Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to BeyoncéW.W. Norton, 2014, 624 pp., $29.95
If you’ve ever seen the Jim Jarmusch film Mystery Train (1989), you’ve witnessed the whole of pop music criticism in microcosm, in the form of two Japanese tourists spending a night in Memphis while on a pilgrimage devoted to the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Mitsuko shows her boyfriend the “important discoveries” in her notebook, pictures of the Statue of Liberty and Madonna; like a parody of the stuffy, tenured Americanist and his archetypes, they all look like Elvis. In another scene they share a cigarette and Jun interrupts her musing about the King by declaring Carl Perkins better.At the risk of vindicating one side or the other by comparison, the dynamic in this lovers’ quarrel is exactly the same in the contemporary version of this debate: the endless conversation between “rockists” and ”poptimists,” between deriders and defenders of commercial pop music. The latter lines up neatly with a modern culture at war with the notion of guilt or shame of any kind, even that incurred by something as small as a love of the lowbrow—a culture that encourages pride in philistinism. The former consists of people who suggest things like, “if you feel so guilty about it, maybe there’s a good reason.” Not for lack of honest critics trying to kill it, this dichotomy refuses to die, and as of April is still the subject of NPR features. As ever, it’s less about any particular artist than a proxy fight over opposing cultural and ideological commitments.As with any debate, no matter how trivial the stakes may be, “[T]aking sides is part of the fun,” says Bob Stanley, author of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé. And he’s right, though throughout the book he keeps his musical and ideological predilections pretty close to the chest, to the point that sometimes you wish he’d take his own advice.Nevertheless, some things can be inferred from Stanley’s biography. He is a veteran of the British music press, and a member of the 1990s indie dance-pop band Saint Etienne. When he laments the “demise of the music paper,” it’s something he knew well and had a stake in. And whether or not he’d describe himself as a poptimist, when he praises the chorus of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” as “astonishing” and the lyrics as “moist-eyed” and “killer,” one suspects that he’s on the more voguish side of the pendulum. He says that the distinction between rock and pop is “false,” then just a few paragraphs later frets that “rockism still exists, and snobbery is still rife.”Which is to say, he knows he’s on the winning side. As one reviewer put it, “Stanley’s poptimism—its lack of snobbery, its rejection of the principle of ‘guilty pleasures’, its exuberant and cross-generational linkages—has become the norm.” Rockist dissidents are to be pacified with all the ferocity of General Turreau’s colonnes infernales; Nick Cave and Bjork are to be rounded up and given a republican marriage.I exaggerate, but only a bit. It’s a tragic indictment of criticism today that the only significant dissent from poptimism comes from the braindead, identity politics left, which actually seems to think the industry cares about, or is threatened by, some armchair sociologist who has decoded the racial politics surrounding Miley Cyrus’s twerks. Is this a problem? Only if you’re a snob, obviously. For my part, being subjected to discussions about whether people should be relieved of guilt for their guilty pleasures is enough to make me pine for handwringing over Eric Clapton’s views on immigration.If the book makes any bold claim, it’s one that people have been making since the arrival of Napster (which is fitting, perhaps, since it leaves off at the year 2000): Technology has changed the material conditions out of which pop music arises. “The pop media of 1992 was remarkably similar to the pop media of 1952, but pop music is now consumed and absorbed in a completely different way.” Driving this, he says, was first the CD, the “Trojan horse of digital technology,” followed by the mp3 and file-sharing and a collapse in the profitability of record companies.So pop music is dead, and Stanley the poptimist has come to eulogize and then bury it. The post-Napster fragmentation destroyed the cultural unity that allowed for such world-shaking moments as the Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan, and NME writers like Stanley have been the losers in the accompanying disintermediation. He makes the somewhat dubious claim that no one has yet penned a book “on the whole of modern pop’s development”—and this is what he has tried to accomplish. So it isn’t necessarily an indictment to say the book doesn’t offer much that is new, or that each of its 65 essays mostly stand alone. But I do have doubts about the approach. For one thing, contemporaneous musical movements are often discrete, so reading through the second section, for example, is like starting the 1960s over again with every chapter.It takes either a fool or a genius to go for this kind of scale at all, not least because you’re bound to upset someone whose favorite band has been left out. The best critics tend not to try; they adopt guerilla tactics. Greil Marcus lives in the shadows, exploring paths between apparently unrelated things; Robert Christgau is gnomic and inscrutable, and Lester Bangs was—let’s be polite—inimitably subjective. Stanley’s journalistic approach, by contrast, rests on the assumption that pop music is a consumer-driven phenomenon and can be measured in units sold. Perhaps that’s why he deemphasizes artists like Randy Newman, who took pop music’s forms to interesting places but is mentioned in passing twice. He also lists the growing unreliability of charts as one of the contributing factors to pop music’s inelegant demise.Chart listings are interesting sociological documents, but they’re nothing next to a well-turned anecdote about, say, a one-lunged Shawnee spitting a three-chord monstrosity at the crowd during a record hop hosted by Milt Grant in July 1957, when the band was supposed to play a saccharine hit by The Diamonds. What came out instead was a track that eventually became known as “Rumble,” a shambolic, threatening number that seemed to evoke street fighting, which was on the collective consciousness with West Side Story being released the same year. The recording, by Link Wray and the Raymen, is the only instrumental to be banned from the radio in America, though it did chart. It’s also credited as being the first use of distortion in a pop recording. Wray poked holes in his speaker cone to make it sound more like that night, when he stuck the mic next to his overdriven amplifier. Wray is also more dubiously credited with inventing the power chord. In any case, he’s not in the book. Perhaps it’s too rockist to mention.And if I may indulge in another parochial grievance in service of a larger point, Washington, DC is poorly represented here. It produced some of the more interesting manglings of the pop tradition, including Wray. Its exclusion is a symptom of a larger problem with the book; though he recapitulates the usual fights over commercialism versus authenticity, he leaves out a lot of the musicians who posed profound challenges to mass market pop. Bands like Fugazi, Pere Ubu, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and Frank Zappa, to name just a few of many, could have made a better storytelling foil than, say, the Sex Pistols. Perhaps they aren’t commercially successful enough to warrant inclusion, but you find yourself wondering what Stanley thinks of them.Unfortunately, he seems more interested in tearing down some pretty lame strawmen: “Almost no one thinks in terms of “selling out” anymore, and it’s getting ever harder to understand why somebody would have carved “4 real” into their [sic] arm to prove a point to an NME journalist.” It’s certainly hard to make a point like that if nobody’s reading NME. It might get you some coverage in the Daily Mail or Gawker if you did it over Twitter, though. At any rate, selling out was always a stupid way to look at the problem of commercial pressure, and we should be happy that today’s subversives are doing spookier things.The book is more clear-eyed, however, in its appreciation of great craftsmen. Stanley makes good use of the Brill Building, the landmark music industry headquarters, both in an excellent chapter about it and as a reference point for other artists. His reverent descriptions evoke gangly composers flitting in and out of offices like some sort of latter-day Reginald Marsh painting. In other words, the book conveys his understanding of the realities of music-making and music as a business. It’s the mark of someone who knows his subject and has lived it.Stanley is indeed a fine journalist, and the book is often entertaining. He describes Bob Dylan’s legacy as “a lot of bad poetry, a lot of skinny guys in shades throwing ‘fuck you’ poses,” which is totally true. (And I say this as someone who’s relapsed into Dylanology far too often.) But in another frustrating transition to hastily patch together independent sections, he ends one chapter by saying vaguely that Dylan “helped America to make sense of itself” and begins the next one with an anecdote about Dylan’s first appearance on the charts being via the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun,” and then moves right along to the Byrds.These avenues of transmission, though, are actually the interesting part, and they can’t quite be explored as they ought to be because the book is broken up into discrete chunks according to genre or movement. Stanley suggests, for example, that it’s unusual that a recording by a British band would be the first to “reflect Dylan’s popularity in the hit parade,” but it’s not Dylan’s song, and according to an interview with Eric Burdon, the Animals had heard it elsewhere as well. The oldest recorded version is from 1933 on Vocalion, by Ashley and Foster, and many other artists recorded it, including Leadbelly and the Weavers. Anyway, that Dylan supposedly enjoyed the Animals’ version would have supported Stanley’s point about Dylan waking up “to the possibilities of fusing folk with [the folk-pop movement’s] new guilty pop pleasures.”Just as he seems more interested in a kind of neat taxonomy of music than in its often messy interconnections, Stanley can’t resist mapping out a contrived and predictable narrative about the politics of pop. For example, after Little Richard, he says, “pop turned left.” The public’s rejection of Jerry Lee Lewis’s marriage to his 13-year old cousin was an example of pop’s “teen conservatism.” Punk was left-wing and reintroduced class tension into pop music. Metal was right-wing, had an “honor culture”, and despite its popularity among lower-class whites was a fairly cosmopolitan phenomenon.In other words, the book recapitulates a convenient story about the rise and fall of pop music. If anyone has, Stanley has earned the right to tell it. Though, for the same reason, I wish he had told it with more style and verve, and with enough equanimity to concede that God never promised us a music industry.Despite his admirable lack of discomfort with commercial music, he can’t seem to shake the notion of “taking sides,” both in his pat political characterizations and fatalism about the state of music. He never stops to consider that it might be a matter of making your own scrapbook, like Mitsuko, and that this encyclopedic exercise may not be necessary.The result is, ironically, the sort of book you could buy at an Apple store. You’ll be tempted to read it with Spotify open, but understand that makes you a collaborator in pop music’s destruction. Stanley signs off like he’s taking his steak knives and retiring from the power plant: ”I feel incredibly lucky to have been conscious of so much of it while it was happening.”It’s as if in twenty years it will be a rare thing to have been “conscious” of what’s going on. And he might be right.