A soundtrack to a changing world

By Carlo Wolff
January 7, 2010

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Joshua Clover serves up a stiff intellectual drink in “1989,’’ his stimulating tour of the history of an idea; one might also view his brief, dense book as a tour through the idea of history. At the book’s core is analysis of four musical genres: hip-hop, acid house, grunge, and pop. He sets examples of each in context, and his commentary on each is illuminating.

The premise of this prickly, demanding work is that the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989 signified, in some senses, the end of history. It certainly marked the end of the Cold War and of the notion that communism and capitalism were rivals. It also ushered in a “Pax Americana’’ that lasted until 2001, when, he claims, teen pop vanquished alternative rock and became the dominant cultural music.

An associate professor of English at the University of California-Davis, Clover is bracingly erudite. Not only has he explored such influential 20th-century German sociologists as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, he frequently cites and criticizes Francis Fukuyama and Fredric Jameson, philosophers who, like him, explore the relationships between literature, pop culture, politics, and the economy.

“1989’’ pivots off Scorpions’ “Winds of Change’’ and particularly, “Right Here, Right Now,’’ a catchy 1991 pop tune by the otherwise unheralded British group Jesus Jones, a one-hit wonder that captured the headiness following the fall of the Wall as emblematic of the collapse of the very antagonisms that fuel historical narrative. Since that event, Clover suggests, linear, historical narrative, which depends on dialectic, has been in abeyance.

“Behind the lead vocal, in the push-pull of instruments and microchips that organizes the musical track, a fanfare swells as it follows the melody into the chorus, the uplift of ‘Right here, right now, there is no place I wanna be/ right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history.’ Apparently [Jesus Jones’ lead singer Mike] Edwards and Fukuyama had been reading the same books, though the singer has perhaps dog-eared as well a page of Joyce’s Ulysses.’’

“1989’’ is a bricolage melding seemingly unrelated sources into commentary on the discontinuity between the student revolt in Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Wall, the shift from East Coast to West Coast hip-hop embodied in the “easygoing menace’’ of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic,’’ and the way grunge echoes and extends punk and metal in “antisociality.’’

Clover says Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor - the bridge between rave and grunge - is a Cleveland native (Reznor was born in Mercer, Pa.), but he is otherwise on the money. I haven’t read anywhere near what he has but I am familiar with much of the music he interprets, and he’s come up with fresh insights effectively tying the music to its context. “1989’’ is an academic book, but also one that fans of politics and pop culture would savor.

Clover provides plenty of chatter material, celebrating U2’s “Achtung Baby,’’ resurrecting such buried treasure as the sexy Australian group Divinyls and the protean, global Neneh Cherry, and criticizing such songs as Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire’’ and Bad English’s “When I See You Smile.’’ That tune of “execrable vacuity’’ displaced Roxette’s catchy “Listen to Your Heart’’ on the Top 100 the very week compact discs overtook vinyl as the yardstick of sales and popularity. Don’t miss the footnotes.

Cleveland freelance writer Carlo Wolff is the author of “Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories.’’


By Joshua Clover

University of California Press

198 pp., $21.95

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