Book Review–Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music
I started reading this book with caution after noting that both authors, David Janssen and Edward Whitelock, are English professors; I feared the prose might be too academic, but while this proves true at times, Jukebox offers an enjoyable tour through the American landscape that has perpetuated apocalyptic anxieties in rock and roll. The fascinating first section, “Apocalypse USA,” details events that converged in the 18th and 19th centuries (the “rain of fire” or meteor shower in Alabama, a “dark day” caused by ash from forest fires, and the Millerite sect’s prediction that the world would end in 1844), creating an American society that has historically been fixated on the “end times.” Combined with nuclear power and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the stage was set for apocalyptic imagery in all facets of pop culture.
The discussions contained in the book are not quite as literal as one might expect from the title; this isn’t a suggested playlist, nor does it attempt a comprehensive catalogue of songs and artists that deal with the end of the world. At times, Janssen and Whitlock delve too heavily into literary criticism: the inherent sexuality of bombs (explosion = ejaculation), competing theories of the grotesque, (which I actually quite enjoyed — I’ve read my Bakhtin like a good little grad student), and the distinctions that must be made between a feminist apocalypse and a masculinist one (still scratching my head over that one). Sometimes the authors get too bogged down in the particulars of symbolism that they lose sight of the matter at hand — the music. Sometimes a bomb is just a bomb.
I was a bit disappointed in the chapter on R.E.M. because the writers attempted to explicate Murmur, an album that critics have already declared impossible to decipher — a fact that the authors themselves spent most of the chapter explaining. The thesis, that the album’s inability to communicate is an apocalyptic act in itself, seems like a stretch. Why take that route, rather than devoting ink to a more overtly apocalyptic work? The final section, titled “Apocalypse After 9/11,” seems promising but it doesn’t deal directly with much music actually written after (or in response to) 9/11. The chapter on Laurie Anderson is engaging, but the songs that she performed during a September 11th concert were written prior to the tragedies. The fact that they seemed “prophetic” in retrospect doesn’t actually prove anything about the influence of eschatology on pop music. The densely theoretical chapter on Sleater-Kinney lost me in its explanations of “anti-apocalypse” and the differences between apocalypses for men and women.
Apocalypse Jukebox was never a dull read even though it frustrated me at times with (what I felt were) thin connections between the music and their supposedly apocalyptic themes. Among the book’s many bright spots was the especially enjoyable chapter on Devo’s art-rock experiments and their “theory” of de-evolution. The discussion of carnivalesque/grotesque imagery in Bob Dylan’s and Leonard Cohen’s albums over the course of their careers also provided a nice overview for someone (sadly, me) who isn’t intimately familiar with their bodies of work. I was surprised when the final chapter, dealing with Green Day’s American Idiot, provided one of the most compelling points in the book. This chapter examines American anxieties about the future generations (particularly in the adolescent phase), from flappers, to hippies, to punks, to our current set of technologically over-saturated teenagers. The sense of apocalypse comes, not only from adults fretting that “kids these days” will destroy the world, but also from adolescents themselves; the young are infantilized well into adulthood (due to both our “youth culture” and the economic necessity of more education before settling down), yet punished by a legal system that recognizes them as adults. The teenager’s sense of walking between two worlds but belonging to neither is the most convincing explanation for the recurrence of apocalyptic (and post-apocalyptic) imagery in pop music. Rock and roll belongs to the rage, desire, and frustrations of teenage rebellion. Jukebox briefly explains Jean Baudrillard’s theory that the end of the world occurs “when meaning ceases to mean anything under the weight of its collective mass over-production.” Any high school student with even the vaguest grasp of existentialism (and a need to “find” himself) can tell you that. I just wish that Janssen and Whitelock had dwelled on this adolescent influence a little longer (and, not to mention, sooner).
I come away from this book with a strong urge to track down a copy of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and Love’s Forever Changes. Apocalypse Jukebox might be a little academic, but in the end (of the world), it’s all about the music, man.