Something that I recently learned is that if you’re going to “academize” pop music, you have to lay down a set of ground rules, first. If you’re going to write something about Bob Dylan, for instance, and you’re going to label him as anything other than a singer, songwriter, or musician, you’d better be clear on the fact that you’re no longer writing about the man himself. Now you’re working on the myth.
Today, so much has been written about the golden age of pop music in newspapers, magazines, and books, and now on the Internet too, that the boundless enthusiasm of writers across the globe has yielded an astonishing array of literature that documents this breathtaking period in western cultural history. Consequently, the effect that this literature has had on the way we perceive new music today has been tremendous.
If we take a moment to remember that pop music (Note: I use a broad definition of the term throughout, emphasizing the original abbreviation of the word “popular” and including rock, rap, and country) was once largely considered a simplistic and disposable form of entertainment — as opposed to anything that could be called “great art” — we begin to get an idea of just how powerful an effect music journalism and other related literature has had on our contemporary consciousness.
With this in mind, I undertook my editor’s challenge to review the All Music Guide Required Listening Series with an eye towards its significance as a kind of pop music encyclopedia. It was not my initial reaction to the books, but it is one that I now feel is especially relevant given the current state of pop music today.
Divided into three volumes: “Classic Rock”, “Old School Rap & Hip-Hop”, and “Contemporary Country”, Required Listening approaches the compilation of the most significant releases within each “genre” with the aim being to provide students of pop history with a basic familiarity and understanding of its most influential players.
This it does, and — in the case of the “Old School Rap & Hip-Hop” volume (the most interesting of the series) — goes even further towards tracing the origins of an important American cultural phenomenon.
Along with requisite entries covering albums by hip-hop heavyweights The Sugar Hill Gang, Run D.M.C., N.W.A., Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Wu-Tang Clan, there’s substantial coverage of the welterweights here, too. Among these are albums like “Cosby kid” classic He’s The DJ, I’m the Rapper by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em (you know, by that guy with the flat-top and parachute pants?).
Jokes aside, this approach seems to be the best way to document the early growth of rap in all its variations. What’s more, it represents an open-mindedness that should assuage the doubts of those dissatisfied with canonization impulses. The most insightful section of the book, however, is found in its second half (entitled “Digging in the Crates”), which includes a host of influential jazz, funk, reggae, spoken-word, and R&B artists who have now come to be regarded as the harbingers of hip-hop.
As far as the “Classic Rock” installment goes, the members of the ancient pantheon are all in attendance, with albums by Journey, Styx, and REO Speedwagon rounding out a list of arena-ready has-beens. There are wildcards, too, such as the inclusion of Jimmy Buffet’s malignant hits album, Songs You Know By Heart (Sorry, Dad), and the tragic exclusion of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s seminal 1970 debut Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
The volume’s saving graces lie in the highlighting of lost masterpieces from the late ‘60s and other periods prior to the dawn of MTV, such as Kinks albums The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur, Love’s Forever Changes, and The Zombies’ Odessy and Oracle. After all, one of the areas in which guidebooks tend to most often succeed is in giving readers a more representative, multi-sided view of well-known artists.
Conversely, it’s worth noting that one of the dangers of “ultimate” guidebooks like these lies in their potential to perpetuate a homogenous general perception. Being that there are so many of these books currently available (an Amazon search for “Rock Album Guide” yields 245 results), each representing a different set of experts, this would seem to be an unlikely consequence, but it nonetheless remains a real pitfall.
Consider the complete and utter unassailability of the Beatles’s canon, for instance. Two or three generations’ worth of steady adulation, spurred on by the media on almost all fronts, has transformed the Fab Four into the indisputable gods of rock. Hero worship is one thing, but elitism is another.
I was perturbed to find that on the back covers of some of these books phrases like, “Drop knowledge like the pros!” (“Hip-Hop”), or worse, “An indispensable tool for building a no-risk album collection” (“Classic Rock”). A “no-risk album collection?” Are we talking about a book or an insurance plan, here? The old cliché rings true, however, and in spite of the marketing jive, the All Music Guide Required Listening Series makes an admirable effort to mix it up and shed light on the lesser-known acts who had significant roles in shaping the course of pop music in its golden age.
On the other hand, the “Contemporary Country” volume of the set represents an equitable attempt at legitimizing a branch of enormously popular (not to mention current) music that music buffs generally tend to despise. As editors Chris Woodstra, John Bush, and Stephen Erlewine note in the introduction, “Even among country fans, there are plenty of listeners who claim to only like the old stuff, since the new stuff doesn’t sound like country. Or some listeners claim to like new stuff only if it’s Americana — rigidly rustic music that goes out of its way to sound traditional but never gets played on the radio, never really rubs shoulders with the big names of country music.” It’s a little unusual to find anyone gunning to justify the cool kids, but it is an accurate assessment of sentiments that are widely held.
Overall, the All Music Guide Required Listening Series is just what you’d expect from the creators of the AMG online database. It’s exhaustive in its approach and attempts to give readers an understanding of the bigger picture. It’s a solid resource for what’s left of that once mighty legion of consumers known as “the record buying public”.
As far as flaws go, they’re less specific to these books than they are to music reference guides more broadly. Along with the propagation of homogeneity, guidebook authors and other music experts always run the risk of relegating (whether consciously or not) modern musical activity to second-class status. This then translates into the over-glorification of past masters. You could compare this idea with an argument that some people make about museums: they can often strip the vitality from the objects that they house and display. Can the same thing be said for the cult of pop music?
You sometimes hear the word “dinosaur” get thrown around when people talk about aging rock institutions like The Who and The Stones, or even U2 and REM. Well, it seems as though dinosaur acts like these are going to keep chugging along, so long as the music presses keep humming, anyway.
I believe that, for many, rock ‘n’ roll seems to have mutated into something new and different from what it was initially intended to represent. You’ll nowadays hear of teenage kids wanting to go to Dylan shows simply because they want to get a glimpse of the staggering legend before he finally topples over for good. It’s a little as though Mr. Zimmerman and other golden era pop luminaries like Sir Paul or Sir Elton (and I’ll continue talking about rockers because I know rockers best) have become traveling museum exhibits themselves.
In 2006, people wanted to catch Paul McCartney singing “When I’m 64” (the year he turned 64) because it was a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – not unlike visiting the Great Pyramid or the Forbidden City.
What I’m ultimately trying to get at is that guidebooks like those in the Required Listening Series are great if they’re handled correctly. The AMG series itself is a helpful reference and should be considered as such. It’s worthy of note that you don’t learn very much from an encyclopedia (much as college students such as myself may whine and moan, professors still won’t let us quote from Wiki). An encyclopedia is all factoids, thumbnail sketches—whatever you’d like to call it.
I recommend this series, if one must consult / reference an ‘encyclopedia’, because it’s very well put together, but only cautiously and with two stipulations. The first? Remember what Alexander Pope said about “A Little Knowledge”. The second: don’t let this set become a “visitor’s guide”.
All Music Guide Required Listening: Classic Rock
All Music Guide Required Listening: Old School Rap and Hip-Hop
All Music Guide Required Listening: Contemporary Country