Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Sunday, December 12, 2010

“1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This To Sing About” by Joshua Clover (University of California Press)

I need to mention this right off the bat - “1989” is NOT a book about Bob Dylan, despite the subtitle of the work. In fact, he is a very minor player here, used more as a symbol of an earlier generation than anything else. The subtitle “Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This To Sing About” is a line from the song “Right Here Right Now” by Jesus Jones, which IS a major player in the book.

It is Joshua Clover’s contention that the world-shaking events of 1989, most notably the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the overthrow of Communism throughout Europe, and the bloody protests in Tiananmen Square, are in some way connected to the changes in popular music which took place in and around 1989. He makes sure one understands that “1989” in the musico-historical sense refers not only to the literal year 1989, but also to musical events in the immediate period leading up to the year 1989, plus subsequent developments in the very early ‘90’s, which grew out of the musical revolutions of ‘89. Thus, the Jesus Jones song - the lyrics and video of which make reference to the politics of 1989 - is taken as a symbol of the year’s events, even though it was released in 1990 and hit the charts in 1991.

I have to confess that in 1989 and the years surrounding, I was in my early 40’s and had wearied of pop music. I was instead spending most of my time listening to folk-based and world-music styles. Thus, I had never really considered 1989 to be a particularly epochal year musically. Clover’s book has convinced me otherwise. It has even convinced me to go back and listen to much of this music again. Since I am by vocation a popular music historian (specializing in pre-1970 genres, to be sure), I am always pleased to come across intelligent analytical/critical thinking which allows me to re-examine music history from new vantage points.

I have far less to say about the political historical aspects of the book, largely because I am not familiar with the specialized, post-modernist, historiographical literature which Clover makes considerable reference to. He is very much concerned with the concept espoused around the time that the events of 1989 represented “the end of history”.Clover very carefully debunks this argument in rigorous academic terms. His writing in these sections is very dense and exacting, though a slow, committed reading generally makes his points clear.

The musical analysis is much easier to digest. In what I find to be the book’s most compelling and convincing chapter, Clover details how 1989 signalled the switchover from politically-based “Black Power” rap (typified by Public Enemy) to gangsta rap (typified at this time by N.W.A.), from New York to LA, from the influence of the Nation of Islam to a “Boyz N the Hood” mentality, in which black anger was turned into black-on-black violence. These changes were reflected in the music itself, as the rhythmic complexities of 80’s rap turned into a cooler, sample-based backdrop which led to massive legal problems for artists and record producers. Clover’s ability to dig below the surface and connect dots in a manner I personally had never contemplated is most impressive here.

1989 also was the year when grunge began to supplant punk by combining musical elements from both punk and metal, then turning the whole thing inward. Clover’s descriptions of this occurrence may hold fewer surprises than the hip-hop chapter, but they do make for interesting reading and re-listening. Most convincing are his arguments for why grunge was doomed to be a short-lived phenomenon in its pure state.

A less obvious change in the period called “1989”, at least as far as American readers will be concerned, is the story of how the “rave” became such a momentous event in England, where acid-house not only developed into a chart-topping musical genre, but raves became a way of life for a while, as no-holds-barred dance parties began attracting hundreds of thousands of people to large, open spaces all at one time. Musically, this craze had roots in Detroit and Chicago, yet the rave on a Grand Scale never caught on in the US to anywhere near the extent that it did in the UK and throughout much of Europe.

Perhaps least convincing to me is Clover’s chapter on how 1989 was a golden age for the single, just as the 45 was giving way to the CD single. I really wish he would have explained why he thinks 1962 was also such a golden era for the single, when most critics (not necessarily including myself) decry the music of the early 60’s as a particularly fallow period. Then again, Joshua Clover is not “most critics”, but a man who thinks for himself, thank goodness. I simply feel this segment of the book needed more conviction, more detail, more explanation.

As I’ve hinted, this slim volume (145 pages, not counting the Acknowledgments to Greil Marcus and others, 18 pages of notes, and a useful index) may be slow-going for many people. But the ideas are well worth mulling over. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is a worthwhile addition to the academically-minded pop music fan's library.

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