Kritikos: an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 1, August 2004,                                                                                                                            ISSN 1552-5112



Gathering Scattered Notes


Book Review: Eric Weisbard, Ed. This Is Pop. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.


Kyle A. Wiggins



  At times very little ties together the essays of the prodigious anthology of music criticism This Is Pop (Harvard UP, 2004). Thematically, the range of scholarly and journalistic pieces in the book, edited by Eric Weisbard, seems to hit all over the spectrum of contemporary criticism, without resonant concert. Surprisingly, this is a good thing. The anthology is borne out of the inaugural inter-discourse Pop Conference held at Seattle’s epicenter of music history and performance, the Experience Music Project. As Weisbard fittingly points out in his introduction, the EMP is a hybrid institution, and thus, a fitting incubation site for the polyglot dialogue of essays on pop music. Academic, musical, literal, and anthropological, the participating essayists have more to say to one another than they ostensibly realize. Pop music, as is pointed out on a number of occasions, is a protean categorization that revels in its shape shifting and thrives on an ability to galvanize strange bedfellows. Only in an anthology as wonderfully brazen and self-conscious as This Is Pop can disparate approaches to a nebulous cultural institution like pop music be both productive and estranged.


  This Is Pop opens with a provocative dialectic on American exceptionalism in rock music, volleyed between noted media academic Simon Frith and leading journalist Robert Christgau. The two essays establish an uneasy relationship between academia and journalism. Though both writers make distinctly compelling cases for the twilight of exceptional American rock, they do so while never losing sight of the discourse with the other (scholar/medium). However, the tête-à-tête between Frith and Christgau offers the most savory example of unified subject matter, as all hell breaks loose in the essays that follow. Topically, that is.


  Gayle Wald offers a wonderfully informative piece on “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe, situating the black gospel singer of the 1930s as the telos of women who shaped rock music. Given the trend in music criticism of canonical revision that draws most of its new players from recent memory, Wald’s discussion of Tharpe as a seminal figure in black music history and challenger of women’s regulated social roles of the 1950s is refreshing. Wald’s essay gives an excellent account of the importance Tharpe had in framing gospel music as an alternative to traditional domestic and maternal roles, while maintaining an essence of Christian womanhood that was crucial to African American women of the middle of the century.


  In a more speculative mode than Wald, Luc Sante provides an interrogation into the origin of the Blues that is meant to muddy the pool of scholarship that pins down the exact genesis of the musical form. Sante’s offering is succinct, though satisfying in its provocations. Similarly, Sarah Dougher’s personal reflection on the role of gendered voice in pop music is contemplative yet spacious, leaving room for the reader to assert a personal reaction to the function of the “authentic” speaker in pop lyrics. The essay is a sterling example of the personal narratives that counter the occasionally technical or didactic diatribes on popular music, as Dougher expresses her intimate relationships with students and audiences alike.


  Further highlights of the collection include Daphne Brooks’ fabulous Cultural Studies examination of the commodification of soul in such rock mainstays as the Rolling Stones, and the subversive anti-“bling-bling” parodies of Chris Rock versus the reinforced trope lyrics of R. Kelly. The Brooks effort is a searing and promising critique of the erasure of memory in pop music that points to the vital job black rock satires have of combating cultural appropriation. In perhaps the most optimistic essay of the anthology, Stephen Burt examines the poetic refuge that indie rockers and postpunk artists have erected in song lyrics. Lamenting the exiling of poetry from the front of the countercultural stage to the back aisles, Burt makes a perceptive claim that indie rock has taken up the DIY standard poetry championed for years. The genre darling of critics “sought honesty and energy in its freedom from capital imperatives, in its comparative obscurity, and in its limited means,” prompting Burt to call indie the “JV of literary modernism.” The look at intertextualism and referential obscurity allows Burt, a poet himself, to parallel traits of indie with their poetic counterparts, effectively facilitating future applications of literary criticism onto music. Burt’s piece exemplifies the efforts of the anthology to commingle different disciplines at the same eclectic mixer.


  Very few of the contributions drag, though Geoffrey O’Brien’s emotional rant on the beauty of music soundtracks is tiresome. At times I would have wished for more contributions from musicians (like the wonderful essay by Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein), but the discernible academic atmosphere is not a major detraction. In fact, this is the sort of critical anthology that is quite welcome at a time when so much criticism seems coldly atomistic. In a Gramscian vein, this is a text thoroughly rooted in the cultural impact of its subject matter, and interested utmost in progressive dialogue.


  The bridging project of the book allows for, or perhaps necessitates, the disparate feel of the anthology. However, the hybrid nature of pop music facilitates fascinating discussion between the essays, provided one is willing to make connections. This Is Pop fulfills wonderfully its hope as a project: an interdisciplinary pop discourse. Weisbard should be credited for assembling compelling examples of pop criticism at its finest, and bouncing the multifarious positions off one another. This Is Pop is a confident text, as evidenced by its title. Rather than submit to the vexing dilemma of a swirling category like pop music, whereby one would be left to question, “What is Pop?” Weisbard and others bring to the table sturdy discussions of important Pop ideologemes. The result is an anthology that declares, “This Is Pop,” and allows the reader to codify the parts. 


















Kritikos: an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 1, August 2004,                                                                                                                           ISSN 1552-5112