Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pop Aphorisms: XII

1. Record Collecting—A pseudo-scientific activity motivated by the same obsessive narrowness of focus that characterizes the autistic mind.

2. If Coldplay would realize how terrible it was, and were able to ironize that terribleness, it could be U2.

3. As a guitarist, Eric Clapton is to B. B. King what Gene Kelly is to Fred Astaire—what virtuosity is to grace.

4. Mallarmé’s advice to poets, “Yield the initiative to words,” finds its analogy in the lesson of Elvis, who understood rock music differed from classic pop by yielding the initiative to sound.

5. So many “important” albums have been named in the history of rock that the word “important” is no longer meaningful: the word is simply a ruse used to cloak individualized taste.

6. The problem of referring to a certain album as an example of a certain school of music (e.g., “punk,” “alternative”) is critically irresponsible, because it suggests that a particular school of music is more coherent than it actually is.

7. There is a crucial difference between a movie star and a rock star: the latter is seldom, if ever, able to stage a “comeback.” The “oldies” circuit is rock’s equivalent of country music’s Branson, Missouri—just a waiting room to hillbilly heaven.

8. To become art, rock music had to elevate the guitar to its primary expressive instrument, just as jazz since bebop elevated the saxophone. Unfortunately, it fell prey to the same pitfall: virtuosity too easily became pretension.

9. Country Pop—the last refuge of a failed rock ‘n’ roller.

10. In the era of Madonna, the need for publicity is obvious; in more honest days, though, they called it “payola.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009


According to John Tobler’s This Day In Rock (Carroll & Graf, 1993), on this day in 1977, Fleetwood Mac released one of the biggest-selling rock albums of all time, RUMOURS. The album is still in the Top Ten of the Top Selling Records of All Time despite being surpassed in recent years by Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, having sold to date 19 million copies, more or less the same number as The Beatles’ “white album.” It is astonishing that the album nonetheless has sold ten million fewer copies than The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, the all-time sales leader. While lists—lists being a form of indexing—of best sellers are no doubt interesting as well as provocative, such lists also make it difficult to determine the historical importance of an album, if by importance we mean significance. Although RUMOURS sold more in terms of copies than Fleetwood Mac’s previous, eponymously titled album, and more copies than the band’s subsequent album, TUSK, is it historically more important than either of these two other albums?

Perhaps it is time to explore the importance of “importance.” For “importance” is the word normally invoked whenever popular music becomes an object of academic study. Many articles and books have been written on so-called “important” albums and musicians, in which the critic, by necessity, makes the assertion that such-and-such is “important.” And yet inevitably, as Simon Frith has observed, whenever a particular album (or musician) is deemed “important,” a study of ideological effects ensues, following conventionalized, highly predictable routes (see the first twenty pages of Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, Harvard University Press, 1996). If the determination of “importance” allows us to designate the significance of a particular album or musician, what sorts of information does the designation also happen to repress? The problem with “importance,” as a designation of significance, is that it leads to an uncritical identification with a particular album or musician, which is why analyses seeking to establish importance inevitably follow the predictable path of ideology. The trick is to establish significance while still remaining critically aloof, if not disinterested, in the object of study, not because the object is analogous to a specimen under a microscope, but to avoid predictability and redundancy, or pleonasm.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

And Then There Were 170

Frequent visitors to this blog know that I submitted a proposal, on Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, to Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series of books on significant rock albums of the past forty years (or so). This past Sunday evening, the series’ editor, David Barker, posted the (long) shortlist of proposals still under serious consideration, trimming the number of proposals from 597 to 170. I’m very happy to report that my proposal made the initial cut and is still under consideration, as is my friend Tim Lucas’s, on Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation. Tim sent me a congratulatory note today, to which I responded reciprocally. I sincerely hope we both make it—I would very much like to see our work appearing in the same series— although I don’t wish to calculate the odds of that probability. But we shall see.

While reader comments (available on a pop-up window) on the short list are widely varied, by and large the comments by those authors whose proposals were rejected the first round are congenial and supportive of those who made the initial cut. Believe me, I know what it’s like to receive a rejection, as I didn’t make the cut the last time there was an invitation for proposals, nor did Tim. While of course I would love to contribute a book to the series, there are a good many albums on the short list I would love to read a book about. Congratulations to all who have made it so far. I wish you all the best, and please do likewise.