American Spin

Why is it that anyone with a record player and an opinion feels qualified to write about music?

“Bottom line: I was right,” wrote Jeff Chang in the January 7 issue of the Bay Guardian, illustrating in five surgical words the agendaism that ruins music writing.

Chang — a reporter whose first book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, will be released later this year by St. Martin’s — was referring to what he decries as the racism of Da Capo’s Best Music Writing series, the “music writing apartheid” he discovered by comparing the number of essays about hip-hop to those about rock, and essays written by white men to those by everyone else.

It’s easy to be right in a DIY debate, but whether you’re white, black, female, Asian, or whatever, the truth about popular hip-hop that few are willing to admit is that it traveled from the dawn of Public Enemy to decadence in a matter of months, from daring to gross self-satire in the space of a few records. Chang dares the next guest editor to ignore a “Vibe cover story on Sean Paul and the perils of third-world-to-first-world dancehall crossover.” Is he kidding? In a year, Sean Paul’s hee-hawing will be a cracked and faded memory beneath a hundred more wallpaper hip-pop records.

Whatever its faults, the Da Capo series is not about the last big thing, and about half the 21 essays in its 2003 edition, edited by The Simpsons creator and veteran rock critic Matt Groening, discuss what Chang would call “black” music. There are, for example, historical pieces on NWA, Motown, and postwar jazz.

For some reason, anyone with a record player and an opinion feels qualified to write about music, and rabid fans and slumming intellectuals alike use the same formula to churn icons into sociobabble. Take Pulitzer Prize- and Medal of Freedom-winning Robert Coles, who fashioned his friendship with Bruce Springsteen into into Bruce Springsteen’s America: The People Listening, a Poet Singing.

Revered for his research in child psychiatry, Harvard’s Professor Coles writes with the academic’s knack for stripping the life out of everything. Postulating that first in William Carlos Williams, then Frank Sinatra, and now Springsteen, New Jersey has been home to the quintessential American voice for a century, he says of his Bruce:

“He goes about being a resident of New Jersey, still, of New Jersey: a husband (of Patti Scialfa, a singer), a father (of their three children, two sons and a daughter), and a member (with his wife) of a music-making community.”

After some old commentary from Walker Percy — who once said of Springsteen that “he gets at the country with a perfect sense of who we are, what we’re trying to get and to be” — the rest of the book is a series of oral histories written by Coles in the voices of Springsteen fans the professor encountered in his earlier work. It’s a dubious methodology that allows each subject to conveniently echo Coles’ thesis, and further grays what might have been a colorful if still pointless book. The best moment is a ludicrous one, when a cop — chafing about the song “American Skin (41 Shots),” inspired by the shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York City police — wonders why Springsteen “forgets about a hell of a lot of people, who also live in our American Skin and who go about their lives, like your average white people do, trying to hold on to work, and make ends meet!”

Those people live in every song in the Springsteen catalogue, which is why he’s adored by everyone from Walker Percy to the millions who have no idea who Walker Percy is. Springsteen is a great writer, but as an icon he’s too attractive to other writers with agendas high-minded (Coles) or low-down (David Hadju, vice-chair to Greil Marcus on the No-One-Matters-But-Bob-Dylan-Committee, who recently used Coles’ book as an excuse to bang Springsteen as “inauthentic”).

The award for most inventive Springsteen criticism goes to Tom Waldman, who says in his asinine We All Want to Change the World: Rock and Politics from Elvis to Eminem:

“He was the epitome of an American rock ‘n’ roll performer before the English came over here and messed everything up with their weird and bizarre styles. He was unmoved and seemingly untouched by the counterculture … in effect, he was the Ronald Reagan of rock ‘n’ roll.”

But Waldman’s book isn’t just stupid; it’s very funny, a 300-page drunken phone call of Dadaist commentary on the links between rock music and politics. A sample:

“Rock ‘n’ roll seemed much more in sync with America in the 1950s than did its pop music predecessors. … It was loud and aggressive, like the United States. There was nothing innocent about Elvis or Little Richard, and there was nothing innocent about the role the CIA played in the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954.”

Waldman offers nothing to support his remarkable allegation that Little Richard was somehow involved in the coup against Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, or a single detail about the CIA plot. But thinking about Waldman’s prose undoes the pleasure of reading it.

Good music writing is ever harder to find, and there’s almost nothing in Best Music Writing 2003 to make you rush off to the record store or pull out a lot of albums you haven’t listened to in years. The era of the literate, inspiring rock-dork is over and it died with “Neal Pollack,” the greatest rock critic of all time and phantom hero of the real Neal Pollack’s hysterical novel Never Mind the Pollacks.

It’s one long obscurantist joke about the mythology of rock ‘n’ roll and its chroniclers that stays funny to the end through the force of Pollack’s personality and his contempt for longtime Berkeley resident Marcus and presumably any other rock critic not thanked in the acknowledgments.

Its narrator is a rock writer in the Marcus mold whose obsession with the life of “Neal Pollack” ruins his own. As he retraces the faux Pollack’s footsteps, he rehashes the history of rock. Echoing Percy, he writes of Springsteen, “He sings in an authentic voice that reflects all our pain. … Because whenever we hurt, as Americans, Bruce is there.”

Above all of this hovers Clambone Jefferson, a mythical blues figure who reveals to “Pollack” that all music “is black music from the mouth of the Nile.”

“What happened to America?” inquires “Pollack,” but Clambone has only oblique answers. He’d rather “Pollack” and his ilk listen to the music. He’s an artist, not a thesis project.

It’s the music, after all, that sends you flying to the record store, which ends up making Eric Sackheim’s The Blues Line a lot more expensive than its cover price. A compendium of (mostly) country blues lyrics presented without commentary, it’s both a volume of poetry and a field guide. A thousand complaints could be made regarding its methodology and lack of context, but this is a book for fans of music, not of its hangers-on. Anyway, who needs Willie Baker’s “No No Blues” explained? It’s in the book:

I woke up this morning, my good gal was gone

I woke up this morning, my good gal was gone

Stood by my bedside, I hung my head, I hung my head and moaned.


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