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

Martin James wishes this useful exploration of musical responses to the zeitgeist had more depth

January 21, 2010

Just as Elijah Wald's recent work How the Beatles Destroyed Rock'n'Roll had little to do with the Fab Four, so too Bob Dylan is barely present in this book. The title simply refers to a lyric by shortlived early-90s indie dance group Jesus Jones about the huge changes made to the global political map in this period.

Fans of Dylan can rest easy, then, that this is neither an attack nor a celebration of the singer. Neither is it about the 12 months of 1989, as suggested by the title. Rather, it presents that year as having a 48-month span. Roughly speaking, Joshua Clover's 1989 starts in 1988 with glasnost and ends in 1992 with the war in Yugoslavia. The historically important 12 months of 1989 are signposted, however, by the demolition of the Berlin Wall, Poland's Solidarnosc movement, the military coup against Romania's communist regime and the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, where the unforgettable image of a lone man halting the progress of Chinese Army tanks would become a symbol of the spirit of the times.

This approach makes perfect sense, in that it highlights the fluidity of the historical moment. 1989 may be the focus but its telling and retelling shows history is in constant flux. Actions before and after the main event are linked, a constant presence in the truth of historical here and now.

Clover's thesis draws on the notion that the 1989 era represents the "end of history", or as Jesus Jones put it, watching the Berlin Wall fall was like "watching the world wake up from history". Furthermore, Clover argues that where generational protest songs such as those by Dylan merely signify the 1960s, the Jesus Jones song is part of a melange of pop songs that provide a theoretical framework for this period of turmoil.

In developing this argument, Clover divides his book into four generic shifts that occurred in this period and uses each to convey how the aesthetics of musical developments construct the signification of time and place.

The first, "The Bourgeois and the Boulevard", explores hip hop's growth from its roots as party music to its transformation into an expression of black nationalist ideologies and Afro-American Muslim theologies. The next section traces "The Second Summer of Love" (a period that most music historians agree lasted three summers from 1989 to 1991), when the anti-capitalist collectivism of acid house and rave met Thatcherite hedonism full on. This is followed by an exploration of the birth of grunge and its Generation X ideologies in the chapter "Negative Creep". Finally, "The Billboard Consensus" charts mainstream pop.

As historical accounts go, this slight book attempts to engage with and analyse four volumes of material. As a result, Clover has a tendency towards uncomplicated detail and unquestioned narrative. For example, the emergence of the so-called "5 Per Cent Nation" within hip hop is correctly depicted as an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. However, Clover fails to fully explore its "thug life as theology", a position that "allowed" the rise of gangsta rap.

Elsewhere, his depiction of the rave era is seen as a redeployment of Sixties counterculture in the face of Thatcherism. Yet he fails to recognise the fact that the Second Summer of Love was born of the newly affordable package holiday and promoted by individuals who were the embodiment of Thatcher's children. In these, as in other areas of this book, you are left longing for greater depth and a more questioning approach. However, this work is less of an analysis of music history than it is a shaping of musical events to support a critical position.

For the minutiae of details and oppositional accounts of the musical phenomena included in this study, there are books that do an infinitely better job. But as an invocation and celebration of Francis Fukuyama's proclamation of the "end of history" and the Hegelian notion of teleology, it offers a powerful framework through which pop history can be explored, whether you agree with its critical position or not.

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

By Joshua Clover

University of California Press

198pp, £14.95

ISBN 9780520252554

Published 23 October 2009

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