Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A Change is Gonna Come

My latest random book read was A Change Is Gonna Come : Music, Race, and the Soul of America (1998) by Craig Werner. In this book, Werner discusses black music in America and its relation to the political and social movements from the 1960s through the 1990s. Although I found much of the content of this book to be interesting, Werner's writing style threw up a big brick wall that I had a hard time getting beyond as I read the book. Plus I stopped halfway through to read Harry Potter.

So, here are some of my problems:

Werner is obviously qualified to write this book. He is a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin, and has written many books and articles in this subject area. He is also a white guy from the Midwest and (from some asides in the book) appears to be an ex-hippie. This shouldn't disqualify him from writing a book about black music in America, but because of the nature of the book (often informal, drawing broad conclusions about artists intentions, social movements, cultural views), I think his personality (including his race, age, and experiences) should be more integrated into the book and not just mentioned in passing in the preface. And it made me cringe on more than one occasion when he told us how black people were feeling at a certain time and place, without citing any actual black people.

Werner is a little overly dependent on a few key metaphors to tie his narrative together: primarily "the moan" (as in the gospel moan), and "call and response." Does everything related to all African-American music really have to be brought back to call and response? Even Phil Spector gets the metaphorical treatment:

"... [t]here wasn't much real call and response between Spector and his singers. In the end, that left Spector himself isolated and blue. When Spector's musical genius passed over the borderline into paranoid silence and isolation, no one was in a position to call him back." (p. 40)

This quote is also a pretty good example of the overly enthusiastic prose that Werner falls into over and over again -- particularly at the beginning or end of a chapter, or when he is trying to transition between one thing and another. He makes these sweepingly broad statements using really florid and awkward language, and often tries to fit in one of his key metaphors to boot. A few examples:

"Disco was without question the most powerful forum for women's expression during the seventies." (p. 207)

"Intensely aware that fluidity requires openness, Seal refuses to dictate how his songs should be interpreted." (p. 323)

And my absolute favorite:

"[Ani DiFranco's] guitar -- and she may be the most powerful rock guitarist since Jimi Hendrix -- has been fighting all along." (p. 343)

The Ani DiFranco comment highlights another weakness in the book -- his discussion of the 1990s. This is to be expected, since he wrote the book in the late 90s, there wasn't a lot of distance between himself and the music he was discussing. Still, his love of DiFranco, Hanson, Boyz II Men, and the Spice Girls date the book a wee bit. He also has a tendency to move away from black artists in this time period (although he really seems to have listened and read about a lot of rap and hip hop, you can tell it isn't really his thing -- especially when he writes a few chapters about Bruce Springsteen's career in the 1990s instead).

Also, Werner seems to have had the idea that he should discuss female musicians in this book, but instead of integrating them into the text, he has a tendency to (with the exception of big names like Mahalia Jackson or Aretha Franklin) either note that women were important to a certain genre without devoting much space to discussing individual artists, or just give a laundry list of artists and songs from a certain era.

Finally, Werner often pushes his analysis of individual songs and artists to extremes, drawing conclusions about their meanings that seem to go way beyond the intentions of the creator or the impressions of the audience (I mean, is every song in the world imbued with political meanings? Really? Can't a black person occasionally write a love song that is just a love song and not a cry for freedom?). But in contrast with this overly academic style, Werner throws in a painfully informal and "hip" writing style. He often calls artists and political figures by their first names (a major pet peeve of mine -- if you don't personally know someone famous, either refer to them by their last name, or use their full name. And for God's sake, never refer to Martin Luther King, Jr. as Martin), and uses slang and colloquialisms that are a little out of place.

Obviously I'm having fun picking apart Werner's writing style. There were still some good things about the book -- including his discussion of music and the Civil Rights Movement, a history of the major Soul labels in the 1970s, and all the quotes from artists that pepper his book. This is definitely a history of black music for white people (in one section he helpfully tells us how to pronounce RZA and GZA). In the end, I'd say its worth reading, but you might not have that much fun reading it.

[Pictured above is Mahalia Jackson with Elvis Presley and Barbara McNair.]

1 comment:

steigrrr said...

Wow, I'm afraid I will have to skip this book completely. I don't think I could be as kind as you are even as you critique the style. "Disco was without question the most powerful forum for women's expression during the seventies." What? Really? Disco? Tell that to Patti Smith. Or, say, Roberta Flack. Or, you know, Angela Davis or Adrienne Kennedy. I mean, I'm by no means a hater of disco, but for some reason I associate Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor less with women's expression than with gay men in the seventies.

Forgive that tirade, but I can't bear it when people use categorical words like "without question" or "obviously" or anything like that, especially when it's a statement that's easily disputed. Of course, I'm resisting publishing even one academic article because I'm afraid I'll change my mind after it's officially in print, so what am I yapping about? I'm even afraid to publish this comment!