April 2010

Jacob Mikanowski


1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover

The Chinese premier Zhou En Lai was once asked about the impact of the French Revolution on western civilization. “It’s too soon to tell,” he replied. 

The same may be true for 1989. Twenty years later, we still seem to have no idea as to exactly what happened that year or what it meant. In popular consciousness it has been shorn of all context and shrunk down to a single iconic image -- the Fall of the Berlin Wall -- and one numbingly overused cliché: Francis Fukuyama’s "end of history." 

Now, in 1989: Bob Dylan didn’t have this to sing about, his cultural-theoretical history of the music of that year, Joshua Clover has attempted to recover some of those vanished meanings.   

Clover treats the trivialization and commodification of the “most geopolitically laden year since at least 1945” as a historical fact and interprets its meaning through the lens of the most disposable and trivial of commodities: the pop song. His working assumption is that music, no matter how banal, foolish, (or, rocking) retains a trace of the “actual conditions” of its production. Pop songs work as storehouses of affect, banking evanescent emotion for later use. Clover listens to them again not to discern any particular set of political stances but to get at a wider economy of feeling. In doing so, he reverses the basic paradigm of cultural studies. Instead of trying to find out how the events of 1989 played out in the music of that year, he asks what the music of that year can tell us about what really happened. But can the “Theme from S’Express” really tell us about the “Real of History”?   

After reading 1989 I’m persuaded that it can. The book is a dizzying combination of high theory, low source material, and closely reasoned criticism. The mix isn’t in the least contrived, but it can be disorienting. Clover is a deeply learned and hugely enthusiastic student of popular music; his readings of songs are astute, witty, and unflappable, and each works in a larger argument. But for readers disoriented by the collision of Carl Schmitt and the Scorpions, this is a book best read within reach of a strategically selected YouTube playlist and a bookshelf stocked with Verso’s Radical Thinkers series.   

If this seems impractical, the book’s structure makes it easy to cherry-pick ideas. The first section consists of an analysis of four key genres of music from what Clover terms the “long 1989,” or the period roughly spanning the introduction of perestroika to the entrance of Nirvana’s Nevermind at the top of the charts. Within each genre -- hip-hop, house, grunge, and the pop “billboard consensus” -- Clover detects a moment of historical rupture, as one form or set of preoccupations was replaced by another.   

Each of these chapters is a masterpiece of compression, digesting a thicket of secondary literature into a series of clear narratives and judicious appraisals. The first tracks the politicization and subsequent de-politicization of hip-hop, as it moved from the Black-Nationalism of Public Enemy to Dr. Dre’s gangsta rap over the course of one year. This is a familiar story, but Clover does an excellent job of both making sense of the music’s political subtexts and the ways in which they interacted with the marketplace. By the end, the transformation of hip-hop into a glorification of "black-on-black" violence feels as inevitable and as historically fraught as the suppression of Kronstadt.         

As good as he is at finding the historical current running through pop, Clover is best when discussing its margins and cul-de-sacs, musing on the “protean quality” of Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” or puzzling out De La Soul’s precise location in the hip-hop counterculture. His summation of KLF’s place in genre history, as exponents of a “late style,” “monstrous, ambivalent, towering above the genre exactly because it is too late to be of it” calls to mind Edward Said if he had traded classical music for the club floor.     

A tension between center and periphery runs through the other chapters. Clover is persuasive in describing the inward turn of grunge or the chiliastic aspirations of house music for a utopia outside of time, but his prose is liveliest in his critical asides and sketches of individual artists. For instance, in a wonderful exposition of the M25 ring road as governing metaphor, the “neoliberal orbital” around which the rave scene revolved, or in a delirious close-reading of "Freedom ’90," both in light of George Michael’s biography and as a transcendent statement of the truth of pleasure.   

In 1989, pop always speaks to politics as much as to pleasure. For Clover, this was the year when the two realms became interchangeable, when “history is now itself pop, and pop, history.” The subtitle to 1989 comes from the Jesus Jones song “Right Here Right Now,” and the book begins and ends with it. Clover spends some time meditating on its refrain, “Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be / Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history.” 

If we did wake up from history in 1989, it was only to pass into a deeper slumber. The revolutions of 1989 didn’t just result in the end of state socialism and the beginning of American hegemony; they also marked the demise of grand narrative and the beginning of an era of "neutralization." Victory for the West also meant the foreclosure of other possibilities; from then on, we would “have trouble imagining a world that is radically better than our own.” History has become nothing more than an endless alternation of fashions and fads.   

And some of those fads have been pretty awesome. They also register more than we notice. Clover’s book reminds us that, if we can’t think beyond the present, we need pop music to think with history. 

1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover
University of California Press
ISBN: 0520252551
198 Pages