Ever since the Beatles made rock music safe for the middle class, there hasn’t exactly been a dearth of books on the subject. A few are still landmarks--in the States, Robert Christgau’s smart and nervy “Any Old Way You Choose It” and Greil Marcus’ passionate “Mystery Train,” for two. But otherwise, during rock’s countercultural heyday, its possibilities seemed so limitless that even the most serious attempts at analysis made wild claims for both its artistic achievement and its revolutionary potential. It’s only recently--well after the music’s capacity for shaking things up has shown itself largely exhausted--that we’ve had some more considered evaluations of this unruly hybrid of rebelliousness and show biz.
Robert G. Pielke’s “You Say You Want a Revolution” shows how much sway, for many, the ‘60s version of rock’s importance still holds. For Pielke, the music is both symptom and agent of what he calls, flat-out, an American cultural revolution.
Deploying all the resources of his own academic field, philosophy, and borrowing from others, he traces rock’s evolution from Elvis and Little Richard (the negation of the existing order’s values) through the flowering of the Beatles and all that came after them (the affirmation of an alternative set of values).
Pielke sees the ‘70s as a long “interim,” certainly a charitable way of putting it, and the Reagan era gets dubbed “The Counter-Reaction"--from which, following a familiar radical schema, the author expects his revolution to re-emerge renewed.
But the nut of Pielke’s argument remains simplistic and sentimental. He never explains why anyone should view rock’s current lack of insurrectionary vim as temporary, instead of as the kind of eventual accommodation within the culture that’s the common fate of most once-troublemaking new art. Nor does he substantively address the central and fascinating paradox that all this “revolutionary” stuff has always been packaged and marketed by big corporations, who are not exactly in it for the agitprop: He acts as if records just fall out of the sky, for the sole purpose of raising consciousness. It also apparently hasn’t occurred to him that not all musicians, or audiences, may share the same motives, or consider rock as anything more than entertainment in the first place.
In many ways, the book seems as wishful as the most excessive ‘60s paeans to rock’s power--with the added pathos that Pielke, in 1986, is trying to convince himself that the old fervor is still (latently) there. This makes his dense intellectual nomenclature seem even more inappropriate than it would anyway--when a writer begins a discussion of California rock as a cultural barometer by announcing that “a Hegelian structure helps explain the internal dynamics,” he’s clearly forgotten that the heart of his topic is a bunch of dopey three-minute jingles on Top 40 radio. And even on ‘60s rock--clearly, the only music that really moves him, though he tries hard to find its threads in later styles--his taste is, well, mushy: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” gets cited as a “rock classic” three times in his first 30 pages.
When Pielke waxes personal instead of theoretical, he’s capable of writing quite engagingly, as in his reminiscences of his own discovery of R&B; as a teen-ager in 1950s Baltimore. And some of his passing comments have a nicely modest humor: Anti-rock fundamentalists are mentioned as burning records by Blondie, “which might be expected,” and the Osmonds, “which kind of catches a person off guard.” But his good moments don’t add up to more than moments.
John Street’s “Rebel Rock,” on the other hand, deals in all the complexities that Pielke doesn’t recognize, and has a better jukebox too. Like his acknowledged mentor, Simon Frith, Street’s main gifts are common sense and brisk knowledgeability. He doesn’t work from any single argument, because he’s well aware that just one won’t encompass rock; he’s got a few working premises, which he applies to whatever intrigues him to see how they’ll hold up.
His first insight is a basic one--that, of course, there’s no way that what’s essentially commercial entertainment can be “political,” in any direct or practical sense. But he’s then able to open up the reader all the more to the many ways that rock engages politics despite that, as commentary, prism, analogy, expression, and/or conceptual tool. One of the book’s repeated stresses is on the music’s sheer variability. Street makes astute use of a distinction between “pop” (conventional show biz that happens to employ rock music’s syntax) and “rock” (which he treats as less a syntax than a sensibility) to show how divergent expectations create different sets of artistic and political possibilities. But he’s sensibly appreciative of how the most trivial pop can often end up meaning more, inadvertently, than all sorts of weighty rock ‘n’ roll solemnity.
Street’s detailed concern with the process of popular music is a useful corrective to the records-fall-out-of-the-sky school of rock criticism. Much of “Rebel Rock” is devoted to simply sorting out the welter of business considerations, practical expediences, accidents, and plain whims that get a song written, recorded, and on/not on the radio. He’s also put together a lot of valuable information on how rock works under other political systems--like the way Soviet-bloc rock bands go back and forth from being suppressed as outlaws to being courted as potential pitchmen.
For Street, however, the biggest variable remains the pop/rock audience itself, and he finds much of rock’s uniqueness in the way it makes subjective responses the central ones. He’s first-rate on how performers turn their audiences into communities, and how their collaborations of the imagination differ from the cut-and-dried givens of a shared agenda. For a political musician, Street writes, this is a dilemma: “He can tell his audience what he intended; but he cannot tell them how to listen.” But if that’s what limits rock’s effectiveness as a political tool, Street argues, it also encapsulates rock’s value as a political paradigm: Listening to a record becomes, in itself, an act of participatory democracy.
The book covers so much ground, and Street’s insights are so sharp, that you sometimes wish he’d slow down and elaborate a little more. (John Lennon’s encounter with radical politics is such a perfect summary of Street’s themes that it seems worth more than a page.) He can also, like Frith, appear a bit aloof: when, in the epilogue to “Rebel Rock” he “comes out of the closet” (as he puts it) and talks about his own fanhood, it’s charming and convincing, but also even more of a shift in tone than he apparently realizes.
But this is just the usual quibbling. All in all, “Rebel Rock” performs much the same function that Street values most in rock and roll itself: It doesn’t give you any final answers. But its acuity can challenge you to come up with answers, and more questions, on your own.