Equinox is publishing a series of books called 'Icons of Pop Music'. The volumes will be designed for 'undergraduates and the general reader'. Ordinarily, I couldn't think of anything less auspicious. Everyone likes the autobiographies of even the most inarticulate musicians; at least they can explain how they make the songs. But pop criticism can't seem to escape the thrall of these biographies, and rarely has much to add. It won't forsake the impulse to praise figures who no longer need to be praised. Historical pop figures are remembered as either too good or too bad to need defending; it's guaranteed that anyone willing to read a volume on King Crimson, say, or Crosby, Stills and Nash, is already on board. Then there is the curse of Dylanology, such a blight on pop criticism: worship of lyrics as 'poetry', modelled on pop's least representative major figure. This sort of writing fails the reality of pop: its special alchemy of lyrics that look like junk on the page, and music that seems underdeveloped when transcribed to a musical staff. Then there is the curse of arid musicology; and of Rolling Stone-ism, the gonzo rock journalist who thinks he is a rock star. Perhaps worst of all, there is the curse of the rhetoric of social action and 'revolution', a faith-based illusion that pop songs clearly manifest social history, or an exaggerated sense of what pop achieves in the world. In truth, most critics aren't verbally equipped to describe any band's vivid effects on its main audience: the listener at home, alone in his room.
LRB 22 March 2007 | PDF Download