1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About
Music, perhaps always, conjures and defines a time and place. The very idea of "the '60s" as a historical phenomenon is inseparable from the music of the era, including the people who created that music and the people who listened to it. For poet/critic and University of California-Davis English professor Joshua Clover, British alt-rock group Jesus Jones' 1990 single "Right Here, Right Now," which charted in the United States in the summer of 1991, perfectly captures the time and place 1989--a revolutionary year that witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall, the ostensible end of the Cold War, and the emergence of the United States as a dominant geopolitical power.
The thing is, "Right Here, Right Now" doesn't merely signify 1989 in the way "Like a Rolling Stone" or "My Generation" signify the '60s. For Clover, the Jesus Jones song is one part of a greater patchwork of pop that participates, as if possessing a chelating agency, in constructing the very idea of that time and place. Songs by Bob Dylan and the Who are mere parts of a history called the '60s; in Clover's impeccably constructed and nimbly argued 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About, pop--not a genre, but a market force--writes the theoretical framework of this pivotal moment of cultural history/political unconsciousness. That is to say, in the idea of 1989--an era roughly covering 1988-1992--figures such as Francis Fukuyama and Frederic Jameson, Theodor Adorno, and Fredric Hegel carry no more or less truck than Chuck D., Mark Arm, Neneh Cherry, and Super DJ Dmitri.
If that statement sounds both glib and intellectually onanistic, that's only because it's a crudely reductive snapshot of this briefly elegant thesis. In fewer than 166 pages--including the endnotes' informative tangents and witty comments--Clover articulates a mode of critical thinking, using music as his lingua franca: a way to look at pop taking its place in the epistemological-qua-aesthetic discussion about the ostensible "End of History." It's a compact approach that puts it into the company of two seminal texts: Michel Foucault's blithe 1976 The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge and Cindy Patton's 1990 Inventing AIDS. Both those books explicitly identify the focus of exploration, but end up being inventive analyses of power, language, and knowledge. Both become a précis about how to examine a nexus of forces, and Patton's book, like Clover's, is informed by a lived experience without plummeting into personal myopia.
And while that makes 1989 less a music book per se, Clover's music observations--which occupy the bulky first-half of his argument--are keenly considered dispatches from urban nightclubs, radio/MTV playlists, rural raves, and beer-soaked rock clubs you may remember first-hand. And the observational kung-fu he uses to cut a path from hip-hop through rave music and on through grunge is only one aspect of his impressively big-eared listening. Best of all, 1989 is a pleasure to read. Clover never forces his intelligence or humor, and it's positively refreshing when a writer clearly wields Marxian analysis and successfully gets you to reconsider Roxette. Fascinating and rewarding, 1989 is a crisp reminder that criticism can be as entertainingly invigorating as is it smart.