Music journalism in the mainstream press has been on a downward slide for years. Word counts for reviews are declining across the board, readership is drifting to blogs and other online venues, and downsizing of editorial staff at former strongholds of arts criticism, such as the Village Voice, are making for exceedingly grim times. Few print music magazines allow for the sort of memorable long-form features and lively, perceptive analysis that characterized Rolling Stone and Creem in the ’70s, Melody Maker and NME in the ’80s, and Spin in the early ’90s.
Academic writing on popular music is likewise hobbled. The writing itself, with some major exceptions, is dry, distanced, and opaque, in stark contrast to the vibrancy and immediacy of the material it is attempting to unpack. Cultural-studies scholars, musicologists, historians, and others working on pop music often still find themselves marginalized in the academy, or in the awkward position of having to legitimate their research to more conservatively minded colleagues.
A new anthology of essays, Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music, has the guiding vision and rigorous analysis that so much current journalistic and scholarly writing on popular music lacks. The book collects some of the best presentations given at the Pop Conference at Experience Music Project in Seattle, an annual gathering of critics, academics, musicians, and fans. Eric Weisbard, a former editor at Spin and the Village Voice who guided both of those publications through better days, is the conference’s organizer; he here does a fine job of selecting strong presentations and organizing them into tight, insightful chapters that share a common theme: that pop music’s story is best told through an analysis of moments, rather than of movements. The nineteen essays cover a wide range of genres—from hip-hop to country to electro—and the authors are similarly diverse, varying from freelance journalists to musicologists to members of cult rock bands. Pieces by established names such as Greil Marcus are juxtaposed with ones by emerging writers, with striking results.
One of the biggest revelations is Cuban-music scholar Ned Sublette’s expertly argued piece on the secret history of the cha-cha and how this Latin hybrid underwrote so much of rock music as we know it today. Other memorable contributions include Drew Daniel’s personally charged account of a reunion of the punk band the Germs, Franklin Bruno’s arc from Thomas Mann to Peggy Lee and Leiber and Stoller, Michaelangelo Matos’s detailed explication of the famed “Apache” drum break, Holly George-Warren’s exploration of enigmatic country singer Bobbie Gentry, Jeff Chang and Henry Chalfant’s microhistory of South Bronx gang leader and musician Benjamin Melendez, and Robert Fink’s intense musicological treatment, complete with exacting diagrams, of Kraftwerk’s 1977 album Trans-Europe Express.
The eclecticism on display here isn’t distracting; the book benefits by drawing on many perspectives. Instead of reading as a throwback to music criticism’s glory days, Listen Again maps a future for the field.