A Feast of American Writing on Rock and Pop Music
Who reads Robert Warshow, Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, Otis Ferguson, James Agee, or Andrew Sarris these days, apart from students in film classes (and even they may not be acquainted with these critics)? Agee’s brilliant essay, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” recovers an entire film oeuvre for viewers, and he alerts moviegoers of the time (Agee on Film was published in 1958) to a way both of getting lost in the movies and honoring them for their art. In 1942, Agee, in his inaugural film column for The Nation, revealed his own sense of his task as a critic: “As an amateur, then, I must as well as I can simultaneously recognize my own ignorance and feel no apology for what my eyes tell me as I watch any given screen, where the proof is caught irrelevant to excuse, and available in proportion to the eye which sees it, and the mind which uses it.”
Like Agee, Kael and others declare their passion for the cinematic art but also their fandom. (Kael’s most famous book, after all, is I Lost It at the Movies.) Like film criticism — which is not that much older than critical writing about popular music — rock and pop music criticism could easily fade into irrelevance, if some of it has not already. A few years from now, will we ask who still reads Lillan Roxon, Richard Goldstein, or Greil Marcus? Since rock and pop music writing grew up with the music, will it grow old and die when the music does the same? Do those pieces of music criticism that seemed so valuable at a particular time even now feel like museum pieces: lifeless, dead, and behind glass?
In part, at least, Agee’s quality of being an amateur among amateurs imbues popular music criticism with its enduring value. Now, both Agee and most music critics whose writings are still valuable to us are professionals in the sense that they are paid for their work, and there’s always been a sense that when criticism becomes professional (“professionalization”), it loses its vitality because it serves the mission of the magazine or journal or the band’s publicists and not the fans or the music itself. The force of Agee’s statement, though, is clear: The passion for the genre motivates him. The question, of course, is where is the line between fandom and criticism? Can a critic be a fan and write dispassionately about an artist or a certain kind of music? In rock and pop music criticism the lines blur — as they did for Agee — and that’s at least one of the reasons that we’re still reading Robert Christgau — and arguing with him — and that we continue to look for those writers, like Ann Powers or Anthony DeCurtis, whose love of a certain music takes us into that music and opens windows into new music rooms.
Now, a new anthology, Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z (Library of America), edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar, preserves, illustrates, and passes along plenty of examples of the vitality and enduring value of rock and pop music writing. The problem with anthologies, of course, is twofold: They establish a canon — these are the standard writings against which all other writings of this kind should be measured — and they enshrine implicitly the writings as museum pieces, often robbing them of their original life. There’s also the issue of selection: who’s in and who’s out; why this essay and not that one? Some of those issues afflict Shake It Up. Why Lester Bangs’ essay “Where Were You When Elvis Died?” and not his more energetic and crucial essays on the MC5 or Van Morrison, for example? However, in this case, these are minor quibbles with a wide-ranging collection of writers who shaped rock and pop music writing, continue to influence it, and continue to expand it.
Lethem and Dettmar clearly announce their goals: “The book proposes … neither a history of rock and pop nor of rock and pop music writing. Instead, we tried to make a feast. We sought to reflect the diversity of voices making up the American rock and pop music writing scene.” And a feast it is indeed; Shake It Up invites us to sit at table with writers as diverse as Christgau, Richard Poirer (he never published music criticism but was a famous literary critic who happened to write a significant essay on the Beatles, though he seems a little out of place in this collection), Ellen Willis, Nelson George, and Jessica Hopper. Shake It Up includes writers long excluded from the feast to the table — like Willis, Roxon, and George, for example — and their voices fill the air with a richness that the incessant drone of Christgau, Dave Marsh, and Marcus could never do. Topics range from Richard Meltzer’s attempt to establish rock criticism as a philosophical enterprise — in a selection from his Aesthetics of Rock — and Richard Goldstein’s profile of Dick Clark — “Master of Mediocrity” — to Ellen Sander’s searing essay on the mistreatment of women in rock and roll, “Inside the Cages of the Zoo,” and Kelefa Sanneh’s essay on “Jay-Z’s Decoded and the Language of Hip-Hop.” Take a nibble here, a bite there, fill your plate the first time and come back for seconds; it’s a satisfying repast and filling in its way.
Rock and pop music writing is still too young for Shake It Up to be considered a canon of such writing. The anthology reminds us that the line between the critic and he fan is permeable and that the passion of a fan animates the best critics’ writings. The best rock and pop music writing invites us to listen to music in new ways, urges us to pick up and listen to music to which we’ve never listened, encourages us — as amateurs to amateurs — to, as Sapphire says in Almost Famous, “to truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” That’s the way rock and pop music criticism got its start, after all — loving a band or music so deeply — and Shake It Up reminds us that we ought never lose sight of Sapphire’s little piece of wisdom in our writing, lest it become saccharine and lachrymose.