NONFICTION: A Pop Calypse

David A. Janssen and Edward J. Whitelock, Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music (Soft Skull, 2009)

It’s debatable whether, as the authors of Apocalypse Jukebox hint, the U.S. is more fascinated with world-ending catastrophes than other countries. (If in the 1950s our nation was haunted with fears of nuclear winter, imagine the nightmares in the country where the A-bombs actually fell.) What’s not disputable is the main point of this outstanding book: key figures in American rock & roll have made their home in apocalyptic thought.

We are talking Biblical end-time ideas, which come in two flavors: postmillennial, which imagines Christ coming in a shower of gold to bring peace, and pre-millennial, which visualizes that same Jesus coming down in a hail of bullets to preside over Armageddon.

This distinction is made by the authors in a lively, preliminary discussion of the Millerites and other American 19th-Century prophets of doom. It then jumps ahead to two wannabe rock stars who established cults when they couldn’t get fans, Charles Manson and David Koresh. The book then segues from the real firestorms these zealots brought down to the imaginary ones conjured up by varied rock song writers over the decades.

Two particularly striking points made by the book (one intentionally, one perhaps not) are these; first, the authors show how faithfully these rock artists followed the typical patterns of apocalyptic literature. Leonard Cohen and Laurie Anderson, for instance, play the typical prophet role, warning of world destruction on the horizon. In fact, at times, Cohen is so unrelenting, as they put it—and I quote this also to illustrate the pointed wit the authors bring to their assessments—“One almost expects a list of touch-tone options [in his songs]: ‘For fire, press one. For locusts, press two…’”

Devo, by contrast, fit the role of those who say, the catastrophe can’t be avoided, and in fact, it already happened in prehistory when apes ate other apes’ brains, giving birth to humanity. The punk trio Sleater-Kinney, in an ironic turn, argue that what must be avoided is not sins that lead to the world’s end but apocalyptic discourse itself, which the authors show (via a reading of feminist texts) often has a strongly misogynist vein; (see references to the Whore of Babylon).

The second point, which perhaps the authors didn’t plan, is that as the book moves forward chronologically, rock gets increasingly bleak. Perhaps the earth is getting nearer to the brink, or so it would seem from the last album highlighted, Green Day’s American Idiot. Green Day not only depicts no future, but no present. For them, we live in a dumbed-down nation where “everything has been cheapened, all promises have been broken, and all that’s left is the latest distraction of the new dance craze.” Or, the latest doomsday vision. In fact, in this band’s pessimistic perspective, the very drumming into people’s brains of end-times scenarios has made them unable to register much else.

All in all, Apocalypse Jukebox is a noteworthy achievement, studded with aphorisms, drawing on interesting parallels in other fields of endeavor when appropriate, and filled with canny, sympathetic evaluations of the musicians they profile. Moreover, if you ever doubted it, this book certainly proves that the best rock musicians have as much or more to contribute to the national conversation as do poets, pundits, or others who inhabit “high culture.”

Contributor

Jim Feast

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