For the portion of author Robert Loss’s guest spot, he takes us through the music and artists he could not quite fit into the book. You can read his more on his study of newness and popular music in Nothing Has Been Done Before: Seeking the New in 21st Century American Popular Music.
Nothing Has Been Done Before is the second book in a new series from Bloomsbury, Alternate Takes: Critical Responses to Popular Music. The point of the series is “to examine popular music from critical perspectives that challenge the accepted ways of thinking.” Taking this idea to heart, I can’t help but think about potential alternate takes of my own book, ways that the same subjects and ideas might have been written about differently. And that’s not even taking into account the many albums, musicians, events, and critical perspectives left out of the book: alternate takes in a broader sense.
In that spirit, here are a few of what should more accurately be considered outtakes from Nothing Has Been Done Before. The list of musicians to whom I considered devoting serious ink is long. It includes St. Vincent, TV on the Radio, Jay Z, Wilco, Interpol, Danger Mouse, Lil’ Wayne, Animal Collective, Chainsmokers, and (duh) Beyoncé. Most of those, for better or worse, never got past the notes stage. Listed below are outtakes that very nearly made it into the book until they were replaced or cut.
- Roy Brown Prologue
Originally, the Prologue opened with Roy Brown and his band recording the jump blues song “Rockin’ at Midnight” in a New Orleans studio in January 1949. It’s an electric performance. His voice is going haywire. One of many moments that can be considered the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, “Rockin’ at Midnight” sounds like it’s perched on the edge of newness. Eventually, though, it was too distant from the book’s post-millennial subject matter. The opening wandered for a while until I knew I had the Prince chapter (“We Can Flux”), after which it made sense to open with the debut of Purple Rain in 1983.
One of the cuts I fought with myself the most about was a revised version of a column I originally published at PopMatters about the song “Driver 8,” which is from the 1985 album Fables of the Reconstruction and is easily one of my favorite R.E.M. songs of all time. During a concert three days before the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Michael Stipe introduced the song thusly: “This is a song that represents great hope and great promise, a song that represents the dream of the United States of America and what it may become in the next three days.” I was (and remain) fascinated by the audacity of that statement and its application to “Driver 8,” which never seemed particularly political to me. Given R.E.M.’s political activism in the 2000s, either in the studio (songs like “Final Straw” and “Living Well Is the Best Revenge”) or onstage, an expanded look at the band made sense as a follow-up to the “On the Good Side” chapter about antiwar music. I was also interested in the way that musicians “unfinish” songs, changing or adding to their meaning for various reasons including the desire to meet the contemporary moment in which they’re performed. But the manuscript was too long, and my analysis of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” in “Shouting at the Hard of Hearing” addressed the same question of “unfinishing.” I’ll probably post the R.E.M. chapter on my book’s website at some point.
- Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
There was going to be a chapter titled “Restoration of Love” devoted to the current of thought that I hear established in freak-folk of the early 2000s, namely the search for newness as a return to a more innocent state. The chapter would begin with Devendra Banhart but continue well into the 2010s and discuss other genres and styles, ending with a revised portion of another PopMatters column, this one about Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. I was never convinced by the band, never moved, and in the column I compared them to Up with People. Anyway: word count concerns. And it was more compelling, I thought, to force the freak-folk movement into “On the Good Side” as a counterpoint.
- American Idol
Omitting certain cultural benchmarks from Nothing Has Been Done Before seemed almost criminal, but (1) word count, (2) I was leery of crafting an avalanche of names, albums, incidents, and (3) if I didn’t have anything to say about a subject, then I didn’t say anything. A more objective study of the time period would certainly have to include American Idol, and I nearly did in the chapter “The New Digital Empire.” Debuting in the summer of 2002, American Idol is a perfect example of the way the pop spectacle accommodated the democratic promises of the internet, even if, on the surface, it resembled plenty of older talent-searching shows. (Like Star Search and—raise your hand if you remember it—Puttin’ on the Hits, “the show that makes you the star you always wanted to be!”) American Idol mythologized the music industry as the industry was self-destructing, a fascinating parallelism. Someone will eventually write a great book about that, but it won’t be me.
- “Glory,” performed by Common and John Legend, from the film Selma (2014)
Tucked into the long chapter on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was a consideration of this anthemic protest song. The intent was to compare opposing models of political revolution and newness, but the chapter was already long and unwieldy—it was the most complicated chapter in the book to write. Here’s a portion of the section that was cut, which includes a reference to a discussion earlier in the chapter about the difference between reform and revolution:
Nowhere on To Pimp a Butterfly, not even “Alright,” do you hear any reassurance of the new event’s inevitability like you hear it in “Glory,” a song from the 2014 film Selma performed by R&B singer John Legend and the rapper Common. As a model of revolution, “Glory” claims fidelity to the slow, incremental version of change pursued by the film’s subjects, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. I have trouble calling their actions reformative, however. If you’re getting beaten bloody by the police, chances are you’re seeking more than reform. “Glory” echoes the Civil Rights movement’s attempts to force the count through sacrifice and religious faith. “Glory is destined,” intones Common, insisting that “the sins that go against our skin become blessings.” Legend’s voice soars in counterpoint to Common’s steady, declarative rapping. A beautiful protest song that expresses zero doubt, it comes very, very close to sentimentalizing suffering. Writing for Slate, Aisha Harris called it “[d]eifying, ham-fisted, and blaring at you with its own sense of self-importance,” and I agree with her, though I’m not sure Common’s measured pace and his gestures in the song’s video are comparable to “everything terrible about slam poetry.” But for me, the problem is the tempo of change implied by the song. If God has vowed glory and justice and an end to police violence against Black Americans, then like a lot of people, I’m wondering what the hell’s taking Him so long.
Conceived as a sister series to 33 1/3 books, Alternate Takes intends to fill a gap in the market for books about popular music that are scholarly but also appeal to non-academic readers, books that challenge but also entertain. The series ultimately aims to have readers listen to – and think about – popular music in new ways. The first book in the series is When Genres Collide: Down Beat, Rolling Stone, and the Struggle Between Jazz and Rock by Matt Brennan, published this past February.
For more about the book, including events and a complete discography, visit: www.nothinghasbeendonebefore.com