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