One of the many writers who was unlucky not to make the final cut last week was Kevin Dettmar. His new book is published by Routledge and it’s definitely worth reading, especially if you’re interested in the history of music writing.
A couple of introductory points: (a) don’t let the bluntness of the title put you off – the book doesn’t really ask that question at all, and (b) the book is cursed by having one of the worst cover designs I’ve ever seen. (And I don’t feel bad saying that – we’ve had our fair share here at Continuum over the years.) Once you get past the title and the cover, this is an excellent book.
Dettmar is particularly strong on the first wave of “anti-rock” writing in the 1950s. Here’s a good passage from the chapter on American nervousness about rock & roll:
“In the most preposterous example that I’ve come across, a popular columnist for the Washington Post, John Crosby, quite literally mistakes the burgeoning of rock & roll for its demise:
One thing about Elvis Presley, the convulsive shouter of rock ‘n’ roll songs – if that’s what they are: This may be the end of rock ‘n’ roll and just conceivably a return to musical sanity. I mean where do we go from Elvis Presley?…Popular music has been in a tailspin for years now and I have hopes that with Presley it has touched bottom and will just have to start getting better.
As we’ll explore in chapter 3, a number of baby boomers are eager to suggest, for sometimes transparently personal reasons, that the death of Elvis Presley in 1977 marked as well the death of rock & roll, but Crosby is perhaps the only critic ever to suggest that the ascent of Elvis spelled ‘the end of rock ‘n’ roll.’ This confusion of growth with death suggests that a complex set of cultural contradictions is at work.
By the same token, the angriest, ugliest contribution to the genre belongs to William Leonard, writing in 1957 for the Chicago Tribune. His disdain fairly (or unfairly) oozes from the passage:
Maybe you don’t care when an ex-teenager like me tells you your rock ‘n’ roll music sounds like two firemen chopping down a door. That’s your privilege. Just don’t try to tell us grown folks, complete with the right to vote, that it’s important, and history-making.
You and your rock ‘n’ roll music and your ‘revolt against authority’ are embarked on a children’s crusade. For the great majority of you who don’t know anything about history – the children’s crusade ended nowhere, with all the kiddies dead.
That’s where your ‘revolt’ is going. Relax for a few years, and, first thing you know, you’ll be grown up.
There’s also an endnote I really like, on page 170 of the book:
“One other complicated response to this phenomenon is the notion of the ‘guilty pleasure’: yeah, I know that Guns n’ Roses (or Coldplay) are crap, but I like them anyway: they’re a guilty pleasure. This, too, seems a mode of betrayal best left to one side by real fans; as my friend Jennifer Wicke says, for any form of popular entertainment that gives real joy, real pleasure, there’s no guilt. We need, instead, critics who are willing to do the hard work of explaining why they value the music that others want to write off as pop – this is an important and compelling critical project. Call it the Celine Dion problem, perhaps.”
Which ties in very nicely to Carl Wilson’s forthcoming 33 1/3 about Celine…