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Drawn from presentations at the annual Experience Music Project Pop Conference—hailed by Robert Christgau as “the best thing that’s ever happened to serious consideration of pop music”—the essays in this book include inquiries into the sonic dimension of war in Iraq; the cultural life of jazz in post-Katrina New Orleans; Isaac Hayes’s reappropriation of a country song, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” as a symbol of black nationalism; and punk rock pranks played on record execs looking for the next big thing in central Virginia. Offering a diverse range of voices, perspectives, and approaches, this volume mirrors the eclecticism of pop itself.
Contributors: Larry Blumenfeld , Austin Bunn, Nate Chinen, J. Martin Daughtry, Brian Goedde, Michelle Habell-Pallán, Jonathan Lethem, Eric Lott, Kembrew McLeod, Elena Passarello, Diane Pecknold, David Ritz, Carlo Rotella, Scott Seward, Tom Smucker, Greg Tate, Karen Tongson, Alexandra T. Vazquez, Oliver Wang, Eric Weisbard, Carl Wilson
“The best essays in this brooding, often brilliant collection both reflect and reflect upon struggle and trouble, whether it’s the sonics of the Iraq conflict, the post-Katrina culture war threatening New Orleans’ jazz scene, or the self-annihilation of those Nixon-era popmeisters, the Carpenters. Pop When the World Falls Apart is an indispensable document of what cultural criticism reads and rocks like during these hard and bewildering times.”—Alice Echols, Professor of English, Gender Studies, and History, University of Southern California and author of Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture
“The voices in Pop When the World Falls Apart are so strong the book raises a new question: which critics would you take to a desert island? Everyone will have a different answer. For me, it would be Tom Smucker, Eric Lott, and Scott Seward. They’d argue til the sun came up, full of smiles and exasperation; I’d get to listen.”—Greil Marcus
Collapsing distance The Love-Song of the Wanna-Be, or The Fannish Auteur
When I dance these days, I don't bend so much at the knees as I used to. My knee-bends are more kabuki indications, representational rather than presentational, like Lou Reed's vocal range, like Muhammad Ali teasing a video crew with boasts of flurries of punches so fast you couldn't see them, even as he posed with his upraised fists completely still. Don't blink or you'll miss them—and you did. The dancing I do now enciphers in shorthand the drops and knee-bends of my twenties—these were moves that, once I'd learned them, I drove, so to speak, into the ground. My knees reminisce of old dancefloors in clubs in Berkeley and Oakland and San Francisco when I climb too many stairs, a sad involuntary pun on dancing about architecture.
Other ghosts rustle in my dancing these days, kinetic memory routines, muscle quotes of punk-rock ironized glam-kicks, Elvis Costello intentional-awkward heel-scoots and skids, a kind of sideways bunny hop and mechanical stop and restart that I appropriated from my friend Sari Rubenstein, and which always reminds me of both the B-52s and a certain beer-swollen wooden-plank dormitory living-room floor in Vermont. From that same scene my dancing self still periodically retrieves a mimicry of the solitary, ecstatic dancing of a young poet named Reginald Shepherd, who'd cascade his body side-to-side to the Psychedelic Furs and Donna Summer, propelled by his hurling arms, as if caught up on the shuttle of some gigantic loom—for a while I could only want to dance exactly like Reggie, and the phantom still gains possession of me from time to time.
When I got to college I was already a dancer. In my freshman year of high school I seized that role for myself, first, and definitively, at a Manhattan loft party full of hip adults to which my father had brought me and my new girlfriend, my first girlfriend. When the dance floor filled, not to be outdone by my father's friends, I began impulsively and spastically showing off in the midst of the dancers, finding my own ready dance-appropriating instinct available when I needed it to even begin—an image is still fresh in mind of the shaved-bald black man in dashiki whose technique I glommed, or tried to: he bent at the waist, snapped his fingers and shook his bright dome as if in a self-amused trance. His obliviousness to our regard was what I wanted for myself, was what I wished to hijack on behalf of my own craven pursuit of regard. I began immediately shaking my head, not yet capable of observing the finer details, how that dancer's headshaking must surely have been driven by less ostentatious but completely authoritative movements through his feet and hips, zones I'd yet to learn to activate. Yet my ears were open, I wasn't deaf to the music, I know I was in the kind of bodily rapture-in-sound where all real dancing begins. Alas, I was trying to lead my dance with my head, like trying to play a song's bass line on a pair of cymbals, or a triangle. Somehow I made this my trademark, no one intervened to advise me otherwise, and so I built my dancing body from the headshake downward, like a Cheshire Cat begun at the grin.
At grown-up parties in Brooklyn hippie communes, I gradually worked out my dancing on this basis, to the soundtrack of The Harder They Come and to the Rolling Stones and to Marvin Gaye and to the first Devo record, which I smuggled in and was allowed to play sometimes, earning in the process a nickname from my father's best friend, Roy Pingel: he called me the Headman. As the Headman I became the mascot dancer of a band in my high school, three brothers and a bass player named Blake Sloane, a blue-eyed soul group who called themselves Miller, Miller, Miller and Sloane. Their hit song, "Funky Family," a Jackson-5-ish A-side, was probably the song to which the Headman laboriously discovered his body—I danced to it at high school parties and alone in my room, wearing out several copies of the Miller brothers' parent-financed 45. I was or wanted to be Miller, Miller, Miller and Sloane's Fifth Beatle, the evidence of their groove, and so at our high school's auditorium but also at an opening slot at CBGB's I danced in some area closer to the band than the the rest of the audience of my schoolmates—who were as much their whole audience at CBGB's as they were in our high school auditorium—my vicariousness charted in real space. But I never pretended I was in the band—Miller, Miller, Miller and Sloane's perfect name spoke of the inalterable sense of their lineup.
The height of my dancing—the apogee, as I like to think of it—came in a club called Berkeley Square, in 1990 or '91. It was a day I'd spent free of my retail job, a day I'd spent at home discovering some new level of what my words could do—at the time I was writing a novel called As She Climbed across the Table, a book I associate with my learning to take command of my sentences, to make them dance the way I wanted them to. In the evening I went out dancing with some friends. In the middle of a strenuous sequence of songs Prince's "Kiss" came on, and in letting that song take me over, course through my body like a drug, with my dancing perhaps perfectly poised between savvy intention and callow frenzy, my knees and my head and what lay between all about as limber and aligned as my savvy and callow and frenzied sentences had been earlier that day, I found myself pretty sure that I was dancing, say, just about as well as anyone ever had. In fact I had the thought at that moment that there might be my equal at sentence writing roaming the earth, somewhere, might be even a few of them out there, and that the same could be said of my dancing, that I might not be the only dancer working at such a high level at this moment in the planet's history, but that certainly there was no one alive who could both write and dance the way I had that day. And I'm still almost convinced of it, I am.
The terms "jazz" and "rock and roll," as a great man once pointed out, are only blues musicians' slang for fucking. The whole history of pop, the half-century or more of intricate delirium is, in other words, a joke about fucking, but for me it is a joke I grew up inside, a joke that was also a daydream, a shaggy-dog story, a surrealist fable like Alice in Wonderland or The Phantom Tollbooth, depicting an alternate reality of jokes taken with scrupulous deadpan, a world I wanted to climb inside and flesh out with my own yearning, a realm between audience and band that seemed as sacred as both and perhaps more sacred than either one. In other words, it's a bloody miracle I didn't turn out a rock critic. I'm still not entirely sure how I evaded the honor.
When I was younger it was hard for me to keep the future and the past from collapsing—I persistently mixed up astronauts and dinosaurs, for instance. It was hard for me, too, thanks to the bohemian demimonde in which I dwelled, the milieu of my parents and their friends, all of them with their astonishingly valuable and mistreated record collections, to believe, for instance, that Bob Dylan and Beatles were not about fifty or a hundred years old, as canonical as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Walt Whitman, as revered as Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. The first time I learned there were human beings still alive—some of them my aunts and uncles—who still thought of rock and roll as "that noise," I laughed, feeling a kind of slaphappy disbelief. I was pretty sure everybody, for instance, knew that Paul wasn't "really" dead, but knew that some people had believed so, for a while. And the quest for the identity of the "Fifth Beatle," which seemed to me an allegory of authenticity and collective identity as deep as a Zen koan, represented an attempt to understand the world I'd been born into. The Fifth Beatle in particular haunted me like a ghost of crime, a Ross MacDonald investigation, where the façade of a life in the present peels away to expose the wild truths of the past, the impostures—some of them brave, some shameful—on which our contemporary reality was founded.
Who was "Murray the K"? What was payola? Do you mean to tell me that someone had to be paid to play rock and roll on the radio, that something unfair occurred, that the music had bought its way into our hearts? The idea of payola was in itself easy to conflate with the idea of "the hook," or the "irresistible hit record," or "Beatlemania" itself, the sense that pop was a kind of trick, a perverse revenge against the banality of daily life dreamed up collectively by ten or fifteen Delta bluesmen and a million or a hundred million screaming fourteen-year-old girls. Maybe if a rock-and-roll chorus, a killer hook was like a bullet or a drug or a virus—and payola therefore was a kind of gun or hypodermic needle, designed to penetrate a resistant culture—then we all lived in a world permanently drugged or psychedelically sick with fever, or dead and dreaming, like characters in a Philip K. Dick novel.
If so, I was grateful to live on the drugged, feverish, or dead side of the historical trauma. On the side of conspiracy theories stood Sutcliffe, Best, Epstein, Voorman, Preston, this sequence of suspects who were also victims, seeming to indict the magic circle of four heroes of some wrongdoing or at least misrepresentation. But these "Fifth Beatles" also seemed confirm the four in their status as iconic survivors—probably no one else deserved to be a Beatle, that might be the answer. And Bob Dylan, as Jimi Hendrix apparently knew, was your grandmother—full of gravelly authority and punitive conscience, nowhere near as fun, but titanically arresting—he was your grandmother in a wolf's costume for certain.
But soon enough I, too, was engaged in a kind of game of reverent skepticism, a weird pursuit of exposing the flimsiness of the cartoon world I loved, as if testing its authority. I remember the day I learned Ringo's drumming was "bad." So bad Paul had done some of it for him. Then—I recall it as if it was the very next thing I learned, like geometry leading to algebra—I read somewhere the beautiful thought that Ringo's role was to be our surrogate in the band, the Beatle who was also a fan of Beatles, in awe of the "real ones" from the nearest possible proximity. So maybe there was no Fifth Beatle, maybe there wasn't even a fourth! It was somehow inevitable to note next that George was given a free ride in the other songwriters' wake (yet you also could sense he was stunted or thwarted or cheated).
John explained bitterly that he wrote the hook to "Taxman," George's "best" song, just as Ray Davies was quick to note he helped his brother with "Death of a Clown," Dave Davies's greatest hit. So the sham notion of a "democracy of talent" within these great groups, with its analogous utopian implications for collective action, for a gestalt mind as depicted in Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, could dissolve into sour cynicism: the presiding genius probably could have done just as well with any other supporting cast. Or paradoxically, the reverse: the urge to pronounce the solo careers so thin and cheesy that the magic was proven to be in the lucky conjunction of a bunch of ordinary blokes, raised temporarily above their station as much by history and our love as by any personal agency: if there wasn't a Beatles we would have had to invent one, and perhaps we did. Maybe the search for the Fifth Beatle was always destined to end, like the list of Time Magazine's Person of the Year, with the conclusion that the Fifth Beatle is you. For evidence, one only needs to listen to The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl—here was music content to ride like a froth of sea foam atop a tsunami wave of adulation and yearning for, well, itself. What were little-girl screams if not the essential heart of Beatles' true sound, the human voice in a karaoke track consisting of the band itself? Getting by with a little help from my friends, indeed. Oh, and Dylan? A study of his sources reveals he was always just the guy who happened to be smart enough to steal Jon Pankake's record collection—literally a music writer's daydream run mad.
Our urge to expose the trick is bound up in our mad love at being tricked, a kind of revenge of the seduced, and simultaneously a projection of our knowing selves into the space between the singer and the song. Jim Morrison and Michael Stipe, unmusical jesters, posturing poets, charlatans—yet imagine their bands shorn of them, and maybe you're left with only forgettable garage rock outfits, nobody Chuck Berry couldn't hustle up in time to play a quick gig and then steal back out of town. In fact, I watched the Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll! again recently and was struck by it as a kind of masochistic orgy of deconstruction, a taunt to the audience's regard for this so-called art form. Here's Keith Richards, hastening to expose the very Stones themselves as nothing but an accretion of Chuck Berry licks, and here's the man himself, so unimpressed by what his followers have wrought that he can't even seem to pay full attention. The film is constructed as a detective story, a series of clues leading to Johnnie Johnson, the piano player whose chords Berry transposed to create his great hooks, so that all of rock and roll is revealed as inconsequential at its birth, a handful of copped stride-piano flourishes. Berry presents a nihilistic face, utterly destructive of his own legend, and by the time of the climactic concert, the hapless and poignant Julian Lennon is brought out for our inspection as a good-enough John substitute—"He looks and sounds just like his father," Berry asserts, and we're horrified to find ourselves in agreement. Then Robert Cray is celebrated by Berry as looking just like him—like Chuck Berry. As these ersatz figures parade we're pretty sure the film has confirmed the triple collapse of, at least, Beatles, Stones, and Berry, and as the depressingly complacent middle-aged audience confirms, there's nothing left to do but party.
As the men who play on stage with him will hasten to explain to you—and believe, they did so to me, to a man, from the young and the old in his last road band, to former star performers like Fred Wesley, James Brown is, sadly, not a musician. Those devoted and long-suffering players, all of whom also revere their boss as a creator and star beyond all comparison, have confessed how they always sniggered into their sleeves during his agonizing and agonized organ solos. Here was the Godfather of Soul, the unmistakable pioneer of our whole rhythmscape, derided as a kind of fake by his own collaborators, a half-assed Beethoven propped up by his orchestra.
In this role, weirdly, Brown's greatness is actually confirmed, since the notion of Brown as a kind of charlatan-presider over music he could never play himself exactly describes his role as bridge between the clown-jazz figures of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway and the hip-hop musicians whose world he brought into being, as the scatting, grunting foreground presence against a landscape of sonic astonishments. The showman whose exhortations and shouts of surprise at the virtuousity of the soloists mark him as an MC or DJ who inserted himself into the band, a figure of pure will and egotism, distinct from the audience in terms not so much musical as Nietzschean. He'd better be able to dance like a motherfucker to dare to take that half-vicarious role in our steads—dance, or else scream, or suffer, or make us suffer, or even better, all of the above. This too is where the figure of the punk from hell, the Iggy Pop or Sid Vicious whose authority derives from his ineptitude, spontaneity, embarrassment, and pain, can weirdly seem an allegory for the whole history of pop itself—these three chords, these cheesy riffs, this off-key singing, this doggerel poetry, all of it, somehow, a bluesman's or jazz man's joke taken way too seriously.
Excerpted from POP WHEN THE WORLD FALLS APART Copyright © 2012 by EMP Museum. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Introduction Eric Weibard 1
Collapsing Distance: The Love-Song of the Wanna-Be, or The Fannish Auteur Jonathan Lethem 7
Black Rockers vs. Blackies Who Rock, or The Difference between Race and Music Greg Tate 15
Toward an Ethics of Knowing Nothing Alexandra T. Vazqouez 27
Divided Byline: How a Student of Leslie Fiedler and a Colleague of Charles Keil Became the Ghostwriter for Everybody from Ray Charles to Cornel West David Ritz 40
Boring and Horrifying Whiteness: The Rise and Fall of Reaganism as Prefigured by the Career Arcs of Carpenters, Lawrence Welk, and the Beach Boys in 1973-74 Tom Smucker 47
Perfect Is Dead: Karen Carpenter, Theodor Adorno, and the Radio, or If Hooks Could Kill Eric Lott 62
Agents of Orange: Studio K and Cloud 9 Karen Tongson 82
Belliphonic Sounds and Indoctrinated Ears: The Dynamics of Military Listening in Wartime Iraq J. Martin Daughtry 111
Since the Flood: Scenes from the Fight for New Orleans Jazz Culture Larry Blumenfeld 145
Over the Rainbow Warrior: Israel Kamakawiwo'ole and Another Kind of Somewhere Nate Chinen 176
Travel with Me: Country Music, Race, and Remembrance Diane Pecknold 185
The Comfort Zone: Shaping the Retro-Soul Audience Oliver Wang 201
Within limits: On the Greatness of Magic Slim Carlo Rotella 230
Urban Music in the Teenage Heartland Brian Goedde Austin Bunn Elena Passarello 240
"Death to Racism and Punk Revisionism": Alice Bag's VexingVoice and the Unspeakable Influence of Canción Ranchera on Hollywood Punk Michelle Habell-Pallan 247
Of Wolves and Vibrancy: A Brief Exploration of the Marriage Made in Hell between Folk Music, Dead Cultures, Myth, and Highly Technical Modern Extreme Metal Scott Seward 271
The New Market Affair: Media Pranks, the Music Industry's Last Big Gold Rush, and the Hunt for Hits in the Shenandoah Valley Kembrew Mcleod 282
All That Is Solid Melts into Schmaltz: Poptimism vs. the Guilty Displeasure Carl Wilson 299