I I still have the mixtape that turned me, at 14, from a casual consumer of any music my friends loved to a zealous supporter of punk rock. It’s a strange little tape: 60 minutes of music, coherent enough to suggest that punk rock was a thing, but varied enough to suggest it could be just about anything. There was, apparently, a whole ocean of music more or less like that. All I had to do was dive.
Punk rock is perhaps a particularly aggressive genre: For decades, punks argued over what was and was not punk. They drew lines, divided sub-genres into sub-sub-genres, and sometimes performed excommunication rituals. (Green Day, arguably the most popular punk band of all time, was banned from its local club and denounced as an enemy of the movement by Maximum Rocknroll, America’s quintessential punk fanzine.) For a while, punk rock was everything that interested me, but in the years that followed I had the pleasure of discovering that punk was not as unusual as I thought it was: every musical genre is somewhat of a community of musicians and dancers. ‘listeners, which means that each genre is also a tribe, defined by tribal rules of inclusion and exclusion.
And so, when I got down to writing a popular music history, I decided to go genre to genre, hoping to explain how these communities endured, evolved, and broken up. At Major Labels, I chose seven âmajorâ genres: rock’n’roll, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music and pop. Of course, each one contains multitudes, and one of the pleasures of writing the book has been the chance to read, or revisit, countless works of resolute musical scholarship: books that delve deeply into one. kind, or a scene, or a ringtone. This is one of the paradoxes of music fandom: The more you cherish the ability to listen to a wide range of styles, the more grateful you should be to musicians who are stubborn enough to find something they like and stick to it. And the more you should be grateful to the writers who were imaginative and perceptive enough to notice something was happening and write about it.
1. Deep in the ghetto of Roger D Abrahams
In 1964, a Philadelphia-based folklorist pulled off a trick: he published one of the most important hip-hop books ever written, long before hip-hop actually existed. In this classic study, Abrahams records and analyzes a wealth of mid-century black oral literature, writing street-corner rhymes, tales, and swagger – some of which are as violent and bawdy as the rap records that have shocked the world. in the decades to come.
2. The Sound of Nashville by Paul Hemphill
Hemphill wasn’t exactly a Nashville insider, which explains part of the charm of this book, published in 1970: it captured the genius and weirdness of a country music industry that was just beginning to see itself. Such as. Like virtually everyone who has followed him, he noted that the genre seemed divided between “traditionalists” and “the new race.” He noted that the city was teeming with performers who “modernized the simple music of their southern rural childhood and blurred the line between country and pop music” – and of course, it still is.
3. Like Punk Never Happened by Dave Rimmer
A very strange book: a sharp treatise on the aesthetics of pop, masquerading as a just-in-time biography of Boy George and Culture Club. In fact, by the time this book was published in 1985, Culture Club’s time at the top of the charts was pretty much over. Knowing this adds some nostalgia to Rimmer’s tale. And that adds a bit of context to his argument, that in the aftermath of the punk explosion, a new ‘pop’ sensibility emerged, rebelling against the punk-rock rebellion in refusing to be rebellious. What if it doesn’t last? Who Said Great Pop Is Supposed To Last?
4. I am with Pamela Des Barres’ group
When this book was published, at the height of the hair-metal craze, some readers may have mistaken it for a gossip collection of behind-the-scenes stories. The book’s subtitle is Confessions of a Groupie, but the main draw is the way Des Barres, sometimes drawing inspiration from old diary entries, traces her evolution from a curious consumer of rock’n ‘records. roll to an important stage participant who helped create the rock star myth. Her writing is precise and insightful, affectionate but without sentimentality. In one memorable passage, she remembers listening to Led Zeppelin II as she was hanging out in Jimmy Page’s hotel room. âI had to comment on every solo,â she writes, âand even though I thought the drum solo in Moby Dick went on and on, I held my tongue and kept pressing down on his velvet pants and sewing buttons on his satin jacket. “
5. The Death of Rhythm and Blues by Nelson George
For much of the 1980s, George was Music Editor at Billboard magazine, which gave him extraordinary insight not only into the R&B genre, but also the industry that nurtured it. This classic study is both a story and a manifesto – and also, over 30 years later, a time capsule. George writes fondly about black business leaders who supported R&B, and skeptically about how 80s R&B singers (including Michael Jackson and Prince) found pop success, seeming to abandon the genre at times. Was it really progress?
6. Black noise from Tricia Rose
This book, published in 1994, was one of the earliest academic research on hip-hop, although like most of the books that followed, it was not entirely festive. Rose was devoted to hip-hop, but she was also devoted to the idea of ââhip-hop as a vehicle of resistance and emancipation, which means that she can’t help but notice the ways in which it does. often failed to live up to these ideals. . Describing (and sometimes decrying) the gender’s tendency to focus on ‘male predatory sexual behavior’ and its existence within a network of white-owned multinational corporations, she anticipated how hip- hop would continue to delight and frustrate its biggest fans. for decades to come.
7. Energy Flash by Simon Reynolds
An enthusiastic and often contagious, fun-driven history of dance music: Reynolds discusses not only how house and techno (and their many ramifications) have evolved, but what they feels love to love them. That feeling hasn’t always been entirely organic: Reynolds pays close attention to the relationship between dance music and drugs, explaining how often, when the highs change, the rhythm changes too.
8. Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind
An intense and spooky book about an intense and spooky scene: black metal, which in the 1990s brought to its logical conclusion heavy metal’s obsession with darkness and evil. Moynihan and Soderlind tell a world of murder, hatred and madness; Even if you have no interest in bands (or Jonas Ã kerlund’s 2018 film based on this book), you may come away with a new appreciation for what it means for music to be truly extreme.
9. Love Saves the Day by Tim Lawrence
How to capture a party? A lot of times you don’t: revelers come home, the DJ packs his bags, people move on. But in this painstaking work of excavation, Lawrence shows how, in 1970s New York, informal encounters spawned glamorous nightclubs, and ultimately a whole musical subculture, re-enacting the prehistory of disco and making gestures. to all the sounds and scenes that followed.
10. Girls at the Front by Sara Marcus
Riot grrrl was at least two things at the same time: a musical movement, which flourished briefly in the 1990s, and a literary movement, sparked by fanzines, which scrambled punk rock and feminism, challenging and changing the identities of of them. This book is an indispensable cultural history that emphasizes both the strangeness and the sensitivity of the riot grrrl, an improbable movement that seems, in retrospect, inevitable.