Joshua Clover is the kind of guy who needs Fredric Jameson to explain Roxanne. 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This To Sing About takes its title from Jesus Jones’ “Right Here Right Now,” and proceeds to throw the line “watching the world wake up from history” against Francis Fukayama’s 1989 essay “The End Of History.” This is by no means a bad idea: Clover has lots to say about the ways a vapid ’90s rock song might both contradict and support one of the key essays of neoconservative thought. But the full project strives to theorize generally how “1989”—both as year and concept—marked a key moment in musical history whose sonic changes inadvertently reflected its time, which is where trouble starts. In trying to rewrite the history of acid house, grunge, rap, and the generic category of “pop” through rigorous academic theorizing, Clover frequently comes up short.
Frequently, Clover is in thrall to a perilous combination of the authoritatively mystical pronouncement buffered by academic citation. He has many intriguing arguments to make: He’s sharp to note that a 1989 show where where N.W.A. and Public Enemy shared the stage—and the latter announced its dissolution—formed “a chiasmus in the genre’s history.” One mode of nationalistic rap was on the way out, while gangsta was on the ascent, and the shift was neatly symbolized in one night. He’s similarly sharp when observing how Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine internalized and warped rave music, and the internal tension in grunge’s unstable meld of metal and punk. But getting to the point can be tedious when reading that Nirvana’s Bleach arrives “at the corner of creep and shame,” and that “the coordination of these two is the first brute truth of grunge as an achieved structure of feeling.” Clover is also in thrall to generalized, hyperbolic music writing of the worst post-Christgau stripe: NIN’s “sonic surfaces are gunmetal black, digitized until the individual electrons gleam darkly” and so on.
Clover eventually ends up saying things like “To claim that what we couldn’t think, pop thought for us—this will always be a mystification, if a necessary one.” It isn’t necessary, though, and it obscures Clover’s ability to read music politically and clearly. Ultimately, he’s left standing away from the music, furiously theorizing about how Jesus Jones internalizes the contradictions inherent in late-20th-century political capitalism, and what that might mean about the popular conception of Tiananmen Square. It’s a common cliché that academic writing leans too heavily upon jargon and poor writing: In Clover’s case, though, it renders unnecessarily opaque, overreaching, and tedious what could’ve been exciting music criticism. It’s the kind of book that reads better in summary than in actual text.