Zadie Smith on Music and Obsession

Zadie Smith has an article in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Yorker about her journey to appreciating Joni Mitchell’s work in which she also offers some thoughts on being a connoisseur of various art forms. Smith writes that she distrusts those who claim to be true connoisseurs of more than one form, noting that the novel is her obsession and that she can’t imagine having an equal affinity for another genre even though she enjoys music. She offers her ignorance of Mitchell’s oeuvre as an example of how devotion to one form results in what may seem to be embarrassing blind spots in one’s knowledge of another.

This article resonated with me because I have had a similar relationship with literature and music. Books are my obsession, but another smaller obsession is my fascination with people who have obsessions about something, especially music. I have always been a little jealous of them. Smith describes coming across a Talking Heads album in a record store and being “gripped by melancholy, similar perhaps to the feeling a certain kind of man gets while sitting with his wife on a train platform as a beautiful girl–different in all aspects from his wife–walks by. There goes my other life” (33, Smith’s italics). This passage expresses my feelings about music perfectly. One of my favorite fictional/movie characters is Rob from High Fidelity because of how obsessed he is with both music itself and its physical manifestation in records (though unlike Rob, who owns a record store, I could never run a bookstore because getting rid of the books would be too painful even though they would only nominally be “mine”).  I enjoy music, but I rarely listen to it because I have little time to do so. I am unable to listen to it while multitasking except for when I wash dishes or, sometimes, cook, and the vast majority of my free time is spent reading.

My version of Smith’s ignorance of Mitchell (whom I, too, have little experience with, though I like the work of hers that I’ve heard, and have had “River” [the title of which, I admit, I had to look up online] in my head for the past few days) is my lack of interest in Prince. I know everyone thinks he is great, and I have tried to listen to his music, but it just doesn’t click for me. I suppose this would be an argument against the idea that there is a universal standard of aesthetic quality.

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