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February 10, 2008

Who is Stephin Merritt and Why do People Think He's a Cunt?

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The first time I heard Stephin Merritt's voice I was on a date, at a Perth Festival movie. The film was my pick, Pieces of April and it was a winner. I loved the soundtrack, but I had no idea who it was by. It was only after the movie finished and we were both congratulating me on my pick of movie, that record-boy boyfriend told me the music was by The Magnetic Fields, or rather, the guy from The Magnetic Fields with the magnificent baritone and the synthy, floaty vision of music that is all his own, and that no one else can touch in terms of its scope and its precision.

I started listening to 69 Love Songs and discovered more of this vision; of pop taken orchestral, of perfectly formed electronic worlds attracting and repelling, while Merritt engages, not entirely altruistically, with the notions of love and sincerity.

Yet despite the sometimes snippy tone and always clever punning, the album is indeed a collection of love songs, and one can feel the labour that has gone into not only individual songs but the variety of songs that Merritt has compiled in the cause of his grandiose ambition. And, as almost all music critics agreed in 1999, he succeeded: 69 Love Songs is one of the true pop opuses of our time. But then why is Merritt's personal reputation as unpopular as it is with journalists and, well, many who have had anything to do with him?

From what I can work out, a lot of the controversy started with a blog post by The New Yorker music writer Sasha Frere-Jones that criticized Merritt for not having enough black artists in his top 100 records. It was largely Frere-Jones being provocative, but also just plain stupid, as John Cook points out in this article which seems to be the final word on the whole fracas. What is left over is the idea of Merritt, while not evidently a racist, as a nonetheless unpleasant man, who may in fact derive pleasure from torturing journalists with his paper-dry responses and silences that aren't punctuated with any kind of "ah", "um" or "well . . ." to signify that he isn't done. It's also said that people generally assume he hates them, and of this he is aware, but can only promise that he doesn't. It's just that British people understand him better, he says, the American way doesn't really apply to him, even though he is an avowed East Villager who sits at the same cafe everyday, writing his music with his chihuahua named Irving Berlin by his side.

To anyone who wants to diss Stephin Merritt because of hearsay or some touchy journalist who expects their subject to be a performing monkey, I say have some respect for the man who has given us this music. If he gives us nothing else, he has at least given us 69 Love Songs and I'd buy that album for anyone's birthday present or feel a connection with anyone who had it sitting on their music shelf; it's just that sort of an album. It's one of the greats of not only my lifetime, but the lifetime of my twenties, that crucial decade where anything that helps you find yourself is attached to with almost religious significance. Let Stephin Merritt live in his own world when he's not entertaining us with his music---his own Merrittocracy where people still dance on whirling tables in those Busby Berkely dreams. And check out this amazing video by NPR wherein he writes a song in two days, locked in the NPR recording studio. It's very cool.

Posted by linda at February 10, 2008 7:37 PM

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