OVER THE LAST DECADE OR SO a growing body of criticism in the US and UK has steadily eroded pop music’s seemingly flat and shiny surfaces to reveal hidden histories and denied diasporas, deconstructed accepted canons and lineages, and illuminate the technologies on which genres and trends we take for granted have thrived. On nearly every page, recent books like Mark Katz’s Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (2004) and George Lipsitz’s Footsteps in the Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music (2007) ask that we rethink received ideas and mercilessly interrogate the long-worshipped, quite possibly erroneous commonplaces of pop mythology. Sometimes, as in Simon Reynolds’s Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past or Jared Ball’s I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto (both 2011), the conclusions are almost comically apocalyptic: the end of western music history has been reached, the artist as creative visionary is deader than Barthes’s author, and our optimistic notions of mass culture as a playing field for cultural democracy are as naïve and anachronistic as the pop apparatus itself is corrupt and imperialist.
At the forefront of American popular music’s deconstruction, Seattle’s Experience Music Project (EMP) has, since 2002, hosted an annual Pop Conference (which has also been held in New York and Los Angeles), bringing together professional journalists, cultural critics, fiction writers, academics in various disciplines, and musicians to present papers on a wide variety of topics related to Western, predominantly American, popular music. Pop When the World Falls Apart, which collects papers presented from 2006 to 2008, is the third such collection, following This is Pop (2004) and Listen Again (2007), each edited by Eric Weisbard, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Alabama and a founding organizer of the annual conference.
As Weisbard’s introduction explains, the essays in this volume cluster around interrelated themes: guilty pleasures, doubt, “waking up from history,” and “songs in the key of strife.” The common thread has to do with how American pop lovers respond and adapt to real-world crises, from natural disasters to systemic racism. This focus, loose as it is, gives the book a sense of purpose while offering something of a panorama of how popular music is made and used in a predominantly American context.
After an engagingly written but relatively lightweight opener by Jonathan Lethem on the pop star as pretender and charlatan — which unconvincingly posits the listener as the always-already present “fifth Beatle” — Pop When the World Falls Apart hits its stride with Greg Tate’s “Black Rockers vs. Blackies Who Rock, or The Difference between Race and Music” by Greg Tate, guitarist and conductor for the jazz/rock improv collective Burnt Sugar. Tate got his start as a journalist at the Village Voice working alongside Robert Christgau before co-founding the Black Rock Coalition (BRC) in the 1980s with Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and others. Here, he recounts the BRC’s “full-frontal black cultural assault on rock hegemony,” which resulted in sold-out festivals at venues like CBGB’s, the historical home of punk and “no wave” movements whose predominantly white players borrowed liberally from funk and early hip-hop.
The range of reactions to Tate’s parallel career as music journalist and coalition co-organizer, from Public Enemy’s Chuck D allegedly calling him a “Village Voice porch monkey” to Bad Brains’ Darryl Jenifer attributing movements like the BRC to a “slave mentality,” make for painful reading. But they’re a reminder — in case we had forgotten — just how high the stakes are when race and music intersect. While the focus of Tate’s paper is not how rock was ultimately colonized and recoded as white, he does acknowledge that irony. But the greater one is that anyone had to organize support for Black artists working in a genre that simply would not have existed without them in the first place. Tate ends with his discovery that, as an aging rocker in his 50s, he can keep up with current Black rockers and integrated bands like Santigold, Lightspeed Champion, and TV on the Radio, through a groovy new site on the internet called YouTube. This was no doubt more of a revelation in 2007, when the talk on which the chapter is based was originally delivered.
The deceptive title of Alexandra T. Vasquez’s “Toward an Ethics of Knowing Nothing” would seem to run counter to Tate’s refusal to remain unconscious of race and history. But what Vasquez, who teaches English and African American studies at Princeton, has in mind is more akin to Susan Sontag’s notion of an “erotics of art,” or what Vasquez calls Federico García Lorca’s “poetics of knowing nothing,” his “never quite settling on how to put what he heard as duende to the page.” In three loosely organized sections — “Listening Wrong,” “The Other End of the Line,” and “Take Your Time, Do It Right” — Vasquez sets these notions against the mentality shared by “experts,” collectors, and anyone who expects music to conform to prior expectations, embodied by the inability of racially biased listeners at the 1968 World Series to actually hear José Feliciano’s extraordinarily passionate rendering of the national anthem, which sent waves of disapproving booing through Detroit’s packed Tiger Stadium. (You can watch and listen to it yourself at — where else? — YouTube.)
But even diehard fans of Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” (I am one) know there is no such thing as “knowing nothing,” and knowing something about race and history is essential for our fullest appreciation of how they inform and even create meaning in popular culture, whether artists and audiences are conscious of it or not. So argues Michelle Habell-Pallán in one of the book’s richest pieces, “‘Death to Racism and Punk Revisionism’: Alice Bag’s Vexing Voice and the Unspeakable Influence of Canción Ranchera on Hollywood Punk.” Habell-Pallán situates Alice Bag (born Alice Armendariz Velasquez), lead singer of Southern California punk rockers The Bags, as an important bridge between rival Hollywood and East L.A. factions, and traces Bag’s “piercing, primal shrieks” and the masculine energy of her stage presence to early20th century Mexican women who sang urban mariachi music (like María de la Luz Flores Aceves, a.k.a Lucha Reyes) known for their estilo bravío: literally, “brave style,” with connotations of boldness and aggression. Their stories, which will be unfamiliar to most readers, makes for a fascinating read, even if the lineage proposed feels tenuous; even the author quotes Alice Bag as saying that she wasn’t “consciously doing any kind of ranchera music,” though “maybe that’s where it came from.”
Nate Chinen’s “(Over the) Rainbow Warrior: Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and Another Kind of Somewhere” makes a tighter case for the inseparability of race, history, and meaning. Chinen, a music journalist for The New York Times who was born and raised in Honolulu, shows how completely a change of context can transform a song, tracing the history of Harold Arlen and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow” from its initial recording by Judy Garland for MGM’s The Wizard of Oz and its subsequent status as a gay subcultural marker — Chinen mentions the rainbow flag, although there is no conclusive evidence linking that symbol with the song — to its current global popularity, by way of a 1993 recording by Hawai’ian pop protest singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, a.k.a Bruddah Iz.
Shocking as it may seem to people of my generation and older (especially those who came of age in New York City or the Bay Area), version Iz has, by now, completely trumped version Wiz in terms of popularity. While there’s no question about the latter’s ongoing status as queer anthem, the former has been heard by far more people in the21st century, owing to its appearance in countless movie and commercial soundtracks around the world. To return to our new favorite measure of cultural currency, YouTube: Between them, two clips of Garland singing the song currently available on the site have been viewed about 10 million times over the last five years; the official video of Kamakawiwo’ole’s rendition, posted in April 2010, has had eight times as many views — a whopping 80 million. According to Chinen, recording industry professionals claim that in one more generation, no one will even remember Garland was the first to sing it.
What’s most interesting about this is how malleable the song — and by extension, nearly any song — has proven over time. It had one seemingly stable meaning when it was composed and recorded for the film: a desire to leave one’s home for someplace more exciting. Decades later, a subset of its listeners expanded its meaning, simply by creative listening, so thoroughly that for decades, no matter who sung it, professionally or in a karaoke bar, it seemed inseparable from its détourned, queer message. Yet Bruddah Iz, simply by singing it in a Hawai’ian context — with ukulele and island beat, flattening the opening octave leap that formed the hook of Arlen’s written melody — turns the song into a postcolonial reclamation anthem, connecting the rainbow of the title and lyrics to the state’s iconic symbol, still seen on every license plate.
Though brief, Chinen’s is one of the most eye-opening pieces in the book, even though it never directly addresses what happens when a cultural statement as strong and clear as Iz’s becomes an enormously popular product, “licensed to nearly thirty countries to sell everything from toys to lottery tickets.” It can’t possibly mean, to each of the tens or hundreds of millions of people around the globe who have heard it, what it meant to Iz and his local audience, can it? And if not, what else might the song mean, now or in the future?
Earlier in the collection, Tom Smucker’s “Boring and Horrifying Whiteness” and Eric Lott’s “Perfect Is Dead” bring the book’s key themes home to American pop’s mainstream, or at least its circular driveway. Both chapters address whiteness, suburbia, and issues of “containment” or “perfection” by reading The Carpenters (Lott and Smucker) and Lawrence Welk and the Beach Boys (Smucker) through a cultural studies lens. As insightful as both pieces are, they have their blind spots. Even if suburbia could once be read as inherently “white,” it can’t anymore: my girlfriend, who is of Laotian background, recently took me on a tour of the suburbs surrounding her hometown of Dallas, which are largely populated by people of Vietnamese, Lao, Korean, African, and Latino backgrounds, many of whom have lived there for two or more generations. (One expansive Korean mall in the northeastern part of the city dwarfed the Korean-populated stretch of Manhattan’s34th Street.)
Lott reads the lyrics of The Carpenters’ “Superstar” as an indictment of the culture industry, which manufactures desire (for the pop star) while strategically distancing its object through mediated experience (the recording), thus placing the listener (consumer) in an endless purgatory of wanting. As sound as this reading seems, its argument could just as easily apply to almost anything, especially when you consider that language itself mediates experience. Lott’s nearly exclusive focus on the song’s words also raises another question: is it merely lyrics that define what “Superstar” (or any song) is? If so, what could have motivated Cambodian singer Ros Sereysothea to cover “Superstar” in the early 1970s? As her version, which she sings in Khmer, makes apparent, what makes this song “what it is” — or, to go out on an aesthetic limb, what makes it beautiful and even haunting — is the move from its opening descending melodic line in the minor-key verse to a similar descending line in the chorus, this time in a major key. This relationship flips the emotional valence of the chorus to something positive and hopeful even as it continues to move downward. You could, of course, try to read the melody of “Superstar” as further manifesting the manufacturing and strategic withholding of desire. But what would that reading really tell us? Who doesn’t know, by this point, that the object of pop isn’t really “there,” that popular culture is compromised and mediated, and that music manipulates the emotions? Both pieces, especially Smucker’s, also leave one wondering why discussions of musical “whiteness” so often center on figures like Welk or Brian Wilson rather than, say, Lady Gaga, Kraftwerk, or the Kronos Quartet. Are the latter any less white? Or less “horrifying” — and if so, why?
Of course, it’s to Pop When the World Falls Apart’s credit that even its least convincingly argued entries raise such questions. The point of this sort of criticism isn’t — or shouldn’t necessarily be — to convince us of a single interpretation, but rather to invite us to consider ones we had either never thought about or dismissed long ago. Nearly all the essays described above, as well as the dozen or so others in the book — which include J. Martin Daughtry’s meditation on the dynamics of “military listening” by US soldiers in Iraq, Larry Blumenfeld’s look at New Orleans Jazz Culture post-Katrina, and Oliver Wang’s recounting of the building of the retro-soul audience — confront the reader with more questions about pop’s past and present than anyone could seriously engage in a lifetime.
What the collection lacks (though Chinen and Habell-Pallán certainly provide glimpses) is a larger sense of how pop moves and operates in what I would argue is the 21st century’s most important context: the global stage. In the late 1980s and 1990s, for example, countless unsold cassettes and CDs, manufactured in the US and seemingly destined for landfills, made their way into dakou (literally “saw gash”) stores and street stalls all over urban China, where the young people now creating the most thrilling post-punk movement in the world got their crash-course, baggage-free education in this once-forbidden music from our cutouts and remainders.
The 21st-century stories unfolding outside the US and UK are intense, engaging, and often inspiring in ways that pop in the English-speaking world hasn’t been for years. Consider how Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian youth find themselves united, in part, through a mutual passion for pan-Balkan hip-hop acts like Edo Maajka, Bad Copy and the Beat Fleet. Or how a politicized, successfully DIY music culture is alive and well in Hong Kong, of all places. Or how social media and self-publishing music sites like Bandcamp, SoundCloud, and, yes, YouTube, are providing platforms for pop acts all over the world, from Iran’s exiled dance-punk unit Yellow Dogs to rapper El Général, whose “Rais Lebled” (“Head of State”) became the anthem of the Tunisian revolution.
Music criticism has become increasingly adept at showing us how our past has been shaped and informed by influences from around the world. Our next step — if we really want to address pop’s future, which is sure to be even more cosmopolitan than its present — is to begin to track its flow in the other direction. The EMP series, with its annual conference and diverse and evolving list of contributors, seems perfectly poised to do just that.