By Joshua Clover. (University of California Press, 2009)

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Joshua Clover’s 1989:  Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About is itself as close to song as academic writing gets, its prose textured and lyrical, its structure songlike. Discussing an eclectic spectrum of artists (Public Enemy, NWA, Dr. Dre, De La Soul, KLF, Nirvana, U2, Madonna, George Michael, Roxette, The Scorpions and many more), his arguments grounded in an equally eclectic assortment of theoretical authority (Hegel, Marx, Fukayama, Lacan, Jameson, still others), Clover’s book is short, but fully loaded.  Clover takes on the complex interrelationship between pop music and culture at a particularly revealing point in time.  In Part I he makes the true yet somehow surprising observation that “every genre enters the popular imagination as a novelty song that later is seen to be a manifesto, a discourse on new form.”  The musically fecund period of 1988-1991—a conceptual 1989—was “characterized by an emergence of emergences.”  Chapters devoted to Rap, Acid House, Grunge, and Top 40 Pop track some emergences and intra-genre shifts, probing for cultural meaning—for what Pop in its form and its affects was expressing if not trying to say about culture—and tease out a commonality amid the divergences.  Why, in the conceptual 1989, did Rap divert from earlier hip-hop’s highly politicized, Black Nationalist agenda to the (ultimately) black-on-black violence of Gangsta?  Why did Acid House spawn the rave and the ecstasy-fueled Second Summer of Love?  Why did Grunge, “arguably [and correctly, in my estimation] the last next big thing in the rock tradition,” turn punk’s animosities (and anarchies) inward now?  And why at this particular moment did Top 40 Pop become more “boundless,” more excessive?  Clover suggests that Pop’s “belle époque” mirrored the Pax Americana and thus raises the intriguing possibility that “pop had been biding its time until 1989 came along to make sense of its sensibility.”  The various shifts and emergences were Pop’s internalization of a cultural impulse toward globalized Americanization, and its response to the removal of the structuring force of external antagonism (including the literal removal of the Berlin Wall in 1989), given liberal democracy’s victory over communism.  In Part Two, Clover addresses the darker side of “Fukayama pop”—stagnation in the form of a sterile, neverending sameness: “Surely this unbounded sensation is the same as that of the sense of the end of history [as announced by Fukayama]: a spatial version of the temporal account, a map painted in a single color to match the triumphal, monotonous unfolding of empty time.”  Clover gives the unification script a Jamesonian twist, noting that “the antagonism [between social classes] is, after all, not magically conjured out of existence, but secreted away in the blind spot, unreachable.  It’s there, but—contrary to the hypervisibility of the image-event—it can’t be made visible.  And so it returns over and over as a sense of excess, of surfeit, of exaggeration: the sign of something present but not accounted for.”  Pop (as metagenre) conveys cultural truths not least through the music’s irrational capacity to capture structures of feeling encoded with the history of its time.  1989’s greatest pleasures lie in its analytical detail, its sharp writing, and the finesse with which Clover leads the reader to his conclusions through sometimes counter-intuitive theoretical insights and observations (particularly with regard to Top 40 Pop’s silicone slickness—its over-polished, overblown banality).  Engaging, too, are his vibrant recollections of scenes, styles, and trends (e.g., Gangsta Rap’s most fetishized commodity, bling, “is the sound of a Bentley’s headlights glinting off a $25,000 sample”).  Clover manages to keep his “rock journalist cool,” as befits a book on pop music, despite the rigor that fuels its hard-core intellectualism.

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