It was also an overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male volume—Willis was one of two female contributors—and many anthologies since have bucked against its particular vision of rock and who is authorized to chronicle it. The result is a vivid cross-section of a half century’s worth of American music writing. J. In this respect, Lethem and Dettmar have made their selections both rightly and righteously. Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing “Blues and Gospel Train,” in 1964.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY ITV / SHUTTERSTOCK / REX
The most famous definition of rock journalism comes from Frank Zappa, who, in 1977, described the form to an interviewer as “people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” It’s a funny quip that has enjoyed a robust afterlife, mostly because generations of quasi-self-deprecating rock journalists can’t stop quoting it. Rockism’s most high-profile public deconstruction was written by Kelefa Sanneh, now a staff writer for The New Yorker, in an essay titled “The Rap Against Rockism,” published in the Times, in 2004. Like any still-evolving genre of criticism, pop writing is perpetually mired in an identity crisis, a sign of health and vibrancy for the form that can also make assembling a book like “Shake It Up” a slippery and treacherous proposition. Instead of the proto-Spinal Tap, Hammer of the Gods version of Led Zeppelin, we get Ellen Sander’s first-person account of the band’s second American tour, an unflinching look at the ragged underside of stardom. Instead of the pugnacious and virtuosically obnoxious Lester Bangs of “James Taylor Marked for Death” and “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves,” we get “Where Were You When Elvis Died?,” the late writer’s gorgeous, gutting elegy to Elvis Presley. (The article was mostly fiction, but it was well written.) By then, there were not only many talented writers who covered rock and roll but also there was an emerging rock-journalism canon. In between is a trove of pieces by wonderful writers, including many names that appeared in “Illustrated History,” and many more that didn’t but are, by 2017, equally illustrious: Nelson George on Marvin Gaye, Jessica Hopper on emo, John Jeremiah Sullivan on Axl Rose, Ann Powers on P. The latest, and arguably most prestigiously appointed, volume to do so is “Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z,” edited by the novelist Jonathan Lethem and the cultural critic Kevin Dettmar, and published by the Library of America. Even so, there’s so much that “Shake It Up” does well that dwelling on its exclusions feels uncharitable. But the collection also, inevitably, manifests some of the tensions inherent to building a canon out of a genre that is at its best when it is most iconoclastic; there is, perhaps, only so much “shaking up” you can do in a setting like this. With entries dedicated to Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Beatles, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, and many others, Miller et al. The book features sixty-eight essays by twenty-six different contributors, and it helped construct two canons at once. “Shake It Up” seems to anticipate this—note the conspicuous “and Pop” on its cover—and, for the most part, successfully sidesteps rockism’s pitfalls. And the volume misses chances to refresh and expand the parameters of the tradition that it’s collecting: well before the likes of Rolling Stone and Creem showed up to the party, much of the most impassioned writing about rock and roll in the nineteen-fifties and sixties came from magazines like 16, Seventeen, Teen, and Tiger Beat, where disproportionate numbers of female journalists wrote for audiences of teen-age girls. In the other direction, “Shake It Up” could have ventured farther down the corridors of the digital age to explore how the Internet has changed music writing, and the explosion of new voices the medium has given rise to. laid out a far-flung vision of rock-and-roll tradition, of who mattered to that tradition and why. In the spirit of shaking things up, I might have suggested Chris Ryan’s mid-aughts marvel “Gabe Said, ‘We’re Into Movements,’ “ an online epistolary of unhinged, all-caps missives to Jay Z, the sheer weirdness and creativity of which is a perfect monument to the best of the music blogosphere. (The piece isn’t included in “Shake It Up,” but Sanneh’s 2010 New Yorker review of Jay Z’s memoir, “Decoded,” is.) Rockism is a canon-obsessed ideology, and although its critical heyday has mostly passed, any anthology like this one will invite scrutiny for traces of its residue. Hip-hop writing has been home to the most diverse stable of critical voices of any modern pop-musical form; an excerpt from Jeff Chang’s seminal history, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop,” for instance, would have added an Asian-American voice to this volume, which, regrettably, contains none instead. “Illustrated History” still casts a shadow; many of the book’s essays—Willis on Janis Joplin, Marcus on the Beatles, Bangs on the British Invasion—remain among the most quoted works on their subjects. By my count, only one of the fifty essays in this volume was originally published in an online-exclusive venue, which, given the immense influence of sites like Pitchfork over the past two decades, doesn’t feel like enough. But Lethem and Dettmar wisely eschew any attempt at definitiveness, and they are quick to acknowledge that their book offers “neither a history of rock and pop nor of rock and pop writing” but, rather, “a feast.” It starts with Nat Hentoff’s 1963 liner notes for “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and ends with Greil Marcus on Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag,” from 2014. The real story here is about pop’s unruly resistance to canonization, a resistance that the best of the writing about that music shares. Twenty-first-century popular-music criticism is haunted by the spectre of “rockism,” the conviction that the highest forms of popular music are created by (mostly white, male) practitioners of guitar-based music who are intrepidly following in the footsteps of Dylan, the Beatles, and the Boss. And, with a table of contents that bore the names of Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Dave Marsh, Ellen Willis, Peter Guralnick, and Lester Bangs, “Illustrated History” offered one of the earliest conceptions of a rock-critical tradition, as well, and of which set of voices mattered to it. While the book includes pieces on Dylan, the Beatles, and the Boss—who are, after all, pretty good—they run alongside great writing about the Shirelles (from Dave Marsh), disco (Vince Aletti), Barry Manilow (Danyel Smith), and Michael Jackson (Hilton Als). Some writing sets out to be canonical, but none of the writing in this book did, and it is all the better for that. But it was never really true, and certainly wasn’t in 1977, the year that Elvis died, punk broke, and “Saturday Night Fever,” a movie based on a New York magazine article by the renowned rock writer Nik Cohn, dominated the box office. The decision to end the anthology with Marcus in 2014, for example, while a fitting honor for arguably the most celebrated American rock writer of them all, feels more like the closing of a circle than the opening of one. Harvey, Greg Tate on Kanye West and 50 Cent. (The Library has foregone its iconic, vaguely metal black-and-white cover design in favor of a punkishly austere, volume-knob-and-masking-tape look.) At just over six hundred pages, “Shake It Up” is heavier than the studio version of “Dazed and Confused” and longer than the live version. And even when it comes to the figures who were canonized long ago, “Shake It Up” opts for a refreshing, if perhaps self-conscious, degree of surprise. This is path-breaking work that rarely gets anthologized, a pattern of omission that implies that rock and roll only became the object of meaningful reflection when Serious Adults started caring about it—a notion that is both inaccurate and unfun. But, despite the name-dropping of Jay Z in the subtitle, there’s a glaring dearth of hip-hop in these pages: the most influential genre of popular music to emerge in the last forty years is the main subject of a scant two essays in “Shake It Up” (and, since Sanneh’s essay is primarily about the language of hip-hop, there’s really only one piece here about hip-hop as music). Still, and perhaps inevitably, “Shake It Up” skews toward the old-fashioned, in several senses. One year before, Rolling Stone had published its “Illustrated History of Rock & Roll,” a landmark volume, edited by Jim Miller, that was, somewhat accidentally, the first great anthology of rock writing.