I‘ve never been a big reader of music criticism or music journalism, though, as I look back, several of my favorite pieces — insightful, clean, of pertinent interest — have been essays that look at how some piece or style of music reflects and/or transforms culture. When The Library of America’s new volume of music writing, Shake It Up, arrived I was quickly taken in. It gives us a rich collection of fifty pieces of music writing from the last fifty years — and I enjoyed every bit of it.
The collection begins where surely many such collections covering the last fifty years in music would: Bob Dylan. Interestingly, it’s not a contemporary review or conventional article from a critical journal; it’s Nat Hentoff’s liner notes for Dylan’s 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In other words, the first piece in this collection is one that comes before, preparing the land for what’s about to arrive. From there we get Amiri Baraka’s article on R&B, an excellent cultural history and clarion call for African American music; Richard Poirier’s on The Beatles in 1967 after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; Jules Siegel’s on The Beach Boys’ Smile.
The book is also peppered with pieces on individuals who, though not musicians, have deeply influenced the way we receive music. The next piece after Siegel’s is Richard Goldstein’s on the young Dick Clark, called “Master of Mediocrity,” where he talks about Clark’s emergence as “someone who could project, with utter certainty, the spinach culture of the fifties.” This article was written a decade into Clark’s job as the host of American Bandstand, a time when he could reflect “I don’t make culture. I sell it.”
The book also contains analytical pieces about rock music trend in general (like Jessica Hooper’s “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t”), as well as highly personal pieces, like Robert Palmer’s retrospective piece on Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, a piece Palmer wrote in 1995, just over thirty years since Cooke’s premature, tragic killing at the hands of a hotel manager named Bertha Franklin, who shot him and then claimed self-defense.
The New York Dolls, David Bowie, The Cars, Prince, Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, The Ramones, Bruce Springsteen, more of The Beatles, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, and even Barry Manilow: with interesting takes on so many music figures, trends, and events, Shake It Up is a nice, extended dip in the water for a music journalism tourist like myself.