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Customer Review

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overview of new wave, October 9, 2011
This review is from: Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s (Tracking Pop) (Paperback)
To me New Wave has always been a subject sorely in need of clarification. Like "punk" and "post punk", exactly what it is and exactly who it refers to has always been a matter of confusion. As the main title of the book suggests (a play on Devo's Are We Not Men), the author endeavors through this study to define what new wave is all about. In fact, the title indicates the author's recognition that such clarification is needed. To many people, new wave has been narrowly synonomous with the synthpop bands they saw in videos in the early days of MTV. This is not surprising. Such bands were highly visible in the early age of music video, becoming a convenient frame of reference. In providing really the first major evaluation of new wave music, Cateforis corrects this narrow view and provides cohesion to the subject. In providing a comprehensive history of how new wave developed and the distinguishing elements of its music and style, Cateforis ensures that the first wave of new wave bands that arose in the mid 70s (bands such as Blondie, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Devo, the B52s, the Cars and the Knack) get their proper due. Cateforis in no way neglects later developments, providing chapters that focus on Gary Numan and Adam Ant among others, but this is a significant contribution given the exclusionist tendencies that invariably follow a poorly defined musical term.

An important aspect of this book is that it is written from an academic setting. This means that the author feels compelled to comply with academic conventions regarding sourcing. It also means that the tone of the book is objective as opposed to polemical. As someone who has read his fair share of music writers, this is very refreshing. Too many music books I have read reveal questionable scholarship and an overly polemical style that is little more than an attempt to impose the writer's personal view on the reader. Music journalism, the well spring of most music histories, seems more like a fight club than an area of scholarship. Reading a music history where the author wasn't seemingly grinding axes the whole time and promoting one band while snubbing another was a nice change. In fact, the author does something in the introduction that immediately establishes his good faith with the reader, stating that the book is not intended as a broad survey of all the movement's main artists, but focuses instead on a representative few as a means of highlighting general aspects of new wave music. It is a simple convention that nonetheless neatly avoids the issue of arbitrary inclusion and exclusion that characterizes a lot of music writing I have experienced. Personally I found the writing style readable and informative. On a few occasions the author misfires as he strays almost pro forma into the standardized academic subjects of race/gender, but this is the exception and not the rule, and the prevailing sense of tedium I encountered when muddling through a needlessly theoretical work like "England's Dreaming" is happily avoided.

So how does Cateforis define New Wave? He identifies a number of representative qualities: Higher tempo (bpm) in comparison to mainstream 70s rock; a reincorporation of early rock dance rhythmns/danceable beat; the focus on pre-1967 music sources; ironic distance; more natural production techniques; modernity-the willingness to embrace technology and newness; monochrome fashions; early on a progressive/oppositional stance toward mainstream music; nervousness; and a tendency towards camp/kitsch. These characteristics are reflected in the development of power pop, the widespread use of synthesizers, and the incorporation of world music (Cateforis makes the insightful point that world music was less a radical departure and really just another aspect of new wave's progressive stance that already saw the incorporation of funk, disco, reggae, and eventually hip hop and which could also be seen in new wave's focus on earlier non-mainstream sources). Cateforis also credibly argues that new wave did not so much end in the late 80s (a claim often punctuated in music histories by oversimplistic reference to specific moments when new wave allegedly "died") but had been so absorbed into mainstream music that it lost its distinctive qualities and lived on as a residual style. The re-emergence and persistence of new wave inspired music today of course indicates that in the endless pendulum swings of popular music, claims of a musical style's supposed death are inevitably overblown. (The only overt blunder I noticed in the book was when the author suggested that Blondie approached rap with ironic detachment as opposed to sincere interest-given Debbie Harry and Chris Stein's early interest in the genre, going to rap events as far back as 1977, recording Rapture, working with Chic and recording rap songs on Harry's 1981 solo album; introducing the Funky Four Plus One on SNL in February, 1981, performing on stage with rap acts in May/June 1981, working on hip/hop inspired films like Downtown 81 and Wild Style, where Stein developed the soundtrack, etc., the claim doesn't stand up; a number of punk/new wave practitioners-Blondie, Tom Tom Club, The Clash, Malcolm McLaren-were genuinely interested in hip/hop and hip hop artists such as Afrika Bambaataa were likewise interested in non-hip hop electronic music, all mixing together in the early 80s NYC melting pot which proved yet again the universal nature of music).

All in all, Are We Not New Wave is a very welcome contribution to musical history. It is the first major study of the subject and it is well done. I can recommend it without reservation.
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