Full Title: Rock Music in American Culture: The Sounds of Revolution
Author: Robert G. Pielke
Publisher: McFarland & Company (2012) (Second edition)
Number of Pages: 242
How long it took me to read: 3 weeks
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
Like a Moth to a Flame
This is the first review I’ve written at the behest of the author. As if that wasn’t daunting enough, the subject happens to be rock music—a topic I’ve always purposefully avoided reading about. Not because it doesn’t interest me; quite the reverse, in fact. The act of performing or listening to music has always felt sacred to me; too sacred to risk dispelling its magic by learning too much about it.
But what do I even mean by ‘sacred?’
With other cultural media (writing, film, theatre), I have a tendency to search obsessively for meaning—but with music, what I’m seeing is the pure pleasure of sensations resounding through my body. The sounds themselves are just repetitive vibrations that reverberate round and down my auditory canals, translated by nerves and temporal lobe into a recognisable pattern. But in the right configuration, that pattern manifests as slivers of ice being slid beneath my skin, or the roasting weight of sunlight pinning me to my seat. They can propel me head-first into a thumping determination of future plans and actions, or calm me to the point where problems shrivel to nothingness. And they always—always—light the dark solitude of my mind with a flickshow of memories and visualisations. Other configurations, though, can feel as if someone is rubbing a cheese grater against my nerve endings, or hammering a metal spike through my skull.
The subtext of lyrics, or knowledge of the artists’ social background and political views, can sometimes supplement (or manipulate) these sensations, but it is this fusion of musicological elements (rhythm, orchestration, melody) with my personal circumstances and biological make-up that gives music its true significance. Magnificence, even.
Because of this intensely personal relationship with music (to the point where I have never managed to appreciate live music because of its more social nature), I am prepared for a book about Rock Music and its significance in American cultural revolution to be a rather uncomfortable read. On the other hand, my CD racks contain a far greater proportion of US music than British—from metal to indie, via alternative country and tex-mex, from the 1960s to the modern day—so much of the music should not be a mystery. And throughout my teens and twenty-somethings, my musical, clothing and lifestyle tastes took a high-velocity route through various guises of the revolution, including (at its more recognisable stages) metal-head cowboy, bearded-and-beaded hippy viking and hypertense, purple-haired indie kid. You could say I’ve fast-tracked alternative culture to the extreme (I get quickly bored, my attentions easily diverted). Despite this, I’m still not sure that I’m ready to see my hallowed musical tastes dissected and splayed out on a slab for intellectual, philosophical consideration.
Literature, fine. Films, whatever. But music…music is sacred!
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I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book (cut from a shortlist of 14 and a long list of about fifty) are:
5. “Cultural creations are born, they live, and they die; but above all, they change and effect change. So, a permanent, unchanging definition of rock music is intrinsically impossible; it would amount to an abstraction from a particular part of its developmental process and would thus contradict itself: a part would claim to be the whole.” (p.15)
4. “…the counterculture record store functions as a haven, a sanctuary from the oppressiveness of established order. To see this, the observer need only witness the discomfort of ‘straights’ (participants in the traditional order) who enter this alien environment. If ever there were a litmus test for values, this might be it: a discomfort index for customers.” (p.91)
3. “Only if the self is intact can it manifest a concern for other, and recreation is an essential component of keeping it intact. After all, ‘recreation’ means to ‘re-create.’ Nothing frivolous about this, and nothing selfish either. Essentially, re-creation is healing, the revitalization of the body and spirit and the opening of the self to the future.” (p.97)
2. “The fact that these changes have come about far more slowly than he [McLuhan] anticipated, imperceptibly, some would say, should not lead us to conclude that he was wrong about everything. Cultural revolutionaries are notoriously impatient, and McLuhan was no exception. Perhaps if he had paid more attention to what he himself was saying, he would have been able to discern more accurately the character of radical change, namely, that it does proceed imperceptibly and, for the most part, subliminally.” (p.64)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “As luck would have it, I had happened upon one of Baltimore’s few Black radio stations. And they were playing such songs as ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ by Lloyd Price, the Chords’ (original) version of ‘Sh-Boom,’ and, unbelievably, the Dominoes’ ‘Sixty Minute Man.’ With a swiftness unparalleled by anything other than a teenager’s change of moods, I knew with absolute certainty that my parents wouldn’t appreciate this discovery with the same degree of ardor.” (p.68)
Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.
New Word: numinous
Definition (Source: Dictionary.com): 1) of, pertaining to, or like a numen; spiritual or supernatural; 2) surpassing comprehension or understanding; mysterious; 3) arousing one’s elevated feelings of duty, honor, loyalty, etc.
Synonyms: 1) ethereal, nonmaterial; 2) extraordinary, inexplicable; 3) hallowed, venerable
Origins: 1640–50; Latin nūmin- (stem of nūmen ) ‘numen’ + ‘-ous’
As in: “Otto preferred calling it the numinous—that which is experienced as ultimate.” (p.137) (A pertinent definition in itself!)
New Word: exegetical
Definition (Source: Dictionary.com): of or pertaining to exegesis; explanatory; interpretative
Synonyms: informative, enlightening
Origins: 1645–55; Greek exēgētikós, equivalent to exēgēt (ḗs) ‘exegete’ + -ikos ‘-ic’
As in: “In an essay entitled ‘Learning from The Beatles,’ Richard Poirier singles out this one album for especially close analysis, subjecting each and every song to his exegetical scrutiny.” (p.161)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“The book begins with a brief, sweeping description of the conception, birth and development of rock and roll from the author’s own perspective, quickly followed by an admission of his unavoidable subjectivity. This instantly calms two conflicting fears invoked by the book’s title:
- That it might consist of nothing more than tabloid-esque celebrity soap opera with some pseudo-intellectual dressing, or
- That the subject might be put under an academic microscope at a dry, dispassionate distance.
“Pielke shatters these fears by immediately pinpointing his place in the story of the cultural revolution. His confession of subjectivity suggests I am in for not only a uniquely philosophical perspective on rock and roll (as the blurb declares), but also an earnest, intimate exploration of the phenomena by someone who has lived through it, experienced its evolution, and is not afraid to use their own values and responses as an available specimen for study. This is vital. I would be far less inclined to put my trust in the hands of someone who had not experienced a similarly inexplicable devotion to this kind of music as I have. I’m sure this would be true of any reader. That Pielke recognises and responds to this need for trust from the outset tells me he has undoubtedly shared that personal experience. Notably, he also explains that this is the second edition of a book first published twenty-four years ago. In that time, he has continued to watch this ‘revolution’ develop, reshape, ebb back and flow forth, and felt enough dedication to return to his original ideas and fill in that gap. I don’t think I have to worry about his personal enthusiasm for the subject.”
“Pielke’s writing confidently—and successfully—strides the line between academic rigour and wider accessibility, the tone shifting gracefully through the gears of carefully explained philosophical theory (Marshall McLuhan, Hegel’s thoughts on Truth), detailed rock and roll history (analyses of album covers, exploration of technologies) and personal anecdotes that welcome the reader with open arms into his own past, all spiced with a healthy tang of irony. His discussion of the two sides (revolutionists and traditionalists) remains even-handed and non-judgemental, despite overtly stating on which side he stands. A clear, untainted picture is painted of these twin forces interlocking, like a set of immense, jagged jaws gnashing against itself as it rolls through time, grinding the teeth of American culture into new, uneasily meshed formations. Readers from either side would appreciate this illustration of uncontrollable phenomena without needing to sympathise with Pielke’s own perspective.
“He also has a knack for restating accepted facts in a way that allows you to better appreciate their significance.
“Though its meaning may be rigorously disputed, it simply cannot be ignored that rock and roll challenged and replaced a very different kind of music, relegating it to the status of total obsolescence in a matter of one or two years.” (p.13)
“We’re very aware (particularly thanks to film) that the musical/cultural trends of the 20s, 30s and 40s were very different to those of the successive 60 years, but how much thought do we put into the incredible speed with which these trends changed/disappeared? Imagine if that happened now, in the 21st century. What kind of forces would be necessary to completely overwrite the current music scene, with its immeasurably diverse genres? But then, perhaps this simply wouldn’t be possible because of where we exist within this multifaceted, ongoing revolution.”
“At the start, I was worried—and curious—about how the book would handle the musicological aspects of rock music. Part 1, chapter 2 grabs these fears by the lapels and dumps them outside with the garbage. It asks me, (straight out, no messing) ‘What is rock music?’ Thrusting my head deep into my dusty musical memory, I begin rooting round for an answer. ‘Don’t bother,’ the book interrupts. ‘It has nothing to do with the music. No particular rhythm, orchestration, structure, key, or scale can tie together these increasingly divergent artists and their sounds.’
” ‘But,’ I whine pathetically, ‘…that’s what my relationship with music depends upon. That musicality is how and why I choose to experience music. I don’t care about the artists, the ‘live’ experience, the album art, the fashion or the merchandising. Is there no place for that deeply intimate experience of music in this cultural revolution?’
“After all, the diversity of rock is what makes it so special to someone with my fragile boredom threshold. There are only two or three artists from each genre—or maybe sub-genre or sub-sub-sub-sub genre—whose sound I really savour. The others bore me, annoy me, reduce me to derisive groans the moment I hear them (I’m a pleasure to be with in public). I’ve separated these specific musical fruits from the larger tree and used them to cultivate my own private island of cultural revolution, where the others have no place and even, come the day, might find themselves first up against the wall. Unfortunately (or rather, fortunately), one person on a desert island with a few albums for company does not a revolution make.
“At this point, I realise I have no reason or right to feel threatened by the scope and subject of this book. It isn’t about my private relationship with music. It’s about America’s relationship with music. As much as I want to bridge the gap between the individual and the collective experience of music, if I’m going to seriously explore what this book has to offer I must leave my personal baggage at passport control and cross the border, unarmed, into the wider world.”
“Personal experience aside, the question I most often found myself asking in the opening sections (particularly the chapter on Typology) was why consider music in isolation from the rest of the culture? There must have been so much else going on in the decades from 1940 to 2009 that would inform a discussion about cultural revolution. Surely concentrating on just one aspect is wilfully reductive? This question nagged me more and more as I read through the impressive year-by-year correlation of key US cultural factors with notable events from that year’s music scene. But, as the years progressed into the ’50s, I noticed a pattern emerging. Rather than the cultural climate informing the music scene, the music scene was beginning to inform the rest of the culture. Granted, these were selected highlights handpicked to convey the significance of rock and roll, but as the years advanced, there was no denying this significance existed. More importantly, having challenged myself to find examples of non-musical artistic icons that had achieved the enormous, widespread impact of Elvis or The Beatles, I came up with nothing. Not a single one.
“Rock and roll stands as a clear, definable and traceable model of cultural revolution. Perhaps this was the final revelation I needed to release those jealously clutched ties to my own experience—the realisation that music was far more important than my own need for it. In separating it from other cultural factors, Pielke isn’t being reductionist—he is simply acknowledging this importance. But claiming my own musical canon as a sacred icon be put on an altar, hidden away in the private temple of my senses, is reductionist in the extreme. Music cannot be tethered to a single person’s experience. It belongs to a shared human consciousness, and without that sharing it loses much of what makes it a vital, potent force, on both a social and personal level. A personal response to cultural forms is part of cultural evolution (or revolution), but it is not the same thing, just as an individual person, their phenotype, is part of the evolution of DNA. We can be too precious about our own acclivities at the cost of understanding the larger processes of which we are but a tiny part.”
“The most important understanding towards which this book is leading me is the means by which any meaningful and lasting socio-cultural change snowballs into effectiveness. So much of our Western cultural tradition—our books, films, plays and even songs—imply that it takes only one or two people to change the world. In the earliest roots of tradition, the tiny, isolated tribal communities of our ancestors, this may have been true. But in our newly forged, e-centric (eccentric?) global community it is a deception. You only need to look at how ineffectual, how purely symbolic, the role of leader has become in many countries to realise this. In the vast chain of human relationships, rapid vibrations at one link are quickly absorbed and dissipated by its neighbours. Twenty links on, the tremors are barely noticeable. One hundred, and it is as if the action had never occurred. A constant, virulent vibration of many is required to shake this heavy chain onto a new trajectory, and even then the desired trajectory continues to shift the more links that are shaken. The notion that one small group can change the world, let alone one person, is a fallacy. Change may not even be a conscious decision until its effects have already been felt. It takes the actions of millions, through many, many years, to secure persistent change. Although during that time one or two symbols will likely be raised up as guides and inspirations, they themselves do not ensure change.”
“Music is sacred, but not just ‘to me.’ Part 3 describes a more legitimate understanding of what this indefinable sacredness might be: an exploration of the religiosity of rock music (particularly through the live experience, though I would argue that a decent pair of headphones and a bottle of Jack Daniels can produce much the same effect, and all the better for not getting shoved around by other people). The sensations I described at the beginning are non-rational, the same as those experienced by those who worship an orthodox deity. Numinosity (insignificance), awe (dread), overpowerment, energy, otherness and fascination—these are six sensations outlined by Rudolf Otto as ‘feelings characteristic of every historical manifestation of religion without exception.’ (p.137)
“This brings me round full circle, and helps me realise why I was clinging so doggedly to my own relationship with music. It takes many people with similar ownership of such a sublime relationship to create a movement in the first place. That is how human change works. We just carry on, doing our own selfish thing, and before we know it—Sh…Bang—we’re part of a revolution. This one may have begun a long time before I was born, but the music was the reason I first started dressing ‘weird,’ going to ‘strange’ pubs and clubs and hanging out with other similarly clothed people. Of course Pielke is right to consider the importance of music in isolation, and of course I’m right to jealously guard my own relationship with it, and of course traditional forces are right to use it as a way of stealing power back. We may never be able to explain our personal relationships with it rationally, but that doesn’t stop it from being enormously, insurmountably significant.”
“Having praised the accessibility and versatility of Pielke’s writing, it’s only fair to isolate a few aspects with which I’ve struggled, more as a heads-up to potential readers than to add criticism for the sake of balance. There are times when I’d like to know a little more about the examples being held up for examination before we move on to the next argument. How is The Beatles’ version of Revolution on The White Album ambiguous? How does it negate art? What relevance does Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man have to the idea that ‘outsiders have a certain influence that those on the inside can never possess?’ (p.84) Often I am left to simply assume or accept the significance of such statements, hoping they will emerge again at a later juncture. Indeed, some of them do, but others are just left behind to flap unconvincingly in the wake of the argument.
“There’s also an over-reliance on lists to make a point. ‘Here is an example of artists who…’ followed by a long stream of names, some of which I recognise, most of which I don’t, but I rarely get a deeper understanding of why any of them are included in the list. This provides an illusion of comprehensiveness, but doesn’t help to cement the initial point in my head.
“Finally, I’m not convinced the chart used to illustrate the Typology of Rock Music is either necessary or helpful. It provides a list of bands in two categories, ‘Revolutionary’ and ‘Co-opted’. The first of these is further split into affirmers of revolutionary values and negators of traditional values, while the second records ‘loss of transcendence’ and ‘loss of immanence’ (this will make more sense if you read the book, and I strongly recommend that you do read the book). The problem is, the chart is completely subjective, as the author himself admits. But, if the reader does not agree with how certain bands have been categorised (and given the subjectivity, it seems more than likely that most people will disagree with some element), rather than elucidating the ideas that precede the chart, it could easily lead to confusion. I won’t give details of the particular placements that bothered me (to avoid falling into the same trap), but I found myself having to read parts of the preceding chapters over and over again to make sure I hadn’t completely misunderstood them. I hadn’t, but perhaps because of our musical taste, or geographical location, I just had a very different perspective to the author on their contribution to the cultural revolution.”
“Three weeks spent reading this book from cover to cover has retuned my mind to many of the values imbued by my earliest, most intimate, experiences of music. For the first time in years, I’ve been listening to Beatles tracks again, hearing them resound clearly in my head, feeling their rainbow of sensations spill out and over my body. I’ve come to consider The Sounds of Revolution my official handbook on both rock music (focusing, as it does, on the effects of music and musical artists) and the phenomena of cultural revolution itself. In fact, I wish I’d pretended this copy had never arrived so I could have requested another to pass round my friends. They need to read it as well. They need to understand how so much of the world they live in came into existence; how so many of the ideas and attitudes we often take for granted were hunted down and struggled over on the cultural battlefield.
“There was no need to worry about this book destroying my personal relationship with music. Challenging it, maybe, and even disturbing it, but ultimately the author has guided me to a deeper reverence for the subject than I had before. The songs I love will always retain their significance for me, without requiring validation from anyone else, but I realise now that music can speak for itself, and will continue to do so regardless of who is listening or when. That’s what makes it so dangerous. Thank you, Professor Pielke—it has been, in every sense, a liberation.”