A History of Pop Music With a Full Chapter on the Bee Gees? You Got It.

Reading between the lines.
July 11 2014 4:35 PM

Pop Goes the World

Even a history of pop can’t help but skew toward rock.

Bill Haley, The Beatles, Beyonce and The Beegees.
From top to bottom: Bill Haley, the Beatles, Beyoncé, and The Bee Gees.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by James Kriegsmann/Associated Booking Corporation; Photo by Harry Hammond/V&A Images/Getty Images; Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images; Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

To paraphrase Avenue Q, maybe everyone’s a little bit rockist, sometimes. In his new pop music history Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, which mounts its British Invasion this month, Bob Stanley doesn’t shy from wielding the R-word to bash those who fetishize the rusty old cornerstones of rock at the expense of the shinier hallmarks of pop. Though pop-leaning critics have ascended to prime perches at places like the New York Times, The New Yorker, NPR, and Slate, Stanley warns in his introduction that “rockism still exists” and mourns the fact that “disco and large swathes of black and electronic music have been virtually ignored by traditional pop histories.” In case his allegiances weren’t clear, the American edition comes covered in bubblegum pink, topped with controls that resemble those of an iPod, and subtitled with the good news that though The Story of Pop Music may kick off with Bill Haley, it leads up to the coming of Beyoncé.

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

But that introduction and this shiny packaging (redesigned from the British version) may leave some pop fans confused at what follows. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! does chronicle the emergence of disco (whose legacy hardly needs explaining anymore in the era of Daft Punk, EDM, and The 20/20 Experience), the importance of Motown and Philly soul, and the influence of house music pioneers like Larry Levan and the recently departed Frankie Knuckles. But the book’s staggering eclecticism only makes it all the more disappointing when Stanley falls into some of the same pitfalls he cautions about, failing to grasp the appeal of large swaths of hip-hop, and, more fundamentally, structuring itself around the familiar story of rock. In other words, it’s a reminder of how it is easy to call yourself an “anti-rockist” and still find yourself skewing subtly conservative.

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! starts its history in 1955. That’s because that’s when Billboard first published what became the Hot 100 (previously it charted album sales, radio plays, and jukeboxes separately) and when Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” hit No. 1. In some ways this makes sense—both events were watersheds in the history of pop, and aren’t far from the invention of the teenager as a target market, the proliferation of televisions in American homes, and the introduction of the LP record. But while 1955 may mark the rise of rock ’n’ roll as a popular force, to say Bill Haley marks the beginning of modern pop is to concede to rock history’s conventional wisdom. What about Tin Pan Alley, the Grand Ole Opry, and vaudeville? What about names like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, and Eva Tanguay? Frank Sinatra’s Columbus Day riot, which prefigured Beatlemania in its throngs of squealing teens, is only a footnote. (And don’t even think about the smash of 1909.). Perhaps no one would expect Stanley to trace pop back to the first prehistoric flute, but context helps. It’s hard not to wince when Stanley writes, “It seemed like Elvis came from nowhere, and that was pretty much the case.”

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Part of this might be explained by the fact that Stanley is British. It’s true that the story of pop music is in large part “the story of the intertwining pop culture of the United States and the United Kingdom,” as Stanley writes, but it’s especially true when it comes to the rock era. Stanley keeps an eye on both sides of the pond throughout—as they close in on each other in the ’60s and grow apart again—and the time he spends dwelling on the British charts will be alternately intriguing (a glimpse of an alternate pop history) and puzzling to those with American backgrounds. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! reserves twice as much real estate for introducing British pop star Billy Fury as it does for Chuck Berry, as it argues that Fury was the blueprint for the British pop star. Discussing Phil Spector, Stanley interweaves his story with the equally tragic tale of his transatlantic rival, the record producer Joe Meek.

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