The reject department; or, the book you'll never read
So just for the heck of it, a couple months back I submitted a book pitch as part of the 33 1/3 music-lit series call for proposals. I figured I only had a slight chance of getting accepted as the last time they did this they had 100 proposals. Turns out I had an even slighter chance because this time they received 450 (ack!) proposals, and unfortunately, mine, to do a brief book on Peter Gabriel's "So," didn't make the cut.
I'm not particularly bitter about this, though, because in the world of book pitches failure is the rule, and compared to the qualifications of some who've written in this series (which I've written about many a time before), I'm pretty bush league. And while I was able to do a proposal, I did have some performance anxiety over actually doing an entire book on "So." I do still quite dig the series and their take on albums from the Beatles to the Beasties to Bowie to the Ramones.
But as the very graceful rejection e-mails began circulating a bunch of us "rejectees" started posting their un-accepted proposals on their blogs*, figuring heck, might as well have someone read 'em. So what the hey, I'll do the same here - I had fun trying to write this thing about one of my top 10 albums of all time, even if I look at it as a little more stilted and vague than I probably should've done it in hindsight. (Of course, you can second-guess this forever - do I suck? Or the editors just hate Peter Gabriel? Or maybe, the fact that I was 1 of 450 [again, yike!] just means the odds weren't in my favor).
Anyway, here's what I might've written if the gods had smiled my way (pitch edited a bit for length and extraneous details):
I’ve listened to Peter Gabriel’s “So” so many times that each beat feels imprinted in my DNA. In my freshman year of college, in a strange town in a new place, it was the album I turned to again and again; the comforting homilies of “In Your Eyes” and “Don’t Give Up,” the winking bravado of “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time,” the cathartic release of “Red Rain.” It’s an album I’d listen to without respite, trying to coax what felt like definite connections to my life from random phrases in the music. “So” feels vast and soaring yet very, very intimate.
It’s the sound of a man wrestling with himself, trying to find confidence in an uncertain world. “So” was a slick curiosity – an experimental artist’s bid for the mainstream, combining brassy top 40 pop with melancholy explorations of the self. Daniel Lanois’ glittering, dense production gave “So” a very 1980s polish, but it adorns a disc that’s intensely thoughtful, intellectually curious and still bears the imprint of Gabriel’s challenging early solo work. (Even the queen of 1980s art-rock, Laurie Anderson, makes a cameo on “So,” as if offering a benediction to Gabriel’s bid for superstardom.)
“So” was a turning point in Gabriel’s career from the mask-filled showmanship of his earlier work into a more introspective place. Banished was the paranoid dread of Gabriel’s first four albums. Instead, “So” asks questions, with yearning, anthemic pop-rock miles from the social statement of “Biko” or eerie Motown-meets-bedlam rant of “Shock The Monkey.”
Gabriel’s own experiences with therapy sessions for his failing marriage led him in this questing direction, away from the very British emotional repression of his youth and toward music as emotional statement, rather than just metaphorical play (see the worst excesses of Gabriel’s time as leader of the band Genesis for samples of this). “So” avoided banal obviousness, but Gabriel still strove to see clearly where he once layered myth and mystery.
The songs of “So” stay grounded in Gabriel’s own raspy, authoritative voice. He wants to win over the masses, find happiness and remain true to himself as he eyes the prize – or, as the sly oh-so-’80s satire of “Big Time” puts it, “My heaven will be a big heaven / and I will walk through the front door.”
Even the album cover celebrated this tentative openness – Gabriel’s face was clear and unmutilated for the first time in his work. In his eyes there’s a kind of hopeful fear, a desire for acceptance and calm. Despite firmly following his own muse, Gabriel wanted “So” to be a hit. It was, to the extent some fans claimed “So” stood for “sell out.” Gabriel called it “creation as therapy.”
The personal and the abstract mix fluidly, so a song like “In Your Eyes” can be seen as boy-meets-girl adoration or a greater paean to a higher being altogether. The poetry of Anne Sexton is an influence (“Mercy Street”), as are the harrowing psychological experiments of Stanley Milgram (“We Do What We’re Told”). “So” was crafted with a diamond precision, yet still allowed for improvisations like Youssou N’Dour’s legendary cameo on “In Your Eyes,” which came unplanned from a studio visit. I’d like to try and interview some of the musicians who played on “So,” including guitarist David Rhodes and drummer Manu Katché, about their memories of it.
But you can’t explore “So” without delving into the videos, which are an integral part of the experience. Gabriel’s music has always had a keenly imagined visual side – dating back to his elaborate stage shows and costumes with Genesis. His earlier solo videos were often impressionistic nightmares; in celebrating his playful side with “So” he broke through. “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” became some of the medium’s most inescapable hits.
“Sledgehammer” was a delightfully lusty, subversive take on sex and boasting, and ably took the piss out of an entire medium. The sequel, “Big Time,” is an even more dazzling kaleidoscope of imagery. In the video-driven 1980s, Peter Gabriel’s visionary work stood at the peak, setting a standard that was rarely equaled. For a few minutes, artists like Gabriel seemed ready to truly transform music video into something more than addled performance videos and bikini-clad dancers.
I’d like to look more closely at the fusion of video and song in “So,” perhaps by talking with some of the producers behind the videos and examining the symbolism and subtext within them. And I might ask, do videos take away from the music itself? You can’t hear “Sledgehammer” without seeing the video in your head – and is that a good thing? Or was Gabriel anticipating the world of YouTube, iPods and mp3s with his fusion of sound and vision?
Gabriel’s career post-“So” has been all about taking music further – in his soundtrack work, pioneering multimedia presentations and extravagant touring shows. Unlike many artists, Gabriel didn’t capitalize on his biggest hit in the expected fashion – his follow-up to “So” was the esoteric, entirely instrumental world music soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and it was six years before his next proper pop album, “Us,” was released. He could’ve had the world after “Sledgehammer,” but turned to charity work, multimedia and founding his Real World label, becoming what’s been called an “experience designer.”
“So” as a personal totem in my own meandering life. “So” as a multimedia landmark in a trailblazing music career. “So” as a smash hit, with hugely creative videos that married popular success with avant-garde imagery. “So” as personal journey, hopes and fears given public airing.
“So” what? I’ll tell you more about what “So” means if you choose me to write this book.
(Pitch ends) Ah well - maybe someday I'll pitch another book for this series. So it goes!
*Just in case you're curious, here's a bunch of other proposals posted:
The Jesus And Mary Chain, "Psychocandy"
Jerry Lee Lewis, "Live At The Star Club, Hamburg"
Butthole Surfers, "Locust Abortion Technician"
Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "I See A Darkness"
Lou Reed, "Metal Machine Music"
Cheap Trick, "Dream Police"
The Dukes of Stratosphear (aka XTC), "Chips from the Chocolate Fireball"
Buffalo Springfield, "Buffalo Springfield Again"
Sufjan Stevens, "Illinoise"
Update 3/21: Here's the final 20 or so of the books chosen, in case you were curious. Bummed to see I'm not on there of course, but am excited to see books about Big Star, Pavement, Elliott Smith and Public Enemy in the hopper. (And I must show my ignorance by saying who the hell is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole??)