AS SCIENCE EATS AESTHETICS, as rationality consumes imagination, and as what Marco Roth and the editors of n+1 diagnosed in 2013 as the “sociology of taste” devours the chance, freedom, pleasure, and individualism of art, including music, and leaves nothing but bones on the sandy floor of the cultural arena, all listening threatens to become socially determined. Increasingly in this spectacle the point of every song is to take its place in a system (a genre, the charts, a certain history), the point of every singer is to take her place as a representative of a certain interest or community (indie, drill, queer, celebrity, neoliberal), and the point of the nation is to provide the gladiatorial stadium for a series of contests into which everyone is drawn. More and more it seems Guy Debord was correct when he wrote in 1967’s The Society of the Spectacle that “all individual reality has become social reality directly dependent on social power and shaped by it.” What music you listen to reveals your class status and aspirations; your opinions reveal the same, and their expression in conversation is really just part of a social game played to accumulate prestige.
But what about the private pleasure of music? What about the music itself? Subsumed into the sociology of taste, we weigh a song, a performance, a work of art in our palms as weapons. Or tools. It can all be very benign, very constructive, a way to solve the anxiety of taste which is really an anxiety about being social. This is where Carl Wilson ends up in his often compelling, often bewildering book about Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. We should all discuss our likes more openly, argues Wilson, adding that “it would be fascinating to have more dialogic criticism: here is my story, what is yours?” The lack of contractions makes this sound like group therapy, but whether the tone is YouTube-vicious or NPR-placid, the new condition seems to be the same: music itself is good only so far as it serves our social needs. A song is a thing; you use it, you don’t get lost in it.
If you love to play the game, and you’re good at it, then all of this is welcome news. Not that it matters. Even if you’re in it but not of it, you’re still in it.
“But this is how American folk music works,” writes Greil Marcus in Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, talking not about cultural capital but the mystique of the vanished blues singer Geeshie Wiley and its effect on how we’ve heard the song she made with Elvie Thomas, “Last Kind Words Blues,” released in 1930. He continues:
Forgetting and disappearance are the engines of its romance. They are the motor of the will in the music to create characters, to insist on their mystery and to resist the impulses of society at large to turn the music into social science — or what the late Harlem critic Albert Murray called “social science fiction.”
Since at least the publication of Mystery Train in 1975, Marcus has resisted those impulses and fictions, too. Even as a cultural historian — and I’m not alone in thinking Marcus is best described as cultural historian and music critic — Marcus has argued the case that music has been and continues to be part of ordinary, day-to-day living, and that it’s best understood, as he said in a recent interview with The Observer, as “part of the atmosphere […] part of the conversation we live in.” And yet, for Marcus, despite its ordinariness music is more than a tool. It’s always capable of becoming extraordinary — ambiguous, halting, revelatory. Of course, always capable is not the same as always is. Sometimes a dud is a dud. But this potential for the extraordinary is what Marcus listens for and what “social science fiction” will never hear. Attempts to demystify art obscure the wild truths of individual impulses and condescend to the singer or musician as if she can’t possibly put imagination, desire, or will into her art, can only report and evidence her social circumstance. From this perspective, every song surrenders itself to the listener as a tool; from Marcus’s perspective, some do, but most of them don’t.
Marcus’s dedication to the potential of the ordinary binds together his new books, the slim Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, three lectures delivered at Harvard in 2013, and the much heftier Real Life Rock, a collection of Marcus’s long-running column. The former revolves around Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” and Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” while Real Life Rock contains roughly 2,500 offhand observations, some no longer than a sentence. Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations is elegant and focused; Real Life Rock sprawls and rejoices and bitches and moans depending on what’s happening in the world. And yet each book examines the commonplace as a subject and a way of being, as a language anyone might use and a way of listening that’s true to ordinary life and all its plainness, order, customs, and moments of the unexpected.
The ordinary begins with performance, the singer’s work, and in Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, Marcus is keenly attuned to the details of that work — to words but also to sounds, the way notes drop off, rhythms shift, the way a guitar (Wiley’s) can be “round, heavy, a stone that in an instant sinks to the bottom of a lake.” The purpose isn’t to revel in description, but to respect first how the musician works. While the history of “Ballad of Hollis Brown” is the journey from Dylan’s introduction of the song at Gerde’s Folk City in 1962 to the recording heard on 1963’s The Times They Are a-Changin’, it’s more so the “story of how Bob Dylan was able to make the song as if it were not his,” writes Marcus, and this depends entirely on “inflection,” Marcus’s title for the essay. With only one version of Wiley’s performance in existence, Marcus bears down on its removed deathliness, how “as Wiley sings the first ‘killed,’ she almost gives the word a curl; for an instant, it has been disarmed. Or she is about to move on.” And the power of Lunsford’s 1928 recording of “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” partly derives from “the odd disassociation of the singing and the playing, as if the banjo is playing itself.”
Few risk writing this way about music anymore; it’s alien, almost obscene to give inflection the weight of meaning it receives here. (Compare this to, for instance and chosen almost randomly, a recent Pitchfork review that mechanically described Mogwai as a “reliable band — both in terms of line-up stability and rate of output,” or the “stem-winding synth-surge” and “roiling anthems” hyperactivity of a recent Rolling Stone review of Chvrches.) This is what I mean by respecting the power of art and the artist: to acknowledge what could be called “craft” as something the musician fights with, corrals, tries to forget, leans on when she’s tired, and seizes when the moment calls. In other words, to remember the messy human choices and ambitions at the heart of music. You only need to listen to Wiley sing “Last Kind Words Blues.” Her performance is a complex series of choices and articulations we can hear happening now, at once ordinary and incisive. It’s not history, it’s surgery.
What makes all of this close listening even more important in Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations is the knot Marcus ties between what the singer does with the song in performance and the effect of the performance itself. Marcus writes that he’s “looking at three commonplace, seemingly authorless songs as bedrock, founding documents of American identity,” which means that the nation is built not just on the authorless song but also on the gambles of those who rewrite and re-author those documents. The tradition of the commonplace song depends on the ordinary person accessing an ordinary language:
There is a language in the American folk song that, as people speak the same phrases as everyone else, seduces or compels them to add their own shadings, their own cues, elisions, emphases, stresses, images, twists, highlights, effacings, so that any statement can appear at once as a commonplace and individual, something anyone might say in a way that no one else would ever say it — a language that allows people to find their own voices, and then disappear into the crowd. A language in which there is, at the source, no original — and if there is no original, there is no copy. Each statement is a thing itself, and not a thing at all.
This language, in its commonness, is what gives the singer power. Whether or not you think it’s a reach to suggest that a song can suggest a nation, it seems irrefutable to me that a song always has the potential to change the nation’s language, swerve it in a new direction, or in the case of “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” burrow into the rational language of a modern society with its weird olio of lyrics.
Marcus implies the commonplace song can disrupt what we typically think of as the ordinary, which is the orderly: habits of work and leisure, and habitual American myths. After a lengthy — too lengthy — walkthrough of the 1963 show Folk Songs and More Folk Songs!, a cheesy and subtly subversive educational program that claims folk music is the American Dream, Marcus describes how Bob Dylan essentially murders that dream with his performance of “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” delivered flatly and fated and more or less slapping Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip into what’s supposed to be an uplifting journey through hardship. (Dylan is so young in this performance — you can easily find it on YouTube — so vulnerable and inside of himself, it’s like he’s come into his own, and frightened by what he finds, he hands the song back to the mad country that birthed it. And where is that banjo coming from?) Meanwhile, “Last Kind Words Blues” is a challenge taken on by the Dex Romweber Duo with Jack White, then the Mekons, and then Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops. As artists, they test themselves against it. Wiley herself is equally challenging, and after citing, as anyone must, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s groundbreaking research gathered into the 2014 The New York Times Magazine article “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie,” Marcus allows her to disrupt the chapter by writing a potential biography for her, similar to what he did for Robert Johnson in The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs. It does little to satiate the mystery, but I don’t think anything could.
These are nations of absence and negation, soaked in death, but in the chapter on “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” Marcus hears defiance and humor. Lunsford uses this truly authorless song, a bizarre patchwork of sounds and words, to turn the “world upside down,” Marcus says. Formed over time from bits and pieces, the song is so vague and hilarious and strange that it “makes authors out of listeners.” And this is one more disruptive potential: a song that begs everyone to take a turn, from Dylan and his friend Bob Neuwirth to some rascal in a seminar, and to Lunsford himself, who in 1928 finds “a song, a way of singing a song, that [can] call anything into question.” That’s freedom. That word. So enormous and puny, like the mole in the song, and understood here more as an impulse than a guarantee, a pursuit more than a right. But the pursuit has an unpredictable power; that’s why it matters, especially when it’s ordinary, when anyone might pursue whatever they wish, and that’s what is sapped by “social science fiction.” Even when the power is to make yourself disappear from society. Lunsford, writes Marcus, “wished himself into the ground, and sent the song out into the world — where it is digging now, moving through time, in the dark, the mole as its own John Henry, the mountain the song’s own steam drill.”
“The whole point of commonplace music is to take up a song everyone knows, that everyone is sick of, that everyone was born sick of,” Marcus writes in a July 2000 Real Life Rock entry on Dave Alvin’s Public Domain, “and then to sing it and make it be heard as if the singer is creating the song on the spot, drawing on familiarity and dissolving it in the same motion.” With a few tweaks, this explains Marcus’s approach to all music. It also explains the difference between him and many of the amateur social scientists masquerading as cultural and music critics: for them, what’s dissolved must be condensed back into the familiar, though it may be a slightly different but always socially determined familiar. The world grows smaller. In Real Life Rock as in Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, the point is to see if criticism can live up to how big the world truly is.
Fittingly, the first question about Real Life Rock is how to read it. A chronological collection of Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10 column started in 1978 for New West but here picked up in its 1986 Village Voice incarnation and tracked through 2014 in The Believer, the book is enormous. Do you page from start to finish? Find a certain year of interest and dig in? Skip around? Look through the index for a certain artist? (Pause a moment and praise the person or team that assembled the 60-page index of this book. “This index is an index of top ten columns and is not a comprehensive index of all the names mentioned in the book,” someone writes, gasping for air.) Real Life Rock builds no argument, needs no momentum, and finds no end to the stories it tells, and so nothing seems more real to me than to read this book any way you like — except for linearly, cover-to-cover.
How you read Real Life Rock will determine what book you read, more so than other books, and so maybe it’s worth noting how I read it. First I dove into the 1992-1994 columns from Artforum, published while I was in college. Maybe it was nostalgia, but music that shakes you in college is different from the music that blows your teenage mind; you know more and you’re still surprised, still shocked. So maybe I was interested to see how Marcus reacted to it. (As ever, it varies, though he’s on the trail of riot grrrl from the start.) From there, a lot of hopping around: the aftermath of 9/11 and the disastrous Bush years in Salon; fast-forward to The Believer years; scanning for Ohio bands (Pere Ubu a given, no Scrawl, but hello Ass Ponys), Springsteen, Dada, Taylor Swift, and painters and photographers — Real Life Rock shows how consistently Marcus has followed the visual arts, and his exhibition reviews are some of the best entries here — and finally back to 1986 and The Village Voice. It was at least a month until I began reading through entire sections in chronological order, and even then I skipped around.
The book I read is a working journal made public, Marcus on the edge of his encounters with new and old records, live performances, art exhibits, novels, musicians’ memoirs, political speeches, commercials, and everyday events, whatever he happened to pick up, witness, or overhear, music as the root of nearly everything else, responding to all of it in an offhand if thoughtful way. This is the connection between Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations and Real Life Rock, and what makes their co-publication intriguing. As a cultural historian, Marcus has always been fascinated by the commonplace song in its multiple guises, be it punk or soul. As a music critic, he’s always been committed to commonplace listening, whether it’s a song leaping from the radio or a song leaking out of a tinny speaker in a diner — the “real life” in rock: how James Burton and Bruce Springsteen trading licks redeems a David Gilmour solo in a different song, or why Moby “dies on my stereo and gets me on the radio every time.” These are fleeting moments that for some will seem worthless, but they’re entirely true to how we actually hear music in our daily lives. And they might be the stuff of critical analysis, or at least the more humane kind Marcus practices.
The only note of caution, really, is that while Marcus is good brief, he’s excellent long-form; it’s not a coincidence that the longer columns are more satisfying and that many standouts are longer entries, such as a takedown of Louis Menand, a review of 8 Mile, and a perfect pairing of Walter Mosley’s novel White Butterfly and John Lee Hooker’s “This Land Is Nobody’s Land.” Despite this, the columns are remarkably consistent in tone and quality. The Voice columns, which document the rise of the CD and the ’60s as cultural myth, are generally shorter and barbed with one-liners — “Some people find this kind of dull, but it’s saving dentists millions on novocaine,” Marcus writes of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night — but that fades within a year or two. In Artforum, the column expands; the 1999–2003 section from Salon is particularly good, Marcus writing biweekly and never running out of gas. Of course there are misses. Some one-liners groan, some evaporate. Naturally you’re going to spar with his opinions. That’s the point. You also see how these brief entries fed longer works like Lipstick Traces, Invisible Republic, and The Shape of Things to Come: the first Guy Debord sighting in an April 1986 column, the appearance of novelist Sharyn McCrumb’s Appalachian mysteries, Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, and of course riot grrrl bands like Heavens to Betsy, Bikini Kill, and Sleater-Kinney. As far as I know, all but the most recent Dylan-related entries were already collected in 2011’s Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, but here even those gain more context when read in the flow of history’s passing.
This is an entirely subjective book, no matter how omnivorous it is. If you’re just looking for music, go read what’s probably Real Life Rock’s closest cousin in stature, Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide website and column on Noisey. If you’re looking for an objective, all-inclusive, methodical overview of contemporary American culture, you should probably stop reading Marcus’s work. Where’s the EDM? Pop punk? Emo? Shouldn’t there be more hip-hop? Where are the entries about Katy Perry, Arcade Fire, or Outkast? Radiohead! My God, where is Radiohead? Again, check out Christgau, whose goals are that of a dedicated, egalitarian, and cranky librarian. Marcus has always been more imaginative and erratic, more like an artist, following what moves him at the risk of idiosyncrasy.
It might rub off on you. Somewhere, I imagine, one of my scholarly colleagues is planning to text-mine the hell out of this book in order to quantify Marcus’s gender, class, and Francophone biases and feed that data into a mapped network that looks like a dandelion about to explode. Meanwhile I can’t shake the feeling that Real Life Rock is entirely, in some way, about the wife and husband duo Rennie and Brett Sparks, a.k.a. the Handsome Family. Why? I don’t really know. They show up often. They epitomize the artists Marcus has followed like any other fan, has rarely if ever discussed in his books at length, but who show up here time and again: Fastbacks, Rosanne Cash, Trailer Bride, Cat Power, Fiery Furnaces, Counting Crows, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, and some band called The Sopranos. They epitomize the way music can break through your ordinary life, unnerve you, and lodge in your memory before you go back to what you were doing. They occasion some of Marcus’s best writing, a style devoid of the miserable cant of academe, politics, the corporate world, and the internet. But it’s the perspective that, in the end, matters more than the style — a point of view that’s eclectic but unafraid to make judgments, that exists outside the oppression of taste if not taste as such, that carves out a space between the social and the individual, the public and the private, an everyday space where the art of popular music is still possible, where art is the possible.