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Pop When the World Falls Apart: Music in the Shadow of Doubt ed. by Eric Weisbard (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 1, September 2013
pp. 107-109 | 10.1353/not.2013.0115

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Pop When the World Falls Apart: Music in the Shadow of Doubt, edited by Eric Weisbard, aims to achieve two goals: it presents selected papers delivered at the Experience Music Project (EMP) Pop Conferences from 2006 to 2008, and it collects eighteen essays on the topic of popular music and conflict. Contrary to what its title suggests, the chapter centered in the Iraq War is the only chapter where a world falls apart, whereas most of the chapters revolve around personal or social conflicts instead.

The variety of authorial voices and approaches typical in collections of essays is especially notable in Pop When the World Falls Apart. From the ethnomusicology professor to the hospital custodian, from journalist to novelist to Adornian cultural critic, the twenty-one assorted authors of this volume weave together a tapestry of varied approaches and interests that is both refreshing and disorienting. Chapters vary widely in length and in practice of documentation. For example, Karen Tongson’s chapter contains seventy endnotes plus illustrations of primary documents, while several other chapters feature no endnotes and a much more informal and almost chatty writing style. Occasionally, the uneven standard of documentation raises a practical problem. For example, Carl Wilson’s chapter, “All That Is Solid Melts into Schmaltz: Poptimism vs. the Guilty Displeasure,” includes a terrific quote (p. 305) from Simon Frith’s Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music and, on the following page, an equally fascinating quote from Celine Dion, almost in dialog with Frith. However, both quotes lack citations, making them more difficult to find for readers curious to discover more information. Weisbard could have done more to unify the various approaches and writing styles of the collection, but his decision to wield his editor’s pen lightly, and thereby to let the disparate voices sound, produces a silver lining: if one chapter displeases, the next chapter is likely to be entirely different. Given this variety, each reader is sure to encounter an engaging chapter or two, and possibly many more.

In certain ways, the book more strongly resembles a music magazine than a collection of scholarly essays, with elements that invite a more casual reader. For example, the book’s approximately fifteen illustrations function as eye-catchers, instead of adding essential support to arguments, and there are no score examples, tables, or graphs. Some chapters edge toward being fictional, as when co-authors Brian Goedde, Austin Bunn, and Elena Passarello use material from interviews to construct three simulated monologues by hip-hop fans in Iowa. Other authors are forthright to the point of being surprisingly confessional: Jonathan Lethem has bad knees, due to the strenuous dancing of his youth (p. 7); Alexandra T. Vazquez developed acid reflux as a result of her involvement with music criticism (p. 28); and David Ritz’s parents had a miserable marriage (p. 41). Some authors, especially Nate Chinen and Jonathan Lethem, are engrossing storytellers. David Ritz, Carlo Rotella, and Scott Seward all ask interesting and unusual questions in their chapters, and I strongly recommend J. Martin Daughtry’s chapter, which addresses the music and sounds of the Iraq War in a way that is both tragic and compelling.

Several chapters deal with race, a common topic in popular music scholarship. In his chapter, Tom Smucker writes about the “boring and horrifying whiteness” (p. 47) of the Carpenters, Lawrence Welk, and the Beach Boys. The following chapter, “Perfect Is Dead: Karen Carpenter, Theodor Adorno, and the Radio, or If Hooks Could Kill,” by Eric Lott, is a response to Smucker, and the two chapters read well as a pair in dialog. Smucker’s goal overall is to suggest that, for instance, the production values and musical borrowings on the Carpenters’ 1973 album Now & Then, and especially that album’s single “Yesterday Once More,” are analogous to the political nostalgia that Reagan drew upon beginning in his 1976 presidential campaign. According to Smucker, both the song and the politician wish to leap backward, not to the early 1970s or to the late 1960s, but to a time before “the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the rise of feminism” (p. 48). In his response, Lott idealizes a pre...

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