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Wednesday, June 01, 2005
Here's the review, cross-posted for the lazy. I put back in a thing or two, because hey, blog.


The fact that Paul Morley's Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City (University of Georgia Press, Athens, 2005) has already been embraced by music geeks around the globe should come as no surprise. The book's aim to make its creator into the Lester Bangs of his generation, a position currently, and unfortunately, held by Simon Reynolds (perhaps the best argument yet for why Lester's death did his reputation nothing but good), is self-apparent, from a section devoted to why he is the best music writer ever to the laughably enormous scope of his musical references to the stylistic experimentation that would seem to be a requirement for any "serious" book of rock criticism.

But, to his credit, all these are explained or explainable. The "Greatest of All Time" thing is winning and ultimately self-effacing while still being cocky, a reflection of our desire for music writers to be a nerd variant on the rockstar persona. The abundance of references and lists is fully explained at the end as an endless and ultimately futile attempt to map our world, to reduce the totality to a comprehensible scale, even if the explanation doesn't really hold water. And the style is a gamble that pays off in full.

Words and Music, published in England in 2003, but only recently issued domestically by the University of Georgia Press, purports to be an investigation into the connections between two pieces of music: Alvin Lucier's experimental art-music composition "I Am Sitting in a Room" and Kylie Minogue's electro-pop masterpiece "Can't Get You Out of My Head," all within the narrative framework of a automobile trip to "a history of pop in the shape of a city," as the subtitle puts it. Morley admits up front that this framework is likely to break down, and it's no giant whoop when it does, but nevertheless, he manages to stay remarkably coherent while wedging in such great diversions as: a complete, albeit selective, timeline of the Earth's existence (arguably the book's highlight); a list of other possible song pairings the book could have been based on; and a great interview Morley did with Jarvis Cocker. (I must admit I skipped over the Fad Gadget liner notes, though.) He does this by also including great investigations into the high-art context of "Room" and Minogue's own career as a triumphalist narrative, to say nothing of his own (nearly failed) audition as Minogue's biographer.

Morley's point, if I had to pick just one, is about the way the seemingly simple and limited world of a pop song is actually immensely complex. He does prove, sort of, that Minogue's song is related to Lucier's, and that particular reduction is useful, as are the endless connections he draws. But the best feature of Words and Music is the way Morley manages to declare so much (but leave even more up in the air) by constantly doubting himself and showing where things in the book itself could have gone differently, presenting it as simply one option among many, de-canonizing the text. (He even admits he may not have actually heard "I Am Sitting In a Room"!) This playfulness is a breath of fresh air in the accuracy-obsessed, self-righteous, geeky world of rock criticism, and by itself says a lot more about pop music than many critics' entire corpora.

Morley's book is both a failure and a triumph because it reflects everything music writing currently is and represents much of what it could become. On the one hand, it is frustratingly obsessed with historicism over engagement with the work at hand, lazily using mentions of often obscure songs or groups in place of real description to make shallow critical comparisons. The book is too tied up with the past to apply its passion to what other people are passionate about, and too tied up in similarity to really examine the differences. But at the same time, it insists on taking pop music (as explicitly opposed to rock music) seriously, which requires the playfulness Morley does so well. For every eruption of cynicism, there are countless moments of optimism; for every failure to address pop as music in the same manner as the Lucier piece (in contrast to the intense technical focus on "Room," Morley's description of the genesis of "Head" is almost mystical); and for every misunderstanding of the pop pleasure principle, there's a wonderful recognition of the importance of context.

To a critic, the peculiar triumph of pop music is that it expresses amazingly complex ideas in ways with which other people actively desire to engage, and it's one of the particular joys of criticism to parse these ideas, to draw them out and make connections and express them in one's own language. The form of criticism Morley's pointing toward is modeled after pop, which is to say it's both all-inclusive and endlessly energized; a hallmark of traditional rock criticism is the latter, and pop criticism has slowly engulfed the former by broadening its scope. However, often when it swings towards the energy of Bangs, it too easily embraces his inheritors' restrictive rage. We can and will find a way to talk about pop the way it talks about itself, in a voice that never limits and only enables.

So what do we want? Something that, instead of trying to distill pop's purity of essence, seeks its endless expansion; something that internalizes the lessons of the poststructuralist theorists its more highbrow adherents constantly reference, accepting their invitations to play. Something that is not merely a slowly decaying grumble about its practitioners' inability to rouse themselves in their middle age to the chemically-induced summits of yore and instead seeks to understand the pleasures of the new young on their own terms by refusing the temptations of doubt and too-quick dismissal. Something that doesn't settle for the shallow, automatically-generated critiques inherited from our rockcrit forebears, dusted off and mapped onto an unwilling new context. Something not only as pleasurable as pop, but as intelligent, a criticism worthy of its subject. Words and Music is an incomplete roadmap, but it takes us a little closer to where we want to go.