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Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with '50s Pop Music Hardcover – January 31, 2006

3.1 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In an ambitious first book, former Newsweek rock critic Schoemer offers a skittish fusion of memoir and revisionist music history exploring how pop music shapes our values. In 1996, after listening to a retrospective of songs by '50s teen idol Connie Francis, Schoemer set out to understand the music that originally matched her bitterly divorced parents, in order to understand "[w]hat expectation of their youth could have been so great that its disappointment left them so angry." Thus begins an odyssey that takes readers to a musical landscape on the cusp of rebel rockers, sexual revolution and the civil rights movement. Schoemer talks with Pat Boone, Fabian, Georgia Gibbs, Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Tommy Sands—and her holy grail, Connie Francis. Meanwhile, she constantly reassesses her critical (and often cynical) sensibility against the undeniable emotional connections evoked by pop songs she'd long dismissed as kitsch. Schoemer is a plucky narrator; she has written an enjoyable text that alternates between beguiling interview set pieces imbued with the author's lucid sociomusical analyses of such curious hits as "Mule Train" and musings on her middle-class, suburban Connecticut upbringing in the 1970s and '80s, and development from rock critic to Rolling Stone scribe, wife and mother.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* This is no conventional music history. Although Schoemer, Newsweek's former chief pop-music critic, spends considerable time recounting the lives and careers of seven often overlooked and, in her opinion, underappreciated fifties pop icons--Patti Page, Frankie Laine, Georgia Gibbs, Tommy Sands, Fabian, Pat Boone, and Connie Francis--she spends much more examining her fascination with these performers, whose careers were already in eclipse when the Beatles led the British pop-music invasion. Schoemer admits that when she began research for the book, she shared the conventional belief that these singers were square, uptight, utterly conventional representatives of the conformist era in which they flourished. Worse, their careers seemed to have been based entirely on selling shallow, silly, emotionally dishonest new songs and homogenized covers of the rougher, more authentic work of such black performers as Little Richard, Etta James, and Big Mama Thornton. Over the course of the book, Schoemer depicts a journey to deeper understanding of the era, the music, and herself. What makes her intellectual trip especially exciting is her willingness throughout the book to explore issues both personal and professional that most critics are terrified to confront, most notable among them the thin line that divides interest from obsession and the observation that all music criticism, indeed all criticism, is subjective and autobiographical. Jack Helbig
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (January 31, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743272463
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743272469
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,969,186 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Normally I am caught up in books discussing much more serious subjects. It was time for a break. So when a friend told me he had just finished up Karen Schoemer's "Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair With 50's Pop Music" and offered me his copy I simply could not resist. In fact, I had almost purchased the book myself a couple of months ago. It was a book I had high hopes for and I wound up reading it in a single day. As one who has been collecting popular music for more than 40 years I hoped to gain some additional insight into the music of the early 1950's. Very little has been written about this period and much of what you do find is extremely negative. Most of the so called "enlightened" rock critics immediately dismiss the music of such artists as Pat Boone, Connie Francis and Patti Page as trite and superficial. Yet this music certainly struck a chord with millions of Americans in the early fifties. Karen Schoemer wanted to find out why and she certainly seemed to have the credentials. She wanted to know why her parents, her mom in particular, loved this stuff. So she decided to write a book about this era. She began this project back in 1999 and admittedly struggled with the concept over the next several years. In the end she wound up interviewing seven of the era's biggest stars. She chatted with Patti Page and Frankie Laine, Georgia Gibbs, Fabian, Tommy Sands and two of the biggest stars of early 50's pop Connie Francis and Pat Boone. Much to her surprise she discovered that most of these folks were anything but the stuffy, uptight people she expected to find. As of matter of fact she really did like most of them. And as her work on the book proceeded she found herself enjoying this music even more.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
(Make that ** 1/2 stars)

Make no mistake: Karen Schoemer's book is first and foremost about Karen Schoemer (including unwelcome details about her sex life). Her opinions on the artists she interviews are of little worth, seeing how the fullest extent of her "research" (she actually admits this!) was often to pop a "greatest hits" cassette into her car radio on the drive each "interview." (She doesn't exactly print interviews with them -- snippets of interviews would be more accurate.)

Schoemer "gets" the music of some of the artists, and totally misses that of others. She is utterly clueless when it comes to pre-rock and roll era stars like Patti Page, Georgia Gibbs and especially Frankie Laine. She's basically a rock critic attempting to "understand" her mother's attraction to pop rock (post-Page, Gibbs and Laine) music, so why these three artists were included is anybody's guess.

My own guess is that their names are what is going to sell her book (anyway, that was my reason for buying it).

Still, as frustrating as the book is when dealing with classic pop, the author manages to bring up two good points: 1) that rock and roll owes a large debt to the pop music that preceeded it; and 2) that loving an artist or a song is akin to a love affair. Okay, neither sentiment is particularly original or profound, but in the profusion of rock-oriented music "histories," the first point needs to be stressed as often and in as many venues as possible.

Schoemer fares best when interviewing former teen idols (male var.) from the early rock era (Fabian and Pat Boone), both of whom she developes large crushes on; supporting and illustrating the second of her second-hand points.
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Format: Hardcover
Strangely mean spirited, "Great Pretenders" most likely will disappoint fans of the seven performers profiled in the book.

This could have been such a compelling book, as it looks at the lives of a group of performers often overlooked by music historians. But it's a little hard to buy Karen Schoemer's opinions, or even believe everything she writes. She was a music critic for "Newsweek," yet she claims that she never heard the Barbra Streisand recording of "People?" Even harder to believe: She asks Frankie Laine about his 1957 album entitled "Rockin'," but says she never bothered to look at what songs are on the album. This woman is a professional music critic - why would you bring up an album if you had no clue what material it contained? Then she slams "Rockin'" because it contains re-recordings of his earlier hits, not mentioning that was a common practice that everyone from Sinatra to Dinah Shore did at the time. I agree with a previous reviewer who said she was particularly harsh on Mr. Laine. Schoemer seems to have no idea of what he meant to audiences of the time. "The absence of sexiness in his voice, the bland bonhomie" she writes, then later saying he was "more chaste, less threatening" than early Sinatra. What she doesn't seem to know is that Laine's sexy performing style and R&B-flavored crooning earned him the nickname Mr. Rhythm early in his career, and his rougher edges were seen as a bit unsettling compared to Sinatra's more traditional crooning. Also, and this is just a personal opinion: The man is about turn 93 - Has he done anything to merit such a bitter portrayal at this stage of his life?

Even factually, some of the book seems off kilter. She says the Bear Family Connie Francis box sets sell for close to $300.
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