Sunday, January 10, 2021

Music: What Happened? (3rd ed., 2012)

For years, as it waited for me faithfully in my bathroom, I took the title of Scott Miller's history of rock 'n' roll as a playful goof on the Elvis Presley bodyguard tell-all. But reading through it more carefully I realize it's genuinely wistful (and possibly despairing) about the passing of a worldview of pop music rooted in Buddy Holly and the Beatles. Miller was a musician first and recording engineer / producer close second, leader of the bands Game Theory in the '80s and the Loud Family in the '90s, friend to Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey, college roommate of Steve Wynn. Thus he brings a unique and interesting point of view to this rock criticky project of telling the history with annotated lists. Miller goes year by year, from 1957 all the way to 2011 for the third and final edition, listing about a CD's worth of songs for each—they are like personal mix tapes. He has some rules. It's countdown style so his absolute favorites are listed last. The first song is one he feels is somehow emblematic of the year (and he doesn't always like it). And while he complains about rock critics—sometimes with very good points, sometimes not—he more often acts like one, in the stubborn contrarianism of his picks and dimming view of music industry developments. For Miller, it all went bad in the '80s, and while "I Feel Love" shows up on one list it is the various dominations of disco (and then techno) that are his main culprits by name, along with a handful of technical terms such as "DX7." I've heard the complaints about dance music before from other working musicians, but it does make me sad he couldn't hear so much music that I like. On the other hand, he shows an alarming penchant for Broadway show tunes so maybe that makes us even. He also likes R.E.M. a whole lot more than me. But at a certain sweet middle—Beatles, Bowie, Big Star, and This Year's Model—our tastes are well in synch and I see how inspired and acute his picks can be. I was also struck by an idea I've been thinking of as "vectors," the way tastes start at fine points of agreement and then explode into outer space in all directions. For the '50s, '60s, and '70s it's easy to follow along with Miller and I often agree with him emphatically. We part ways at the '80s on disco and R.E.M. and by the 21st-century years I have only some idea what he is talking about. Many of the names I do know—Belle and Sebastian, Guided by Voices, Aimee Mann, the Posies—have been of only marginal interest to me. He loves Tracy Chapman and never mentions the Pet Shop Boys, so whatever. Sometimes I feel quite peevish with him, but I wish he were still around updating. He chose to take his life instead. R.I.P.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic (looks like it might be hard to get at the moment).


  1. Broadway show tunes are a deal-breaker for me.

  2. Yup, pretty much for me too. It's one blind spot I don't work very hard at figuring out.