Shakin' moneymakers

Running down the myths in this broad-ranging critical anthology.

May 19, 1999 at 12:00 am

Popular music in the 20th century has been defined by its own constant reinvention, a process which has only accelerated as the century has drawn to an end. But perhaps nowhere more than in popular music have we allowed this reinvention to proceed so completely under the auspices of its own media hype. Countless stories about musicians follow a familiar trajectory: from record labels’ PR materials to the ubiquitous music magazines, to then, if a group is successful enough, become part of a glorified coffee-table picture book with pleasantly unassuming text.

The dominance of this script appears to be waning, however. The publication of Stars Don’t Stand Still In the Sky proves that even if you can’t win a debate with your parents (or grandparents) about how pop music is more important to your generation than theirs, you can assert that the thinking and writing about popular music has become significantly more diverse – more attuned to and suspicious of how the music industry shapes taste, and how we define our personal goals through the mythologies of music culture.

Stars Don’t Stand Still In the Sky is an anthology which brings together the words of more than 20 musicians, critics, videographers and others actively involved with broadening our understanding of music’s production, consumption and power. Three of the musicians (DJ Spooky, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Jon Langford of the Mekons) take the reader beyond wondering how performers’ media images do or don’t match their private identities – a guessing game which is now a well-established part of our fascination with superstars – to ask instead how these media images are related to the conceptual apparatus which drives the music into our hearts.

Two of the critics whose work appears in this book are veritable American godfathers of this challenging approach to music. The careers of Greil Marcus and Lawrence Grossberg have largely set the stage for the thinkers who come after them – or alongside them, as is the case in this collection. Neither of these two greats is, however, willing to abandon the field entirely to the youngsters.

Relative newcomer Simon Reynolds – author of the recent and not-very-Detroit-techno-friendly history of electronic dance music, Generation Ecstasy – uses music’s emphasis on presence and participation to claim that dance culture, from Jamaican dancehall to rock to rave, "opposes bourgeois virtues." But Marcus worries that the opposite may be true.

Marcus thinks that the constant quest to be a part of a transformative or transcendent experience may keep us enthralled in a blind, consumerist frenzy. That is, we run the perpetual risk of re-enacting either belatedness or loss of the transformative experience, "just like some ’60s person telling someone about Woodstock: ‘I was there, man, and you missed it.’" This overstatement of music’s transformational power fuels the constant participation of consumers, thereby underwriting the industry’s success.

Much of Grossberg’s work, in comparison, concerns itself with how Woodstock’s aesthetic and cultural practices produced, a mere decade later, symbolic positions favorable to Ronald Reagan’s presidential politics. Such worries deeply inform Grossberg’s contribution here, as he grimly challenges any belief that writing about music or popular culture has improved in 20 years. But the basis of his claim is that the social roots of music’s importance to us are seldom elaborated, and that "rock music cannot be studied in isolation" from structures of "inequality and domination." However, the contributions in this book at least attempt to pull back the veil separating these concerns.

And if some of these essays manage to go beyond mere idol – or genre – worship, it is at least in part because of predecessors such as Grossberg and Marcus, who brought a healthy dose of critical suspicion and intellectual breadth to their studies, even as they linked their worries to an unapologetic love of music.

This legacy is etched across much of the book, as when Katherine Dieckmann – who directed videos for R.E.M., Everything But the Girl and Throwing Muses – charts MTV’s failure to understand how music-based culture has largely bypassed the role assigned to music videos. In a strange turn of events, Dieckmann asserts that MTV’s future role may be viewed in relation to this failure, as MTV becomes "concerned less with its traditional practice of creating telegenic chart-makers than with promoting a lifestyle channel."

This collection is not only about destroying music’s mythologies, however, or charting their accelerating movement. The vast majority of the essays included in Stars engage us with their relentless certainty that something important is happening here – happening to us as we consume music – and that the field of musical production cannot simply be abandoned as a sellout to the status quo.

As the hype on the back of the book reminds us, "The dreams of our culture surely have sound tracks." The example set by these writers, however, keeps in mind that such sound tracks also have a role in producing and shaping our dreams.