For the 1st edition of our 33 1/3 Series Editor Q&A feature, we talked with Amanda Petrusich. In the interview below, Amanda talks about her role in the 33 1/3 series, what she looks for when reviewing book proposals, and also discusses 2 forthcoming titles in the series, both currently slated for publication in fall 2019.
What do you do outside of being a 33 1/3 series editor?
I’m a professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where I teach classes on Writing About Popular Music, Pop Culture Criticism, Musical Subcultures, and – my current favorite – a seminar on Road Trips. I’m also a contributing writer for the New Yorker’s website, and I write features and criticism for Pitchfork, GQ, Esquire, Playboy, the New York Times, the Oxford American, and elsewhere. I’ve written three books about music, including a 33 1/3 volume on Nick Drake and, most recently, Do Not Sell At Any Price, a book about collectors of extraordinarily rare 78rpm records. Less professionally and in no particular order, I am fond of: nachos, whiskey, fishing, reading about fishing, nachos, Beavis and Butthead, cats and dogs, fireplaces, air hockey, nachos, Northern Exposure, tchotchkes, New Hampshire, Frank Stanford, Ellen Willis, the Carter Family, Miles Davis, and the Clash.
What are you reading or listening to right now?
I spent the first week of January simultaneously reading Eileen Myles’s The Importance of Being Iceland and Charles Bukowski’s On Writing, which are deeply strange and incongruous bedfellows, yet the combination kind of worked for me! I’ve also been listening to Brian Eno’s new record, Reflection, almost every morning – I’m on a strange little redoubt in rural northern New Mexico at the moment, posted up in a tiny glass house in the middle of the high desert, and it’s been the perfect accompaniment to this landscape, which is constantly changing, depending on the weather and the particular time of day. I’ve also been listening to the pre-war gospel singer Washington Phillips more or less constantly since Election Day. I find his sweet voice and general magnanimity soothing.
What are some of your favorite books in the series?
There are so many – I know that sounds like loyalist nonsense, but it’s true. My co-editors are all brilliant writers and thinkers, and I devoured each of their books; I’ve excitedly taught Carl Wilson’s book on Celine Dion for years. To name just a few other favorites, at random: Mark Richardson on Zaireeka, Aaron Cohen on Amazing Grace, Kim Cooper on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Mike McGonigal on Loveless, Michael Fournier on Double Nickels on the Dime, Ryan Leas on Sound of Silver, and Tara Murtha on Ode to Billie Joe.
Why are you excited to be part of 33 1/3?
Man, I’m so proud to be a part of this project, first as an author and now, incredibly, as an editor. Writing about anything is an obsessive act, but writing about music is especially insane. This idea of trying to understand something from the inside out, to dissect it and render it sensible, to get it small enough to hold in your hands – I think I relate to that impulse chiefly as a fan. I know what it means to feel seized by something. And these books give writers a chance to wrestle with that on the page – to go long on a record or a moment in time, to indulge a theory about how or why something works. Beyond the 33 1/3 series, it’s getting increasingly difficult to find this kind of thoughtful, involved, hyper-focused criticism on anything. In 2017, these books nearly feel like an act of intellectual dissent.
What do you look for in a proposal?
A revelatory moment, first and foremost – a sentence or paragraph that makes me gasp, because I’d never thought of it that way before. I also think all four of us are looking for proposals that contextualize albums or artists in interesting, expansive ways – how did this record emerge from its particular time and place, and what can it tell us about that time and place? Not just a breathless appreciation but a specific and well-supported critical argument. Also, many of the books in the series are written by authors who feel intense personal connections with the records they’ve chosen to write about, but I’m just as open to authors who might want to make an argument about why something was bad for the culture – what sorts of odious agendas might’ve been furthered by a specific group of songs. I’m also a sucker, in general, for beautiful sentences – describing sound and what it does isn’t easy, and when someone manages to do it with generosity, wit, and grace, I’m immediately at her mercy.
Tell us a little bit about the new titles you chose for the series. What drew you to them?
I’m working with two wonderful new authors on books that both make arguments about place, which is an idea that has always interested me. The first is by Michael Washburn, who’s writing about Tom Petty’s Southern Accents. By all accounts, Petty intended the record as a kind of concept album about the American South, though it remains hard to say precisely what it communicated – it’s preoccupied, Michael notes, with “the corrosive attraction to the romance of the south.” Michael was born (and is now based) in Kentucky, and has written for a number of excellent publications, from the New Republic to the New York Times. His ideas about the shifting nature of southern identity are incredibly complex and compelling.
The second book I’m working on is by Bryan Wagner, about the New Orleans-based band The Wild Tchoupitoulas’s self-titled debut. Bryan was born and raised in New Orleans, and is now an American Studies scholar at the University of California at Berkeley; he has an extraordinarily interdisciplinary approach to this material, and his work directly and smartly addresses African-American vernacular traditions, beginning with the Mardi Gras Indians who founded this group. Both of these proposals do what all the best 33 1/3 volumes do – combine a studied, careful discussion of a record’s creation (and the various cultural forces that combined to allow it) with an even more nuanced and complex conversation about what it all means.