Pop music’s theme song, in 2016, was more funeral march than hit parade. Artists who’d laid the cornerstones for major genres, songwriters whose music is the soundtrack of a million high-school memories, demigods we thought would never die: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Prince were among the many who took their final bows last year. To thicken the gloom, Lou Reed’s death, in 2013, was still fresh in fans’ minds, as was Joni Mitchell’s close encounter with the reaper in 2015, when she suffered a brain aneurysm. (She survived, but is more reclusive than ever.)
Little wonder, then, that biographies, photo albums, and academic studies of Bowie, Cohen, Mitchell, Prince, and Reed figure prominently among this fall and next spring’s releases. Of course, not every music book came draped in black crêpe: Bob Dylan’s unexpected receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature stirred renewed interest in Dylanology—the hermeneutic scrutiny of the man and his multilayered lyrics.
Other emergent themes include country music’s nonconformists; the nevertheless-she-persisted indomitability of women swimming against the tide of music-world sexism; hip-hop’s cultural and economic ascent; the liberatory power of pop songs; and the cultural role of magazines like the British style guide The Face and nightclubs such as Studio 54 in reimagining the audience as star.
Glam, Bam, Thank You Ma’am: Goodbye to Prince, Bowie, Reed
An aesthete, the early-20th-century English writer G.K. Chesterton quipped, is someone who “dyes his hair another shade of mauve” if it doesn’t match “the mauve sunset against which he is standing.” Prince, whose signature color was purple, never went quite that far. But he was definitely a standard-bearer of glam, as the photo albums Picturing Prince (Cassell, Sept.), by his former creative director Steve Parke, and Prince: A Private View (St. Martin’s, Oct.), by Afshin Shahidi, his personal photographer, make clear. Androgynous in eyeshadow and pencil mustache, languorous in psychedelic caftans, dressed to kill in Regency frills, Prince was glam to the soles of his high-heeled shoes, living by the Oscar Wilde principle that “nothing succeeds like excess.”
When the reigning master of funkadelic glam-pop died in April 2016, thousands thronged the streets around First Avenue, the legendary Minneapolis nightclub that launched not only Prince’s career—Purple Rain was filmed there—but the Minneapolis sound he made famous, a crossover-friendly funk-rock wave that music journalist Andrea Swensson, a Minnesota Public Radio host, chronicles in Got to Be Something Here (Univ. of Minnesota, Oct.).
No one would have accused Bowie of moderation during his glam-rock phase, either. In the early ’70s, Bowie—who preceded Prince in death by three months—dyed his hair heart-attack red and wriggled into skintight spacesuits to play a Martian rock star, Ziggy Stardust, onstage. When Ziggy Played the Marquee (ACC, Nov.), by photographer Terry O’Neill, captures Bowie’s last performance in that role, a blitzkrieg of increasingly knock-’em-dead poses and jaw-dropping costumes—a see-through fishnet affair with glittery, sculpted hands in strategic places; thigh-high boots and a breastplate made of feathers.
Two years later, in 1975, Bowie had molted again. In David Bowie: The Man Who Fell to Earth (Taschen, Nov.), a collection of behind-the-scenes photos taken during the filming of the Nicolas Roeg movie of the same name, he’s a gaunt figure in a nondescript suit. The book juxtaposes unit photographer David James’s moody photos with text by film historian Paul Duncan and quotes from cast and crew. “We carry the luggage of otherness with us wherever we go,” Bowie said, in an unguarded moment.
Otherness was Reed’s birthright, too. Bisexual, junkie, Andy Warhol protégé, Reed was too gritty for glam. Still, as Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis recounts in Lou Reed: A Life (Little, Brown, Oct.), he was canny enough to play along, recruiting Bowie to produce his 1972 record Transformer and gamely donning makeup and black nail polish for the jacket photo. His marketing smarts paid off: the album was Reed’s commercial pinnacle, and its hit single, “Walk on the Wild Side,” a seamy, bittersweet homage to street hustlers, became New York City’s unofficial anthem.
Lonesome Heroes: Dylan, Cohen
For those unpersuaded by Dylan’s receipt, in 2016, of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Richard F. Thomas makes the case for Why Bob Dylan Matters (Dey Street, Nov.). A classics professor at Harvard whose freshman seminar on the songwriter is inevitably packed to the rafters, Thomas draws connections between Dylan and Greek and Roman poets such as Homer and Horace.
The man who sang “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall” is “part of that classical stream whose spring starts out in Greece and Rome,” Thomas writes, “and flows on down through the years, remaining relevant today.” In songs like “Lonesome Day Blues,” from Dylan’s 2001 record Love and Theft, Thomas hears echoes of Virgil’s Aeneid.
Though associated with Dylan in the public mind, Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, who died in 2016, was closer to Federico García Lorca, if Lorca had become a Zen monk (which Cohen, Jewish by birth but a devout Buddhist for much of his life, did in 1996 when he was living in a Zen retreat outside L.A.). By turns brooding, prayerful, and forlornly funny, his songs about “lonesome heroes” and “sisters of mercy” are existentialist parables tinged with eroticism, set to delicate, fingerpicked guitar.
In The Lyrics of Leonard Cohen (Overlook, Nov.), his longtime friend Malka Marom, a Canadian folksinger and journalist, uses her previously unpublished conversations with Cohen to shed light on his songs, whose Old Testament imagery and confessional tone makes them sound, at times, like the hymns of a one-man religion.
Honky Tonk Rebels: Nelson, Parton, Country Women
Historically, country music has been a boozy lament about the woes of the white working class, from the coal miners of Butcher Holler, Ky., to the long-distance truckers of Bakersfield, Calif. As the counterculture of the ’60s infiltrated jukeboxes, country gave voice to a counter-counterculture that stood for crew-cut, churchgoing values and against the pinkos and the freaks. But beneath the slick sound and conservative mores championed by the Grand Ole Opry, the genre contained crosscurrents of eccentricity and flat-out rebellion.
Andrew Vaughan’s biography, Willie Nelson: American Icon (Sterling, Oct.), charts the rise of one of the godfathers of the outlaw country insurgency of the early ’70s, a backlash born, in part, of hippie culture. The author of such classics as “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Nelson is a beloved figure, a long-haired, pot-smoking octogenarian and liberal activist, most notably for Farm Aid. (In the ’60s, he toured with the black singer Charley Pride as his opening act. When a crowd in a Texas nightclub turned ugly, Vaughan writes, Nelson showed the audience where he stood on segregation: he “grabbed Charley and kissed him full on the lips.”)
A vocal supporter of gay marriage and trans rights, the Dolly Parton of Leigh Edwards’s Dolly Parton, Gender, and Country Music (Indiana Univ., Jan. 2018) emerges as a steel magnolia with a rebellious streak. Edwards, an English professor at Florida State University, reads the singer’s campy, hyperbolic femininity as a kind of drag performance, simultaneously celebrating and parodying conventional femininity. At the same time, she notes, Parton pushes back against stereotypes of poor, rural Southerners as “white trash”; the singer calls her feisty advocacy for female empowerment “Appalachian feminism.”
Likewise, in Woman Walk the Line (Univ. of Texas, Sept.), Rosanne Cash, Holly George-Warren, Taylor Swift, and the other essayists assembled by the music critic Holly Gleason write, in unabashedly fannish terms, about female country artists who’ve made a place in the genre for women’s stories. “Country music, defined as simple songs about real life, is in many ways women’s music,” Gleason writes in the book’s introduction. “From the moment Kitty Wells sold a million copies of ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,’ the female voice has been known for deep truth-telling.”
She Did It Her Way: Female Musicians in a Man’s Man’s Man’s World
Despite her elfin size, penchant for lacy shawls, and general air of a self-described “chiffon-y chick who believes in fairies and angels,” Stevie Nicks—like the Welsh enchantress of her hit “Rhiannon”—“rules her life like a bird in flight.” In an interview quoted in Stephen Davis’s biography Gold Dust Woman (St. Martin’s, Nov.), she says, “From Janis [Joplin] I learned that to make it as a female musician in a man’s world is going to be tough, and you need to keep your head held high.”
Joni Mitchell had to acquire the same hard-won wisdom, early on. In Nicholas Jennings’s “Beginnings,” a flashback to Mitchell’s days on the folkie circuit included in Joni (Picador), an anthology of interviews and reviews edited by rock journalist Barney Hoskyns, she recalls an early show, “with the audience booing and hissing and saying, ‘Take your clothes off, sweetheart.’ ” In Reckless Daughter (FSG/Crichton, Oct.), a biography by humanities professor and music critic David Yaffe, she’s quoted as saying: “I was so feminine then. I’m my own man now. I’ve had to fight so many battles. I had to get tough.”
Pussy Riot, the all-female Russian punk–performance art collective, was built to fight battles. When the group blasted the Russian Orthodox Church’s coziness with Putin by thrashing out a scabrous “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in 2012, the authorities hit back, sentencing one member, Maria Alyokhina, to two years in a labor camp for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” In her deadpan, defiant account of her jail time, Riot Days (Metropolitan, Sept.), Alyokhina gives Putin’s oligarchy another one-finger salute by using her experience behind bars to expose the inhumanity—and inanity—of the Russian prison system. Pussy Riot’s bass player sent Alyokhina some books while she was in prison, and, she writes, “now I have to go and explain why Georges Sand and Simone de Beauvoir represent no sort of danger to anyone.”
Patty Schemel, the kit-pummeling former drummer for Courtney Love’s band Hole, is a kindred spirit. In Hit So Hard (Da Capo, Oct.), her scarifying memoir of the grunge-rock moment, heroin addiction, and coming out as a lesbian, she writes: “I had all this aggression, and I needed to channel it.... I liked the idea that I could play an instrument that girls weren’t supposed to.... Drumming is a bloodsport, like boxing. It’s not for wimps. Part of developing the necessary stamina is to teach yourself to play through pain, something that women do particularly well.”
From House Party to Penthouse: Hip-Hop History Lessons
Hip-hop’s cultural ascendancy is amply evidenced in the fall and spring lists. As Zack O’Malley Greenburg points out in Three Kings (Little, Brown, Mar. 2018), the genre isn’t just a youth-culture trend machine—it’s an economic powerhouse. “Hip-hop has produced the largest artist fortunes of any genre in America,” he told PW. “Diddy, Jay-Z, and Dr. Dre are not only the richest rappers, but the wealthiest musicians of any stripe in the country.”
Chuck D, meanwhile, thinks it’s time to take stock of hip-hop’s long, hard climb out of the economically gutted South Bronx of the ’70s to the boardrooms and baronial mansions of 2017. In his sprawling survey, Chuck D Presents This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History (Black Dog & Leventhal, Oct.), the Public Enemy cofounder locates the birth of a hip-hop nation in 1973—August 11, to be exact—when deejay Kool Herc invented the form at a Bronx dance party by looping the percussion interludes, or “breaks,” in ’60s and ’70s funk records to extend them endlessly, goading dancers into a frenzy. Then, during Herc’s set, “his friend Coke La Rock spontaneously grabbed a microphone and began calling out his friends’ names,” D writes, “rapping improvised lyrics over the DJ’s breakbeat.”
Four decades on, that big bang is still reverberating around the world. In his photo essay Ghostnotes (Univ. of Texas, Oct.), a photo essay by noted hip-hop photographer Brian Cross, known as “B+”, he plays cut ’n’ mix with moody, penetrating images of rappers, deejays, and black cultural revolutionaries past and present whose art and thought have influenced hip-hop: reggae sound systems in Jamaica; the shoes of the vaudeville tap dancer turned drummer Earl Palmer (the inventor, Cross proposes, of rock ’n’ roll drumming); Grand Wizard Theodore (“the first person to ever scratch a record”); the Notorious B.I.G. in Beverly Hills, “murdered outside this building three weeks later, and there is still no plaque or monument to commemorate his death”; and, fittingly, Kool Herc at a record fair in Manhattan in 1997, sifting through boxes of LPs, still mesmerized by vinyl.
Reading Between the Beats: Critics Deconstruct Pop Music
If modernism’s battle cry was “make it new” (Ezra Pound), hip-hop’s guiding principle is the ’80s catchphrase “pop will eat itself”—a shibboleth that neatly captures the cultural logic of postmodernism. In Nothing Has Been Done Before (Bloomsbury Academic, Nov.), an inquiry into the neophilia that drives pop music, Robert Loss sidesteps the question of whether there’s anything new under the sun to examine—or “interrogate,” as academics like to say—the very notion of newness. A professor of literature and philosophy at Ohio’s Columbus College of Art & Design, he uses his analytical scalpel to dissect the controversy over Bob Dylan’s purported plagiarism, the “spectaglam” of Katy Perry’s 2015 Super Bowl halftime show, and the afrofuturist aesthetic of Janelle Monáe, who draws on black diasporic traditions as well as science-fiction imagery.
Ann Powers, a cultural critic who comments on music for NPR, confronts the complex interplay of love and theft, sex-mad modernity and the nation’s Puritan past in Good Booty (Dey Street, out now). Panning across 200 years of American history, she takes in the Grand Balls of 18th-century New Orleans, where “colored ladies and white gentlemen” took to the dance floor; the origin story of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” which began life as “a very dirty number that made the queens go wild in the drag bars”; and the appropriation, by Miley Cyrus, of twerking, a booty-twirling dance style that originated in black culture.
In her sweeping analysis, Powers positions popular music at the intersection of sex and social change—and the center of our cultural conversation. “Music allows people—players, dancers, observers—to ride the storm that arises when desire encounters the roadblocks of prejudice, moral judgment, or cruel circumstance,” she writes.
Darryl W. Bullock’s David Bowie Made Me Gay (Overlook, Nov.) recovers the lost history of music made by, and for, the LGBTQ community. Bullock, author of the biography Florence Foster Jenkins: A Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer, touches on artists as unalike and historically far-flung as the flamboyant ragtime-era pianist Tony Jackson, whose song “Pretty Baby” was written for another man and who mentored Jellyroll Morton, and the uncategorizable Klaus Nomi, a new wave cult sensation who looked like Joel Grey’s campy, chalk-faced emcee in Cabaret and sang, in the words of one critic, “like Pinocchio on helium.”
Decades before Lady Gaga’s gay-positive song “Born This Way” hit the airwaves, Nomi, Bowie, and others like them gave hope to fearful, isolated LGBTQ kids. Bullock quotes Holly Johnson, lead singer for the ’80s synth-pop group Frankie Goes to Hollywood, from an interview he gave the Gay Times in April 1994: “I was desperately searching for some kind of gay identity when I was a teenager.” Johnson said he found it in the music of Bowie, Marc Bolan, Reed, and Roxy Music. “I used to tell people, ‘Oh, I’m bisexual, just like my hero David!’ ” he added.
Sidewalk Scenes and Black Limousines: Fan Culture
By the time Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show sang, in their 1972 song “The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone,’ ” of the incomparable thrill of seeing your face on Jann Wenner’s magazine, the house organ of the Woodstock generation had one foot in the mainstream, but still managed the neat trick of retaining its countercultural cool.
Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan (Random House, Oct.) is at once a portrait of Wenner, who for five decades has displayed a dowser’s ability to tap into the political and cultural currents of the moment, and a biography of his magazine, which—in an economic landscape that has become a killing field for legacy media—is still rolling off the presses.
Wenner “had an intuitive grasp of how to connect the counterculture to the so-called straight world and convert this rude world of rock and dope into fame, power, and money,” Hagan told Entertainment Weekly in May. “He knew there was money to be made from day one. As it turned out, there was millions.”
The Face, an achingly hip magazine launched in London in 1980, was to the postpunk era what Rolling Stone was to the ’60s and ’70s. The self-described bible of “style culture,” it was as devoted to trendsetting club-goers—some of whom would morph into stars—as it was to bona fide pop idols. Likewise, it was determined to be as untouchably cool as the music and club culture it covered: Neville Brody’s off-kilter layouts and clashing typefaces set the standard for postpunk graphic design, and the pub-brawling polemics of Julie Burchill, cheek by jowl with the literate criticism of Jon Savage, left mainstream journalism in the dust.
In The Story of the Face (Thames & Hudson, Nov.), Paul Gorman tracks the magazine from its 1980 debut to its demise in 2004, cash-starved by advertisers’ exodus to the web but done in, ultimately, by the rise of competitors like Wallpaper, who’d cloned the “style journalism” The Face had pioneered.
As in London’s clubs, the audience was in the spotlight at Manhattan’s Studio 54, the fabled site of disco-era debauches that would have brought a blush to Caligula’s cheek. Studio 54 (Rizzoli, Sept.), a mammoth coffee-table tome by former co-owner Ian Schrager, and Inside Studio 54 by Mark Fleischman (Rare Bird, Sept.)—who re-opened the club in the ’80s—compete to top each others’ tales of cocaine-fueled excess.
In both books, it’s the photos—of Muhammad Ali, Warren Beatty, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, the ubiquitous Andy Warhol—that tell the story most vividly, capturing a scene that has the manic frivolity of a Weimar nightclub on the eve of the Third Reich. Here, the specter at the feast isn’t Nazism, but AIDS, whose scythe would soon empty the dance floor, seemingly overnight.
If this fall and next spring’s music titles have a common refrain, it is the pockets of resistance lurking in disposable culture. Bowie and his glam cohort modeled a more genderfluid masculinity and in so doing opened the door to a more tolerant, more diverse—and, let’s admit, 100% more fabulous—future. Dylan and Cohen made folk-rock grist for Harvard seminars. Nelson and his outlaw-country posse made room at the truck stop bar for hippies in Stetsons who preferred pot to Pabst Blue Ribbon. Female singers and songwriters such as Mitchell, Nicks, and Parton refused to be sharp-elbowed out of the boys’ club of pop stardom. Hip-hop artists claimed a place at the turntable, showing that a deejay’s wheels of steel could rival rock guitar and rapping was poetry, too. Ann Powers and other critics drew our attention to the subversiveness lurking in the grooves of “race” records and Superbowl halftime shows, while magazines like The Face and clubs like Studio 54 were dedicated to the dream that, as Ray Davies of the Kinks sang, everybody’s a star—a proposition that turns the elitism of celebrity culture on its head, reminding us that even superstars start out as fans, serenading themselves in the bathroom mirror.
Mark Dery is a cultural critic and the author, most recently, of the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts (Univ. of Minnesota, 2012). He is writing a biography of Edward Gorey for Little, Brown.
Below, more on the subject of music books.
Country singer Doug Seegers and Joel Houston of Hillsong Church are among a chorus of authors with new books on how music can influence faith, and vice versa.