Commentary Magazine

Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, edited by Greil Marcus

Trash Theory

Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island.
by Greil Marcus.
Knopf. 305 pp. $12.95.

Popular music in America now outgrosses the combined revenue of movies, theater, opera, ballet, and sport. The recording industry produces 1,000 new songs each week, the sole purpose being for a few to become hits and make money. It is a staggeringly competitive business, for the profits are staggeringly high: in 1979, sales of LP and single records totaled $2.5 billion. With sales of taped cartridges of record albums added to this figure, total revenues approach $3.25 billion.

Apart from rejuvenating the entertainment industry, rock has spawned a variety of auxiliary industries and professions that are all set in motion, like the many cogs in a wheel, when companies undertake to produce and market a record. Among them are publicists, promoters, agents, engineers, and technicians, not to mention the musicians, arrangers, and songwriters. One would be hard put to select the one or two individuals centrally responsible for a given record’s success; all the people involved seem to be vital components of the complex and tightly organized business of making a hit.

“Rock criticism” is another ancillary endeavor of the pop music industry, but it has a unique and curious relation to that industry. Started about fifteen years ago in publications like Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, it distinguished itself from its more gossipy counterpart found in the standard rock press (“fan”) magazines by claims to seriousness, literacy, and a high degree of perception and judgment. Indeed, rock criticism not only sees itself as existing altogether outside the commercial establishment of rock, it even sees rock as essentially something other than a product of the entertainment industry. In writing about a record, a rock critic will attempt to evaluate it through an interpretation and analysis of, among other things, its musical influences, the personal or political sentiments expressed in the lyrics, its production techniques, and the persona of the “artist.” The critic often finds an integrated “meaning” in rock and roll devised by the supremely self-conscious imagination of the rocker and having a far-ranging aesthetic, political, or cultural significance.

Stranded consists of twenty essays of rock criticism by its leading practitioners, each of whom was asked by the editor, Greil Marcus, to discourse on the one record he would take to a desert island. Because rock criticism has never developed a standardized format or language, the book exhibits a variety of approaches. John Rockwell of the New York Times, for example, writes a piece of passionate advocacy for Linda Rondstadt, based for the most part on his intimacy with that singer. M. Mark, arts editor of the Village Voice, compares an album by Van Morrison with the poetry of Yeats. Ariel Swartley, a rock critic from Boston, discusses the “deliberate insularity” of Bruce Springsteen. Grace Lichtenstein, another Village Voice writer, interprets her favorite record wholly in reference to her own “personal associations.” Tom Smucker takes a historical slant, condemning the “rip-off” of black gospel singers by white performers, while Simon Frith, a sociologist from the University of Warwick in England, analyzes a record by the Rolling Stones in terms of class conflict. One contributor, Dave Marsh, makes up a fantasy album consisting entirely of songs about masturbation.

Wherever they start, however, and wherever they end up, all these critics subject their “artists” to blisteringly high scrutiny. They focus on every tiny and apparently inconsequential detail of music, lyric, and persona, discovering in each case an extraordinarily high level of self-consciousness and intentionality. Examples may be found on nearly any page in Stranded. Writing about a particularly inept group called the New York Dolls, Robert Christgau remarks that one guitar player’s “mistakes are indistinguishable from his inspirations. Each of his solos and comments and background noises on these albums is a point in an infinite series of magically marginal differentiations.” Another guitarist “exploited . . . a continuous, imprecise finger action,” thus creating “a primordial totality . . . of electric noise,” to which he nevertheless “gave shape and idiosyncrasy and a sense of humor.” The bass player “aimed for self-transcendence” with “a passionate inaccuracy . . . his ordinariness . . . provided a modicum of conceptual stability.” And the bungling drummer, according to Christgau, “played with obliging modernist steadiness.”

One would never know from reading Christgau and his fellow contributors that the commercial product they are seeking to explain, which at its best can be powerfully affecting, is also consistently unoriginal and simple-minded, being constructed from a limited but seemingly forever renewable group of melodies, riffs, and techniques stolen from older rock, blues, jazz, even classical compositions. Rock usually fails to rejuvenate the materials it borrows, and even when it is very good it fails to create anything significantly larger than the sum of its borrowed parts. Indeed it is questionable whether a greater degree of experimentation and diversity would actually make for more interesting rock, since real rock and roll (the kind that does not attempt to move beyond the conventions of the form) properly defeats the impulse to complexity for the sake of immediacy and emotional directness. Where a forced complexity does exist, it is always mannered, undanceable, often unsellable, and not really rock and roll at all.

Interestingly, the gulf that the critics like to establish between themselves and the industry is paralleled by the chasm they create between themselves and the music. The critics write the way they do because they seem unable to address the fact that rock is nothing more than the product of an industry whose purpose is to provide entertainment—not self-conscious art—to consumers for profit. Nor can they admit that the appeal of rock lies in its ability to suggest certain unanalyzable emotions of a personal, subjective, and above all sexual nature: hence its function as dance music. What the music offers its listeners on this level is completely lost when it is “criticized.” As one unusually honest critic says in his Stranded essay: “It wouldn’t be fair for me to impose my interpretation of such lapidarily subjective imagery on you, and . . . in many cases I don’t really know what [the singer] is talking about.”

In the book’s last piece, Ed Ward, former record editor of Rolling Stone, enters a dissenting opinion on the enterprise of rock criticism, indicting his fellow contributors for having “wasted their talents on trash and ephemera.” As to the trash and ephemera, there can be no question that this is an accurate assessment. As to the talent, although some rock critics do have demonstrable literary gifts, the fact that they have expended so much energy and have made such heavy critical weather of so impoverished a body of material does not speak well for their powers of judgment. And this is stating the case at its kindest.

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