The Sweet Sounds of Benzodiazepine, and Other News


On the Shelf

Sounds good.


  • When Huey Lewis sang, in 1983, that he wanted a new drug, someone should’ve told him to look in the mirror. He was the drug all along! His soft, edgeless sound … his narcotic, synthetic, placid distance … America wanted Huey Lewis in pill form. Thirty years later, pop music’s performers are better looking, its production styles silkier, and its sonics deep enough to swim in, but a kind of Charmin toilet-paper softness is at the center of every song again. Chris Richards argues that the sound of today’s “pill pop” can be traced to the rise of Xanax and Percocet—that we want our music, like our increasingly vast pharmacopeia, to dampen any distress signals: “It’s a smoothness, a softness, a steadiness. An aversion to unanticipated left turns. It isn’t new, but it’s increasingly everywhere. You can hear it in the Weeknd’s demulcent falsetto, in Rihanna’s unruffled cool, in Drake’s creamier verses, even in Justin Bieber’s buffed edges … In that sense, the pill-pop aesthetic and the streaming experience go hand-in-hand. Crafting a hit single with sleek synthesizers, pillowy electronic drums and Auto-Tuned purrs might be enough to get you in the game, but it isn’t enough to win. Dominance belongs to those superstars willing to replicate their softness in abundance, and then roll it out on the streaming platforms … the anxiety-smothering sound of pill-pop is bound to help define this moment in our cultural memory—the same way late-sixties rock-and-roll still pulses like an LSD vision, or the way mid-eighties hair-metal still screams like cocaine.”
  • Martin Herbert’s new essay collection, Tell Them I Said No, looks at artists who’ve shunned the self-promotion and ceaseless glad-handing that have overtaken the profession. Hettie Judah writes in her review, “Herbert examines ten artists who have withdrawn, some in extreme ways, from the self-promotion and courting of celebrity that is bundled up with our understanding of art-world success. Here we find Lutz Bacher, who assumed a near invisible, gender-ambiguous identity; Cady Noland, who ceased making art despite acclaim, and now monitors and bedevils anyone seeking to sell or show her work; and Stanley Brouwn, who shunned photographic documentation and recordings, and once had all the copies of a book featuring images of his performances destroyed … In 1983, David Hammons sold snowballs of various sizes off a pavement pitch in downtown Manhattan, in an event titled the the Bliz-aard Ball Sale. A few years later, in a rare interview, he detailed his objection to the gallery-visiting public. He thought that audience was ‘overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize and not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?’ ”

  • Laurie Penny looks at the commodification of “self-love” and how we can avoid it, perhaps even without giving up yoga: “The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and ‘radical self-love’—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns … The problem with self-love as we currently understand it is in our view of love itself, defined, too simply and too often, as an extraordinary feeling that we respond to with hearts and flowers and fantasy, ritual consumption and affectless passion … The harder, duller work of self-care is about the everyday, impossible effort of getting up and getting through your life in a world that would prefer you cowed and compliant.”
  • Pam Houston believes her ambition has its origins in her childhood home, where she watched her father as “he gave my mother $200 every two weeks to buy groceries, clothes, and every single other thing the family needed from the time I was born until I left for college, with no adjustment for inflation. My father carried more than $200 in his wallet at all times, bought Cadillac convertibles and Italian suits while my mother made our clothes on the sewing machine and scoured magazines to find interesting ways to use leftovers. The song that was on continuous repeat in my childhood kitchen was my mother reasoning or flirting or begging for an advance on next week’s money, and him shaming her—no matter the circumstances— for spending it too fast … If your mother runs away from Spiceland, Indiana, to Broadway at thirteen, if she spends the last thirty years of her life begging her husband for the money back that she earned to pay the dry cleaner for his freshly starched shirts, if the single most powerful emotion in your family’s home is her soul-shattering grief over the absence of meaningful work, that is likely to inform your relationship with ambition.”