Like many of you, I’ve always been a sucker for books about rock music, either about the music itself (e.g. Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting and Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell’s classic The Worst Rock & Roll Records of All Time, which desperately needs a sequel) or the bands who make it (hell, I even read the Steely Dan biography). So when our pals at 125 Records got in touch to see if I’d be interested in reviewing Scott Miller’s new book, Music: What Happened?, they didn’t need to twist my arm.
If you’ve read some of the recent crop of list books, like 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die or Toby Creswell’s encyclopedic but rather lame 1001 Songs, you already have an idea of what Music: What Happened? is all about — basically, Miller took a Web series he’d written about the greatest songs of the rock era and turned it into a book, presented as a series of year-by-year “mixtapes.” It clearly isn’t intended to be comprehensive; it’s just Miller giving you one guy’s opinion, in surprisingly moving prose. This is both a blessing and a curse.
Essentially, your enjoyment of the book will boil down to how you feel about Miller’s taste in music and, to a slightly lesser extent, how you feel about Miller as an author. This is why, for me, Music: What Happened? was a more enjoyable read than, say, 1001 Songs — but it’s also why I struggled with fairly major portions of the book, because like most of us, Miller has a definite generational perspective of pop music, and he (obviously) isn’t shy about sharing it. His tastes are what define the text, but they also lead him into a briar patch of disappointingly dismissive entries between the late ’70s and the early ’90s. Give Miller points for being honest up front (as he says early in the book, “I’m not selling my value as an authority; I’m selling my ability to honestly disclose my real perspective”), but if you don’t think music kinda sucked in the ’80s and you aren’t a huge fan of, say, the dB’s, the book’s back half might be sort of a rough slog for you.
That being said, there’s plenty of great stuff before you get there. Miller starts his survey in 1957, and when it comes to writing about the music of his youth, he’s pretty mesmerizing; he manages to mix chatty first-person perspective with thoughtful analysis like this passage, about “Jailhouse Rock”: “rock and roll at its best is an enlightening synthesis of Western culture that makes life a party that no one isn’t invited to.” Or this one, about Del Shannon’s “Runaway”: “a familiar lost love theme becomes a tangible concern for the well-being of another, and the bittersweet mystery of new beginnings.”
But once we’re out of the ’70s — and out of the golden era for so many listeners of Miller’s generation — his eloquent enthusiasm starts to wane, until he’s issuing half-hearted apologies for including tracks like Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” That isn’t to say the rest of the book is a total wash. In the chapter for 1999, for instance, Miller includes the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” summing up the entire modern pop/American Idol era neatly: “The passage from a variety show world to a reality show world entails the corollary that we’ve entered an era where there is actually far less demand to see a top singer perform on TV than there is to see amateurs audition for a chance to participate in the star-making machinery that would theoretically result in that aforementioned TV appearance.” Smart, no?
All in all, it’s a decidedly uneven book, but one whose peaks are higher than its valleys are low, and at $15 for the paperback (or a killer $4.99 for the Kindle edition), it’s an entertaining read that doesn’t require a significant investment. Just keep an eye on your wallet when it comes to adding the songs Miller loves to your collection — the bastard cost me at least $10 before he was finished talking about the ’50s.
- Fluxblog Interview With Scott Miller (fluxblog.org)