In his monumental account of popular music, Miller, a music-journalist-turned-educator (Political Science/New School; Democracy Is in the Streets, 1987, etc.), ties together several intellectual and cultural strands—Norman Mailer's myth of the White Negro, Tom Wolfe's radical chic, H.G. Koenigsberger's theories on music and religion, Wagner's significance to Bismarckian Germany—all without bleaching out the raw essence of the music. Beginning with what he calls the first rock ‘n" roll record, "Good Rockin" Tonight," by Wynonie Harris, Miller traces the development of the techniques, technologies, and ethos that would synthesize a mishmash of "race music" (as songs recorded by African-American artists were called in the late "40s), teenage angst, and old-fashioned medicine-show hucksterism into a sophisticated medium that, more than a half-century later, serves as "the closest thing we have to a musical lingua franca." While ordered chronologically, the narrative jumps from place to place. Rather than appearing discordant, the structure takes on the insistent beat of its subject. As a work of history, this effort appears to contain little original scholarship—most artists" quotes come from secondhand sources, albeit strictly authoritative ones. As social commentary, however, few books, if any, come close to this one. Miller re-creates the listeners" exhilaration upon hearing the first bars of truly revolutionary music. And, possibly most important, he seems to have little trouble reconciling that a largely manufactured (or, at least, highly manipulated) form of expression had such a profound effect on individuals, even those who knew they were perhaps more a target market than a genuine social movement. Or, as the author observes about the unruly antics of performers from Little Richard to the Rolling Stones to the Sex Pistols: "What was "unruly," in short, was not rock ‘n" roll as a cultural form, but rather the central fantasy it was exploiting." A work both stunningly cogent and thoroughly enjoyable.
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