‘1989’ probes music history

Jeremy Clemmons

Staff Writer

“A woman on the radio talks about revolution when it’s already passed her by

but Bob Dylan didn’t have this to sing about you know it feels good to be alive” – “Right Here, Right Now,” Jesus Jones

It’s strange to read a book about a time when you were barely alive … and yet an entire year comes flooding back.

There’s a slippery paradox in popular music that Joshua Clover explores early and often in “1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About” How is it that popular music, which predicates itself on timelessness and evanescence – “on making time disappear for three or four minutes” – can awaken us to changes in the world at a particular time and history? How can popular music contribute anything if it is, almost by definition, ahistorical?

“1989” attempts to answer these questions, placing musical culture, circa the famous year, as a force to be reckoned with – as a wall to be torn down. With svelte and provocative prose, Clover takes aim at history itself – proudly declared by Francis Fukuyama as “ending” with the collapse of global communism – and suggests that perhaps “popular music had been biding its time until 1989 came along to make sense of its sensibility.”

The book is split into five chapters, the first three dealing with a particular terrain of music (rap, acid house/techno, and rock) while the second half – the final two chapters – begs the questions, how might we finally come to terms with all these loose ends? What is, after all, music history?

The opening chapter, for example, is a perspective on the transition from hip-hop to gangster rap. From Rakim and Chuck D to N.W.A. and Snoop Dog; East Coast to West Coast. Clover proposes that the demise of Public Enemy and its radical pro-black politics, the emergence of Los Angeles as a rap epicenter, and the term “black-on-black violence,” are intimately connected—explained by a lethal combination of social politics, culture wars (most famously transmitted by the conservative judicial hearings for ‘sample stealing’ and lyrical profanities) and musicology. Each of the beginning chapters have this similar thrust, and each are filled with musical examples that makes one want to run to the record shop and the public library in one fell swoop. (My iTunes is more than grateful for the discovery of Neneh Cherry and William Orbit just as much as my bookshelf is for “Generation Ecstasy” and Jeff Chang.)

Central to “1989,” is the hypothesis that something did happen in the late 80s that changed the entire landscape of musical culture. The collapse of the Berlin Wall is whispered throughout the book; it is a figure or image of enormous persuasion and influence, not only to artists like Scorpions (“Winds of Change”) who wrote explicitly about the historical event, but to many musicians who lived under its unavoidable spell. Like a more academic Greil Marcus, Clover doesn’t pull any easy punches. He’s grasping at something big here—if somewhat eternally allusive. Why did so much happen in this particular year? Why then, and why ask now? Not all of these are answered by “1989,” but like most things the fun is in the chase. While popular music might seemingly have the density of a feather, it is nonetheless a quill that writes its own proportions.

Grade: A-

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