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In his new essay collection/episodic memoir World Within a Song: Music that Changed My Life and Life that Changed My Music, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy lionizes several of his classic-rock idols, like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney and the Beatles, Patti Smith, and the Band. But among the book’s 50 wide-ranging, song-specific chapters are some more unexpected, decidedly not rockist choices — like ABBA’s disco smash “Dancing Queen,” Billie Eilish’s “I Love You,” and Rosalía’s “Bizconchito,” the latter actually inspiring the book’s lengthiest and perhaps most passionate passage.
These chapters might surprise readers who have pigeonholed Wilco as “dad-rock” — i.e., indie-rock music for suburban male listeners of a certain age. That label was first used in a nasty Pitckfork review of Wilco’s 2007 album Sky Blue Sky, and while the review’s writer later expressed regrets for introducing the term, it has since caught on as a meme. Tweedy bristles when asked how he feels about the made-up genre.
“I think it's reductive, ageist, gatekeeping. I think it's horrible. I don't like it. I've never liked it,” Tweedy answers. “It's like an ongoing joke. I see it made all the time: ‘Oh, wow, you wanna know where all the old guys are in town? The Wilco concert!’ It's bullshit.’ … It's mean, and I don't know what the point of that is, other than to create some sort of shorthand for other people that they don't need to pay attention to it — that it can be dismissed, unless you're some type of person that's maybe in that demographic.
“I think that diminishes a wide swath of the people I look out and see every night,” Tweedy continues, speaking with Yahoo Entertainment from his Arkansas dressing room while on tour for Wilco’s latest critically acclaimed album, Cousin. “That's not what my audience looks like to me. For one, I see lots of young people. I just see more than an audience being reduced to one demographic. I mean, it was obviously meant as an insult when it was initially said. Now certain people are embracing it and acting like there's actually a genre called ‘dad-rock.’ But I find most genre names to be reductive and stupid, so I don't have any different feeling about that one.”
Each chapter in World Within a Song connects to an extremely personal memory, or “re-memory,” from Tweedy’s youth, so he understands that “there are differences in the ways generations respond to culture, and those are good. Those are healthy differences. A certain age group needs a certain thing. [Young people] are in the midst of forming their identities, and it's important to let them have their space.” He realizes that his associations with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” the Knack’s “My Sharona,” Randy Newman’s “In Germany Before the War,” Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop,” or Herman Hermits’ “I’m Into Something Good” will wildly differ from the many ways that his readers came to know and appreciate those tracks. But the lifelong music obsessive stresses, “I've always thought that the ‘generation gap’ idea was a bill of goods sold to people almost as a marketing ploy. I think it's really not cool.”
Below, Tweedy opens up about the importance of embracing new music, the motivations behind his book’s diverse song selections, and why one of the oldest tunes he included, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” is a song he refuses to sing himself.
Yahoo Entertainment: I love how there is absolutely no rock snobbery in World Within a Song. But there are a few chapters where you almost apologize for liking a song, like Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” or apologize for getting on board way too late with certain songs that you initially resisted or misunderstood, like 10cc’s “I'm Not in Love” or ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” So, this begs the question: Do you believe there's such a thing as a “guilty pleasure” when it comes to music?
Jeff Tweedy: I don't think there's anything you should feel guilty about when liking music. You like what you like. Certain things work for you, and I think your body gets a say. I think you should try and trust your body more than your mind when it comes to music.
I also love how World Within a Song champions younger artists, like Billie Eilish and Rosalía, saying something along the lines of if you're not open-minded to discovering new music, then you are old. How do you think your fanbase will take that? A lot of Gen X or Boomer fans automatically write off newer music as not being as good as music from back in their good ol’ days.
I don't really care how they take it. I think it's the truth. I think there's an impulse as people get older to romanticize their youth, and also kind of forget the bad parts. It is very similar to the MAGA movement: There's an idea that you're going to make America something that it never was. It is basically fear-based, I think, and just wanting to contain change and make it not affect you somehow. And I think that's foolish. I just don't think that's a good way to live. You miss out on a lot of stuff. It's just not very thoughtful to me, because every generation kind of goes through this thing. And it can't be that we only get worse! [laughs] I won’t believe that.
A lot of rock snobs dismiss music if it's popular, assuming that, say, Taylor Swift must not be cool because she’s the biggest artist on Earth. It’s almost like an indie flex to say you’ve never heard a song by Taylor or Beyoncé or BTS, or whoever. You don't seem to subscribe to that way of thinking either.
Well, I feel like it could go both ways. I think it's fine if you don't respond to Taylor Swift, and don't really feel compelled to be a part of the conversation just because it's such a central part of our culture right now. I think that's totally fine. But I don't know why you would go out of your way to brag about it!
I actually thought some of the most interesting stories in your book are about the songs you have an aversion to, like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” or Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” or even “Happy Birthday”! But since you just mentioned MAGA, are you concerned you're going to get flak for saying you don't like “The Star-Spangled Banner”? That’s the sort of bold statement that’ll blow up your social-media mentions with outrage.
That never occurred to me. I mean, I do all kinds of things that I wouldn't expect to get pushback on. If you pay attention to social media, [outrage] seems to be what it has degenerated into, and basically only that, for a lot of people. So… bring it on! [laughs] I stand by it. You can argue with me if you want, but I'm not going to argue back. It's fine if you love this song, but I don't like it.
The concept of the song is problematic, I think. But primarily, the real story I relate in the book is about how I don't want to have to sing it! It's too hard. And I'm in a position in life where someone actually might ask me to sing it someday, and I've had to say no. But that’s not just because of a limited vocal range. I have a limited tolerance for militaristic anthems.
You write that Stevie Wonder could do a good job of writing a new national anthem. But are there any existing songs out there that you think would be a good alternate to “The Star-Spangled Banner”?
I'm sure there are, but I personally think a wordless melody would be beautiful — something that everybody could just hum along with and feel like it's just a meditation on being a part of something together, when you’re at a sporting event or something like that. I don't know, shape-note singing or something like that would be pretty representative of what I think would be a beautiful concept for an anthem. But it's like the flag or a lot of agreed-upon fictions that people use: In a lot of ways they're benign, but in a lot of other ways, they become loaded symbols of unfortunately what I think are worst impulses a lot of the time. And I don't know what to do with that, other than to just not play along.
Switching gears, you also said in World Within a Song that you've been trying to write your own version of your favorite Rolling Stones track, “Connection,” your whole life. Which song in your canon would you say comes the closest to achieving that goal?
Geez… it doesn't really sound anything like it, but “Someone to Lose” on Schmilco maybe a has a strand of that DNA woven into it.
As I mentioned, some of your most interesting chapters, to me, were the ones where you controversially say, “I know everybody loves this song, but I just don’t get it.” Is there any song in your canon that you would think would get that treatment? Basically, which is your polarizing song that people don't seem to get?
Well, judging by fans' reactions to lots of different songs over the years, I'd say there are many! [laughs] But the one that sticks out in my memory is a song called “Capitol City” on The Whole Love, which really seemed to rub some people the wrong way for some reason. It's like an old-timey chord progression, an almost Randy Newman-ish kind of song, and it irked people!
Your mother figures a lot in this book, because she shaped and encouraged your boyhood passion for music. One of the stories that struck a sort of sad chord with me was about Lene Lovich’s “Lucky Number,” and how your mom reacted when she heard it while watching a new wave episode of The Midnight Special with you.
The funny thing is, I tried not to listen to the songs too much before I wrote about them, because I thought that was kind of the point: Even if I get it wrong, that's how it becomes very specific to your own biography, your own memory of a song. And with that song, I completely missed the second half of the song where [Lovich’s] “lucky number” becomes two! That just was not a part of the message that got communicated that night, or ever again, even when I had the record. So, it's really interesting that I just maybe heard it through my mom's ears, and she disregarded that side of it. Yeah, my mom really did say stuff like, “You're born alone and you die alone, so you better get used to being alone” and things like that [when she heard “Lucky Number”] — which I don't think is a healthy philosophy for anybody, much less a kid! But I also understand how oddly comforting that lyric probably was to my mother, in terms of just her resolve to not be beaten down by circumstances in her life that were less than ideal.
Can you tell me a little bit about how the childhood songs you wrote about tie into your memories of your mother supporting and encouraging your intense obsession with music, which you clearly had from a very young age?
I don't think it was just her interest in me. I think I was kind of an exalted child, being very late in her life. I was 10 years younger than my siblings. I came along at a time where I think she really liked having a companion hanging around. So, there was some boundaries that probably would've been better established, if that hadn’t been the case. But she did what I think all parents should do, and that is when your children show a passion for something or care about something, you absolutely should bend over backwards to accommodate that, and let them be seen as the people they want to be seen as.
And you grew up to be a rock star! So, on that note, my last question pertains to a chapter about when your previous band, Uncle Tupelo, was just starting out and got a last-minute opportunity to open for Warren Zevon. You needed to borrow a bass amp from the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmidt, who was also playing that night, and he was totally rude to you, barking that you to “not f***ing touch anything!” Did that experience stay with you once you got famous, in terms of teaching you how not to conduct yourself as a celebrity?
Oh, absolutely! That was kind of the point of that chapter. I always think about that when I'm coming into a situation where I'm maybe not at my best, but realizing that there's a perceived power inequity in my role. I always try and err on the side of kindness, and being accessible and direct and friendly.
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This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.