Music on the Page at the Texas Book Festival
Music books strut their feminism, hip-hop, and emo
By Rachel Rascoe, Fri., Oct. 26, 2018
Music, whether background radio hits or handpicked playlists, offers a persistent memory companion. In both cultural analyses and personal memoirs, a slew of Texas Book Festival authors capture that pervading influence in the pages of new works. The free, public event lands Saturday and Sunday in and around the state Capitol.
Walk-On Music for Adulthood
An illustrated mental map opens music critic Jessica Hopper's new novel Night Moves. The patch of Chicago geography, like the work's distillation of the author's experiences 2004-2009, is compact. Through candid, sometimes mundane observations, the memoir tracks the former MTV News editor's formative years as a writer, pulling non-sequentially from her early-Aughts fanzines and blog posts.
"It should feel like how memory works," explains Hopper, who also served as an editor at Pitchfork and Rookie. "I wanted to set a mood to represent that place and time."
The book amasses sharp snapshots of after-dark bike rides, countless local concerts, and occupancy in the neighborhood's last punk houses during gentrification, capturing a forthright era before the dawn of the iPhone. A love for Chicago's grit and character links the entries.
"There were still plenty of missed connections and showing up at people's houses and passing messages," the author reflects. "Before smartphone ubiquity, that's just what you did. You went to shit, you didn't know who was going to be there, and that's how you talked about music."
Night Moves debuted last month through the University of Texas Press. Still Chicago-based, Hopper also collabs with the local publisher as an editor of their American Music Series, a partnership she calls "an instant 'hell yes.'" The keen editor assists in the output of underrepresented storytelling on national music history.
"There's a new book about the Rolling Stones and the Beatles every goddamn month," adds Hopper. "There are so many realms left unexplored, in part because we've dedicated so much time to holding up this canon of certain storied American songwriters."
At the fest, Hopper joins in conversation with local novelist Amy Gentry.
The former Chronicle style columnist tackles a beloved and berated musician in Tori Amos's Boys for Pele, the Nov. 1 installment to the 33 1/3 music book series. Gentry expands Amos' polarizing 1996 album into an intrusive, vital examination of why we're often simultaneously disgusted and intrigued by the work of particular women artists. Tracking the songwriter's career with a pressing personal curiosity, the local author graduates from her own Amos-loving Houston girlhood up to her 2016 Chronicle cover, commemorating her acclaimed debut novel Good as Gone.
Both Gentry and Hopper revisit the songs and situations that shaped them, resulting in two acute cultural voices reverberating through pocket-sized paperbacks.
Jessica Hopper and Amy Gentry shoot the breeze about music writing on Sat. 27, 3:30pm, in Capitol Extension Room E2.014.
Paper Mixtapes: Histories in Hip-Hop
When Omise'eke Tinsley set out to write a hybrid work layering personal memoir and cultural analysis, she wanted it to read like a song. Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism, out Nov. 6 on UT Press, offers said homage.
"Originally I thought: Am I using chorus, verse, and bridge?" recounts the UT African and African Diaspora Studies professor. "I realized it was more the process of mixing ideas, the way one might mix beats to form a bounce polyrhythm. Within one chapter, there will be something from a Beyoncé video, from the history of country music, and about my grandmother's life."
Dubbed a "Femme-onade mixtape" by the author, the forthcoming work uses Beyoncé's landmark 2016 album, Lemonade, to soundtrack Tinsley's past. In 2012, the California-raised scholar relocated with her husband for a job at the University of Texas. There, she later grabbed national headlines for launching an undergraduate course titled "Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism."
"I spent most of my adult life as a radical lesbian feminist from the Bay Area," remarks Tinsley, currently a visiting professor at Harvard. "I used Beyoncé to help me think through what it means to suddenly be a black, Texan wife and mother."
Tinsley interviewed relatives in Louisiana and Alabama for the insightful document, aligning her own Southern history with that of Queen Bey. The outspoken mixtape also unpacks the Houston pop diva's wide-ranging blues, hip-hop, and country influences, largely inspired by Tinsley's UT classroom experiences.
"In our world, who ever says that being from the South, a woman, and black is a position of power?" the professor asks, highlighting Beyoncé's singular influence. "I realized students were showing up to take a course to show them that they were from somewhere important through musical, spiritual, and oral history traditions."
Word-of-mouth documentation of Texas' cultural impact constructs another festival highlight, Houston Rap Tapes: An Oral History of Bayou City Hip-Hop. The hefty chronology undertakes the city's vastly influential music scene in earnest, informed by interviews from Lance Scott Walker and striking snaps by Peter Beste. In addition to chats with rap legends like DJ Screw and Paul Wall, the book's beefed-up October edition adds conversations with artists including Slim Thug and Blackie.
Beyond the South, Portland, Ore., writer Shayla Lawson zeroes on her own pop icon in I Think I'm Ready to See Frank Ocean. The work grows Ocean's confessional, hip-hop-adjacent lyrics into a collection of autobiographical and social critiques. Lawson joins Erica Dawson and Anastacia Renee in a group discussion of experimental poetics, entering new realms of verse on respective latest titles When Rap Spoke Straight to God and (v.).
Hip-hop rhyme sayer Dessa, born Margaret Wander, suspects her experience crafting raps tightened her essay-writing endeavors. That tightly packed and intelligent lyrical knack pervades her February album Chime, as well as debut memoir My Own Devices.
"The way I write music informs the way that I write prose, and vice versa," offers the longtime member of the Doomtree collective. "I really like a turn of phrase, and it's important to me that each sentence be well wrought. My skill set is probably in miniature."
In a witty, well-researched collection of essays, the multidisciplinary creator delves into heartache, philosophy, and science from an artistic perspective. She fell for creative nonfiction, which she calls "beautiful bar stories," during college. Alongside a touring performer's on-the-road mentality, Wander is quick to distinguish the memoir from a rap star's backstage account.
"I'm hoping it's good enough that people realize, 'Oh, this isn't actually a collection designed for fans of underground hip-hop. This is for readers who love language and are moved by good stories.'"
Lance Scott Walker relays a decade of covering Houston rap Sat. 27, 2pm, at the Contemporary Austin-Jones Center.
Erica Dawson, Shayla Lawson, and Anastacia Renee chat experimental lyricism Sat. 27, 2pm, in Capitol Extension Room E2.036, moderated by local poet Amanda Johnston.
Dessa unpacks her new memoir alongside Austin radio fixture Elizabeth McQueen Sun. 28, 2:30pm, at the Eighth + Congress Tent.
Omise’eke Tinsley riffs on Beyoncé in Formation Sun. 28, 3pm, in Capitol Extension, E2.010.