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Apocalypse Jukebox

Publisher: Pop Matters

Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Music is written more like a thesis than a piece of music journalism. Regular readers of PopMatters will be hip to the fact that there is now a book series connected to the site, under which Apocalypse Jukebox was recently released. PopMatters generally takes a more pedantic approach to reporting on culture than a traditional source like Rolling Stone, catering to what is referred to on the site as the "urban intellectual." Readers stranded in dreary suburban outposts like Norfolk and Baton Rouge presumably have to muddle through this material on their limited non-urban, non-intellectual abilities... The problem is that the so-called Urban Intellectuals behind this book often come across as navel-gazing, over-educated hipsters with too much time on their hands and an academic mandate to publish or perish. Apocalypse Jukebox falls prey to pedantry on an epic scale, as we watch Professor Whitelock and Associate Professor Janssen beat their dead-horse hypothesis far too long. It's not that the premise is such a bad one, but instead of a great 10-page article, we have a 256-page thesis.

A better book on this topic I read recently was Gary Wills' Under God: Religion and American Politics. The connection between Wills' book and Apocalypse Jukebox is that they both give substantial treatment to eschatology (religious study of apocalypse, for our rural readers) as a key for unlocking the motivation behind actions taken by prominent leaders, political or musical. Wills makes a case that Ronald Reagan's actions as POTUS were a direct reflection of his millenarian belief system. Terms like "Dispensational Premillennialism" and "Postmillennialism" are not generally kitchen-table talk, but they are central concepts in understanding how people think about the apocalypse. Wills suggests in Under God that Reagan - and a large number of his supporters - viewed international events surrounding Soviet Russia as entirely consistent with Biblical interpretation of the period leading to the end of the world. Wills' main thrust is that American politics are influenced heavily by religion, with millennialism as a single data-point. Whitelock and Janssen use apocalypse as their primary platform in Apocalypse Jukebox, creating a millenarian lens for interpreting most of popular music.

This is a typical passage from early in the book, describing the impact of listening to "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" by Bob Dylan:

The dissolution of the narrator's sense of time heightens the terror inherent in, and underscores the apocalyptic fear of, his refrain: "Oh mama, can this really be the end?"

Forget the tediousness of seeing every song and artist cast in the same apocalyptic light, and you're still left with some mediocre writing. Maybe this passes for clarity in academia, and there's no question that everything feels impeccably researched, but readers outside the academic sphere won't find much to hang their hats on. Those determined to work through the muddle may find themselves chafing on the notion that all this music is really best understood through apocalypse. Angst and raw emotion, combined with a desire to cast away convention, can account for much of what is framed here as yearning for apocalypse. Many of these artists exhibited behavior that was clearly self-destructive, judging by examples of rampant drug use and even suicide. It's easy to follow the logic that religious inquiry plays a huge role in some musicians' lives, and that all religious roads lead to apocalypse. The problem is that eschatology is still a relatively small and confining corner of religious thought. Whitelock and Janssen go wrong by ascribing such narrow intent to the musicians featured in their book. Apocalypse is the place where religion and nihilism meet, and popular opinion on edgier music has tended to favor the latter as explaining why artists do the crazy things they do. Much respect to these authors for trying to balance the scales, but they go too far and paint a picture of millenarian inspiration lurking behind every musical artist. Even if you buy the argument that rushing toward one's doom is just a practical form of apocalypse, correlation is not causation. If you need to score some extra credit for a 300-level Religion course, there may be something for you in Apocalypse Jukebox. Otherwise, you're better off waiting for the Cliffs Notes version.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

Related Links:

Novel Grunge is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music Sound Rebels Wit Attitude

Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated