Academic journal article Current Musicology

David Janssen and Edward Whitelock. 2009. Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music

Academic journal article Current Musicology

David Janssen and Edward Whitelock. 2009. Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music

Article excerpt

David Janssen and Edward Whitelock. 2009. Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music. Berkeley: Soft Skull Press/Counterpoint LLC.

While any attempt to characterize a nation and "a people" is bound to expire in dubious generalization, claims about the essence of the United States and constitution of the "American character" have often been marked by especially outlandish and totalizing rhetoric--by American and non-American writers alike, both affirmatively and critically. (1) One example is Jean Baudrillard's 1986 book America. Poised as the postmodern successor to Alexis de Tocqueville, Baudrillard, perceiving American culture simultaneously as pre-civilized (an old trope) and as the paradigm of hypermodern simulacral "spectrality," characterizes the nation as both "the only remaining primitive society" and as "a giant hologram." (2) If representations of the United States from the last half-century are inflected by the post-World War II phase of American exceptionalism, this has affected not only imperial apologists and vulgar nationalists but even, residually, writers on the left, like Baudrillard. More generally, the United States has always been a strongly symbolic nation, whether imagined as the singular beacon of democracy or as the paradoxical no-place/no-face of late capitalism.

For this reason, critical studies of the American mythos are important, and, as Greil Marcus realized some decades ago, popular music serves as a good lens through which to view the agglomerated fragments of "America." (3) Clearly indebted to Marcus, David Janssen and Edward Whitelock, professors of English at Gordon College and authors of Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music, take as their entry point into the American imagination a perceived deep relationship between rock and apocalyptic thought. Although forsaking Baudrillard's shimmering, overtly hyperbolic style, Jannsen and Whitelock nevertheless exhibit a more muted version of his tendency to paint American culture in overly broad brush-strokes. This is seen in the book's thesis of sorts, found in the authors' introduction. Quoting Frank Kermode, the authors observe that in examining the history of apocalyptic thought "the end is immanent rather than imminent," and go on to explain:

The difference between an imminent and an immanent apocalypse is the difference between "The end is near" and "the end is here." We will show that apocalypse is a permanent and central part of the American character. As rock and roll is a reflection of that character, apocalypse remains one of the most consistent and evocative threads in the development of the musical form itself. (3, italics mine)

But what does it mean to speak of a "permanent" part of an "American character"? From the outset it is unclear whether Janssen and Whitelock are attempting to complicate and deconstruct the idea of the "American character" or simply reify it. If this thesis raises eyebrows, it does, at least, gesture toward answering a primary question about the book: Why apocalypse ... now? By positing the "permanence" of apocalyptic thought in American culture, the authors would seem to foreclose the question of relevance. I will return to questions of the book's historiographic specificity in my conclusion.

Throughout the volume, Jannsen and Whitelock attend mostly to rock-from Elvis to Sleater-Kinney-but also to other genres, energetically tracing the theme of apocalypse through American musics and musicians as diverse as gospel, country, and John Coltrane. Proceeding roughly chronologically, the book is organized in four parts (with two to four chapters apiece, most of which concern a single band or album): Part 1--"Apocalypse USA" sets the stage; Part 2--"Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" discusses Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Coltrane's A Love Supreme, and the music of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen; Part 3--"Artifacts From the Blast Zone" covers Love's Forever Changes, Devo, and R. …

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