon Brown: 'Top 40' // 2014
People really love singing together
Brandon Brown’s Top 40 slowly teaches you what it is in the course of reading it — a serial sequence of forty lyric essays that hang their hats on the entries of America’s Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest for the week of September 13, 2013. Beginning from what is mostly abject pop detritus, with a few good songs mixed in, Brandon fashions what he claims is a sort of Prelude — Wordsworth’s verse treatise famously subtitled “Growth of a Poet’s Mind.” In a recurring sentence, Brandon writes: “You know how in The Prelude, Wordsworth rows a boat out on to a moonlit pond, awed by the susurration of cattails in the lunar lit breeze and the poem latently suggests this experience was formative to his later development as a poet?”
None of this is revealed on the first page (although Brandon mentions Ryan Seacrest in the opening line). Like so many contemporary artworks, Top 40 discloses its rules in the course of its narrative unfolding. You may not realize for some time that each song’s text is composed of forty sentences (a technique Brandon may have borrowed from the sentence-tercets of “Things The Little Baby Likes,” a text by the book’s dedicatee Dana Ward). It also takes a while to realize that, although the songs of September 13 are fixed, the time of life and the time of composition continue to move, which both accrues experience and turns what had been immediate into a retrospect. Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’. Top 40, then, ends up as a meditation on history and memory, as well as friendship, taste, and drugs.
There are many intertexts, both popular and literary, contemporary and archaic, at play in this work, but two I always think of go unmentioned in the text. Everybody knows Proust’s madeleine, but one of the other principal spurs to memoire involontaire in Remembrance of Things Past is the composer Vinteuil’s “little phrase.” Music has a special power to return us to other places, lost loves, or the recesses of childhood (as in Brandon’s recurring motif of sitting in the car after a Midwestern church service listening to the indelible voice of Kasey Casem count down the hits). Another text of pop and memory, Joe Brainard’s I Remember, is particularly concerned with generational memory — what appears to be specific to an individual but in fact saturates experience for many people raised at the same time. Both of these texts take great care with precise detail, as does Brandon’s, whether he is writing about things present or things only recently past.
In 2013, the dramatic events of the fall of 2011 — Occupy Oakland — still felt very much like the recent past, and the interwoven social scenes of poets, artists, and activists were still responding to that upheaval and pursuing organizing projects in its wake. One of these, mentioned in the author bio on the back cover of Top 40, was the Bay Area Public School, which grew out of a perceived need for political education following the police assaults on the encampment at Oscar Grant Plaza. (The chalkboard constellation photo above is a record of an early Public School visioning session.) After a peripatetic early existence, the School settled into its first semipermanent home at 2141 Broadway in Oakland, where presenters included Fred Moten, Keston Sutherland, and Diane di Prima, among many others. And so it was that Brandon and I spent many afternoons studying Greek together in a little office that became our classroom. (Full disclosure: I’m the “David” who recurs in this book, “always coming from church,” who quotes Angela Davis and hands off a copy of Njal’s Saga that inaugurates a whole subthread on Norse mythology.)
Of course, I’m only one of dozens of people named in Top 40. Brandon’s explicit debt to New Narrative authors like Bruce Boone, Bob Gluck, and Kevin Killian (and behind them, Frank O’Hara and, well, Catullus) means that his text swarms with proper names, whether of musicians or of his friends. It’s also peopled with absences — in the text about Tegan and Sara, he refers first to an “acquaintance” who “wanted … to live in a place where white people lived,” and then later to “friends” who “talk about ‘stringing people (capitalists) up,’ some talk about slitting throats at Oscar Grant Plaza.” (Later on we hear about other “friends” who disregard all writing that is not sufficiently militant in tone.) These evasive allusions to people who could be named, but aren’t, commence a tone of skittishness I feel in the book whenever political subjects come up — and, perhaps, bad conscience.
Brandon’s previous book, Flowering Mall, was the fruit of his intensive study of Baudelaire, and his response to the dandified author of Les Fleurs du Mal went deeper than research and became elective affinity. This stance of flaneur-like aesthetic observation and reflection permeates Top 40 and subsequent writing like The Four Seasons — as does another of Baudelaire’s preoccupations, intoxication. I had forgotten until my recent rereading of this book how steeped it is in alcohol, in cannabis, in Adderall, and in other miscellaneous drugs — and how it normalizes, and/or glories in, this excess. “I’m on the wagon this week after my boozy and druggy vacation.”
I was reminded of an interview with Thom Donovan where Brandon excused his absence from Occupy Oakland by claiming, “I engage OO as an addict.” It made me wonder all over again why he felt he had to be circumspect about participation in a collective struggle for social justice but not about the actual use of drugs.
Should I say that I also don’t buy the closing poem, whose point of departure is Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”? The text defies any expectation of narrative closure by presenting a description of the film Bring It On, the plot of which involves white theft of Black cultural materials (in this case, cheerleading dance routines). The complexities of pop music as another aspect of white supremacy American-style are touched on over the course of Top 40 but never thoroughly explored. This entry feels like it wants to address this central issue in our collective musical life, but it’s too cute and too abrupt to actually accomplish that aim. And that it’s yoked to a truly crummy song (which applauds sexual violence) feels in a way like a capitulation to the song’s crumminess — that is, there is no other response to “Blurred Lines” than to change the subject. Early on in the book, Brandon asserts: “Taste is supposed to be something that there’s no disputing, that is, something tautological, although in practice it is always the subject of dispute. / I don’t think my taste is bad, exactly, I just hate disputes so always admit it as for the gaudiest, most crystalline, obvious, normal art.” The vertigo of the relativity of taste (famously the subject of a 33 1/3rd on Celine Dion’s “Let’s Talk About Love”) works great for the music industry and for capitalism as a whole — but if we are artists (or ethical human beings), we believe that in the end it does make a difference what we pay attention to, what we cherish, what we make, and what we share with friends — even if some dispute must creep in. “People really love singing together,” but it matters what they’re singing.