Akiva Gottlieb considers what we might learn from 1989's playlist. 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About Joshua Clover University of California Press Dh88 In certain intellectual circles, it wouldn't be outlandish to provisionally designate 2009 as "The Year We Remembered 1989". With more than a few walls collapsing- or, more accurately, being foreclosed upon - the historicising of the fabled End of History felt like an urgent undertaking. Chalk it up to nostalgia for the triumph of capitalism in the year when capitalism went to hell (and back). In the New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash grappled with at least nine new books about the period, but admitted: "I come away dreaming of another book: the global, synthetic history of 1989 that remains to be written."The professor, critic and poet Joshua Clover's 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About isn't that book, but it will at least point historians toward a killer soundtrack.
Packaged as an amalgam of academic dissertation and speculative conversation, Clover's synthesis of pop music and cultural studies throws down the gauntlet on page one: "THIS IS NOT A HISTORY BOOK." His idea is to revisit "1989" the concept (as distinct from the calendar year) through the anglophone popular music of the era: in other words, the most exciting - and borderline frivolous - undergraduate seminar you never took. The book justifies its fascination with the disposable by arguing that, as of 1989, "history is now itself pop, and pop history". To stall the reader's scepticism, Clover emphasises that the superficial is the whole point; he seeks nothing more than "a decisively coherent understanding, a pop worldview, which echoes, and even reproduces, the basic logic of the moment".
Clover's logical gambit is that our historical memory of 1989's upheaval is entirely talismanic: the Fall of the Wall is a spectacle, an infinitely reproducible image-event, a monolithic shared euphoria as potent as a pop song. In pop music at the end of the 1980s, worn-out musical ideas were giving way to newly minted, generally depoliticised forms. The confrontational black nationalism of Public Enemy was giving way to the insularity of NWA's gangsta rap, and in Britain, acid house's Second Summer of Love resurrected the druggy euphoria of the sixties while ditching the politics. Grunge, typified by the psychological interiority of Nirvana, redirected the energy of punk rock into shame and introspection. On mainstream pop radio, one heard about the "wind of change" (Scorpions), was instructed to "listen to your heart" (Roxette), and shared the wavelength of a global community "watching the world wake up from history" (Jesus Jones). The events of the century were reduced to a catalogue of decontextualised headlines in Billy Joel's number one hit, "We Didn't Start the Fire", which rhymed "Communist bloc" with "Rock Around the Clock".
Clover's clearest passion is for lyrical analysis. He can be incisive: the unpacking of Nirvana's "All Apologies" as a catalogue of grunge tropes makes one long for a book-length annotated Cobain. And cheeky: Of the Divinyls' timeless self-love anthem "I Touch Myself", Clover notes the "delight in over-reading the conceptual relation of this figure to the end of a divided Europe; to the reunified Germany once again touching itself". And imprecise: His reading of Nine Inch Nails' 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, as a spiteful rejoinder to acid house's detached utopianism depends on a slight misreading of "Head Like a Hole". "God money let's go dancing on the backs of the bruised" is the actual lyric; Clover mistakenly hears the materialist-tinted "backs of the poor."
Combined with ready access to YouTube, 1989 can be a lot of fun. And Clover deserves points for the earnestness of his endeavour; he really believes that the mass experience of pop music represents a struggle, mirroring that of any historian, to "grab hold of the moment". Sometimes he overreaches, as with his comparison of central Europe's disunification from the Eastern bloc to the acid house genre's own dissolution, or the too-tidy conceit that after the late-eighties legal crusade against hip-hop sampling, "the criminalisation of rap [would return] as the rap of criminalisation". But I was impressed by his revelation that the official death of vinyl on the Billboard charts occurred the very week that German partition ended. In the end, Clover efficiently and entertainingly pins down pop's apparent desire for ahistoricality at a particular historic moment.
That said, pop will always eat itself, and exists to resist all social categorisation. Despite the lyric in Jesus Jones's Right Here Right Now that lends this book its subtitle, Bob Dylan actually did have 1989 to sing about, and did indeed sing about it. Consider his 1989 album Oh Mercy, and especially the present tense anxiety of its opening track: "We live in a political world / Where peace is not welcome at all / It's turned away from the door to wander some more / Or put up against the wall." There it is, hiding in plain sight: a prescient hint that even the end of history wouldn't kill the protest song.
Akiva Gottlieb is a contributor to The Nation and the Los Angeles Times.