'Litpop - Writing and Popular Music' Suffocates From a Lack of the Lively Air of Opinion
This anthology is meant to study two of the most lively artistic fields on the planet, and yet it's bogged down by articles of no great substance and no great joy.
Litpop: Writing and Popular MusicPublisher: Ashgate
Length: 243 pages
Publication date: 2014-12
It's easy, even fun, to discredit academic studies of popular culture. Attribute that to Don DeLillo for skewering it so damn perfectly in White Noise, if you'd like, but what might have once seemed only the ultimate reductio ad absurdum – classes devoted to the sociopolitical undertones of car crashes in popular movies, whole departments dedicated to Hitler and Elvis Presley – grows less and less ludicrous with each passing year.
Or at least less impossible: the fact that Rutgers University offers higher level English courses centered on “The Theology of Bruce Springsteen” and Duke University sees nothing wrong with slotting a class entitled “California Here We Come: The O.C. & Self-Aware Culture of the 21st Century America (sic)” into its syllabi proves either that some faculties have a great sense of humor or that they really are as out of touch as they've so often been deemed.
There's nothing inherently absurd in analyzing a culture by way of it most popular art and most influential artists. Truly gifted theorists, such as a Baudrillard or a Terry Eagleton, have long been able to synthesize convincing sociological and philosophical theories from a wide-survey of such topics; in the hands of less intelligent but still earnest thinkers it's at least a convenient kind of societal barometer and a simple way to see what most concerns the minds of the mass audience. Even an out-of-touch professor, struggling with student apathy and desperate to make abstract theory relatable, can't be judged too harshly for over-intellectualizing trash. His intentions are at least pure.
It's the bums and the charlatans and the scores of the third-rate academics (you know the kind, whose publishing record consists of nothing more than contributions to those asinine [Blank] and Philosophy books) who have made White Noise's hysterical joke a disappointing reality. Unlike DeLillo's Murray, though, who was often spared being insufferable by his irascibility and wit, or the imposing Alfonse Stompanato (who, with his passion, could make even the semiotics of a cereal boxes seem somehow fascinating), this gaggle of self-serious pedants have nothing to recommend them. They do not even seem to have a deep love for their work: they seem devoted solely to draining the vitality out of everything it is they analyze, like a gang of psychic vampires. Ridiculous though it is, their work is so dull that it is not even worthy of being called “absurd”.
It is from these ranks that the editors of Litpop: Writing and Popular Music, as joyless and dry a reading experience as you might ever have, plucked their cohort of writers. The “how” of it is hard to determine: this anthology is meant to study the intersection of literature and popular music, two of the most lively artistic fields on the planet, and yet it's bogged down by articles of no great substance and no great joy that take the academic pass-time of hairsplitting and hyperbole to depths heretofore inconceivable. Much of that can be as attributed to the style of writing as to the content.
Witness Richard Osborne's “Audio Books”, which is devoted mostly to comparing and contrasting the functions of book covers and records sleeves. Though he does offer some interesting insight into how the standard style of record sleeves evolved and valuable insight into the history of recorded music, that's not, for Osborne, the main point of the essay. Rather, his chief concern is in exploring how record labels and book covers function as “paratexts”, a dry fascination that leads to insights so banal you'd suspect nobody would ever be foolish enough to make them.
“There are differences between dusk jackets and record sleeves,” Osborne asserts, as though this were ever in question; “the sleeve can be read while the record is being played. This is not the case with the introduction or synopsis of a book, which cannot be read at the same time of the main text.” Such a pointless observation is so insignificant it's better off unmade. And yet the way it's presented – in a neutral, flat tone, the very same tone he uses to explain the history and evolution of records and the recording process – suggests that this information isn't just interesting. It suggests it's important.
Other times the writers opt for a little more bombast. Julia Downes' “We Are Turning Cursive Letters Into Knives”, a study of the riot grrrl movement, begins and ends with similarly useless but inflated sentiments. Downes wastes no time in contesting “the simplistic notion of riot grrrl as an identity category, a genre of music, or a style,” asserting instead that it's “diverse practices involving bodies, behaviors, sound, music, writing techniques, imagery and myths.” It's not an entirely incorrect sentiment, but it's so general it might as easily be applied to any other of the eight million subcultures that have sprung up around every genre of music. Worse, it's pompous, a deliberate attempt to mythologize a movement that, while influential, lasted only a few short years before self-destructing.
Though it's clear from Downes' own writing and the many notes from Kathleen Hanna – founder of Bikini Kill and the major figure in the riot grrrl movement – that riot grrrl was a slapdash affair with little direction, Downes is convinced that it's “important if we are to recognize and realise (sic) radical subjectivities and feminist cultures in the future.” Nothing is made of how thrilling or alive the movement was, little is noted about the sound of the music, and no attention is given to any of the other figures within it: for all that Downes says, riot grrrl may have been a doctoral thesis that was born, lived and then died on some middling college campus somewhere. She captures nothing of the energy, nothing of how essential it must have seemed to those living it, and treats the music, so lively and thrilling and edged, as if it were an afterthought. In attempting to make it something of grand importance she reduces it to something lifeless.
Even some of the more insightful authors, such as Gerard Moorey, are quick to draw strange and ultimately distracting conclusions that waste whatever goodwill or patience they've earned. When he stops in the middle of his analysis of Vernon God Little to note, “It's worth pausing here to consider… (that) Vernon's taste in music is derived from his mother's taste... the music (he) refer to reminds us as readers that, he is, as the child of a single parent, very much his mother's child and that musically, this has allowed him to form a greater range of affective attachments and a broader and more personalised (sic) conception of cultural history,” it's not just distracting, it's confusing. For one thing, it comes across as unnecessarily confrontational, a completely incidental bit of ax grinding – nowhere before has Moorey made much of a point that men see music merely as a tool to “assert a chauvinist masculinity”, so why make the point (unfounded as it is) now? Worse, he even admits that this is a “pause” in his essay, one he glosses right over, despite the fact that this very note provides a perfect chance to develop his thesis: that music, in Vernon God Little as in life, has warped from a social experience to a painfully personal one that seems to dictate our lives.
Not every article is quite so silly. If it's not first-rate literary analysis, at least David Ibitson's “A Burlesque of Art” provides a lucid and clever close-reading of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat that serves to explain how the novel's class-centric themes and fascination with music reflect the cultural mores of Victorian England. Left with more room to develop his theories on satire and to examine out the parallels between contemporary and Victorian views of entertainment, he might even have produced something of significance.
“Is Natural In It” – an examination of the strategies, both musical and political, of seminal post-punk bands Gang of Four and Scritti Politti – provides a shallow but approachable introduction to both bands and the various theorists they took inspiration from. There's very little of the bloviating here that is so present in other articles. Though it might have done with a bit of that: for all of their theoretical competence these mediocre articles are still a drudgery, hobbled by an academic style that assumes the reader is an imbecile who cannot follow even the simplest logical thread. They lack discernible character; what wisdom they have to offer comes presented as gruel, so thick and tasteless a paste there's not a soul alive who'd eat it willingly.
Better they'd looked to Paul Crosthwaiter. He's no mastercraftsman, still writing in the same stodgy, didactic register as the rest of his peers, but he possesses a bitchy wit that is not unwelcome. There's wicked joy in the way he attacks the type of journalist he dubs an “imaginative historicist”. And he's got a particular disdain for those who've built up a small cult around mythologizing Joy Division. He takes to tasks their propensity for asinine exaggeration (“For Hasla, it is not so much that Joy Division's music anticipated the rejuvenation of [Manchester] but that this music… actively brought this renewal about... This is imaginative historicism in full flight”), for their far-fetched and contrived systems of interpretation (what he dubs “occultural studies”) and for their lack of intellectual rigor (“because imaginative historicism eschews empiricism, it is all the more reliant on a factor that is always... essential to the power and persuasiveness of historicist criticism: style.”) in a way that as probing as it is entertaining. He seems unafraid to tackle the excesses of his peers, to actually examine and critique the process of writing about music.
By contrast, Jennifer Skellington, who takes a minute to look at how writing on popular music evolved during the '80s, is so dedicated to remaining objective that she commits the same sin as Osborne. Analysis, especially of art, almost demands an accompanying critique; in choosing to do nothing but present the writing as she's found it and give a few cursory notes on it, she invites the reader to either ignore her or to assign her essay undue importance. She's droning on in a whisper when she doesn't have to, making a subject that's rife with possibility as dull as could possible be. And for what? To deliver the insight that popular music journalism in major publications during the Thatcher years was unduly preoccupied with the power, the fame, and the wealth of musicians? It's hardly revelatory but, again, the way it's presented -- so objectively and so plainly -- suggests some delicate article in a museum, some ancient and important fossil that must be handled with care lest it be tarnished by the lively air of opinion. When writing strives this hard to be objective it tends to value all insights equally; in doing so it devalues those discoveries that are truly worthy while lending the most trite of topics an unwarranted air of importance.
The core idea behind Litpop is not it self flawed – there's plenty worth discussing about the overlap of literature and of popular music, as even some of the writers here demonstrate – but it's entirely too broad. It's also entirely too uneven, privileging the ludicrous and the pointless as much as the probing and profound. For one thing, music journalism is given such short shrift it doesn't merely seem unjust, it seems unwise. Here is the major intersection of literature and music, a field that's birthed dozens of world-class stylists and a lively literary legacy, and yet the most that can spared for it are two essays, one significantly better than the other? Perhaps that might have seemed self-indulgent to the writers or even counter-intuitive: who would have time for writing this stodgy if they knew that they could be reading Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs or Robert Christgau instead?
Likewise, historically controversial issues, such as the endless debate about whether lyrics qualify as poetry or not, or that old saw that hip-hop is the new poetry, are only addressed glancingly if at all. No great lyricists are ever even named, nothing is made of certain obvious literary influences on certain major musicians. There's not even a word beyond the preface that is given to the development of “litpop” as a field of study nor a dribble of ink spent on the burgeoning academic interest growing up around it. By no means could this anthology be comprehensive, the editors even acknowledge as much in the introduction, but by no means did it have to be so... dusty. It's hard to recommend LitPop to academics, given the poverty of the material. And it's impossible to recommend it to the casual reader or music enthusiast, because of the rotten style and that same dearth of interesting material. About the only people who might make anything of it are would-be DeLillo's or other enemies of academia.