Music elicits a visceral reaction, especially music that falls under the broad umbrella of pop and rock. It’s loud and raucous, meant to get you out of your seat and to irritate your parents. Whether it’s the beat, the melody or some sick guitar shredding, something flips our normal mode of operation as our intellect and ego become subservient to our ID. So it’s understandable if the idea of quietly reading a book about this music seems too tame. But books about our pop and rock icons can be as thrilling as they are interesting. They provide a window into the craft of the music, but also the cultural moment it was created in. With decades of quality writing on pop music, a comprehensive list of the best this genre has to offer would be insurmountable. Instead, and in the creative spirit of music itself, I offer you a highly subjective list of recommendations of books that I’ve either read and loved or that linger tantalizingly on my “To Be Read” shelf.
Music fans can develop strong feelings about their favorite bands, and music collectors can get downright obsessive. “Do Not Sell at Any Price” explores the subculture of 78 rpm record collecting. Amanda Petrusich’s book evokes the thrill of the hunt for these collectors while also broadening the discussion to cultural appropriation and the romanticization of history.
The books “Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love” are Peter Guralnick’s effort to capture the true story of a man who has been heavily mythologized (I mean, can we be sure Elvis is dead?). The first book covers Elvis’s upbringing and rise to fame. The second begins with his return from the Korean War and the gradual decline of his health and popularity in the following decades.
Much like the King, The Godfather of Soul is another legend that laid the foundation for popular music and who deserves at least a two-book recommendation. In “Kill ’em and Leave” James McBride sets off to better understand the personal, musical, and societal influences that created the complicated genius of James Brown. “The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America” focuses on a the night Brown was scheduled to perform in Boston Garden hours after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Riots were breaking out across America and Brown clashed with the Mayor of Boston to let the show go on. The legendary concert ended up being broadcast on live television.
In “Good Booty,” veteran rock critic Ann Powers has written a sweeping history of American popular music that analyses the intersection of gender, sex and race in the music. The friction caused by these juxtaposed elements is both an influence on the music and a reflection of broader American culture.
The formation and evolution of hip-hop makes for fascinating and entertaining reading. “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” captures that entertaining story while also providing a social history of the genre that reveals the interplay between race, economic conditions, politics and the music itself.
The period from 1973 and 1977 in New York City is significant in the formation of Hip-Hop. In “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” Will Hermes focuses of that five year period and the dire social conditions that created an opportunity for artists to flourish in the city. Although the time frame is narrow, the scope is wide, discussing artists as diverse as Philip Glass, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, the Talking Heads (the source of the book’s title), Lou Reed, Celia Cruz, Miles Davis and Grandmaster Flash.
In “Strange Stars,” Jason Heller makes the compelling argument that science fiction isn’t just a genre for awkward, lonely nerds, but charismatic rock stars, funkateers and jazz legends. Starting in 1969 with the moon landing and David Bowie’s hit “Space Oddity” Heller goes on to track the influence of science fiction books and movies on the music of the ‘70s. The disco version of the Star Wars theme even makes an appearance. Space is the place.
As with so many other aspects of our society, the role of women in pop and rock music is either underappreciated or ignored. “Cinderella’s Big Score” introduces the women instrumental in shaping punk and indie music. Despite the perception that the music scenes are progressive bastions, these women had to carve out spaces for themselves in an exclusionary environment. Author Maria Raha discusses the hurdles they had to overcome, celebrates their contributions and lets them tell their stories.