Excerpt from Adventures in Avant-Pop

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Introduction: Building a Mystery

This book is, on one level at least, a fan's notes on fifty years of listening to music—albeit it is focused on seven figures who have especially mattered to me over those years. I am fully aware of the risks associated with a project like this. Popular culture studies, especially aimed at a general audience (vs., say, the academic rigors of the Birmingham School), can smack of self‑indulgent, narcissistic chat. Furthermore, the more politically inclined on the left tend to disparage insufficiently Marxist and overly aesthetic considerations of popular material. Such writing, they argue, merely reaffirms the bourgeois status quo. I know now from reading Uncovering the  Sixties, Abe Peck's history of the underground press, that such charges were levied at rock journalism from its inception. Music as a handmaiden of revolution was not completely to be trusted. Since popular music itself was also not to be trusted, it has never been, for some, a worthy subject of critical attention.

Ambivalences about music go back to the very beginnings of western consciousness, of course. On the one hand, we have stories that affirm music's power: Joshua tumbling down the walls of Jericho in the Old Testament, Orpheus' many accomplishments in Greek mythology. On the other, we have Plato's nervous determinations in The Republic regarding what kind of musical modes ought to be allowed in an ideal state, lest the wrong kind of music corrupt the populace. The long shadow of these concerns reaches to the Frankfurt School of sociology in the twentieth century: Teodor Adorno fretting about jazz, Walter Benjamin concerned about the loss of “aura” in the technologically reproduced artifact. Some of us can still remember the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the eighties, a conglomeration of congressional wives who eventually got content labels onto the packaging of new releases. More of us can remember ongoing controversies about rap lyrics.

The first (safe) assumption of this book is that music does matter. Although birds and humpback whales remind us we do not have a species monopoly on music, music is a human universal. Every culture produces it, even ones who occasionally ban it for religious reasons. Music augments our feelings of / contact with the sacred, ranging from voodoo drumming to Gregorian chant. Politicians are also keenly aware of its importance.  I'm not just thinking of all that Nazi marching music Joseph Goebbels commissioned for Hitler rallies. I am reminded how Bill Clinton set the tone for his administration with Fleetwood Mac's “Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow);” and, more ominously, how Dubya appropriated an edited version of the Who's “Won't Get Fooled Again” on the eve of his non‑election (leaving out the lines “Meet the new boss / same as the old boss”).

A corollary to this first assumption is that music is worth talking about and studying. Perhaps my eight years of studying with the Jesuits is showing here in part. St. Ignatius Loyola considered it axiomatic that one can “find God in all things.”  All of the universe manifests the goodness of the divine if we know how to look closely enough. A more secular humanist way to rephrase this would be to consider that everything in the world has value, certainly including popular music. If you have any doubts about this claim, check out the writings of Lester Bangs—the rock critic this book is dedicated to. Bangs raised the writing of popular music criticism to literary art, all the while burnishing the jewel of his musical subject matter so we could hear what he was hearing. His passion, lightly worn erudition, and clarity far surpass the efforts of more rewarded and honored academic critics in the humanities. (The only way the rest of us can write about music is to not obsess about coming up to his extraordinary standards, a stance he would approve of: such anxieties lead to bad imitation.) 

My third assumption is that music can be approached from across disciplinary lines, that interdisciplinary writing is doable and valuable—even if the writer is not technically an expert in the disciplines at hand. This is a less safe assumption: at my university,I still have colleagues who believe that you need a doctorate in every field you wish to say something meaningful about. We have an interdisciplinary seminar requirement for all majors; in the initial phases of its development, credentials were closely examined lest dilettantes got a crack at teaching these courses. 

I come from another place entirely. Several decades of membership in the Society for Values in Higher Education, an interdisciplinary think tank, has enabled me to have meaningful conversations across the disciplines and shown me that non-experts can have a valuable outside perspective on the discursive formations that constitute various areas of study. Environmental, nuclear and foreign policy issues, for example, are far too important to be left exclusively in the hands of a trained elite who have been socialized to think inside a particular box. But the same even goes for aesthetic issues as well. I have a colleague from Kashmir, trained to appreciate Indian classical music, who never took seriously folk “wedding bands” from that region until I explained to her how much they impressed the American jazz world and why.

 These attitudes and proclivities of mind were thoroughly reinforced by my fourteen summers (1986‑1999) spent teaching American Foundations, a team‑taught interdisciplinary summer course in American studies based out of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art on the campus. The music faculty showed us all how to talk about music in a non‑technical fashion, a kind of careful “listening by ear” that helped us account for what we were hearing formally and expressively in the music at hand. This method is the way I will be describing in greater depth some of the pieces discussed below. More importantly, American Foundations confirmed that interdisciplinary approaches to culture can be interesting and illuminating. So, for me, a book on popular music by someone who has received no advanced training in the field became possible.

 It's not that I utterly lack credentials for undertaking this project beyond all this exposure to interdisciplinary discussion. I bring to this project a considerable background in American studies and critical theory—and 50 years of reverential appreciation of this music. I have been a disk jockey in four separate venues; I have even been in a certifiably avant‑pop band in my own right: I played theremin synthesizer, sundry reed instruments and a series of drainpipes tuned to an octave which I played with an amplified electric vibrator! And my music archive is conveniently huge.

 Yet my final assumption is that, when all is said and done, music remains a mysterious miracle. There is a limit to what one can write about it (even if, unlike me, one is an expert). To some extent, all writers on music are writing listening guides; and at some point, we are all reduced to pointing our fingers at something sublimely ineffable and saying “listen! listen!” If these words make you want to go out and hear this music—or make you re-listen more carefully if you already have it lying around—I will have succeeded.