Lit Review: POP SONG

In which I jump on a brand-new book!

“No one could have predicted Gigliotti would be drawn to a title like this,” alien scholars at the inter-terrestrial conference will quip years later, eliciting a chuckle from the panel crowd, after humanity is gone and the only remains of literature are this blog and a beat-up copy of Tina Fey’s Bossypants. Don’t ask how I know this.

I spotted Larissa Pham’s Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy among a stack of books in a photo taken by a writer I follow on Twitter, and yes, the title alone caught my eye. I searched it and knew I had to read it; two pages into the second essay I knew I loved it. (And not only because its publication date was just over a month ago, the collection new enough to reference the pandemic—rarely do I feel so hip.)

So far there was no indication of music playing more than a walk-on role in the narratives. The first essay was called “On Running.” I, too, run. Certain pop songs surface amidst the Art of the subtitle: but it’s visual art, much of it belonging to the category dubbed ‘modern,’ and Pham’s response to it, that takes center stage. Having studied art at Yale and immersed herself in opportunities and ways of creating through people she met there, she is understandably and uniquely predisposed to meditate on the impact of a museum visit, an installation, a single work.

As a ‘fan’ of modern visual art myself, though often not feeling in a position to appreciate it down to its molecular elements, I was by turns comforted, affirmed, and blown away by her observations. I learned about artists I had never heard of (Cerith Wyn Evans, Louise Bourgeois, James Turrell) and learned more about artists I had heard of (Agnes Martin, John Baldessari, Roy DeCarava). These artist biographies and works and stories are bound up in Pham’s travels: a painting studio in Provence, a chaotic daily existence in New York, a writing retreat in Taos, a vacation to Mexico City, a sponsored art festival in Shanghai. It is nice to have places, and dates, and things, to match names to.

Dates especially. She chronicles her own life and development with specific years and months, years and months whose significance overlapped for me, because I am a few years younger than she is and was also grappling with difficult cusp-of-maturity truths at those times. I’m still trying to divest myself of the compulsive comparisons (they never do any good), but I felt oddly close to her for some of the desires that took hold of us at similar ages, some of the things we got involved in, some of the things that befell us, some of the things we fell for. Or maybe it isn’t odd at all, this feeling of closeness; it’s the mark of good writing.

The Intimacy half of the subtitle was distinctly more foreign. Yet she renders her intimate experiences comprehensible to someone with a pretty short record in those areas. In her accounts of dating, sex, BDSM, I could scarcely wrap my head around the layer upon layer of complications she was confronted with while her personhood was still forming. Desire was difficult enough for me. What one-of-a-kind suffering did it mean for her?

And my heart ached for her at points, though it never broke. Because she is not broken. A broken person could not write, for her parting line, “I opened the door.”

Art and intimacy always make sense together, the way I see it. I learned early on to approach intimacy through shared encounters of art. (Why yes, I do spend time in museums fantasizing about my fellow museum-goers. How could such a setting not be deeply romantic?) Reading someone from a different background, with different training, whose approach was nonetheless similar, stirred me up. I was struck by her descriptions of other art forms besides visual, how she uses the act of writing to “pull a sieve through the disorganized world.” She refers to a “hierarchy” of fine arts in the midst of expressing a wish to be a musician. I never thought to rank these practices in any definitive way; at the end of her story I’m even less inclined to. I think Pham disproves her own idea by discussing nightclub dancing with the same reverence she gives photography and drawing. You do the art that speaks to you, through you. Every medium deserves to be celebrated, platformed, and taken seriously—that is, legitimately and joyfully.

She relies on small word-motifs (Wortmotif, I guess the people in my immediate vicinity would say) to bind the essays together, to justify their collection: the “hot liquid” sensation of getting lost in love, the “blue place” of distance, the “dark vessels” that can be both person and object, presence and absence. Her writer’s words are shot through with an artist’s impulse. It all made me wonder, not for the first time, what it would be like to study art. Like, for a grade. Like, for a job.

The titles she gives her essays are also intentional, which sounds perfectly obvious, but it’s wonderful to draw out the significance of each as it goes on. “Blue” dwells on travel and movement; but it was not lost on me, a Joni Mitchell devotee, that Pham later analyzes “A Case of You” (albeit not Joni’s version), which appears on the album Blue. (At one time anyway, Joni considered herself a painter first.)

The rest of her words, ordered in the way they are, wield their own pull. After reading “It’s too much; I’m too much” in the essay “Crush,” I had to pause, regroup, recoup. The specific situation she was talking about almost didn’t matter. Great nonfiction—maybe great writing in general—both reveals the author to you and reveals you to yourself. In this respect Pham has given me much more than I bargained for.

I was amused and unsettled to stumble upon a second scene this year depicting a pivotal trip to New Mexico, the first being the adventure out of ‘civilized’ bounds in Brave New World. Different genres; different characters; not entirely different motivations; universal conclusions. If for no other reason—and there are many other reasons—read this book for the sheer magnetism of location.

Oh, and I have to shout out her uncanny shout-out to Caroline Polachek, whom she describes listening to as she writes. Funnily enough, I rediscovered a track of hers a few weeks ago and have welcomed her into my workday, too.

Image: Catapult Books edition, 2021

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti is a freelance writer-editor based in Berlin, Germany, with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. Her free time goes toward singing, dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, trying to finish her Netflix queue, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her artist-heroes. Connect with her on Twitter (@CeciliaGelato), Instagram (@c_m_giglio), and YouTube (Lia Lio).

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