Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Book Review--Glenn Altschuler, All Shook Up: How Rock 'n' Roll Changed America

Historians are increasingly viewing music as a legitimate subject of their studies. Undoubtedly this has happened in large part because music fans, and especially rock fans, have reached tenure and can write books that might not be so accepted by stodgy academic departments looking down upon such studies. After all, why study the history of rock and roll when there's another book on the Gadsden Purchase to write?

I just finished the Glenn Altschuler's recent history of rock and roll, All Shook Up, published by Oxford in 2003. This is a fine overview of the history of 50s rock placed into a social and cultural history context. Altschuler does a good job discussing the kind of racial and sexual fears that rock and roll caused and how artists had to reign themselves in in order to be recorded and played on the radio. For example, the original lyrics to Little Richard's Tutti Frutti was "Tutti Frutti, good booty/If it don't fit, don't force it/You can grease it/make it easy." Not sure that could get played on the radio today.

In general though, while Altschuler clearly doesn't want to write a dry book he doesn't make a history of rock in the 50s as exciting as it seems that it should be. Perhaps this is something that academics have to deal with when writing about music. Music is something that seems far away from our lives as academics, when we write about it as academics it's hard to not fall into that writing paradigm. On the other hand, we don't want to write fan biographies or to write a book without real analysis. What would be the point of that? I have no answers for this question.

My other criticism of the book is that the conclusion seems a little thrown together. Altschuler strives to show the lasting power of rock music. But he keeps his analysis of rock largely as part of youth culture. While we cannot question that youth culture and rock music are still deeply intertwined, of course people in their 30s and 40s are still listening to new rock bands as well. How many 35 year olds buy the latest Radiohead album? A lot, I would venture to say. So the expansion of rock culture doesn't really get any kind of analysis.

Nonetheless, if you are interested in how rock music intertwined with the social history of the 1950s, particularly analysis of its racial and sexual components, this is a fine book and would also be a useful book to someone wanting to teach a history of American music. Probably not useful to assign, but certainly a useful reference book with several good stories and the kind of analysis that would make a history of music relevant and interesting.