Strolling through the archives of pop music history with an experienced guide.
There are no grand theses or postmodern theoretical turns here. Instead, Nation music critic Hajdu (Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture, 2009, etc.) approaches the vast stretch of pop history as a particularly tasteful exercise in picking tunes from an impossibly well-stocked jukebox, very much personally curated and with each choice well defended. Thus, as he notes near the opening, he can probably do without hearing “Yesterday” again (“I can barely still hear qualities I heard in the song at various times in the past”), preferring instead to spin the Beatles’ little-heard contemporary tune “Tell Me What You See,” because, in addition to its musical qualities, it conjures up a kiss from a high school girlfriend. That personal approach would not work if Hajdu were not so well-versed on his pop history firsthand. When he writes of the early history of music videos, it helps that he was one of the earliest video journalists, just as when he writes of one-hit wonders like the New Jersey band Looking Glass, of “Brandy” fame, it helps that he was on the scene, ears wide open, when the song came out. The author’s ears extend beyond his own time span, though; he writes with knowledgeable appreciation of Frank Sinatra, Marni Nixon, and Billy Strayhorn—not to mention contemporary hip-hop. The center of his world, though, is the period when Brian Wilson, Ray Davies, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and their musical kin were making albums to set the world on fire. He even works in a quiet appreciation for disco, and with good humor: “Without getting too Ken Burns–ish about this, I’ll point out the significance of the first dance craze of the twentieth century, the vogue for the fox-trot, in cross-fertilizing cultural values and democratizing social life (within the limits of racial segregation) for young people of the day.” And so he does.
A highly learned pleasure for music and pop-culture buffs.