Popular Music and Society     Fall, 1999

Book Review by B. Lee Cooper

Theodore Gracyk. Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1996. 280 pp. Cloth $49.95.

Moorhead State University philosophy professor Theodore Gracyk tackles a remarkable number of music-related issues, ideas, and personalities in this brief, well-documented study. He unapologetically justifies rock music as a cultural phenomenon unique to the 20th century. "Existing primarily as a social category," writes Gracyk, "rock eludes or supersedes aesthetics" (207). This conclusion is reached after the author has determined that rock recording is a cooperative artistic venture that is distinctively dependent upon technology. It is also an activity that is time-bound, capsuled in a mediated format, both creative and commercial in nature, and fraught with potential misinterpretation. Gracyk manages to dispatch a variety of critics--including Theodor Adorno, Allan Bloom, and Camille Paglia--and to explode numerous production, performing, and lifestyle myths that haunt the rock idiom.

The author asserts, "The genius of rock music has been its ability to maintain musical creativity within a commercial framework" (193). This statement not only disarms critics, but also undermines several silly mythologies about artistic purity promulgated among popular music performers. Gracyk's ability to explore and expose stereotypes, distortions, and half-truths in respect to music, management, and marketing places his sociological perceptions among the ranks of those of Charlie Gillett, Nick Tosches, Peter Guralnick, Simon Frith, and Philip Ennis. There is humor in his observations, too. While Gracyk acknowledges intrinsic and professional drives among rock stars---including creativity and performance quality, he is also quick to identify their more extrinsic and earthy drives as well--getting laid, getting paid, and getting famous.

Gracyk worries that rock music may become a victim of what he labels the natural cycle of invention, change, and obsolescence. "Rock may well be reaching the point of aesthetic fatigue," he speculates (206). His concerns are that individual genius, the necessity of practicing self-discipline, the value of on-the-job mentoring by old pros, and the benefits of studio collaboration with other musicians and technicians are being shifted toward formal academic settings. According to Gracyk, higher education stifles creativity and dynamism by championing cold, traditional systems of history, theory, and texts. Rock needs spontaneity, freedom, flexibility, and magic.

The shortcomings in this marvelous, thoughtful study are few. The lack of a discography is annoying. The persistent downplaying of onstage creativity among such stylistic giants as Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Albert King, Joe Cocker, Solomon Burke, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, and B. B. King is somewhat misleading. However, the entire text bristles with startling ideas that are at first mysterious and then self-evident through Gracyk's skillful explication. This is a seminal study on recorded music.

B. Lee Cooper University of Great Falls


COPYRIGHT 1999 Popular Press in association with The Gale Group