Overview of

Rock Music and the 
Politics of Identity

Theodore Gracyk

Temple University Press    2001

ISBN: 1566399033 
Book length: 304 pages
The book does not contain
any previously published material.

     Co-Winner of the 2002 Woody Guthrie Award (IASPM/US Book Award)  

Below: Publisher's description, a review, another review, another,
then author's description 




Publisher's description of I Wanna Be Me; Rock Music and the Politics of Identity

As someone who feels the emotional power of rock and who writes about it as an art form, Theodore Gracyk has been praised for launching "plainspoken arguments destined to change the future of rock and roll," (Publishers Weekly). In I Wanna Be Me, his second book about the music he cares so much about, Gracyk grapples with the ways that rock shapes—limits and expands—our notions of who we can be in the world.

Gracyk sees rock as a mass art, open-ended and open to diverse (but not unlimited) interpretations. Recordings reach millions, drawing people together in communities of listeners who respond viscerally to its sound and intellectually to its messages. As an art form that proclaims its emotional authenticity and resistance to convention, rock music constitutes part of the cultural apparatus from which individuals mold personal and political identities. Going to the heart of this relationship between the music's role in its performers' and fans' self-construction, Gracyk probes questions of gender and appropriation. How can a feminist be a Stones fan or a straight man enjoy the Indigo Girls? Does borrowing music that carries a "racial identity" always add up to exploitation, a charge leveled at Paul Simon's Graceland? 

Ranging through forty years of rock history and offering a trove of anecdotes and examples, I Wanna Be Me, like Gracyk's earlier book, "should be cherished, and read, by rockers everywhere." (Salon)

From Alibris 

A book with the weighty sub-heading of ROCK MUSIC AND THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY might sound like it's not for the faint of heart. But though Theodore Gracyk's I WANNA BE ME explores the murky waters of critical rock music theory, the author never betrays his affection for the music with over-analysis. In chapters ranging from a study of the beginnings of modern rock music as a youthful means of self-identification embodied in the advent of the Rolling Stones, to how that music has changed the generations that have adopted it as their own, Gracyk masterfully treads the line between scholarly erudition and a fan's enthusiasm. He perceptively identifies one of the reasons for the Sex Pistols' breakup as Johnny Rotten's lack of a musical language that he could use as his own, having sacked Glen Matlock, the band's most musically expert member. He also intriguingly cites the radical differences between traditional art, like a painting in a museum around which an audience gathers, and what he calls "mass art," such as the CD, which actively seeks out its audience through marketing. Intellectually astute, Gracyk's critique opens the way to a deeper appreciation of the music's subtler nuances.




From Library Journal , January, 2002

In this follow-up to Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetics of Rock, Gracyk (philosophy, Minnesota State Univ., Moorhead) proves himself to be an extraordinary cognoscente of rock music. With his knowledgeable and well-presented arguments, he challenges readers to reconsider the stereotypes that many modern titans of cultural studies have slapped on rock music, e.g., that it isn't really music, that it is both sexist and racist, and that its commercial success and easy coziness with the corporate world clearly prove that it is naught but a Machiavellian scheme calculated to separate young fools from their (parents') money. To its great credit, this book also convincingly counters the charges of Timothy Taylor (among others) that Paul Simon's use of South African music and musicians in creating his lauded Graceland is blatant neocolonialist cultural exploitation. Gracyk's extensive evidence includes innumerable examples of African American "pure blues" musicians appropriating the bases of their classics (e.g., Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene") from "white" rural sources. His credible conclusion? Such cultural blends are a natural and integral process that have always been central to pop music. This book belongs on the shelf of almost every academic library and will also be an outstanding asset to either popular music or cultural studies collections. Bill Piekarski, Angelicus Webdesign, Lackawanna, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.



Rock ‘n’ Roll Is here to stay. It has been the most popular form of music for almost half a cen­tury and now with his latest book on the subject author Theodore Gracyk brilliantly examines Rock as mass art and how it affects us by helping to mold our personal identities.

Gracyk thoroughly discusses issues ranging from meaning and messages in Rock music (both intended and derived), Rock as mass art, musical appropriation, gender issues and the overall sense of identity that comes from listening to Rock music. He addresses many common theories and dissects them, thus debunking their faults and biases leaving room for his view of Rock 'n' Roll as an open medium celebrating diversity, freedom and open to numerous interpretations from various audiences. Charges such as racism, sexism and ex­ploitation levied against a wide range of different songs and artists are made to seem valid, but then are dispelled by use of logic and fact which create solid ground upon which Gracyk continues to build throughout as he delves deeper and deeper into the heart of what Rock music means to its au­dience. He arrives at a conclusion that is quite intriguing and sets a standard with which one is free to explore one's own tastes and individuality without necessarily categorizing oneself into a certain genre or ideology.

While the average Rock fan might not care to have their music "intellectualized" and may find the language a bit heady and rather formal, the book remains an excellent discourse on the sub­ject. It is essential for anyone who cares about what they take in and what they take to heart as their own. A thoughtful and thought provoking read which is refreshing in the face of others on the subject which concentrate on the negative con­notations of the music. N.M.J.


Author's description of I Wanna Be Me; Rock Music and the Politics of Identity

© 2002 Theodore Gracyk

From early work in subcultural studies through more recent books such as Reynolds and Press's The Sex Revolts (1995) and Sheila Whiteley's Sexing The Groove (1998), discussions of rock music have emphasized its capacity to articulate identity, both in the musician’s persona and in the life of fans. The emerging consensus holds that, contrary to its early ideology of personal liberation, rock is actually a reactionary and hegemonic force in popular culture. Race and gender have emerged as the major categories for analysis.

Focusing on the ways that meanings and thus identities are constructed in a mass art context, my analysis begins with a foreword that analyzes the first Sex Pistols release, the "Anarchy in the UK" single and its flip side, "I Wanna Be Me." Where the Sex Pistols confronted issues of personal identity within an existing tradition of rock, the rock bands who generated this framework for discourse faced a more radical problem of articulating identity. The identity articulated by a popular musician is seldom stable, for mass distribution of the music continuously recontextualizes it into new contexts of popular use. As an example, the first chapter examines the formation of the Rolling Stones in 1961 before moving to a broader range of cases that cover the 1960s to the present.

Digging out the theoretical foundations of the key arguments employed when rock is viewed through the lens of cultural studies, I identify and challenge the prevailing assumptions in these debates. Part One begins by distinguishing rock's status as popular music from its status as mass art, leading to implications about intertextuality in a mass market that encourages decontextualized and recontextualized listening. Part Two examines arguments that rock has become just another tool in cultural imperialism, while Part Three examines charges of rock's essential misogyny. Both sets of charges are rejected as theoretically unsupported and empirically dubious. "Guilty" parties such as the Rolling Stones are defended as producing mass art that delivers its pleasure in ways consistent with ideals of both cultural and personal autonomy.


While my work is explicitly positioned against a background of other work in popular music studies and cultural studies, my writing is distinctively influenced by my training in philosophy and by my continuing research in philosophy of music. My topics of media imperialism and gender are familiar ones within the field, but my approach is again distinctive, drawing on work in both philosophy of language and aesthetic theory. On the general level of theory, I concentrate on identifying and evaluating the assumptions and arguments dominating recent debates. Where plausible, I offer alternative perspectives for rethinking these topics. Many of my arguments are grounded in a series of extended examples, such as the Rolling Stones in relation to Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf, Bonnie Raitt, the Who's "My Generation," and Rockabilly and the British "Ted" movement. But the arguments also draw on scores of other examples of rock music, giving the book relevance to the full scope of rock music.

The Organization of the Book's Argument
Foreword: The Sex Pistols’ "I Wanna Be Me"

Part One: Frameworks

  • Chapter 1: Like A Rolling Stone
  • Chapter 2: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: Issues of Meaning
  • Chapter 3: Heard it Through the Grapevine
  • Chapter 4: You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me: Paradigms

Part Two: Issues of Appropriation

  • Chapter 5: All You’ve Got To Do Is Pick It Up
  • Chapter 6: Don't Play That Song
  • Chapter 7: Message in the Music
  • Chapter 8: Speaking in Tongues

Part Three: Gender

  • Chapter 9: Act Naturally
  • Chapter 10: Così Fan Tutte meets Tutti Frutti: Rock performs gender
  • Chapter 11: Rebel Rebel: proliferating identities
  • Chapter 12: Hello Stranger: Reaching the Uninitiated


Part One: Frameworks (Chapters One, Two, Three, Four)

Beginning with the case of the Rolling Stones and their emulation of Muddy Waters, Chapter One identifies features that position them as creators of mass art and not simply of popular music. Arguing that rock's intelligibility rests on the paradigmatic status of selected instances of recorded music, I defend a middle ground between supposing that rock "texts" are radically intertextual and assigning them stable, fixed meanings. Articulations of identity are thoroughly contextual, yet never arbitrary. Because musical meaning emerges only through the conventions of particular uses by members of the audience, specific songs and artists consistently underdetermine the identities they express. In Parts Two and Three this argument is brought to bear against essentialist assumptions about racist and misogynist identities in rock.

Chapter Three turns to another question of identity, that of the intellectual who theorizes about rock. I examine the prevailing suspicion that attempts to theorize popular culture are undercut by the cultural position of those doing the theorizing. Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground are offered as evidence that the gulf between high and low can be erased by a cultural practice. Rock musicians already violate discourse boundaries and, by their musical practices, embrace both sides of the high/low divide.

Recent work discussed in Part One includes:

  • Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford University Press, 1998)
  • Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Harvard University Press, 1996)
  • John Frow, Cultural Studies & Cultural Value (Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • Charles Hamm, Putting Popular Music In Its Place (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
  • Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital (Wesleyan University Press, 1996)
  • Edward Macan, Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture (Oxford University Press, 1997)
  • David Schwarz, et al., eds., Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture (University Press of Virginia, 1997)

Part Two: Issues of Appropriation (Chapters Five, Six, Seven, Eight)

I begin with cases in which four white musicians (Kurt Cobain, Paul Simon, George Harrison, and David Bowie) engaged in the appropriation of musical elements from other cultures and subcultures. Although rock would not exist without appropriation, such practices are widely criticized as racist, principally as exploiting African Americans. The major criticisms of such practices are reviewed. They are challenged both for factual inaccuracy and for dubious theoretical assumptions. (The most interesting charge is that such practices involve cultural genocide, and this charge is carefully distinguished from other, lesser charges against appropriation.) Appropriation involves a process of decontextualization followed by recontextualization, with meaning arising only in the second step; as such, the most serious problems with appropriation arise when the audience fails to regard music as meaningful discourse that is always directed from a specific time and place.

Recent work discussed in Part Two includes:

  • Amiri Baraka, The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (Morrow, 1987)
  • bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Between the Lines, 1992)
  • Charles Keil and Steven Feld, Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues (University of Chicago Press, 1994)
  • Timothy D. Taylor, Global Pop: World Music, World Markets (Routledge, 1997)
  • Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place (Verso, 1994)
  • Tony Mitchell, Popular Music and Local Identity: Rock, Pop and Rap in Europe and Oceania (Leicester University Press, 1996)
  • Michelle M. Moody-Adams, Fieldwork In Familiar Places: Morality, Culture, and Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1997)
  • William Eric Perkins, ed., Droppin' Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture (Temple University Press, 1996)
  • Thomas Swiss, et al., eds., Mapping the Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory (Blackwell, 1998)
  • John Tomlinson, Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991)

Part Three: Gender (Chapters Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve)

Despite the increasingly high profile of women in rock, rock is so closely associated with male sexuality that there is reason to doubt that it can accommodate a feminine subject. Reviewing proposals that a genuine "women's music" cannot draw on prevailing paradigms of rock musicianship, I identify and challenge essentialist assumptions that ground these arguments. Turning to recent ideas about the performative nature of identity, I contend that rock still creates an atmosphere of freedom in which listeners articulate many variations of "normal" gender identity.

Recent work discussed in Part Three includes:

  • Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (University of Minnesota Press, 1991)
  • Catharine A. MacKinnon, Only Words (Harvard University Press, 1993)
  • Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, eds., Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (Routledge, 1994)
  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990)
  • Neil Nehring, Popular Music, Gender, and Postmodernism: Anger Is an Energy (Sage Publications, 1997)
  • Cathy Schwichtenberg, ed., The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theory (Westview Press, 1993)
  • Sheila Whiteley, ed., Sexing The Groove (Routledge, 1997)

   Copyright © Theodore Gracyk 2001


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Last updated May 4, 2006