BookBrowse Reviews Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker

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Who Put This Song On?

by Morgan Parker

Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker X
Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2019, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2021, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Parker's YA debut is a heartfelt semi-autobiographical account of a teen's struggle with clinical depression told by a narrator with a razor-sharp wit and burgeoning racial consciousness.

After building up a fervent fan base with three volumes of hip, nimble and fearless poetry, including the much-lauded There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (2017), Morgan Parker presents her first work of fiction, a Young Adult novel based on her own youth, with memories mined from her teenage diaries. Who Put This Song On? is a blistering, aching portrait of adolescent depression and racial alienation with an unforgettable narrator who charms and even delivers laughs despite the pain she feels about being unavailingly different from everyone she knows.

The fictionalized Morgan Parker is a junior at a Southern California Christian high school, where she is one of just a handful of Black students. She has a solid group of friends, and soon develops a crush on a boy she meets in an after-school painting class, but she can't help feeling like she is radically different from everyone, and it's not just because of her race. Morgan is recovering from a suicidal episode that occurred over summer break. Her family is walking on eggshells, and she doesn't know how to confide in her friends. The plot is spare; the vast majority of the book involves Morgan hanging out with her crew, going to therapy, engaging in introspection, and sparring with a Reagan-loving history teacher (which she believes to be her duty as the sole Democrat in her class). But Morgan's deeply analytical mind and complex meshwork of feelings are more than enough to drive the narrative forward.

Parker's exploration of race is layered and subtle. Morgan does not face overt racism, but she becomes increasingly fed up with microaggressions perpetuated by her white classmates. The novel takes place in 2008, and Morgan's peers believe that racism has been solved because a Black man is running for president. Her history books are full of sanitized portraits of Civil Rights leaders (see Beyond the Book) and lack any mention at all of the Black Panthers. A boy expresses his interest by declaring her "the cutest black girl he's ever seen." Even her best friend tells Morgan she's "not really black...Not like 'ghetto' or whatever." This is an education for young readers who may not think critically about comments that seem harmless on the face of things but that cut like a knife when scrutinized.

The way Morgan experiences her depression is also implicitly linked to the coded messages of bias she's constantly receiving, an aspect of her psyche that Parker astutely illuminates during a conversation Morgan has with her therapist. When asked what she believes makes her and her problems so different from her peers, she remarks, "Well, I guess I think I must deserve it." As anyone who's struggled with anxiety and depression knows, this is how these conditions work; they twist every speck of stimuli from the outside world into a critique, or a reason to hide away in bed and never leave. But Morgan manages to claw her way out, in part by finding something that matters to her, and it isn't the opinions of her fellow students. "I've looked into the face of the end of the world," she says, "and guess what? No one from school was there." Channeling her energy into learning more about the Black leaders she admires, Morgan begins to feel like she is a part of something larger than herself.

Who Put This Song On? is more than just the sum of the Big Issues it introduces—it's also fun. We get to listen to Morgan's favorite music along with her—a who's who of late 90s/early 2000s indie rock bands, including Wilco, Belle & Sebastian and Weezer. We get to marvel with her at the odd rituals of some of her more devout friends, one of whom receives a promise ring from her father. We laugh along with her when she uses her race to her benefit—an opportunity to shut down an invitation to worship: "And the magic line: I go to a black church. That one always shuts them up." The novel should easily appeal to adult and teen readers alike; the basic outline of adolescent disaffection is something we can all remember or relate to.

Prose readers: welcome to the cult of Morgan Parker.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2019, and has been updated for the March 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Whitewashing Black Leaders

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