Eric Weisbard


On his book Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music

Cover Interview of May 19, 2021

The wide angle

I have had two careers and this book meets at their intersection. As a Village Voice and Spin rock critic and editor, I came in at the end of the vernacular epic, as Generation X writers argued grunge and gangsta rap while reviving cheesy old radio tunes. This created a perspective that by the 2000s was called poptimism: the idea that it was almost always a kind of bias—rockism—that made a critic blast commercial music without thinking through issues like race, gender, and class. My second career has been as an academic, investigating these questions more thoroughly, as in my previous book, Top 40 Democracy, on radio formats. In-between, however, I helped bring journalism and academia together through the Pop Conference, an annual gathering that since 2002 has put on display the mix of people that Songbooks now gives a history to. To me, the world shouldn’t divide between people who read critics like Lester Bangs and (my spouse) Ann Powers and people who read academics like José Esteban Muñoz and Lise Waxer. We should all read both, period. That’s the theme of the Pop Conference and the theme of Songbooks. The second half of the book develops those parallels: they’re what replaced the epic perspective once cultural studies and poptimism took over.

I can also note a trio of terms that turned out to mean more to this book than I would have guessed going in. Vernacular: not only how people actually talk, but in music the accent of their style, which in U.S. music often turns on Black style as developed by African Americans, interpreted or lifted by whites, valorized as the essence of jazz, blues, gospel, etc. Sentimental: for too long the apparent opposite of vernacular—genteel, fussy, soft. Notice how gendered this is. Lots of popular music books sought to purge the sentimental in the name of a kind of street sensibility; after the revolution, vernacular approaches sought to make peace, then cultural studies all but eradicated the vernacular! Which created a backlash to the backlash, since explaining away Black vernacular could just be another form of whitesplaining. An answer has come with a third term: literature. Seeing popular music as novelistic rather than epic, the product of artistic choices rather than expressing inherently outlandish identities, has made music books take a different shape. If both the poet Langston Hughes and the blues musician Robert Johnson are seen as urbane writers with strong ties to vernacular music, not different sides of a coin, their books or books about them read differently, which registers in the 21st century in two books that share a lot: poet Kevin Young’s Grey Album, a meditation on Black vernacular masks named after a mash-up of a Beatles and a Jay-Z album, and rapper Jay-Z’s own Decoded, which never presents the hip-hop hustler as anything but a literary invention.