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She’s Gotta Have Hits

Pop-Music Interludes Intrude On The Story Of A Female Music Exec

Daniel Krall

By Makkada B. Selah | Posted 10/5/2005

By Danyel Smith

Crown, hardback

Bliss—a sort of behind-the-music industry romance from the point of view of powerful black executive, 33 year-old Eva Glenn—wants to get you high off its top-40 jams, so high that its reinscription of racial stereotypes, acceptance of racist corporate regulation of urban music, and investment in the “race record” legacy feels progressive. It cajoles you with its elaborative, expository, yet essentially passive gesture toward critique of the industry’s history and “realities.” In a way, Bliss’ pop fiction succeeds: Much of the book is well-crafted and meticulously plotted with engrossing dialogue, tangible characters, visceral imagery, creeping suspense, and lulling lyricism. If only Danyel Smith had relied on her potent prose and abandoned the song obeah.

For example, at the end of Chapter 1 as Eva watches her multiplatinum R&B diva Sunny break a three-year hiatus to bring the house down at a showcase, Smith writes, “Don’t call it a comeback, Eva thought in L.L. Cool J’s fadeless words. I been here for years”—and it’s as if Smith puts a gaudy $2 lipstick on the singer’s naturally beautiful face. Elsewhere, Eva cleans a gash on her leg with peroxide, and the lyrics to John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good” kick in. When a workplace underling Eva trusts lets her down, low-budget musical style, the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers” gets a spin. Smith is trying to create a star-studded soundtrack, but a soundtrack complements the action. It shouldn’t feel like commercial interruptions or mute mimes.

A few of Bliss’ music references do work, particularly when the song becomes a character-catalyst. In one scene, Eva and her more powerful white male music-exec lover, Ron Littlejohn, ride down Sunset Strip listening to a rap demo in which “Deacon Blues” has been sampled, and Eva thinks to herself: “Ron’ll never clear the Steely Dan sample . . . it’ll be a zillion dollars”; the lyrics, “They got a name for the winners in the world/ I want a name when I lose,” resonate because she is feeling guilty over a recent abortion. A “Babylon Sisters” allusion is at play indirectly, too, due to its (thankfully unquoted) opening line “Drive west on Sunset to the sea/ turn that jungle music down.” It works because the songs are embodied in the action, not disembodied voices in Eva’s head.

Eva, though, is engaging. We hardly care that she’s an alcoholic slut who, with no shame in her game, sleeps her way to the top—she’s “our girl” all the way. Such connection is achieved, to Smith’s credit, through snatches of transparent soliloquy and a keen focus on Eva’s body and bodily sensations. First and foremost Eva values herself and feels others value her through her body. We’re aware of her smooth bikini-waxed legs, what her ass cheeks look like in a thong, the diamond studs in her ears, aware that her “sexiness is her strength.” But we also sense what she senses: the beads of perspiration on her cleavage as she throws up in her hotel-suite toilet, the scent of sandalwood and Florida water in her nostrils as she licks her lover’s chest hairs, the coolness of the cement under her bare feet on a patio in Carmel-by-the-Sea where she negotiates a deal.

Eventually the preponderance of spooky lyric, artist, and song-title drops undermine Eva’s sturdy and sympathetic character. Eva is a calculating businesswoman and a music lover, but Smith miscalculates when she fancies Eva a walking music encyclopedia, a quiz-bowl commentator who has, as she puts it, “a song for everything.” Music trivia and song lyrics conveniently pop into the brain gnome-like, at just the right time, while tumultuous action takes place. It feels contrived because it isn’t the way we actually relate music to our lives. We don’t think of just the right song as the pivotal moments in our lives occur—we’re too busy experiencing those moments. Usually songs we hear remind us of moments in our lives later in reflection. Invariably, many of Bliss’ gratuitous musical epiphanies are intrusions by Smith, music journalist, not Eva, playette, who worries about the exclusivity of her lip gloss and her daily crunches.

Though she acts like a hood rat, Eva really does have a sentimental side, and she tries to build a life outside of the grind and her role as pimpstress of urban music on some tiny remote Caribbean island with her black male lover, D’Artagan, but he is a manic-depressive drifter who has “no finesse” and no source of income, a dreamer she has to talk to like a 12-year-old when he ditches his bipolar medication for all-natural herbs. So who can blame her for going back to the beaucoup bucks she makes in the biz and Ron Littlejohn, the “cool ass white boy who floats her boat,” a man who is “the best kisser in the whole world” and whose sex makes her feel “ so nasty, so free”? Racial stereotypes and the indirect validation of the balance of power in the shady music industry aside, ultimately it’s the payola to the music industry itself that undoes Bliss and keeps it from achieving its literary potential.

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