1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This To Sing About. By Joshua Clover.
Berkeley: University of California Press, November 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-520-25255-4, $21.95; paper: ISBN 978-0520267879, $16.95. 198 pages.
Review by Ron Briley, Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque
The provocative title of this volume refers to the revolutionary events of 1989 symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Celebrating the end of the Cold War, which had threatened the existence of global civilization since the late 1940s, the London band Jesus Jones, in their 1991 hit “Right Here, Right Now,” proclaimed, “Bob Dylan didn’t have this to sing about/you know it feels good to be alive.” At first glance, the popular music of the late 1980s and early 1990s seems to embrace the liberating potential of Western democracy and capitalism as championed by Francis Fukuyama’s essay on the end of history. However, Joshua Clover, Associate Professor at the University of California at Davis, presents a more nuanced reading of popular music which suggests that the dialectic of change was not superseded by the apparent triumphalism of liberal democracy and the marketplace.
Clover focuses his provocative argument on the genres of rap and hip-hop, acid house and raves, and grunge with its antecedents in punk rock, along with the more general category of pop music. He contends that 1989 fostered a shocking absence of confrontation with external groups. This thesis appears to contradict the shift in rap from Black power and Black Nationalist hip-hop to gangsta rap as symbolized by the decline of the politically-oriented Public Enemy, with its Islamic connections and confrontational attitude toward the white community, and rise of N. W. A. (Niggaz With Attitude). In their 1989 epochal album Straight Outta Compton, N. W. A. introduced the music and attitude soon to be associated with gangsta rap. Despite the violence celebrated in this music, Clover astutely observes that with its black-on-black violence, gangsta rap was less threatening to white society. Thus, a political challenge to the white establishment along race and class lines was avoided by the gangsta mode in which a Black underclass and youth were ensnared “in a world of immanent violence that retreated from borders of geography, race, and class—and turned the violence on itself. Internalizing the rhetoric along with the conflict so that it all seemed both to arise from and transpire within the urban core, gangsta acceded precisely to the logic of containment” (37).
A similar containment argument is provided in Clover’s analysis of the acid house and rave movement. Focused in England and celebrating the Second Summer of Love, which lasted from 1989 until perhaps 1991, the raves of this era sought to recapture the 1960s hippie vision of love, peace, and unity but without the more divisive radical politics. Clover concludes that acid house briefly achieved its goal of a unity outside of history, but that its very success contained the seeds of its dissolution as the movement splintered into sub-genres in the commercial marketplace.
Grunge, on the other hand, rejected both the idealism of a Second Summer of Love and the confrontational politics of punk, focusing upon a sense of self-loathing realized in the music of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Clover writes, “This spirit of the Summer of Love is the sixties ploughshare that punk had already beaten into a sword, which in turn is the sword that grunge turned on itself” (89). The internalization of punk’s challenge to the established order found in grunge, thus, contained the confrontational politics initially represented by the punk movement.
These insights into genre are crystallized in Clover’s commentary on the pop music of such artists as George Michael, Madonna, and Roxette’s “Listen to Your Heart,” which represent “the feeling of the post-Wall moment without taking a stance regarding it, through its sense of unbounded duration as liberation, its formal evocation of the sudden absence of barricades—and its sense of this as something potentially intrinsic to the music, to the truth of pop” (95). Nevertheless, Clover argues that pop’s apparent embrace of history’s end and the triumph of Western liberal political and economic ascendancy is not quite so simple. Clover reminds us that 1989 also witnessed the suppression of dissent in Tiananmen Square by the Chinese government. In addition, he suggests that rather than subscribing to a universal faith in the marketplace, the protests in China may be perceived as an effort to resist the government’s plunge into capitalism and the global market. Accordingly, Clover concludes that the end of the Cold War has removed the confrontation between liberal democracy and state communism. Celebrations of the end of history, however, fail to acknowledge the continuing antagonism between social classes.
Clover argues that this often hidden dialectic may be found within pop music’s sense of contradiction regarding the lack of fulfillment brought about by the symbolic collapse of the Berlin Wall. Pop music retains a healthy sense of ambiguity which Clover asserts is a needed component for the twenty-first century. Clover harbors hope for pop music and a society free from class exploitation, writing, “The thing that pop knows—that antagonism is not annihilated but concealed, and that it will be needed for real history to be made again—is in some regard testimony against itself. Such knowledge is, if anything, greatly to its credit” (140).
Clover’s contention regarding the ability of popular music to shed light upon larger social, political, and economic issues of our times presents a sophisticated analysis worthy of serious consideration. The book is not an easy read, and more general readers may struggle a bit with its grounding in the vocabulary of cultural studies. In addition, some readers may be unacquainted with the musical artists employed by Clover to illustrate his points. Nevertheless, readers, such as this reviewer, unfamiliar with the rave scene, will still to able to follow Clover’s argument. There is also some generational conflict evident in Clover’s comments regarding the 1960s, but there is also a tendency by listeners of classic rock to discount the contemporary pop music scene. Clover’s astute book, however, suggests that the potential of contemporary pop should not be so easily dismissed.
updated 5:22 PM