The Profane Archives of Rock and Pop Writing

On the Library of America’s new anthology of rock music criticism.

The Profane Archives of Rock and Pop Writing

Shake It Up by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. Library of America. 580 pages.

IF BOB DYLAN had won the Nobel Prize in 1966 instead of 2016, the outcry from literature professors, novelists, and critics would have been deafening. The notion that song lyrics could approach the legitimacy and aesthetic value of literature was not a widely held belief — though it was gaining traction, especially in the growing field of rock and pop music writing. Dylan himself frequently deflected the label of poet, famously claiming in December 1965 that he was just a “song and dance man.” My sense is that his response to winning the Nobel Prize in 1966 would have been similar to his response in 2016: a genuine thank you, a surrogate to accept the award (maybe Allen Ginsberg), and a recorded speech submitted just before the deadline.

More to the point, if Dylan had won in 1966, do you think rock music would have folded its tent and gone home, ashamed that a hallowed institution — the Man! — had bestowed a mark of legitimacy and respectability? Of course not. Rock didn’t wither when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was founded, either. But fans, musicians, and critics have for a long time argued that highbrow organizations, museums, libraries, awards, and media inevitably sap popular music of its vitality and freedom — an argument that feeds the clichéd characterization of rock as inherently transgressive and iconoclastic. This perspective actually undersells music’s power by implicitly rejecting the importance of popular music that’s more subtly progressive, openly commercial, or just plain fun. It also mistakenly assumes that cultural institutions are inflexible.

All of this is why I bristle at the suggestion put forth by the editors of the new collection of music writing, Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z, that “it’s too early for canon formation in a field so marvelously volatile — a volatility that mirrors, still, that of pop music itself, which remains smokestack lightning.” The editors, novelist Jonathan Lethem and scholar Kevin J. H. Dettmar, emphasize that the book isn’t “a history of rock and pop [or] rock and pop writing,” but rather a collection of great American music writing, period.

All of this hemming and hawing seems more marketing than mission. For one thing, the anthology is published by the Library of America, a treasured nonprofit organization whose stated purpose is to champion “our nation’s cultural heritage” and “curate and publish authoritative new editions of America’s best and most significant writing.” Given that the anthology is arranged chronologically, it’s almost impossible not to read history from it. And why shouldn’t we? The editors’ implication is that history is dead — or worse, a staid institutional archive. By conflating music writing with the music itself — by asserting that the criticism is just as vital as the music — the anthology reproduces the standard assumption that popular music is somehow magically unburdened by commercial or institutional imperatives.

Some tension between cultural institutions and cultural works is inevitable. It may even be productive. Philosopher of art Boris Groys suggests as much in his 2014 book, On the New, which provides a nuanced way of thinking about institutionalism, legitimacy, valorization, and art. Groys’s key concept is the “cultural economy of exchange,” which exists between the hierarchy of “cultural archives” that curate our cultural memory and the “profane realm” — i.e., everything outside of those archives: ordinary life and ordinary art. Crucially, in Groys’s conception, ongoing adaptation facilitates an exchange of values across the “boundary” between the archive and the profane. This, in fact, is what creates the new. Groys writes: “The basic principle governing the construction of the cultural archives is that they necessarily integrate the new and ignore the derivative.” By integrating the new, the archives evolve. While the imprimatur of the Nobel Prize may change popular music, Dylan’s award changed the Nobel Prize as well. Stockholm now recognizes song lyrics, loosely, as literature. There’s no going back from that.

Given the inevitable, productive tension of the cultural economy of exchange, a case can be made that music critics, journalists, and essayists are at their best when they shout at the cultural archive from the profane realm, confess to it, tell it everything it doesn’t know, push across its boundaries, and finally infiltrate it. There’s a quiet “no” and a loud “No!” — the latter an insistence that the rest of us have got the story wrong. Think about what it means to write, as Paul Nelson did in 1975, “The dreams of so many good people died with the New York Dolls.”

Early music critics and journalists began from within a profane realm — pop music — even when their work was published in established magazines like the Partisan Review (Richard Poirier, writing here about the Beatles) or The New Yorker (the great Ellen Willis). On the one hand, the lack of a singular discipline meant nobody knew what the right story was supposed to be. One of this anthology’s key pleasures is observing how nascent rock-pop-soul-R&B critics gleefully exploit a lack of conventions, as in Paul Williams’s beautifully rambling 1969 year-in-review, or Amiri Baraka’s freeform exploration of the history of Black American music. Other writers drew from established forms and rewrote them: Stanley Booth expands the conventions of the long-form profile with emotional reportage on Otis Redding and Booker T. and the M. G.’s as they write and record “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” (That middle eight, my God.) Soon after, and in the tradition of New Journalism, Ellen Sander immerses herself in the heart of darkness — the fatigue and violent sexism that is Led Zeppelin touring the United States — and barely escapes. More on that in a bit.

The impurity of discipline stimulated innovation, as it often does, and perhaps these innovations were inevitable given the interdisciplinary assemblage of professional and amateur writers. Paul Williams founded Crawdaddy in his dorm room; Poirier was a professor of American and English literature at Rutgers University; Lillian Roxon began as a tabloid journalist and gossip columnist before compiling Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia (1969). Few critics were entirely divorced from commercialism or the music business itself. Nat Hentoff’s writing about Bob Dylan, the earliest essay included here, served as the liner notes for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a near-scholarly imprimatur slapped onto a consumer product. (Folk music it may have been, but Columbia Records didn’t give it away.) Paul Nelson wrote “Valley of the New York Dolls” after he persuaded Mercury Records to sign the band and watched them self-destruct.

Because ordinary life moves much faster than institutions, the profane is often marked by the frantic effort to keep up with the contemporary, which creates an intense critical energy. It’s not a coincidence that nearly all the strongest pieces in Shake It Up deal with contemporaneous subjects. Correspondents like Williams, Roxon, Nelson, Donna Gaines, Greg Shaw (concerning punk), Ariel Swartley (on the “boyrock” of Aztec Camera), and Greg Tate (on Kanye West versus 50 Cent) write from within a storm, driven by the perplexing, inspiring, or enraging immediacy created by music.

The profane force of the present moment even shows up in the deeply historical writing of Greil Marcus. “Guitar Drag,” a chapter from The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, published in 2014, finds echoes of the folk ballad “John Henry” in artist Christian Marclay’s video and sound recording of a plugged-in electric guitar being dragged from a pickup truck. But Marcus also hears the reincarnations of American racialized violence: James Byrd Jr., dragged to death in Texas in 1998. If Byrd’s murder, or any lynching of a Black American, “can be seen — heard — as an unsinging of ‘John Henry,’” writes Marcus, it’s also true that “John Henry” — as a song, as a performance — “is a symbolic unsinging” of those same heinous acts. Writing like this isn’t concerned about music’s posterity or cultural sanction; rather, it hears music as a generator of meaning and understanding, always potentially destabilizing, a force capable of rewriting the rules or destroying all rules, even if only for three minutes.

In the late 1960s, this process was theorized in one of the strangest books ever written about popular music, Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock. When it was published as a book in 1970, many reasonable people thought it was a joke precisely because Meltzer uses the tension between the cultural archive (philosophy, academese) and the profane (passionate fandom, rambling mumbo-jumbo) to make his argument. Also, the book chose as its epigraph the lyrics to The Trashmen’s 1963 ditty “Surfin’ Bird.” All the lyrics. Maybe you recall how a madman appears out of nowhere and starts yapping, “A-well-a everybody’s heard about the Bird / B-B-B-Bird bird bird / B-Bird’s the word / A-well-a bird, bird, bird/ the bird is the word…” The excerpt in Shake It Up doesn’t include these lyrics, which is too bad, because “Surfin’ Bird” exemplifies Meltzer’s celebration and rigorous defense of absurdism. For Meltzer, rock ’n’ roll makes sense in the way a Samuel Beckett play makes sense, only faster, noisier, and with a better beat. The seemingly obvious surfaces of rock give way to strange utterances and confusion, and thus they not only form their own world; they’re more like life — the profane realm — than previous forms of art. The critic’s job is first to hear this, and then to not deny it. “The aesthetician, the philosopher of art and the art critic can never be epistemologically capable of describing art by thinking at being,” writes Meltzer, “but must think from and within being.” Honest critics embrace their subjectivity; they’re allied with rock’s resistance to cultural order, objectivity, and organization. If you hear music like Meltzer hears music, you feel no need to reconcile your conflicted thoughts and feelings about it into narratives, genre labels, or any cultural meaning whatsoever.

A white male critic like Meltzer could afford to luxuriate in a lack of resolution more than, say, Ellen Sander, who was busy trying to escape from Led Zeppelin. Women contributed to rock writing from the beginning, but they faced what Dettmar and Lethem accurately describe as “a staggering array of hazings” in a “playing field tilted badly from the start.” From a male perspective, they were the profane within the profane realm of rock ’n’ roll: unseen, uncounted, but under threat. Their exclusion and trials meant that women had to fight harder to be heard, had to listen more carefully, and had to write better than men just so they could be published. Sander’s “Inside the Cages of the Zoo” is simply one of the best pieces of rock reportage ever written, and so it’s crushing to read, at its conclusion, that two members of Led Zeppelin assaulted her, “shrieking and grabbing [her]” with enough force to rip her dress. “Over the next week,” she writes, “I tried to write the story. It was not about to happen. It took a whole year just to get back to my notes again with any kind of objectivity.” Sander eventually included the essay in her 1973 book, Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties, which is now out of print.

The writing by women included in Shake It Up — 13 of its 50 essays — stands among the volume’s best. Their writing is more innovative, urgent, and complex; whether because of a pressure to compete or an urge to carve out their own language and belonging, female writers confronted — maybe not reconciled, but confronted — the enormous contradictions and ambiguities they faced. Perhaps no one did that better than Ellen Willis. As The New Yorker’s first rock writer, she wrote with a ferocious intellect and a fan’s passion, interrogating pop music and its culture with verve, suspicion, and pragmatism. In her essay, “Janis Joplin,” written in 1980, Willis sees the singer as a tragic figure of American patriarchy without smoothing over the complexity created by Joplin herself:

Janis sang out her pain as a woman, and men dug it. Yet it was men who caused the pain, and if they stopped causing it they would not have her to dig. In a way, their adulation was the cruelest insult of all. And Janis’s response — to sing harder, get higher, be worshipped more — was rebellious, acquiescent, bewildered all at once.

Over and over, Willis challenged orthodoxy, be it male-defined standards or the standard feminist line. Her interrogation of the cultural complexity of the female rock performer marks other superb writing in Shake It Up, from Carola Dibbell’s “The Slits Go Native” to Ann Powers’s essay on PJ Harvey’s album Rid of Me, which “envisions a subject between sexes, empowered by the possibilities and entrapped by the limits of both masculine and feminine.” These frontline dispatches keep one foot in the profane territory of ordinary experience, sorting through the mess of do’s and don’ts faced by women. As rock ’n’ pop culture threatened to congeal, they listened for ways music might upend tradition.

Institutions exist to stabilize tradition. Although they must be open to newness if they’re to remain relevant, cultural archives like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, published in 1976, order the disorderly, whether they like it or not. The primary method of organization is writing the genre’s history — which is to say, writing the story of its innovations. Almost from its inception, writing about popular music sought to preserve and argue for this newness. The British critic Nik Cohn published Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock in 1969, the same year Roxon published her encyclopedia and Lenny Kaye wrote “The Best of Acapella” about early ’60s doo-wop groups. Known best for his assemblage of the garage-rock anthology album, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968, Kaye begins his essay by remarking on the rock ’n’ roll revival going on in 1969 — a reminder that cultural cycles of nostalgia drove the historicizing of the genre as much as a desire for legitimacy or prestige.

Still, the pace and breadth of music history writing picked up considerably — and deliberately — in the mid-to-late 1970s, concurrent with and probably crucial to the acceptance of music writing as a legitimate (and commercially successful) form of literature. In Shake It Up, this turning point is signaled, ironically enough, by Lester Bangs’s debilitating 1977 essay, “Where Were You When Elvis Died?” Bangs was a volatile, highly personal writer, seemingly so immersed in the present moment that there was no way out. Neither as theory-minded nor as absolute as Meltzer, he was empathetic to the idea that music was the world and that the world often didn’t make sense. Here, though, he’s achingly reserved about Elvis’s final impact: the end of superstars, the cultural glue that could hold millions of Americans together. “[W]e will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis,” writes Bangs. “So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”

From this point forward, Shake It Up is filled with historical writing, as if the past will keep us from saying goodbye. Eulogies abound: to Otis Redding, Elvis, Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Michael Jackson. Of the anthology’s final 30 entries, all of them published in the 1980s or after (beginning with an excerpt from Nick Tosches’s riveting 1982 biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire), 20 of the essays gaze into the past. All but two of these — a bit of Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City (2001), concerning his love for the metal band Mötley Crüe, and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s astonishing and ridiculous “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose” — focus on musicians or works from the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s that hardly anyone would consider unworthy of the attention. Few of these writers give in to nostalgia; nearly all of the writing is excellent. Still, there’s a growing sense in Shake It Up that, as music writing developed into a profession, one of its prime objectives was to organize a cultural consensus about the past, resulting in prose that seems generated from within the archive itself in order to cement its architecture.

There are good reasons to rewrite and reconsider history, and to build and rebuild institutions. Foremost among them is the recovery of overlooked subjects — songs, songwriters, performers, artistic scenes — that, in their time, made the new. “Things in the profane realm are not deliberately conserved,” writes Groys; “unless they are saved from destruction by chance, they eventually disappear.” One example of this conservation is Evelyn McDonnell’s “The Runaways: Wild Thing,” which argues for the importance of the 1970s all-girl pop-punk group simply by telling their story. The strongest historical writing in Shake It Up goes beyond historical recovery, however, and confronts deep misunderstandings about past innovations. In a blistering passage from One Nation Under a Groove (1995), Gerald Early argues that Motown transformed African-American authenticity from a segregationist “service” for whites into the profoundly magnetic center of the pop mainstream “largely on its own terms,” all the while championing the historically “innovative power of R and B as pop music.”

Elsewhere in Shake It Up, challenges to the historical record are grounded more in contemporary experience. Danyel Smith reminisces on her thwarted love, as a young Black teenager, for Barry Manilow; writing her personal history, she shows how our collective understanding of pop history has been misguided or reduced by cultural traditions that would exclude Manilow (and Whitney Houston) and preclude young Black women from enjoying whatever music they please. In “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” Jessica Hopper faces down the contradictions created by sexist traditions in these succinct terms: “Can you forgo judgment woe to women in the recorded catalog of Zeppelin because the first eight bars of ‘Communication Breakdown’ is total fucking godhead?”

The problem with the heavy dose of history in Shake It Up has less to do with the quality of the writing than with the narrative ultimately presented by the anthology itself. To put it simply, the book skews toward what’s already thought of as great music, most of it made before 1970. Four of the anthology’s 50 essays are about the Beatles. That’s the same number as those covering music that originated after 2000. There are other glaring omissions. Aside from brief passages on The Shirelles, The Supremes, and Whitney Houston, not a single essay focuses on Black female musicians. Rap from the 1970s to the mid-1990s is entirely unaccounted for; it’s as if hip-hop began with Jay-Z. Shake It Up seems to insinuate that the greatest musical innovations are in the past, which is hardly a position that challenges the pop-culture archive. Even if you agree with Dettmar and Lethem’s insistence that the anthology focuses on great writing — and for the most part, it does — the implication is that great music writing is about music the cultural archive already insists is great.

While it’s tempting to read Shake It Up not just as the product but as the continued production of the cultural archive of popular music, it’s more fruitful to think of it as a snapshot of the present moment’s ceaseless tension between the cultural archive and the profane realm. Just as Dylan now stands among the Nobel laureates, some of the most transgressive music writing is now part of the official archive presented by Shake It Up and other anthologies. On the other hand, while institutions proliferate, they also face budgetary reductions or elimination altogether. The promised democratic utopia of the internet has become as commodified as we feared. Most recently, MTV laid off its online news team, established only a year ago by editorial director Jessica Hopper. What began with the website’s explicit goal of diversifying the canon of pop culture criticism by featuring more long-form personal essays has been replaced, as Amanda Petrusich notes in The New Yorker, by “less spiritually demanding material.” In other words, video clips.

There’s good reason to worry about the contemporary state of rock ’n’ pop music writing. Rather than pretend that it can’t be canonized, sanctified, or institutionalized, however, we ought to ask how the inevitable standardizations can be troubled by the profane, how archives can produce an understanding of innovation the market can’t, and how a writing tradition founded on newness — on the search for significantly different languages, voices, and styles that could passionately make sense of and argue for the innovations of pop and rock — can continue. Institutional cachet won’t bring an end to that search any more than Dylan’s Nobel Prize did.


Robert Loss is an assistant professor in the English and Philosophy Department at Columbus College of Art and Design.

LARB Contributor

Robert Loss is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Literature, and Philosophy at Columbus College of Art and Design. He is the author of Nothing Has Been Done Before: Seeking the New in 21st-Century American Popular Music (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). His writing about the intersections of culture, politics, and aesthetics in American literature, comics, and popular music has appeared in Public BooksGhettoblasterThe Comics Journal, and PopMatters. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife and their cat. His website is


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