1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About

"Hegel, Joyce, Fukuyama, Jesus Jones: so goes culture's declension." This is the critical sentence of the academic and pop critic Joshua Clover's extraordinary work of political aesthetics. Clover is referring to the Hegelian idea of history moving forward to a definite end; James Joyce's description of history as "a nightmare from which I am trying to awake"; Francis Fukuyama's proclamation of the "end of history" upon the death of Stalinism; and the early Nineties pop group Jesus Jones's declaration, in "Right Here, Right Now", that viewing the fall of the Berlin Wall on television was like "watching the world wake up from history".

Why pop? Because Fukuyama's soundbite itself takes the form of a pop song: "a formula that seems at once to tell a total story and condense it into a slogan, a logo, an image . . . 'The end of history' becomes a hook so catchy and memorable, so improbably pleasing to repeat, that it spins around the globe in a blink." The only effective cultural commentary on this is
itself pop, and the pop of the MTV era, which is based on the "imaging of a single way of being, one that offers itself equally to everybody, into which all trajectories empty".

The book's title is a minor misnomer, as it covers the popular music of a wider period, roughly bookended by glasnost at one end and the Yugoslavian civil war at the other - 1988 to 1992, more or less. It is divided into four sections, each of which concentrates on a particular element of the period's pop-culture conjuncture - the points at which something was changing, when an older form was giving way to a newer one. The first, "The Bourgeois and the Boulevard", traces the transformation of hip-hop from gold-chain-flashing party music to a militant, musically experimental expression of black nationalism, and then back to bling, this time with added nihilism. "The Second Summer of Love" charts the tensions in acid house between Thatcherite hedonism and implicitly anti-capitalist collectivity. "Negative Creep" depicts the birth of grunge out of a turning inward of the spirit of punk; and "The Billboard Consensus" is a deliriously enjoyable account of the mainstream pop of the time.

If this sounds merely studious, it shouldn't. Clover is a gifted music writer, and his descriptions are vivid, surprising and politically sharp without ever being moralistic. Take, for example, the passages where he traces the gangsta rap "counter-revolution" through a single musical effect, the synthesised or sampled sirens that run through Public Enemy, NWA and Dr Dre's gangsta-codifying The Chronic. If Public Enemy's dissonant, ultra-modernist productions "give the listener the affective experience of constant pressure [and] surveillance", in Dr Dre's hands the siren is "a distant memory, retaining the sense of threat while breaking entirely from the sense of panic, of pressure at the bursting point. Threat is not imminent but immanent, totally internalised."

The book is at its most perversely enjoyable on the subject of "mainstream" pop: Billy Joel's smug post-historical list-making, Madonna's ecstatic "Like a Prayer", Sweden's dominance over teenpop production. It culminates with Roxette's "Listen to Your Heart", a power ballad that even its writers considered deliberately absurd. But Clover does not treat this preposterous record with condescension; instead, he describes how it became a campaign song for Václav Havel and the Hungarian right-wing party Fidesz. At this point "history is now itself pop, and pop history" - and it's not pretty.

1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About
Joshua Clover
University of California Press,
198pp, £14.95

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis