Next month will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—November 9, 1989—an event which prompted a shift in geopolitics unthinkable even a few months before: East German leader Erich Honecker famously declared in January of that year that the Wall would still be standing in “fifty and even in 100 years.” The period from 1988 to 1991 saw the end of the Cold War, the emergence of the U.S. as the sole world power, and, according to philosophers such as Francis Fukuyama, the triumph of Western-style liberal democracy that was to put an end to the global battle of ideologies. A well-known story with its well-known images: the man blocking the path of tanks in Tiananmen Square, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolutionaries facing off against armed policemen with nothing more than flowers in their hands, jubilant Germans swarming the open checkpoints. And on the cover of Joshua Clover’s 1989, a man swinging a pick-axe at the Wall, the recognized symbol of the individual standing up against authoritarian state communism. But there opposite him, on the same cover, is Kurt Cobain, swinging his guitar, destroying his instrument. This pair of images nicely encapsulates Clover’s latest work of inventive cultural criticism, which examines the politics of those momentous years through its music, and the music through the politics.
The book takes its subtitle from the lyrics to the Jesus Jones song “Right Here, Right Now”: Bob Dylan didn’t have this to sing about. “What does pop music do when it does have this to sing about?” Clover asks. “Pop music as we understand it: something not much older than the Berlin Wall, something which could be the Soviet Union’s granddaughter. Having turned its 200-second attentions on a fairly regular basis to politics, to social change, to revolution, what does pop music do when confronted with an overwhelming surfeit of same?” His answer is that pop becomes history, or rather, history becomes pop. Music and history become internalized and depoliticized: they become pop. Hip-hop shifts from black-nationalism’s engagement— embodied by Public Enemy’s entreaty to “rock the hard jams, treat it like a seminar / reach the bourgeois, and rock the boulevard”—to gangsta rap’s posturing and infighting. British rave takes the rhetoric of 1967’s Summer of Love—peace, unity, harmony—and redeploys it stripped of its politics. Grunge takes heavy metal’s antisocial tendencies and punk’s rage and anger at the injustices of the world and turns them inwards with lyrics such as Mudhoney’s “I’m a creep yeah I’m a jerk” and Nirvana’s “I feel stupid and contagious.” According to Clover, “the internalization of conflict, a depoliticized unity, the interiorization of social fury, the annihilation of boundaries” characterize the music of the period. In this sense, Clover’s pop mirrored and even anticipated not only the “unity” that accompanies liberal democracy’s supposedly final victory at “the end of history,” but also the messy fallout of global empires and the genocidal violence that arose out of fragmented societies in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. 1989 is a thought-provoking work, and while its overall argument may be a little hard to swallow at times, it makes some very convincing points about the connections between music and politics along the way. If for nothing else, read 1989 for lines such as “Forever T.S. Eliot to Nirvana’s Ezra Pound, Pearl Jam was burdened with the unannounced…task of opening grunge to a still-broader audience—an effect achieved through the subtraction of bodily disgust and explicit sexual violence as well as a smoothing of the guitar attack.”
Francis Reynolds is an editorial assistant at Guernica. Read his last recommendation on Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, here.