Canon Fodder

by Rob Horning

5 April 2006

'In effect, the series de-pop-ifies the records, taking them out of the realm of spontaneous appreciation by fans, and organizes the discipline of album criticism as the specific practice of experts.' Can the widely revered pop albums chronicled in Continuum's 33 1/3 series survive the ardor of their most intelligent and impassioned critics? Rob Horning investigates.
PopMatters Features Editor

As a distinct medium, pop albums have had a brief 40-year history. Technology first made them possible in 1948, when Columbia introduced a “microgrooved” disc, the first 12-inch LP that played at 33 1/3 rpm. The format reigned long enough to make its limitations into hallmarks of a specific art form—two discrete 20-minute sides with songs that couldn’t be played out of sequence or randomly shuffled, packaged not in a paper sleeve but a cardboard cover to which a visual design could be added (a feature first seized upon by the innovative designers of jazz record sleeves in the 1950s). With these elements musicians could present a unified concept, carefully developed and duly illustrated, that embedded an array of artistic choices beyond when to repeat the chorus and when to start the bridge. With works like Songs for Young Lovers and In the Wee Small Hours, Frank Sinatra may have been among the first pop singers to exploit the conceptual potential of the LP, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that pop LPs came into their own—the flood of psych and prog concept albums that saturated the market after the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s in 1967 made the album-as-art-object idea ubiquitous.

But the advent of CDs undermined the grammar that once adhered to records and shrunk the album art to negligible size, and the album may be knocked out for good by the iPod. As more and more music is being distributed digitally by the song, the album’s days at this point seem seriously numbered. (Why listen to albums? Why not make your own? The personally relevant, carefully themed and sequenced mix CD is easier than ever to compile, and if you’re too lazy to do that, the iPod’s shuffle can make one for you.) Were the album to disappear, pop-music critics would be hit hardest, since the album justifies the pop-music critic’s pretensions. The album gives a critic what seems to be a substantial object worthy of rapt attention and a way to become a hagiographer for favorite bands without sounding as though one were gushing for Tiger Beat.

Though the album may be in jeopardy, another long-endangered medium, the book has proved resilient. Hence Continuum’s 33 1/3 project, a series of books in which critics—usually musician/journalists or slumming academics—write an exhaustive account of a favorite album and attempt to preserve the impact it presumably had on them. The series capitalizes on the first generation of writers who grew up worshipping pop albums the way preceding generations were enamored of film—as the medium that seemed the most intimate, suggesting who one could be; the most provocative, inspiring thoughts specific to its innovations; and the least exhausted by those who beat them to it.

The 33 1/3 books provide a forum for this fresh cohort of intellectuals, whose first experience of how thought and feeling can merge and soar together on flights of interpretive fancy likely came while brooding over a record, pouring over its lyric sheet, and studying its often esoteric cover art. (A common motif in the Continuum books consists of replaying this discovery sequence.) With the general public losing interest in albums as albums, it’s the perfect time for critics to step in and “save” the album by elevating it to the status of art and subjecting it to the kind of scrutiny with the sort of heavy-hitting theoretical tools usually reserved for Joyce’s novels or Cezanne’s paintings. Though the books overwhelm readers with all sorts of interesting information, ranging from band gossip and recording-studio protocol to nuances of sound engineering and music theory to sociological and linguistic analyses, these books end up telling us less about the record itself than the authors’ determination to invest them with cosmic significance, to dignify them with every ounce of learning they can muster, to treat them as canonical works.

The uniformity of the Continuum books certainly evokes a handsome, Oxford Classics-type imprimatur. The volumes all have an identical design: the front is always laid out the same—the album cover beside the 33 1/3 logo, placed above an unbroken field of color with the album title in white block letters at the bottom—and the spines are numbered, like encyclopedia volumes (or Hardy Boys Mysteries—number 31, The Case of the Notorious Byrd Brothers). And while each author has an idiosyncratic approach to the chosen album, the books seem to have a certain requisite content as well: all include a depiction of the context from which the record emerged—the milieu of black magic, in Erik Davis’s look at Led Zeppelin IV (number 17); the history of English fascism for Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces (number 21)—and are accompanied by a song-by-song close analysis. And by close, I mean extremely close: often these nuts-and-bolts descriptions account for virtually every detail that’s gone into the sound of the song, chord change by chord change if not phrase by phrase, exhausting every plausible source of inspiration and musical influence.

For example, in his book on Exile on Main St. (number 18), Bill Janovitz gives each track an average of four pages. The emphasis on description rather than interpretation suggests the quixotic intention of recreating the cherished album as text—not merely in the sense that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” and everything is up for interpretive grabs, but in the sense that the recording literally becomes text, a printed book that supplements the album and perhaps, to borrow another Derridian conceit, is on the way to supplanting it. (At $10 each, the books even cost about as much as a record did back in their twilight.) When these descriptions are joined with extensive quotations from interviews with the band and the record’s producers and Works Cited lists that catalog dozens of references, the result is books that seem part Cliffs Notes, part Behind the Music, and part graduate seminar, but still unified enough to stand as a kind of Twayne Authors series for rock records.

Devoting a monograph to an album not only recasts the record as a curated objet d’art worthy of intensive analysis, but it also enshrines the rock critic as a kind of scholar, constituting his specialized field of knowledge and organizing it as a quasi-academic discipline. In effect, the series de-pop-ifies the records, taking them out of the realm of spontaneous appreciation by fans, and organizes the discipline of album criticism as the specific practice of experts. Just as the universal appeal and accessibility of Shakespeare is routinely asserted in impenetrably gnomic works of scholarship, the 33 1/3 books posit a universal appreciation for endlessly accessible pop music as it, intentionally or not, retracts its precious musical artifacts from the hurly-burly world of mass consumption and embalms them in erudition.

After reading one of these, you’re often left with the sense that pop records are rarified and arcane objects of mystical potency that one must approach with the diligence, reverence, and thoroughness of a Talmud scholar. Davis half-jokingly writes, “the rock LP was, in the early 1970s anyway, a shrink-wrapped amulet, a plastic pentacle that invoked powers of air.” It may be that for better or for worse, art forms that lose resonance with the public only survive in the aspic of the ivory tower. Thus popular culture once available to everyone is transmogrified into art for only those with the social capital to understand intricate interpretations and decode them—it is how art becomes art history.

Undoubtedly these earnest books are written with the best intentions; they tend to be extremely conscious of all that’s lost in the process of their audio-to-text conversions, and they are careful not to push any interpretations they venture as definitive, sensitive to the notion that each listener in the end brings a unique set of circumstances that determine what it is he hears. Kim Cooper speaks for the general sentiment when, in her book about Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (number 29), she writes, “I told the folks at Continuum that I wasn’t interested in subjecting the album to a literal-minded line-by-line analysis, sucking all the mystery out of the lyrics and spoiling their effects.” She asks that we see her descriptions of the songs as “cover versions,” reiterating the idea that the writers are somehow performing the albums over again in their assessments.

The writers certainly don’t want erect barriers around records or impose critical tyranny, but when you write 50,000 words or so about one thing you inevitably begin to claim de facto ownership. And it’s not like Continuum is going to commission another book about Abba Gold (number seven) written by someone else. When J. Niimi, author of the book on Murmur (number 22), goes so far to assert, “I made Murmur as much as it made me” he likely means it as a democratic sentiment, a reiteration of the cultural-studies trope that consumers are producers too, and we all remake the things we buy with our unique usage. But in the context of the fact that he’s literally writing the book about Murmur, it can seem like a boast.

Taken to its logical extreme, this position threatens to make all albums more or less the same: it makes them all arbitrary raw material for the critic’s churning mind. Just about anything can serve as the occasion for an outpouring of social analysis or deep introspection, as Paul Morley proved with Words and Music, a dense work of phenomenological criticism derived from a Kylie Minogue song. The critic’s own fertile mind usurps whatever richness was inherent to the specific artwork, and any album becomes another opportunity for intellectual acrobatics, threatening to make the album itself virtually irrelevant. In the Continuum books where an author uses an album as an occasion for plumbing their own biography, this becomes most obvious, as the identity of the writer takes precedence over the essence of the work discussed. While this can illustrate the power of pop music to shape identity and the methods through which this happens, it obviates whatever specific intent the musicians may have had, renders that and the album itself as ultimately unknowable.

But then, this is probably the writer’s precise agenda. It resounds in the humility that tends to come across in the 33 1/3 books, regardless of how much pretension or narcissism can be identified in any particular writer’s approach. Some of the undeniable attraction of these books stems from how they try to build a mythology out of a record, and myths rely on there being ineffable mystery at their heart, something that remains untouched, unsolved even after hours of devotional meditation—even after you’ve played your copy of Unknown Pleasures (number nine) for the 10,000th time. The underlying aim of all the Continuum books is not necessarily to make an album any easier to understand or appreciate but to make it seem miraculous. The information they convey is superfluous in comparison to the listening process they seek to vindicate. They investigate particular albums and use a specific thesis to explore what it is finally that makes any album worth hearing, worth paying attention to, worth changing who you think you are or how you think about the world for. They want to drive you to an album and make you listen to it so hard that maybe you’ll forget everything you’ve just read about it and hear something new.

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