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Pop When the World Falls Apart: Music in the Shadow of Doubt

(Duke University Press; US: Apr 2012)

Culled from the Pop Conference at Experience Music Project, this anthology serves as a master course in music criticism. True to its title, the essays examine music in times of trouble, “the role of pop,” editor Eric Weisbard writes, “when it seems that the world has fallen apart”––a topic that certainly every rock and pop scribe has contemplated and maybe even riffed on in his or her own time. The writers represented here face it down with certainty, calm, and pens that spill the truth.


Cast your glance beyond Jonathan Lethem’s nice but unnecessary “Collapsing Distance: The Love-Song of the Wanna-Be, or the Fannish Auteur” and dive headlong into Greg Tate’s excellent “Black Rockers Vs. Blackies Who Rock, or The Difference between Race and Music”. Not only would that have made a great title for a song by some Midwestern screamo/post-hardcore band in the heart of the last decade, it also makes for a helluva introduction to the rest of the volume.


Tate’s beautifully written essay has the spectacular leaps of a poem or a saxophone solo and we read patiently as he charts his own evolution from “sci fi nerd to Black Music Nationalist” to a man who saw the dawn of the Black Rock Coalition and beyond. Let it be known that the man has impeccable taste in music and an impeccable sense of humor––one that adds extra whallup when the final point makes its entrance and fully entrances the reader.


David Ritz––the man who gave Marvin Gaye the phrase “sexual healing” (Gaye was adrift on a sea of heartbreak and freaky pornography) and co-wrote the singer’s massive hit just after that most profound and offhand utterance––describes his life as a ghostwriter in “Divided Byline”, a poignant piece about an art that deserves respect and further investigation. It speaks to that moment when we rock scribes realize that we’ll probably never reach the status of Bangs or Klosterman but it also reminds us that there’s something more moving, something deeper, indeed something simply beyond.


Tom Smucker’s “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” sheds light on the second sign of the apocalypse, while Eric Lott’s “Perfect Is Dead” in part follows Karen Carpenter’s need to be the former and how it lead her to become the latter. More importantly, we are temporarily invested in the lives of a brother and sister act that, today, seem unforgivably sterile. Lott’s piece doesn’t have the bite of his friend Smucker’s, however. It seems that Lott never quite finds what he wants to say and the essay––as impressive as the topic and approach may be––feels unfinished. Maybe that’s just as well and maybe it is, in its way, the perfect tribute to Karen Carpenter.


Karen Tongson’s “Agents of Orange: Studio K and Cloud 9” might not initially play to those outside Southern California but it sinks its hooks in early and holds you close until the end. J. Martin Daughtry’s “Belliphonic Sounds and Indoctrinated Ears: The Dynamics of Military Listening in Wartime Iraq” is without a doubt the most original of the writings included in these pages and its author comes armed with a remarkable ear for the language and a sense of style that are both positively explosive.


Larry Blumenfield’s “Since the Flood: Scenes from the Fight for New Orleans Jazz Culture” will inspire anger and tears while Nate Chinen’s “(Over the) Rainbow Warrior: Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and Another Kind of Somewhere” examines how a simple song, one written for children, really, became a striking political and social statement––perhaps down to the intervals of the melody. Chinen’s pitch perfect analysis is worth study and marvel and, more importantly, his ability to have us read about a piece of music many of us have probably long ago tired of or written off as oozing cloying sentimentality, is admirable.


Oliver Wang’s examination of retro-soul and its audience, “The Comfort Zone”, is equally well executed and, like any great piece of music criticism, will send the reader digging in the basement crates for a few obscure sides. Michelle Habell-Pallán’s championing of the early Los Angeles punk rocker Alice Bags in “Death to Racism and Punk Revisionism” is harrowing and haunting and makes this seemingly otherwise marginal character demand our attention. Diane Pecknold’s “Travel With Me: Country Music, Race, and Remembrance” is the most difficult to read––at least for this writer––not because it isn’t good but because it’s something that should have been said a long time ago. Luckily, it looks as though the author will be saying a whole lot more about the topic.


Levity takes over in the volume’s final pages. Scott Seward’s examination of the connection between folk ideas and extreme metal. If you follow the genre, you probably already know where he’s going but don’t let that stop you from reading. Kembrew McLeod’s focus on a prank that got out of hand in the pages of Spin magazine then spilled over into real life is not only hilarious but a good reminder of a time when rock had a good sense of humor about it and not just a whole lotta irony.


Let there be no doubt that this is one of the best anthologies of music writing you’ll find this year and one that’s destined to be required reading for any kid who thinks he has what it takes to make it in the rough ‘n’ tumble world of music criticism.

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Jedd Beaudoin is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. He holds an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from Wichita State University and hosts Strange Currency six nights week for Wichita Public Radio. His writing has appeared in No Depression and The Crab Orchard Review as well as at websites such as Ytsejam.com and Amazon.com.


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