Is Rock Dead?
Brooker, Joe, New Formations
Kevin J.H. Dettmar, Is Rock Dead?, London, Routledge, 2006, pp184; £12.99 paperback.
Dettmar thinks the question symptomatic rather than substantial; he doesn't mean seriously to answer it but to ask why so many people keep asking it. Is Rock Dead? thus isn't a dumb lament but an oblique analysis of 'what we talk about when we talk about rock', an inquiry into the persistence of morbidity in rock writing and rock music itself. The author is the snappiest kind of academic. Colloquial, breezy, readable, he frequently ends paragraphs with borrowed lyrics, smart summaries and neat put-downs. He has read widely in scholarly and popular rock writing, and conveys much of it lucidly to the reader, situating different authors in their institutional and ideological niches. He also knows a lot of rock music, from Rose Maddox to Limp Bizkit. The book's central case - that 'death' is less a reality than an endlessly generative metaphor for rock, inseparable from its ongoing fecundity - is persuasive. Given all this, the book isn't quite the smash it should be.
For one thing, though short, it's surprisingly prone to digressions off track. A long chapter on the American 1950s ably shows that cultural guardians and trad-pop rivals were keen to announce the demise of rock & roll from early on. But that doesn't quite justify Dettmar's extended history of zombie movies and McCarthyite allegories. To be sure, zombies are 'undead', but they don't really have much to do with the question of rock's death. With another excursion into Blackboard Jungle later on, the feeling grows that Dettmar has done a lot of primary research into the 1950s, whose riches he couldn't bring himself to keep out of the book. Elsewhere he takes on individual music writers, casting doubt on their narratives of rock's demise and proposing that they're just lamenting their own baby-boom youth. …