The High Fidelity Factor, or Why List?
“The reason there aren’t that many female music writers is because women don’t like making lists.” This was my comment, made after 2.5 glasses of wine, at a New York feminist literary salon, to Kamy Wicoff, a friend who also happens to be the founder of this site. I got the response I wanted from the line, too: a knowing cackle of laughter, commiseration, sisterhood is powerful and all that. I also got an assignment: write about men and their lists. Which, it turns out, is not as simple as that tossed-off wisecrack. I was talking about female music writers because I am one. And I was ragging on “music guys” and their lists – Top Tens and Desert Island Discs and Best Of the Seventies dossiers – because they, and the train-spotting, album-collecting, bug-out headphone-wearing guys who love them, are a popular punch line among the small but mighty group of women who care about the written analysis of music. Unfortunately, the list-makers clog the scene, with their High Fidelity pronouncements, loud interrupting voices, and flecks of spittle flying every which way. It would be easy to say the instinct for collection contradicts the instinct for analysis, but I know that’s not true. How else would we have science? Also, I know this is wrong from experience. I actually do like lists, so much that I make them almost every day. Shopping lists, lists of books I want to read, lists of books I have read, to-do lists, lists of things I want in my life. I write them on scraps of paper, on my iPhone, and in my Filofax. The other day, I considered dictating one to myself as I walked down the street, but thought I would look too crazy (I was anxious and thought it would calm me down to divide my needs and desires into bite-size, numbered chunks). But these are not the kind of lists guys make, right? When I was in college, my boyfriend was one of those wigged out headphone wearing music freaks. Jordan loved lists. They were how he’d gotten started learning about his great passion, music. In 1987, when he was around thirteen, Rolling Stone published a special two-issue “Top 100 Albums of the Last 20 Years” list, and Jordan had worked his way down through it, from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to Electric Warrior by T. Rex. I, too, had read that Rolling Stone list back in middle school, but it had never occurred to me to actually listen to every album. In college, I took this as evidence of why Jordan was a 4.0 student, and I was not: he was more thorough, and I better catch up. Fast-forward ten years. I was in a new relationship with the man who would become my husband. In the aftermath of Jordan, I’d sworn off men who loved lists -- too obsessive and perfectionist. Good luck. Danny’s a composer, but, when we met, he was working as freelance classical music critic. Yes, one of those lucky few who occasionally weighed in with a list or two, published in print or on the internet, for all of the less informed fans to check and recheck, compare and contrast. Danny also collected things; he was – is – a completist. On one of our first dates, I mentioned Portnoy’s Complaint, and he confessed he’d never read it. “You have to!” I said, and was pleased that the next time we met, he was halfway through. Little did I realize, I’d woken the beast. Danny spent the next five months reading every book Philip Roth ever wrote. Even The Great American Novel, the one about baseball, which I don’t think he’s ever watched. Shit, I thought, when I realized. I got another one. Oh well. Collections are a form of lists, and my husband collects, in no particular order, books by all of his favorite authors (a list too long to mention, and, for the purposes of this blog, too male); music by all of his favorite musicians (every version of every album Elvis Costello has ever made, every recording of Berg’s operas); and complete DVD sets of every TV show he likes (The Wire being the classiest choice – I won’t embarrass him further with any others). When he moved in with me, it took us over a year to figure out where to put all his books and music, and storage is still a work in progress. By contrast, the collections I brought to the relationship were a boxed set of the Little House on the Prairie books, and every soul record ever made in Philadelphia, and a lot of vintage dresses and sweaters. Danny’s taste is usually pretty highfalutin, and so his lists and collections tend to the fabulously erudite, but they’re still that male “bulk” thing. They take up space, and time, and tend to make a person who hasn’t, say, read Rising Up and Rising Down, William Volman’s seven-volume history of violence (shelved next to the complete Roth oeuvre in our living room, should you care to borrow it), feel a little lazy. In preparing to write this piece, I asked Danny about the male list-making instinct. He paused for a few moments, long enough that I thought he’d say something really profound. “Well, if you need material, there’s The Vertigo of Lists, the new Umberto Ecco book, and, of course, Leporello’s ‘Catalogue Aria’ from Don Giovanni.” “That's the one about all the women he fucked, right?” I said. “Yes.” Hmm. Do I even need to say it? No. Nor do I need to add that my husband responded to my question with… a list. Later on in the day, in an email, he added: “We – men -- group things into easy-to-swallow decades with attendant things that happen, we put our lives in order based on little lynchpins that, en masse, sum us up. We categorize, we collect, we organize and re-organize, in order that our lives might be put into palatable bite-sized chunks, in order that we might understand.” The implication being, I suppose, that women are just better at understanding things than men? That we need less outside support and bolstering to make sense of our lives? I don’t buy that (and, for the record, I don’t think Danny does either). I also don’t think lists are inherently exclusionary, reactionary, conservative, limiting, gynophobic, misogynistic, egomaniacal, narcissistic, solipsistic, or onanistic. Or, to quote Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist of Don Giovanni, lists aren’t all about “peasant girls, Maidservants, city girls, Countesses, baronesses, Marchionesses, princesses…” The only answer I can find, truly, that is neither glib, reductive, nor reminiscent of the SCUM Manifesto, came to me from an unlikely source, an old Mad magazine parody of the NRA slogan “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” The Mad “gang of idiots” (male, all of them, but check out their female self-depreciation!) twisted this gem into, “Guns don't kill people. People with guns kill people.” In other words, lists aren't, in themselves, the problem -- the people who write the lists are. And, in 2009, a list of best books that doesn't include woman is even more boring than a guy in his basement realphabetizing his CDs.

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