Introduction to ‘The Aesthetics of Rock’ (1986)

Reading Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock twenty years after first coming across excerpts from it in Crawdaddy! magazine, I’m most of all convinced that the book is not a joke. It was received as a joke, I think, both when those excerpts were published in 1966 and ’67, and when the book itself came out in 1970: a timely (’66) or slightly dated (’70) parody of the then-new (or already-superannuated) form of rock criticism. In 1966 bedazzled college students like myself were helplessly dumping quotes from Plato on Beatle hits and Dylan albums, attempting to make sense of the emotions the music was provoking, trying to talk about the world the music seemed to be changing–chang­ing forever, it seemed, and forever for the better. In the face of all that, Meltzer’s book communicated not only as a joke–others might quote Plato; he’d simultaneously run rock ‘n’ roll through all of Western philosophy, and vice versa, not to mention turning the same trick on the better part of modern art, until you couldn’t tell one from another–the book communicated as a pointedly cynical joke, out of tune with the mandated optimism of late ’60s pop culture. That may be why a lot of people didn’t like it, why it made them feel queasy, creepy. The tones of reverence, gratitude, or religious passivity present in so much of the rock criticism of the time were altogether missing in Meltzer’s pages: he didn’t appear to take anything seriously. He made fun of everything under the sun, collapsing all distinctions, standards, and categories, writing about Tommy James and the Shondells as if they were as epistemologically significant as the Beatles–and in the late ’60s, to rock fans, that was a far more heinous, heretical violation than talking about the Beatles as if they were as interesting as Aristotle. Meltzer, it seemed, reduced everything to self-cancelling blather; the only question was how, or why, he sustained the enterprise through 338 pages.

Well, there are a number of things to add today, twenty years after. Perhaps one should say first that, today, the book reads less like a parody of “then” than an anticipation of “now”: a parody avant la lettre of the currently fashionable application of semiology and deconstruction to popular culture. Semiology and deconstruction are rooted in a disrespect for the object, the art work, the socio-aesthetic event, in a refusal to take such things on their own terms, an insistence that objects and events can be deciphered, broken down, taken apart, and put back together in new ways. In other words, it is now fashionable to refuse to take one’s putative subject matter “seriously.” Meltzer did it all a long time ago, and so, today, The Aesthetics of Rock does not read like an artifact of some vanished time, but like an oddly energized version of real cool academic discourse. And since semiology and deconstruction at once call for the abolition of rules and generate their own, and because Meltzer’s book does the former but not the latter, it will soon be, in certain circles, the coolest book to be seen carrying. Be there or be square.

Of course, all that means is that twenty years from now The Aesthetics of Rock may be an item as dated as one might have thought it would be already–and I don’t think it will be. So we have to go back to the question of actually reading the thing: to the question of what it says, of what it’s about (if it’s about anything–in ’66 or ’70, a lot of people were sure it wasn’t). We have to go back to the notion that the book is not a joke–even though it is full of jokes, even though its unfailingly funny, sometimes manic, less a “discourse” than a stand-up comedy routine or a bleary-eyed rant, built on puns, shaggy dog stories, allusions that lead nowhere, elisions that only pull their own slipknots, countless sentences meandering into dead-end streets where the reader is forced to page back through the book in search of a map that isn’t there. “Rock ‘n’ roll,” he says in The Aesthetics of Rock, always contains and always implies “a substratum of comedy… All significant references to man’s ‘serious’ nature are compiled on top of this joke.” And that’s how the book works, too.

* * * * *

Meltzer begins his philosophical account of rock ‘n’ roll, his rock ‘n’ roll account of philosophy, with the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is a “totality”: as a “world in itself,” rock ‘n’ roll can be considered as if it were “itself the world.” Weighed down by a hundred pounds of philosophy books that he jokes about in order to keep them on his back as he walks, Meltzer talks about rock ‘n’ roll just like any obsessed fan: as if it were the only thing in the world worth talk­ing about, the only thing that mattered, as if it can and does contain every variant of truth and lie, as if it’s capable of generating versions of every experience and fantasy. Rock as a totality is the world in a grain of sand: in the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” or Tommy James and the Shondells’ “I Think We’re Alone Now.”

Starting with this premise (thrown away, like everything else in the book, like the best rock ‘n’ roll lines), Meltzer soon enough turns the premise back on itself, ties it into a slipknot that, for some reason, the reader can’t pull: “Quine has noted, ‘The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.’ The unit of rock significance is the whole of rock ‘n’ roll.” This is a very complicated pun, too complicated to catch right away, given the reader’s-impatience factor Meltzer plays upon as he rushes through the book; as a throwaway, it deserves a pause.

Quine is saying that science can be reduced to empiricism: the rational verification of hypotheses that hold still while experiments are performed on them. Science is facts, and that’s all it is. But at the time Meltzer was writing, Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, had already proven that Quine’s claim was nonsense, and Meltzer surely knew it. Kuhn’s argument was that great scientific discoveries were powered by irrational impulses, and so was the acceptance or rejection of those discoveries. Science, Kuhn said, was sort of like real life: part predictable fact, and part poker. You couldn’t turn a pair of deuces into a great speckled bird (unless you were very drunk), but a pair of deuces could beat three kings. Thus Meltzer’s reversal of Quine’s reductionist formula through a simple play on words: if “the unit of rock significance is the whole of rock ‘n’ roll,” then any rock ‘n’ roll song, to be significant (and, in The Aesthetics of Rock, all are), must contain and imply all of rock ‘n’ roll. Rock is its own world, and it is the world: as “I Am the Walrus” contains and implies the emotional and musical poverty of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “I Think We’re Alone Now” contains and implies the luxuria (the linguistic gluttony, the aesthetic narcissism, the musical excess) of “I Am the Walrus.” What’s going on is that, in Meltzer’s book, rock ‘n’ roll songs begin to talk to each other, to quarrel and argue, to fight over the terrain they share–just like real people, in real life.

The results of Meltzer’s punning link up with another throw­away: “Rock is the brute actualization where all earlier art is potential.” That is, as one hears rock ‘n’ roll, as one responds to a hit on the radio or a new 1p in the living room, rock ‘n’ roll is “ac­tually happening”–as opposed to previous aesthetic events, representations or dramatizations of what did or didn’t happen, of what is or could be. Listening to “I Am the Walrus” or “I Think We’re Alone Now” (or the Searchers’ “Ain’t That Just Like Me,” B-side of their 1964 chart-topper “Needles and Pins,” a completely forgotten performance by 1965, and a crucial disc in The Aesthetics of Rock), who hasn’t felt this “brute actualization” of what is, of what could be, at stake? Who hasn’t felt this totality to be not simply represented, not simply dramatized (never mind that rock ‘n’ roll is an “art form,” trading in representation and dramatization), but actually happening?

Now, the question is, just what is actualized? Meltzer: “J. L. Austin, in ‘A Plea for Excuses,’ advocates the reconstruction of aesthetics by collecting all terms germane to the appreciation of art. A selection for the rock vocabulary might proceed as follows: incongruous, trivial, mediocre, banal, insipid, maudlin, abominable, trite, redundant, repulsive, ugly, innocuous, crass, incoherent, vulgar, tasteless, sour, boring. [Only] when it is seen that such expressions have allowed for… a widening for form and content” can more conventional “terms be brought near the rock context vocabulary: poignant, sincere, beautiful, etc.” Note Meltzer’s first word in the rock vocabulary: “incongruous.” According to his picture, in rock ‘n’ roll (“trivial,” “banal,” “redundant,” “boring,” etc.–and Meltzer means all of those words)  nothing should be possible, every attempt at significance should be immediately contradicted by vapidity–and so, in rock ‘n’ roll, for anything to be possible suggests that, in truth, anything is possible. Anything can be said; anything can be done, especially if rock ‘n’ roll as art is a “brute actualization,” where to say is to do. This is the totality: rock is the world.

If anything is possible, then all categories, which are false, empiricist restrictions on what one can say, on what one can do, collapse; then they reform in strange, new ways. “Why not judge art by its sheer stubbornness, defiance of any and all objectification?” Meltzer writes. “The categories ‘pony tail rock’ (the group the Poni-Tails; ‘What Is Love?’, which describes this emotion as ‘five feet of heaven in a pony tail’; ‘Chantilly Lace,’ with its reference to the hair piece as a criterion of socio-sexual ade­quacy), ‘fear-of-loss-of-being rock’ (‘Going Out of My Head’; ‘Remember’; Dion and the Belmonts’ absolutely obscure ‘I Can’t Go on Rosalie’) and ‘march rock’ (Little Peggy March; the beat of ‘Never Dance Again’; the tympani of ‘Every Little Thing’; ‘Calendar Girl,’ which declares, ‘March, I’m gonna march you down the aisle’) are as valid as such categories as ‘folk-rock’, ‘Motown,’ ‘soul music’…”

Such a way of breaking down and recombining the totality of rock ‘n’ roll, or the totality of life as it is or could be lived, is what The Aesthetics of Rock is all about–and it is all, and exactly, what rock criticism, through its attempts to decipher representations and dramatizations, to affirm them as brute actualizations of what is or could be, has struggled towards–and avoided–since Meltzer wrote. This is why, and how, he found the energy to follow his putative subject matter through 338 pages. The book is like a dense piece of music–re-reading it, you’re startled by how much you never noticed the first or second time through. What strikes you as remarkable is not how long the book is (and it is still, I think, the longest book of rock criticism ever published, one page longer than Dave Marsh’s Fortunate Son), but how short; not how much Meltzer got in (is there another book on rock ‘n’ roll that mentions, let alone actually talks about, the Searchers’ “Ain’t That Just Like Me”?), but how much he left out–how, and why, he ever stopped.

Meltzer confronts the confusion of rock ‘n’ roll, of real life, the refusal of both to speak in a manner than can be reduced to a unit of empirical significance: “Rock is the greatest intentionally organized junkyard multiplicity with possible recovery of anything as an element in the crud; and yet the whole thing itself is on the same level as anything hidden now or forever or a week or just gone or just there on top of wow on top of or almost visible through the dead goat’s mouth… Words out of step with phrasing, phrasing just sort of sorted out from the musical debris, no line-to-line consistency, no maintenance of the integrity of individual parts, words given on the album cover to only six out of nine songs, words clear enough only when on their own, and never when fulfilling their conglomerate function, pairs of transitionally indistinguishable songs clumped together as ‘medleys’, etc…”

Rock is a totality: it contains, or implies that it can contain, all varieties of experience. But because it refuses–or is, by some muse-given-or-taken-away impulse, unable–to talk straight, it collapses its own status as “art.” Rock collapses into what Meltzer calls the “Quotidian.” If rock ‘n’ roll is “art” in The Aesthetics of Rock, it is a marginal, impulsive version of art: a version of everyday life, which is what “Quotidian” means. Meltzer:

Power is everywhere, it is to be found in orderings of experience which somehow are (merely) visible, and my silly objective labels, such as orgasmic monotony, are as applicable to that which is visible as are Nietzsche’s silly objective labels, tragic, Apollonian, Dionysian. Nietzsche fears the nausea of confrontation with the Quotidian world: rock ‘n’ roll ignores it, inhabits it, spreads it, enhances it. But most definitely rock has expanded man’s potential to experience this realm, where all objective analysis is equally applicable and equally wrong.

Paging back from this two-thirds-of-the-way-through-the-book passage, you realize that Meltzer’s approach to the “Quotidian,” his revelation of the centrality of everyday life to rock ‘n’ roll and vice versa, allows him, as a critic, to get at the significance of things other rock critics can still barely talk about–or to endow those things with significance when it seems obvious they have none. Everyday life is a realm of pettiness, of mindless habit, of repetition (of, as Meltzer counts down “the rock vocabulary,” the “trivial, mediocre, banal, insipid…”). In Meltzer’s book these qualities take on flesh, and they bleed–they come to life. The most “trivial, mediocre, banal, insipid” elements of art and life become interesting, and mysterious: a choice of one word over another, turns of phrase, 1p covers (which are versions of TV commercials, billboards, of the coded social pictures to which we respond or from which we turn away), screams, silences, moments of inexplicable brilliance in a fog of stupidity, or vice versa. This is what Meltzer is looking for–the collapse of art in­to everyday life, and vice versa. And this may be why there is virtually no “music writing” in The Aesthetics of Rock. Meltzer almost never talks about what instruments do, about sound; it’s all words, voicings (Meltzer calls them “tongues”), gestures (“moves”). The way you walk and the way you talk. Everyday life.

The Aesthetics of Rock is, along with whatever else it is, both the best and most obsessive book about the Beatles ever written; if rock is a totality, the Beatles, here, are the totality of the totality. (“Beatles’,” Meltzer says, “nearly became established as an official category rather than ‘rock’.”) Thus it makes perfect sense that Meltzer’s whole, willfully disconnected argument comes to a verge with the release of the ultimate Beatle album, the 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band:

So, as expected, it had to be the Beatles themselves to do the job of (one-more-time) summing up the recent by summing up the whole thing

–rock ‘n’ roll; everyday life; the world—

in a soft cataclysmic combination of death, sleep and multiplicity/variety, as if they hadn’t done it before (every album beginning with Beatles ’65, Beatles for Sale in England, or maybe it was already going on album-wise with A Hard Day’s Night or earlier), so this time it would have to be a really real end-of-culture/end-of-the-world thing. And that’s precisely what Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was/is. Bringing with it the consequent death of art forever (until someone forgets) and subsequent everybody-influenced-by-everybody-but-particularly-the-Beatles-and-Sgt. Pepper, eventually dispersing it everywhere and thus inevitably devaluing the specific Sgt. Pepper focal point.

What Meltzer means, I think, is that Sgt. Pepper‘s apotheosis of rock-as-art, contradicted by rock’s existence as no more than a brute actualization of everyday life, produced an explosion. The contradiction of “art” as superior to everyday life–when the art work in question was only the apotheosis of a form that, as “art,” was merely a version of the “Quotidian,” of everyday life–was like nuclear fission. With Sgt. Pepper, art-was-dead because it suddenly ceased to exist as a realm separate from everyday life–as a unit of significance distant from it. The record was so alive, so surprising, that people suddenly lived their everyday lives with a new intensity. They walked down their streets as if they had never seen them before. They didn’t necessarily connect that experience to the appearance of Sgt. Pepper just as they had not necessarily connected the dulling of their streets to the presence of bad songs, or the vitalization of those streets to the presence of good ones. Meltzer made the connection, with “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Ain’t That Just Like Me” no less than with Sgt. Pepper. The death of art is what rock ‘n’ roll, as the brute actualization, had aimed for from the beginning; from the beginning, rock ‘n’ roll had meant to change “art” into everyday speech. In The Aesthetics of Rock, you can hear it happen. But then the triumph was forgotten; art went back to “art”; everyday life went back to banality. Such is the history, the prophecy, the thrill, and the tragedy summed up in The Aesthetics of Rock.

* * * * *

Rock ‘n’ roll goes on; Richard Meltzer no longer writes about it. He writes about architecture, the Navy, whatever interests him. All I have presented here is a way of reading a book he wrote long ago, which still speaks a language that has yet to be recuperated: that has yet to be made well, made healthy, brought back into the fold of what is socially and aesthetically OK. Meltzer’s insistence on leveling–his insistence, his proof, that “I Think We’re Alone Now” is as significant as “I Am the Walrus”–remains subversive of what most of us think, do, want, settle for. We still live by means of the categories he wrote Aesthetics of Rock to destroy. The idea of “march rock”–the idea that a category as valid as “soul music” could be made out of “March,” a singer’s last name, a beat, an orchestration, “March,” the month, and “march,” the verb (a coded collapse and reformation of categories the likes of which the most extreme exponents of semiology and deconstruction have yet to fool with)–has yet to be recuperated.

If I’ve offered one way of reading The Aesthetics of Rock, there are many others. But there is one moment in the book I can’t help but return to: another throwaway. In a paragraph beginning “Speaking of Foreshadowing,” Meltzer writes: “Chuck Berry’s ‘Rock and Roll Music’ predicts in 1957 the later outbreak of African nationalism, ‘It’s way too early for the congo/So keep a-rockin’ that piano’.” Reading Meltzer, you listen back in your mind to the song; you realize Chuck Berry should have said (meant to say?) (did say?) “the conga” (in 1957, a popular dance–“too early” would refer to “too early in the evening”). But you know Chuck Berry didn’t say “conga.” He said “congo.” Why? How? Richard Meltzer’s book is the only book of rock criticism that makes such a question possible; that makes it ob­vious; that makes it real. And the question of why he stopped asking such questions becomes a challenge: rock ‘n’ roll goes on and, as you read The Aesthetics of Rock, you keep asking what it says.
–Greil Marcus, Berkeley, CA, November, 1986


From the Da Capo reissue of Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock, 1986
aesthetics of rock - richard meltzer


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