Wednesday Mini-Book Review: Great Pretenders


In what I hope can become a Hit and Run tradition as beloved as Tim Cavanaugh's old "one minute book" summaries, herewith what might become a weekly series of mini-book reviews of recent books I found worthy of note.

Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with '50s Pop Music, by Karen Schoemer (Free Press, 2006). Turning rock critics' disdain for 1950s soft-pop crooners into a feminist issue convincingly, linking her quest for connection with her mother to her quest to get meaningful and juicy profile interviews out of the likes of Fabian Forte and Connie Francis, former Newsweek critic Karen Schoemer hits the road in search of the neglected stars of '50s non-rock n' roll pop music and gets an offer for a makeover from Ms. Francis, develops a crush on the Fabe, reaches a moment of truth with her nibs Miss Georgia Gibbs over a an aging, unloved film of her singing on Frank Sinatra's '50s TV series, buys lunch for a destitute and troubled Tommy Sands (Sinatra's former son-in-law), gets gifted with artisanal maple syrup from the singing rage Miss Patty Page, realizes how much more fun the audiences are at Frankie Laine gigs than Sonic Youth audiences, and through it all does a spirited job at dispelling the white male rockcrit myth that the time between Buddy Holly's death and the Beatles arrival was a denuded, forgettable dead zone for interesting pop music:

It dawned on me that rock history is different from other histories…in that it's written by critics, not historians. A few of the great writers, like [Robert] Palmer and [Peter] Guralnick, functioned as both, but for the most part the people telling the story were basing their definitions of greatness on their own opinions, not fact or collective consensus….They were creating a universe in which the imprecise, unpredictable, and impenetrable crushes of girls could be obliterated and wiped from the record. They were leaving out the music that they deemed "bad," because to them those songs seemed shallow and fleeting and romantic. But those songs were our history, the secretly significant history, the overlooked history of a million screaming girls. I knew of not a single history of rock that gave the girls in the audience any credibility whatsoever. Our tastes always needed to be expurged or overcome. Yet we were driving the mystery train. More than the guys, we were deciding who would make it to the top, who'd stay there.

The reader–and even the author–can and will question the delicate interconnections between mass popularity and a body of music that is frequently, perhaps often, not worth revisiting to the sane listener. Still, Schoemer's very personal voyage of discovery of the music, its makers, and what it meant to her own relationships to her family and the men in her life, is certainly deserving of the attention of those interested in 20th century pop music and its historiography.