Pop Goes the World

Even a history of pop can’t help but skew toward rock.

Bill Haley, The Beatles, Beyonce and The Beegees.
From top to bottom: Bill Haley, the Beatles, Beyoncé, and The Bee Gees.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by James Kriegsmann/Associated Booking Corporation; Photo by Harry Hammond/V&A Images/Getty Images; Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images; Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

To paraphrase Avenue Q, maybe everyone’s a little bit rockist, sometimes. In his new pop music history Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, which mounts its British Invasion this month, Bob Stanley doesn’t shy from wielding the R-word to bash those who fetishize the rusty old cornerstones of rock at the expense of the shinier hallmarks of pop. Though pop-leaning critics have ascended to prime perches at places like the New York Times, The New Yorker, NPR, and Slate, Stanley warns in his introduction that “rockism still exists” and mourns the fact that “disco and large swathes of black and electronic music have been virtually ignored by traditional pop histories.” In case his allegiances weren’t clear, the American edition comes covered in bubblegum pink, topped with controls that resemble those of an iPod, and subtitled with the good news that though The Story of Pop Music may kick off with Bill Haley, it leads up to the coming of Beyoncé.

But that introduction and this shiny packaging (redesigned from the British version) may leave some pop fans confused at what follows. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! does chronicle the emergence of disco (whose legacy hardly needs explaining anymore in the era of Daft Punk, EDM, and The 20/20 Experience), the importance of Motown and Philly soul, and the influence of house music pioneers like Larry Levan and the recently departed Frankie Knuckles. But the book’s staggering eclecticism only makes it all the more disappointing when Stanley falls into some of the same pitfalls he cautions about, failing to grasp the appeal of large swaths of hip-hop, and, more fundamentally, structuring itself around the familiar story of rock. In other words, it’s a reminder of how it is easy to call yourself an “anti-rockist” and still find yourself skewing subtly conservative.

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! starts its history in 1955. That’s because that’s when Billboard first published what became the Hot 100 (previously it charted album sales, radio plays, and jukeboxes separately) and when Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” hit No. 1. In some ways this makes sense—both events were watersheds in the history of pop, and aren’t far from the invention of the teenager as a target market, the proliferation of televisions in American homes, and the introduction of the LP record. But while 1955 may mark the rise of rock ’n’ roll as a popular force, to say Bill Haley marks the beginning of modern pop is to concede to rock history’s conventional wisdom. What about Tin Pan Alley, the Grand Ole Opry, and vaudeville? What about names like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, and Eva Tanguay? Frank Sinatra’s Columbus Day riot, which prefigured Beatlemania in its throngs of squealing teens, is only a footnote. (And don’t even think about the smash of 1909.). Perhaps no one would expect Stanley to trace pop back to the first prehistoric flute, but context helps. It’s hard not to wince when Stanley writes, “It seemed like Elvis came from nowhere, and that was pretty much the case.”

Part of this might be explained by the fact that Stanley is British. It’s true that the story of pop music is in large part “the story of the intertwining pop culture of the United States and the United Kingdom,” as Stanley writes, but it’s especially true when it comes to the rock era. Stanley keeps an eye on both sides of the pond throughout—as they close in on each other in the ’60s and grow apart again—and the time he spends dwelling on the British charts will be alternately intriguing (a glimpse of an alternate pop history) and puzzling to those with American backgrounds. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! reserves twice as much real estate for introducing British pop star Billy Fury as it does for Chuck Berry, as it argues that Fury was the blueprint for the British pop star. Discussing Phil Spector, Stanley interweaves his story with the equally tragic tale of his transatlantic rival, the record producer Joe Meek.

The gap between the book’s English-accented view of pop history and the one most Americans will be used to grows larger as the book goes on. Movements like glam and what Stanley calls “new pop” (New Romantics and synthpoppers like Adam and the Ants and the Human League) are remembered as earthshaking, though the earth they shook was mostly in the British Isles. One of the book’s longest sections is dedicated to the explosion of house and electronic dance music in England in the late 1980s, which led to the so-called Second Summer of Love and plays out over multiple chapters. Stanley is a member of the indie dance band Saint Etienne, which formed in the wake of that summer, so it makes sense that these events would have an outsized influence on him. But though many of us Yankees might be surprised to see this period given twice as much space as grunge, we would be wise to listen up: We may have mostly missed out on all those smiley-face T-shirts, but these strains of EDM are becoming more and more a part of the American pop DNA. (Not to mention something like Yeezus.)

Author Bob Stanley.
Bob Stanley.

Photo courtesy Elaine Constantine

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is not a short book at about 600 pages, but given the scope of the subject, Stanley rarely has the space to put forth compelling arguments about more established stars. How could you change someone’s mind about Bowie or Britney if you’ve only got a couple of pages? He has more luck with the Bee Gees, who get their own chapter. Still, though it’s more of a survey course, he manages to get in some good lines. Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, he notes, is “maybe the most self-descriptive album title in all pop, apart from Trogglodynamite by the Troggs.” Sketching a picture of Elvis Costello, he writes he “wrote pun-packed songs while singing as if he was standing in a fridge.” Because he is a musician, Stanley also drops some musicological knowledge—which should please Ted Gioia—while making the equally admirable call to comment on which singers and band members were (or were not) super-cute. Like it or not, this is an important part of pop history.

Though it’s not as contrarian as the #slatepitchily titled How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll, the book is pleasant to argue with. The only time I was tempted to go all Keith Moon on my copy was as it became clear what short shrift later chapters would give hip-hop. Stanley fails to see any political significance at all in gangsta rap (something that’s perhaps harder to do 5,000 miles from Compton). “By the end of the nineties hip hop had become part of the furniture,” he writes, acknowledging only that the genre “continues to make money, whether it’s inspiring or not.” Ice-T gets a mention, but there’s no such luck for Nas, while Tupac is dismissed in an aside for being humorless.

It’s a shame the book doesn’t see shades of Phil Spector and Joe Meek in Timbaland and Pharrell Williams. (And despite the subtitle, he barely discusses Beyoncé.) Its take on 21st-century pop in general is remarkably declinist, while failing to justify some of its most basic assertions. “With such a choice of influences readily available, it will be much harder to create a brand-new form of music,” Stanley argues, as if the exact opposite couldn’t also be the case. For all that’s changed in the 59 years since Bill Haley, one thing was the same before and has remained the same ever since: If you wait long enough, just about any pop fan will come to lament the current state of pop. Even some of the best music books sniff at the next generation. I prefer to fondly remember the book that quoted the wisdom of Leonard Bernstein, 400 pages earlier: “I think this music has something terribly important to tell us adults,” Bernstein said, “and I think we would be wise not to behave like ostriches about it.”

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop from Bill Haley to Beyoncé by Bob Stanley. Norton.

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