Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock'n'Roll. By Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave. New York: Da Capo Press, 1993. [vii, 374 p. ISBN 0-306-80502-2 (pbk.) $14.95.]
Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture. By Andrew Goodwin. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. [xxiii, 237 p. ISBN 0-8166-2062-8, $44.95; ISBN 0-8166-2063-6 (pbk.), $16.95.]
Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. By George Lipsitz. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990. [xvii, 306 p. ISBN 0-8166-1805-4, $34.95; ISBN 0-8166-1806-2 (pbk.), $14.95.]
Book Review by Jason Gibbs
Notes (June 1994) vol. 50, no. 4, pp.1438-1451.
Anti-Rock by Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave almost reads like a lexicon of invective against rock music. In their survey of opposition to popular music they begin with the period of post-World War II prosperity when the growing youth population in America began to rebel against the prevailing conformity in society. Civic and religious leaders feared the changes brought about by this rebellion and saw rock music as a major instigator of cultural and moral decline. Their paranoia centered around the supposed primitive and depraved rhythm, lyrics, and dancing. Many of the objections today seem absurd and can be summed up by the authors' composite caricature of the rock fan as "a gay, hyperactive, physically weak, juvenile delinquent; someone prone to errors, reduced output, and suffering a nervous breakdown".
Established composers and music producers joined in deriding rock music because it was often written and performed by youth themselves and thus did not emerge as a result of professional training. ASCAP, the licensing agency representing mainstream songwriters, exemplified the music industry's initial hostility to rock music. Beginning in the 1940s they faced competition from BMI who licensed music in the increasingly popular genres of country-western, rhythm-and-blues, and (later) rock music. The authors show this rivalry culminating in the payola scandal with the disc jockey Alan Freed--a case they view as an attack against rock music. Freed partially owed his popularity to the independently released rock and rhythm-and-blues recordings he played over the airwaves. Martin and Segrave characterize the ASCAP position as: "the BMI trash was so bad no one would ever play it unless they were paid".
Originally published in 1988 by a small press (Archon Press of Hamden, Connecticut), Anti-Rock remains timely because opposition to rock music continues to this day through attempts to censor lyrics and block concerts. Regretfully, when this book was reprinted the opportunity was not taken to update it to include more recent controversies concerning rap music lyrics. Martin and Segrave applaud youth rebellion in all its forms, and believe that rock "represents the idealistic, spontaneous, and nihilistic tendencies of youth versus the hypocritical, repressive, and traditional tendencies of adult society". But they are extreme in their dismissal of all criticisms of rock music, and their argument breaks down with the claim that the loud decibel level of rock music does not contribute to hearing loss. They view this as another attempt by the establishment to inhibit the influence of the music.
Dancing in the Distraction Factory by Andrew Goodwin is a history and analysis of the music video, focusing upon the Music Television Network (MTV) that aims to explore the "aesthetic and political implications of music television". MTV began in 1981 after the growth of cable television increased the number of available television channels. Because record companies provide the programming through promotional videotapes, MTV did not require the same level of financing as a major network. As a result the network's programming, the music video itself, is an advertisement for the audio recording of the song or, in a larger sense, for the "persona" of the artist. Much of the visual content of music video derives from prevideo imagery such as the dress and stage sets of live performance, album covers, and fan paraphernalia associated with the musicians. Goodwin fleshes out this approach with a discussion of synaesthesia or how "one pictures sounds in one's 'mind's eye'". He describes the results of an informal experiment where he asked students to visualize imagery for songs with no extant videos and found that they showed remarkable agreement in the subject matter they imagined. He concludes that music video "attempts to tap into visual associations that exist prior to the production of the clip itself, in the internal sign systems of the audience".
Goodwin's major foe throughout the book is the film-studies analyses of music video that he contends ignore the role of music in the video clip and as a result exaggerate the significance of the lack of coherent narrative (one section of the book is entitled "How Songs Are Not Movies"). He presents an informative reading of the video "Father Figure" by George Michael, demonstrating how the video's imagery relates to the formal structure of the song and draws from and elaborates the star's popular image. "While the clip does not adhere to the conventions of the cinematic classic realist text, it can be read as quite conventional . . . within the dual conventions of the pop song and television 'segment'".
Goodwin examines a political contradiction of MTV, that in adopting rock's rebellious posture it is sometimes progressive and at other times merely irreverent. He ascribes this to rock's aesthetic of romanticism coupling a "rejection of everyday life with a new sense of social responsibility and philanthropic concern". Although often adopting a partying, antiauthority attitude, MTV has also taken a liberal stance on many environmental and social issues. Since this book was written, MTV also played a role in the 1992 presidential election through voter registration drives, candidate interviews, and the fielding of a political correspondent. Nonetheless, Goodwin is left with ambivalence about whether MTV is a progressive force or actually serves the interest of large corporations in the marketplace.
George Lipsitz, in Time Passages, focuses upon popular culture as a means for people to affirm their collective identity and aspirations. He posits a pluralistic oppositional culture that is able to sustain its traditions during an era of overwhelming mass communication. The book has sections discussing film, fiction, and television, but gives the greatest coverage to music, with chapters devoted to rock music with its dual African-American and white working-class roots, Chicano popular music in Los Angeles, and the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans.
Lipsitz focuses upon subcultures that fall outside European culture and the American mass communications industry. He traces the transition from the preindustrial communal world of "ritual community celebration" to a working class population that purchases leisure as a commodity. Despite the destruction of communal, traditional culture by social displacement, "people ingeniously enter those discourses to which they have access" in order to keep their cultures alive. Participants in oppositional popular culture "tap sources of collective popular memory to identify the repressed and suppressed traditions of resistance to oppression".
Lipsitz elaborates upon Mikhail Bakhtin's idea of dialogic imagination where every participant in cultural life "enters a dialogue already in progress" and into "past, present, and future struggles over culture and power". American popular music participated in such a historical dialogue during the era of World War II defense production that brought rural whites and African-Americans into America's cities. Lipsitz draws conclusions that are similar to Christopher Small's in Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in Afro-American Music (New York: Riverrun, 1987) about the liberating qualities of African-rooted music. This liberation allowed "the repressions of the industrial workplace [to] be challenged by the uninhibited passions of love and play". A refusal of industrial values leads to the confrontation described in Anti-Rock--teenagers "had the freedom to reject the values of their parents and to seek out cultural alternatives".
In discussing the Chicano community of Los Angeles, Lipsitz invokes Antonio Gramsci's proposed "organic intellectuals" who "[chronicle] the cultural life of their community, . . . [drawing] upon street slang, car customizing, clothing styles, and wall murals for inspiration and ideas, as well as upon more traditional cultural creations such as literature, plays, and poems". Artists under these circumstances create a "bricolage" that both represents the subculture to the community itself and to the world at large. "Chicano artists fashioned a bifocal music accessible from both inside and outside their community. They juxtaposed multiple realities, blending Mexican folk music with Afro-American rhythm-and-blues, playing English-language songs in a Mexican style for audiences filled with Spanish speakers". Again, richness of meaning is found through the bringing together of cultures and mixing of symbols.
In a chapter discussing recent American literature, Lipsitz adapts Michel Foucault's notion of countermemory as a reframing of history according to a continuous, developing self-understanding of a culture and its excluded historical memory. "[C]ountermemory forces revision of existing histories by supplying new perspectives about the past". Lipsitz wants to reexamine history, aligning it with myth--stories or histories that do not necessarily belong to the dominant history, but that resonate with peoples' experiences.
Time Passages will prove useful to those trying to understanding the history of a society through the workings of its mass culture. As Lipsitz claims, "historical memories and historical evidence can no longer be found solely in archives and libraries; they pervade popular culture and public discourse as well". He encourages us to learn the history embedded in popular culture to understand better why its creations have been a meaningful part of so many peoples' lives.