Dec/Jan 2010

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

Richard Beck


It comes as a surprise that Joshua Clover, a poet who teaches critical theory at UC Davis, begins his new book about pop music with a sympathetic meditation on political philosopher Francis Fukuyama. In 1989, Fukuyama responded to the death rattles of Soviet Communism with the now-legendary essay "The End of History?" His question mark was disingenuous; Fukuyama was sure of it. Taking an intellectual victory lap on behalf of the emerging world order, he wrote, "We have trouble imagining a world that is radically better than our own, or a future that is not essentially democratic and capitalist." That sense of history as a movement—the low rumble of what's to come that had characterized so much of the twentieth century—was gone.

Clover's 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About is an effort to see that idea mirrored in pop music—"history is now itself pop, and pop, history." The subtitle is taken from the first verse of Jesus Jones's "Right Here, Right Now," which hit number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1991. While the song was no kind of spectacular musical event, its lyrics parrot Fukuyama with such eerie concision that you half-expect to hear it sound-tracking the End of History? audiobook: "I was alive and I waited for this . . . watching the world wake up from history."

From there Clover fans out, looking for traces of the Washington consensus across the pop-musical landscape. He begins with late-'80s hip-hop, when the sonic violence and black radicalism of Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad gave way to the "easy-going menace" of Dr. Dre's West Coast G-funk. He dips into UK rave culture, which spun hazy utopian dreams of "a unity outside history" out of Ecstasy and blissed-out dance music. And then comes a chapter on grunge (meaning, as always, Nirvana), a genre that turned punk rock's political rage into self-loathing. This, Clover writes, "is the music of neutralization . . . a depoliticizing force."

Up close, Clover's analysis is interesting and occasionally brilliant. In one of the book's shortest chapters, Clover imagines the electronic despair of Nine Inch Nails as the missing link between rave and grunge—a surprising and hilarious insight. On reflection, however, the book loses much of its charm. Again and again, Clover talks up the sweeping changes that took place in pop music at the end of the '80s, but he never defines them with a coherence that would justify the word sweeping. Instead of crafting an argument, Clover is feeding a hunch. He writes that the "period around 1989 saw the greatest run of pop hits since 1962." That's a reasonable, if debatable, point, but Clover never follows through. His next line is: "There can be no evidence for this claim."

Pop criticism has chased after moments of rupture and transformation, new sounds to alter social consciousness—songs to change your life. Clover's book may be rich with historical and musical insight, but the origin myth the author is trying to build—that "pop had been biding its time until 1989 came along to make sense of its sensibility"—rings hollow. It's the smaller discoveries along the way that make 1989 worth your time.

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