Reading Rock and Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics

Reading Rock and Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics

Reading Rock and Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics

Reading Rock and Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics


Considering the work of such artists as Madonna, George Clinton, U2, Elvis Costello, and Nirvana, the contributors deftly combine the rigors of scholarship with the energy of rock journalism to provide an analysis at once critical, contextualized, and enthusiastic. While a number of scholars have recently turned their attention to rock and pop music, most of their work has focused on providing sweeping cultural contexts for its popularity rather than exploring the music itself. Now, in Reading Rock and Roll, Kevin Dettmar and William Richey have gathered a wealth of erudite, original, and clever writings that perform close readings of rock music -- often with surprising results.

The authors in this volume view rock and roll as having had affinities with postmodernism from its inception. With its mongrel pedigree -- drawing on blues, folk, R and B, and bluegrass -- and its relation to mass media and high-tech modes of production, rock music has been self-conscious and full of irony from the beginning. These essays regularly call attention to the allusiveness and intertextuality of rock and roll, whether it is Kurt Cobain undermining the Beatles, M. C. Hammer stealing from Rick James's "Super Freak," or U2's use of Johnny Cash's legendary voice.

From a careful examination of the roles of addictions and female sexuality in the remakings of Courtney Love and Madonna, to the politics of George Clinton's uses and abuses of language, to the referencing of Elvis Costello in two recent novels and the use of 1970s rock in several recent film soundtracks, these essays are as varied as the artists they consider. Informal and theoretically informed, Reading Rock and Roll is an important investigation of the music that more than any other has defined our century.


Writing about rock & roll is no job for the self-esteem impaired. Despite more than three decades of credible and in many instances groundbreaking work, rock criticism has not yet attained a stature comparable even to that of film criticism, let alone writing about more traditional areas of the arts. And, for a variety of complicated reasons, it most likely never will.

Far more than writers in any other genre, rock critics are subjected to caricature and condescension, much of it generated—and, indeed, validated— by the form's own practitioners. More bewilderingly, while rock critics in the mainstream press are routinely assumed to be cozying up to their subjects, relations between artists and writers on the music scene have typically been … well, let's say tense. While that's probably true in most genres—battles between artists and critics are hardly shocking news—things, again, seem peculiarly charged on the rock front. Rockers have been particularly fond of disparaging critics, often in pretty funny ways.

The late Frank Zappa once characterized rock criticism as interviews with people who can't speak by people who can't write for people who can't read. Some years later, David Lee Roth opined during his stint as a young lion with Van Halen that the reason rock critics liked Elvis Costello and didn't like him is that most rock critics looked like Elvis Costello and didn't look like him. Not that Costello himself has been especially generous toward critics. in fact, my favorite putdown of music critics is a statement that is typically attributed to him: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Fair enough. Much rock writing is snotty, adolescent, and dismissive, so why shouldn't artists respond in kind? As in so much critical writing of late . . .

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