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The Pop-Boho Connection: History as Discourse, or Is It the Other Way Around?

By Bernard Gendron
University of Chicago Press

For anyone who cares about the history of pop--and also, in a better world, anyone who cares about the history of the avant-garde--Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club has a big story to tell. Popular music is generally identified with the rise of song publishing and piano manufacture in the mid 19th century. But starting in the 1880s, artists and other fringe-dwelling weirdos have been active as pop performers, composers, impresarios, and entrepreneurs. Gendron aims to turn all these interrelationships into a single coherent narrative.

His organizing conceit locates the relevant connections first in modernist Paris (section title: "Pop Into Art") and then, at greater length, in postmodernist New York ("Art Into Pop"). He posits five stages: bohemian cabaret and '20s jazz as misapprehended in Paris by Milhaud and Cocteau, then bebop, the canonization of the Beatles, and New York punk/new wave and postpunk/no wave. That bebop is no more "postmodernist" than Abstract Expressionism isn't the only flaw in the schema--swing was far more aestheticized than Gendron acknowledges, the hippie ballrooms of San Francisco get short shrift, etc. But Gendron doesn't pretend to touch all the bases, and deserves thanks for tackling a topic no one else has ever gotten near. His research has been prodigious; I learned hundreds of things. But I was left in the dark about many others, and in what is always a dismaying pattern, found that the more I knew about any subject, the less I thought Gendron did.

Piquantly, Gendron levels an arsenal of Big Concepts at what the average snob would judge a minor cultural byway. Pierre Bourdieu's notion of "cultural capital," in which status traders valorize works of art and styles of connoisseurship to augment their own social and economic power, underlies Gendron's entire analysis. Andreas Huyssen's essential distinction between the "high modernism" of the 1930s and '40s, which was "unrelentingly hostile to mass culture," and "historical avant-gardes" (especially Dada) that were friendly to it, is adduced most explicitly in an endnote but fruitfully fleshed out in the text. Primitivism enters in '20s Paris, which inspires a chapter called "Negrophilia" and informs the bebop chapter before petering out into scattered animadversions in the rock section; notions of the folk and the traditional also come into play. Gendron's own useful terminological contribution is the "secondary practice," which encompasses all the public lifestyles, presentational paraphernalia, venue stylings, and promotional ploys that inflect--symbiotically, he emphasizes--the meaning of the art they touch. Most important of all, however, is the Foucauldian notion of "discourse."

I know a great deal about the histories of bohemia and popular music, and was present at the creation for most of the last half of the book, having personally participated in "The Cultural Accreditation of the Beatles" and, as music editor of The Village Voice, overseen a fair portion of the discourse Gendron cites in re postmodernist New York--that is, "downtown," a neighborhood and state of mind I have made my home since 1964. I'm far less intimate with Foucault and the vagaries of discourse studies. But I do know this--although it hasn't disappeared, and shouldn't, discourse studies, in which disparate written materials and cultural artifacts are read and deconstructed as expressions of a hegemonic ideology, has faded as an academic fashion. Gendron, who seems to have conceived this book in the heyday of this analytic method and then been stuck with it as such old-fashioned fantasias as history and aesthetics staged their comebacks, is unlikely to inspire a revival. Even though some of what little history he does essay is wrong, he would have been better off writing more of it. And though he claims to be down with the aesthetics revival, he's way too cautious to convey much about what specific pieces of music mean, how they sound, or whether they're any good.

Gendron is strongest historically and aesthetically at the very beginning, in two chapters on artistic cabarets, which he traces to the outlawed working-class goguettes banned by Louis Napoleon and to the protoshowbiz café-concerts that came after. Then, in 1881, Paris's Chat Noir kicked off a complex and colorful tale replete with bitter rivalries, outrageous self-promotions, hype, burnouts, sellouts, turf wars, and flashes in the pan. Gendron even gives some notion of what "the song of Montmartre" might have sounded like, although a few contemporary analogies would have added spice (it's my fancy that Chat Noir pioneer Maurice Rollinat was the Nick Cave of his day), as would a fuller analysis of the scene's great pop crossover, careerist-provocateur Aristide Bruant. Nevertheless, the story remains quite concrete, most likely owing to a dearth of primary discourse--the relatively modest volume of cafe-published newspapers and mainstream commentary, which forced Gendron to rely on memoirs and other people's scholarship. All too soon he won't need them.

Although it's odd that Gendron's account of '20s jazz in Paris should peak before jazz was recorded by black Americans, and before the so-called Jazz Age (which was really a Pop Age), Milhaud's misbegotten ballet score La Création du Monde has the illustrative virtue of demonstrating how shallow and uncomprehending this prophetic early avant-garde (and French) attraction to (American) pop was. Gendron recounts events as well as rhetoric, and when he details Cocteau's asinine racial pronunciamentos, he names the man rather than pretending he's the zeitgeist. By the time of bebop, however, his interest is not the antithetical twin reactions against the truisms of swing--the mind-bending harmonies and rhythms of bebop versus the body-slamming beats and sounds of r&b. Instead he pits the proudly progressive critical champions of the bop cool cats against the putatively populist champions of a half-imagined New Orleans revival. This is OK as far as it goes--both tensions are pretty rich. But I kept wishing he'd characterize the principals. Shouldn't it be noted that moldy fig Orrin Keepnews turned into a major postbop producer? And Keepnews's critical ally Ernest Borneman seems pretty smart even though he was wrong. Is his writing of, pardon me, lasting value?

Onward to the '60s, where Gendron renders the glorious sprawl that was mid-'60s pop as a saga of cultural upward mobility in which the Beatles first won over key middlebrows in 1965, and then, after a media lull Gendron makes too much of, got decisive if fickle highbrow props from Ned Rorem and Richard Poirier while begetting rock criticism, which, as he points out, has from the first challenged the genteel presumptions of the Beatles' earlier status providers. Gendron has a right to emphasize the Beatles, especially since he doesn't dismiss Dylan's major pop-into-art role. But he ignores some crucial questions. Didn't something about the '60s as a whole--beyond Gendron's plausible but offhand and unresearched guess that magazines were cosseting a new young-adult market--help inspire these aesthetic developments and reevaluations? Isn't it possible the Beatles were hailed as great artists because, terminology aside, something like that is what they were? Are hindsight-equipped academics the only ones who can perceive such truths? Which reminds me, *were* the Beatles great artists, or whatever we call them these days? Or is it incorrect even to ask?

Gendron makes a welcome exception to the basic strategy of discourse studies, which is to obviate the agency of the discoursers--his three-page summation does Lester Bangs more justice as a "theoretician" than Jim DeRogatis's entire biography. Other combatants in the punk wars are ID'd--Creem's Dave Marsh, Who Put the Bomp's Greg Shaw, Punk's John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil. But for the very reason that Gendron has read every word of New York Rocker and all the relevant Times, Voice, and SoHo Weekly News coverage, his '70s research gets the best of him. Where the best discourse studies deconstruct substantial passages, Gendron's annoying practice of clunking up the workaday rhythms of his exposition with the print equivalent of soundbites--a catchphrase, a clause, if we're lucky a sentence--impinges drastically on his flow toward the end. And by now we're in discourse-land, with authors annotated but rarely named in the text. Only by paging back to the notes will you discover that among these anonymous ideologueurs are many critics of considerably more distinction than Gendron: MacArthur winner Dave Hickey, National Magazine Award winner Tom Carson, and such renowned journalistic toilers as John Rockwell, James Wolcott, and the late Robert Palmer.

Another generally unnamed star is Roy Trakin, a Soho Weekly News and New York Rocker stalwart who was the only major byline back then regularly to take up the cudgels for the postpunk avant-noise tendency labeled no wave (although many excellent critics honored parts of it and still do; Palmer was a supporter). Trakin has long since recanted--he did say it was the future of all music, after all--and has logged 16 years at the in-your-face trade magazine Hits, to which he lends much irreverent attitude. I didn't remember his quitting Soho for the Rocker, a historical detail to which Gendron attaches significance, so I called him up, and double-checked with Rocker headman Andy Schwartz. Admittedly, both are acquaintances, but both are also affable guys who would happily have chewed Gendron's ear off--and both were certain no such switch occurred. Then I asked Trakin whether I had really "bloodied" James Chance of the Contortions that night I sat on him at Artists Space (details available upon request), which isn't how I or two other witnesses remember it; he allowed as how a little hyperbole never hurts a description. Gendron has me bloodying Chance, and so in academia it shall ever be. I guess I should be proud. As for that moment when the Voice stopped calling pop reviews "Riffs" and subsumed them under the rubric "Music," which Gendron cites as an example of rock's elevation into art's empyreal realms, does it matter that the change was instituted--imposed, in fact--by a design director who declared section heads like "Riffs" guilty of "clutter"?

Hegemonically, ideologically, it's conceivable that the answer is no. But though hegemony and ideology--and discourse too--are powerful ideas that have changed the way anyone reading this conceives the world, inconvenient inconsistencies such as those I've just noted should remind us that these ideas, too, have serious limitations as analytic and explanatory tools. All too often, Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club falls victim to them.

Bookforum, June 2002