Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with '50s Pop Music

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February 1964: The Beatles step onto the tarmac at JFK International Airport and turn the country on its head. It's the advent of rock and roll's uninterrupted reign, youthful rebellion, and overt teenage sex. It's also the deathblow for the pop music of another generation -- the songs of Pat Boone and Georgia Gibbs -- and all its perky, white-bread conformity.

Not two years later, Karen Schoemer is born, and comes of age with rock and roll. While her parents might enjoy the new...

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2006 Hardcover New 743272463. Absolutely Brand New; 0.93 x 9.32 x 6.34 Inches; 256 pages; February 1964: The Beatles step onto the tarmac at JFK International Airport and turn ... the country on its head. It's the advent of rock and roll's uninterrupted reign, youthful rebellion, and over. Read more Show Less

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Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with '50s Pop Music

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Overview

February 1964: The Beatles step onto the tarmac at JFK International Airport and turn the country on its head. It's the advent of rock and roll's uninterrupted reign, youthful rebellion, and overt teenage sex. It's also the deathblow for the pop music of another generation -- the songs of Pat Boone and Georgia Gibbs -- and all its perky, white-bread conformity.

Not two years later, Karen Schoemer is born, and comes of age with rock and roll. While her parents might enjoy the new music, the cultural upheaval passes them by, and they cling to the promises made by the music they loved as teenagers, the sweet, innocent 1950s pop of Patti Page, Frankie Laine, and the like. But having courted and wed against a backdrop of ideals peddled by this music -- finding true love, living happily ever after -- Schoemer's parents, like so many people, are crushed by disappointment when love doesn't deliver what the songs promised. Fifties pop falls quickly off the charts; their marriage eventually falls apart. In Great Pretenders, a lively, provocative blend of memoir and music criticism, former Newsweek pop music critic Karen Schoemer tries to figure out what went so wrong, way back in the hazy past, for her parents' marriage and for the music of their youth. To find the answers, she embarks on a strange, lonely journey in search of some of the brightest stars of the 1950s.

Schoemer's search started when, twenty years after her parents' divorce, the new Connie Francis box set appeared on her desk at Newsweek. Now a successful rock critic dispensing post-punk opinions to the hipoisie, she was about to toss aside this relic when she was struck by the cover image of Francis, which bore an uncanny resemblance to her own mother; on a whim, she played one of the CDs. For all their cloying, simplistic sentimentality, songs like "Where the Boys Are" had an undeniable power -- "the sound of every teenage girl in every bedroom on every lonely Saturday going back a thousand years." It was the music of her parents' long-lost adolescence, and much to her surprise, it moved her.

Thus Schoemer, arbiter of Gen X cool, found herself falling into the saccharine thrall of 1950s pop music, that pariah of the rock establishment. Even as her colleagues tried to steer her away from the terminally uncool genre, she tracked down seven former pop idols of the late 1950s and early 1960s: Connie Francis, Fabian, Pat Boone, Patti Page, Tommy Sands, Georgia Gibbs, and Frankie Laine. As she became privy to their inner lives and immersed herself in their music, Schoemer revised her own notions about the fifties at the same time that she explored her family's vexed dynamic. The result is a wonderful romp through an unappreciated chapter in music history and, more important, through her own past.

Full of humor, insight, and unflinching honesty, Great Pretenders bucks the received wisdom, explores the intersections of our private lives and pop culture, and broadens our understanding of a crucial moment in our history.

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Editorial Reviews

Nellie McKay
Great Pretenders, however, offers a truly unique background to a grossly underappreciated era in American music. Tastes may change, but quality remains. While in the public arena many 50's pop artisans have been undeservedly diminished, privately, the music lives on. These earnest, intense entertainers inspired a generation. And, for those willing to search them out, continue to inspire.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In an ambitious first book, former Newsweek rock critic Schoemer offers a skittish fusion of memoir and revisionist music history exploring how pop music shapes our values. In 1996, after listening to a retrospective of songs by '50s teen idol Connie Francis, Schoemer set out to understand the music that originally matched her bitterly divorced parents, in order to understand "[w]hat expectation of their youth could have been so great that its disappointment left them so angry." Thus begins an odyssey that takes readers to a musical landscape on the cusp of rebel rockers, sexual revolution and the civil rights movement. Schoemer talks with Pat Boone, Fabian, Georgia Gibbs, Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Tommy Sands-and her holy grail, Connie Francis. Meanwhile, she constantly reassesses her critical (and often cynical) sensibility against the undeniable emotional connections evoked by pop songs she'd long dismissed as kitsch. Schoemer is a plucky narrator; she has written an enjoyable text that alternates between beguiling interview set pieces imbued with the author's lucid sociomusical analyses of such curious hits as "Mule Train" and musings on her middle-class, suburban Connecticut upbringing in the 1970s and '80s, and development from rock critic to Rolling Stone scribe, wife and mother. (Feb. 8) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Schoemer, a former pop music critic for Newsweek, analyzes the music of the 1950s (pre-rock'n'roll) as a way of comprehending what went awry with her parents' seemingly idyllic lives, once so compatible with the images reflected in their generation's pop songs. She researched the era's people, listened to its music, and interviewed seven of its stars: Patti Page, Frankie Lane, Georgia Gibbs, Pat Boone, Tommy Sands, Fabian, and Connie Francis. Each is allotted a solid chapter that contains brief, illuminating biographies and entertaining accounts of personal interviews-sort of a "Whatever happened to ?" look at these bygone famous names. Interspersed throughout are commentaries on the repertoire, influence, and personality of each as well as chapters on Schoemer's own life-the growing up years, her parents, her own personal and career journeys. This book is as much about the author (as she readily admits) as the performers profiled. Those who fondly remember the music and the era should find it enjoyable. However, Schoemer's ruminations on the music's cultural impact on her family as representative of the era, as well as her personal reflections, are often heavyhanded. For larger public libraries.-Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Former Newsweek music critic Schoemer checks out some singers of the pop tunes of the '50s and, surprised to discover that their records were not a waste of vinyl, finds love in the kitsch. At first, Schoemer approaches the music beloved by nubile teens half a century ago with snotty disdain, hissing and dissing their lack of soul or talent. As she first hears it, it is crappy, goofy, awful and dopey. And yet, finally, she gets it: It's all about love-sweet, virginal love. She seeks the singers who, back in the day, gave us "Doggie in the Window," "That Lucky Old Sun" and the rest of the Great American Rotten Music Songbook-tunes now heard only in elevators, if ever. In a where-are-they-now profile mode, she interviews the talent: Patti Page, Frankie Lane, Pat Boone, Georgia Gibbs, Tommy Sands, Fabian and Connie Francis-names meant to inspire a powerful frisson of nostalgia among the nation's elders. The septuagenarian and octogenarian ex-stars, who in their heyday perpetrated top of the charts, insipid R&B covers and were featured in movies you probably never heard of, complain about evil managers and manipulative executives. The author's visit to an era of music irretrievably lost is mingled with her own coming-of-age story. (One chapter is entitled "Me Again.") Entwined with the music she once derided is the history of herself, her parents, her love life and her work. Readers may judge for themselves if the melodies of the Fifties are worse than gangsta rap and punk metal. Contributions of some stereotypical pop singers before the Beatles revived Western culture, mixed with plenty of the writer's own catharsis.
From the Publisher
"Leave it to Karen Schoemer to dig into the much-maligned era of pre-Beatles pop and emerge with a happy/sad personal masterpiece. Within these great portraits of misunderstood '50s icons is the hilarious and soulful account of Schoemer's own coming of age. Great Pretenders is a concoction worthy of her own grand rock-and-roll addiction — it's a record you can't get out of your head." — Cameron Crowe, writer-director

"Music is a medium of memory. And in recounting how radio and records shaped the soundtrack of her own life, Karen Schoemer, a dreamweaver extraordinaire, proves that whether it's '50s pop or '60s rock, the common thread that joins them is the overwhelming desire to experience an emotional connection. That's something the heroes of the Woodstock generation had learned from Elvis, yes, but also from Connie Francis, Frankie Laine, and even Fabian. Schoemer has the guts to say it, in a smart blend of memoir and music history." — Alanna Nash, author of The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley

"No critic in her right mind would write a book in 2005 about an era long consigned to the dustbin of musical history, 1950s American Pop: the limp puppy love, brylcreemed wasteland before music mattered. But as Schoemer heads through the looking glass, she finds that nothing — the music, the musicians, even her family — is as it first appeared. The unexpected delight of Great Pretenders will have you flipping through the vintage vinyl, and the pages of your family photo album, with a new perspective. It may even make you listen to the music — no mean feat." — John Wesley Harding

"Schoemer is a plucky narrator; she has written an enjoyable text that alternates between beguiling interview set pieces imbued with the author's lucid socio-musical analyses of such curious hits as 'Mule Train' and musings on her middle-class, suburban Connecticut upbringing in the 1970s and '80s, and development from rock critic to Rolling Stone scribe, wife and mother." — Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743272469
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2006
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Schoemer has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Blender, and other publications. Her writing has appeared in the anthologies Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap; Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock; Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000; and Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and daughter.

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Read an Excerpt

Great Pretenders

My Strange Love Affair with '50s Pop Music
By Karen Schoemer

Free Press

Copyright © 2006 Karen Schoemer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743272463

From Introduction

On an early spring day in 1998, I sat in a coach window seat of a descending American Airlines flight, panicking. Below me, the sun-bleached whiteness of the Los Angeles basin loomed closer and closer. I was due to land in twenty-eight minutes, yet I had no idea where I was going. I had no compass, no direction, no guidebook. My destination wasn't on any map; I wasn't even sure if it really existed. I had been to L.A. many times in the past, always with a purpose, always with my expenses paid. I had traveled as a journalist for newspapers and magazines, on assignment to write celebrity profiles and interview musicians. I always knew exactly where to go, and when. Publicists took care of everything. This was different. This time I was writing a book; I was on my own, flying under no prestigious banner, with no one to look out for me. It all seemed like a terrible mistake. I wanted to hit the call button and tell the flight attendant, Help me! I wanted to run up the aisle to the cockpit and instruct the pilots to turn the plane around and put me back on the ground in New York, where I would be safe. I pressed my nose against the window and breathed uneasily. It's not that I've never felt this scared before, I said to myself. It's that I've never felt this stupid.

For my work in L.A., I had a bunch of half-baked ideas. I could drive to Las Vegas and see Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme perform at Caesars Palace. Afterward I could head backstage and try to convince them to grant me an interview. Back in L.A., I had an interview tentatively scheduled with Pat Boone. I'd recently interviewed Paul Anka for a Newsweek story; I figured he might be willing to talk to me again for the book. I had packets stuffed with clips about each of these performers, and others; I had a travel bag weighted with vintage LPs that I'd picked up at thrift stores and flea markets. But these tools seemed depressingly meager to me. In my computer was a list of more than fifty pop singers, and for all I knew I needed to interview them all. How could I do it? What was my focus? Did I need to know complete biographical and critical histories of every single living fifties pop singer? What was I thinking -- that I would write, you know, forty-five words about each of them? I was overwhelmed, clueless. I was afraid I would sit down with these people, who had so generously given their time, and knock around the conversation like a pinball, hoping to bump into something that would light up an idea.

Of course, I did not act so pathetic and aimless when I finally faced these performers. (I don't think I did.) I learned as much as I could about their lives, their music, and the era in which they flourished. I asked questions; I had things I wanted to know. But I was always secretly fearful that someone would find me out. They'd look me in the eye and say, My God, you don't know what you're doing! The worst moments came when people patiently, curiously asked me to tell them a little about my book. I made up something different every time. "My book," I'd say, affecting pomposity, "is about the era between Elvis and the Beatles, when rock and roll was flourishing but old-fashioned pop still held commercial sway." Or I might try, "I'm writing about the teen pop of the fifties, because I feel like no one has ever taken it as seriously as it deserves." If I was feeling particularly uninspired, I'd say, "Nineteen-fifties pop music." I was afraid to tell people the real reasons I was there: that I thought them the most delightfully cheesy performers in pop history; that I saw them as brilliant failures and beautiful also-rans; that I believed that their cheery, Technicolor images covered up something dark and desperate in our cultural past, although I wasn't sure exactly what. I assumed that if I told them this, they would refuse to talk to me.

I had another reason for being there -- one that seemed so silly and personal it took me some time to acknowledge it myself. Through meeting these performers and learning about them, I was hoping to get to know my parents better. My mom and dad were both fifties kids. My mom was fifteen in 1956, the year rock and roll exploded onto the charts; I think of her as the archetypal Elvis Girl, the teenager who screamed when she saw him on TV and listened to his records in secret because her parents disapproved. My dad remembers driving around during the summer of 1957 with Paul Anka's "Diana" on the radio, his seventeen-year-old mind enthralled by the song's racy depiction of an older woman and a younger man. I'd chosen the late fifties as the main area of concentration for my book; this was the time my parents came of age. (In my mind, the late fifties spilled over into the early sixties, those three years leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy.) My parents met in the summer of 1958. They started dating a year or two later and married in July 1962, right after my mom finished college. I knew so little about my parents' marriage. I knew plenty about their divorce in 1981 when I was sixteen; I was intimately acquainted with the gruesome details that drove them apart. But the forces that drew them together were a mystery to me. What made them like each other? What did they have in common? In my mind I pasted their faces on those goofy retro postcards you see everywhere: teenagers twisting in front of jukeboxes, sitting with ankles crossed at soda fountain counters, laughing in convertibles as a roller-skated burgerhop wheels up with a tray. Were my parents like that? Were they that happy, that clichéd?

The funny thing was, I didn't feel like I could ask them about their early years together. Nearly twenty years after their divorce, my parents kept a hostile distance from one another, and my relationship with both of them seemed predicated on convincing each that I had as little interest in their former spouse as they did. Both were remarried, both had moved on, yet their mutual loathing persevered; like a lot of kids, I felt caught in the middle. I could remember an eight-year stretch when, living less than thirty miles apart, they went without any communication whatsoever, except alimony checks. It was as if they wanted to erase their past and all that went with it, except for my brother and me. Lately I'd begun to wonder: What is with these people? What expectation of their youth could have been so great that its disappointment left them so angry? Just what on earth happened back there in 1962?

Copyright ©2006 by Karen Schoemer



Continues...


Excerpted from Great Pretenders by Karen Schoemer Copyright © 2006 by Karen Schoemer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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