Bob Stanley (music journalist, and member of the rather good 90s band Saint Etienne) has written what reads like the definitive account of popular music in the 20th Century. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is a heroically ambitious history, which spans the immediate post-war period to the beginning of the new millennium; what’s most distinctive about this book is its range, and the breadth of Stanley’s definition of ‘pop’. Stanley is as comfortable dissecting 50s ‘pre-rock’ crooners as he is contextualising the burgeoning Chicago House scene of the mid 1980s. He has no qualms about slaying some sacred cows; the joyfully anarchic Sex Pistols are preferred to the self-important Clash, Radiohead are given short shrift. Bob Geldof’s Live Aid is called out as a misguided travesty.
As with any book of this length (around 740 pages in total) and scope, there are some inevitable flaws and some eccentric choices. For instance, Stevie Wonder is only given a few paragraphs within a section on ‘Electrified Soul’, yet there is an entire chapter devoted to the Bee-Gees. Stanley’s book is in essence a very British account; it is a parochial, often unashamedly nostalgic, narrative. Though it was received sympathetically in the U.S, some American critics must have been slightly baffled by chapters on the 50s skiffle boom (significant as it was) or glam-rock (a fad which largely passed them by).
But one of the most serious, and potentially troubling, implications of Stanley’s largely excellent book is that the era of ‘Modern Pop’ is essentially finished; it begins with the inauguration of the hit-parade in the 1950s, and ends with the rise of Napster at the end of the century. This book is a eulogy for a cultural moment which has already passed.
It’s remarkable how inseparable popular music and wider western culture appear to be in our collective sense of the last century. Reflect on this. The most potent symbol of the 1950s is arguably a young Elvis Presley, and the first generation of rock ‘n’ rollers. The photograph of The Beatles’ arrival in America in February 1964 is not only one of the defining images of the decade, but of the second half of the century as a whole. And what expresses the disillusion of post-industrial Britain more strongly than the music of Joy Division or The Smiths? Even in 1990s, it is brit-pop, grunge and dance culture which are the go-to tropes for those looking back on the decade.
Now think about the 2000s; the moments which have come to powerfully encapsulate that period (9/11, the Great Recession) are not pop cultural. This is not to say that a lot of extraordinary, distinctive music wasn’t produced, but that music’s role in the wider culture seems to have shifted significantly.
Arguably, it’s a single piece of technology (the iPod) more than any single artist or band, which came to define the 2000s musically. But the iPod of course is already defunct, an outmoded museum piece. As Bob Stanley’s book makes patently clear, whether it’s the wax cylinder, vinyl, cassette tape, CD, minidisk or mp3 player: tech doesn’t last, but great music does. The challenge for artists now, in a world where people are making and sharing more music than ever, is to create something that speaks powerfully of the world we live in – and which might even begin to shape it.