In March, Amy Coddington sat down with Jack Hamilton for a spirited and wide-ranging conversation about Jack’s recent book, Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination (Harvard, 2016). The book explores how rock and roll became coded as a “white” genre during the 1960s, challenging the conventional narrative that the racially inclusive style of rock and roll transformed into serious rock music through the musical breakthroughs of white individual geniuses. Instead, Jack observes that black and white artists were in a broader musical dialog than has been previously acknowledged. His examination of musical influences across color lines reveals how musical authenticity was constructed differently according to race. For whites, musical practice depended on individual creative ingenuity, while black musicians were expected to express the collective black musical tradition. With a unique focus on how critical discourse shaped the racial identity of rock and roll, the book combines cultural history with music analysis, shining light on the ways critics reified the musical color line just as musicians were muddying the waters between racially identified musical styles.
Amy Coddington: Your book tells an incredibly compelling story about how rock and roll became “white.” When and how did you come up with the idea for this book?
Jack Hamilton: It’s a topic I’d been thinking about for a long time. I have a background as a musician and I spent a few years in my late teens/early twenties as a professional musician. As a young white person who listened to and played a lot of music that was not made by white people, I sometimes attracted weird remarks and things like that. There was always this sense of like “well, you’re white, why aren’t you playing rock music?” or “why aren’t you listening to rock music?” Which made me start to wonder where that logic came from. Because even at that age I knew enough about the history of rock and roll to think that was a very weird idea. But at the same time, it seemed totally reasonable to the people making it. So from an early age, I’ve been thinking a lot about how musical genre maps onto ideas about identity, the idea that certain kinds of people make certain kinds of music or listen to certain kinds of music.
It really wasn’t until graduate school that I specifically got interested in this particular topic and time period. In my first year of graduate school, I wrote a seminar paper about the Rolling Stones in the late 1960s, and while doing research for that paper, I started to see the contours of ultimately what became the dissertation and the book. It struck me as something that… it wasn’t a story that I had seen really fully told anywhere in a way that I felt was thorough. There are certainly a lot of people who have written about rock and roll and race and have done really excellent work, but with this particular story in this particular time period, I found that there was often this moment of separation or segregation placed in the 1970s. Scratching the surface it became clear to me that it happened significantly earlier. That felt important, that the ‘60s are massively consequential musical decade in terms of all the things that are happening from an artistic and commercial standpoint. It’s really interesting that this other thing is happening in that moment too.
AC: One of the things that strikes me as interesting about this book is your use of sources — you have a whole chapter about a small newspaper in Minnesota. How did the source material affect the way that you decided to tell this story?
JH: I do a lot with writing, and I do a fair amount of musical analysis too. I tried to put what people are saying about the music up against the “music itself.” That, along with the stories that people are focusing on in this period, the narratives that are coming out in writing. Part of that, actually, is from my extensive background as a music journalist. I’ve been doing that since I was in college, and working in that field makes you very aware of the way that critics and discourse shape understanding about music. Or at least they like to think that they are doing so.
Another thing that’s really interesting in this period is the rise of rock criticism. Rolling Stone starts in 1967, Crawdaddy starts a year earlier, Richard Goldstein is writing for the Village Voice, Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau… all of the legendary first generation of rock writers start in this period. The rise of that as a literary form was very interesting to me too, and the way that had a real impact on the way people thought about and listened to the music, because it gave it an intellectual validity.
AC: Have you found that your work as a music critic has changed a result of seeing the way critics affect musical practice or the way listeners listen to music?
JH: I think critics impact listeners more than they impact musicians. Some musicians read their critics, more so than they would admit. But particularly in the ‘60s, I don’t think artists like the Beatles, or Dylan, or even the Stones are doing what they’re doing with an eye for “what is X publication going to say?” I definitely learned a lot about the history of rock writing when working on this book. One thing that’s funny is most of the music journalism I’ve done is not rock journalism. I got to read a lot of writing for this book that was really great and gave me an appreciation for all that came before.
You also encounter a lot of stuff that you’re like “yikes!” It’s made me a more careful and aware critic. And I do think criticism’s changed a lot. One of the things that’s really striking about rock writing in the 1960s — and this very much relates to the development in the book — is that it’s extremely white and extremely male. I think now, music writing has a richer, diverse, and varied array of voices, which is great. There still could stand to be a lot more, but the landscape has changed pretty dramatically from where it was in the 1960s.
AC: You write in the beginning of the book that one of your goals is to “suggest ways to hear this music differently, more complexly, and more clearly: in other words, to hear it better” (7). What songs or artists in particular have you come to hear differently because of your work on this project?
JH: I would like to think all of them! One of the things with the ‘60s is that it’s such a massively important decade, and there’s so much myth. A lot of these musicians that I write about are still among the most famous: Dylan, Aretha, the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix. These are people who you hear all the time, and they become so familiar. One of the things I wanted to do with the book was to try to bring back an understanding that all music, no matter how famous it gets, no matter how culturally ubiquitous it is, most of it starts with just people in a room together. People in a room together, at a specific moment, in a specific context, and they’re human beings!
Not to name drop, but another recent book that does a great job of this is Charles Hughes’ book Country Soul. He’s trying to take the mythology of Southern soul music, and demystify it, bring it back to the thought that these are human beings. Learning a lot about the specifics of the music, who’s in the room at what time, what’s going on, trying to get into this creative processes in people’s heads: What are they listening to? What are they aiming to do?
There’s this way that, particularly with figures like Dylan and the Beatles, the genius aspect gets so emphasized: “the Beatles changed everything, Dylan changed everything.” I think this presumes a vacuum, which is first of all wrong; obviously, no one is making art in a vacuum. But if you encountered them in this period, those musicians would be the first to tell you all of the stuff they were listening to. That’s what makes a great musician. Great musicians, I think, are sponges. They’re listening constantly. I was trying to bring that in and excavate what I hear is the creative conversation that is happening in this period, as a way of shining lights on connections and hearing influences and bringing a spotlight to things that haven’t been talked about yet.
AC: One of my favorite parts of the book is when you talk about the musical influence that the Motown bassist James Jamerson had on the Beatles. When I re-listened to some of the songs you mentioned, the commonalties are pretty striking. For example, you write that Paul McCartney’s bass line on “Nowhere Man” “[makes] heavy use of Jamersonian octave intervals and anticipated downbeats” (146). These are similar musical techniques that Jamerson uses on the verse of Martha and the Vandella’s “Nowhere to Run.”
JH: Writing about Jamerson was a really rewarding part of this book; I write pretty extensively about him in that chapter. I think of Jamerson as one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century, and there’s only been one book written about him. Standing in the Shadows of Motown is great, but it’s not really a traditional biography, let alone an academic work. It’s great being able to point to this musician who hasn’t been written about that much. I first found out about James Jamerson while hanging out with bass players; they say “this is the guy, it all comes from him.” I think of him as to the electric bass as to what Hendrix is to the electric guitar. He comes along and all of a sudden, everyone wants to play like him.
AC: Another interesting thing you do in this book is make a connection across the pond, the British-American story. Typically we think about the Beatles crossing over here, and blues artists crossing over the other way. Can you talk a little about how race plays into this?
JH: There’s been a tendency in American writing, when British artists come up, to sort of graft our expectations for race onto them. This is not to say that Britain was at all a racial innocent, but it was a pretty different context. Sometimes we see people talk about Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger in the same sentence as white imitators. There’s some truth to that, but they’re coming from really different backgrounds. Even Mick Jagger and John Lennon are themselves coming from different backgrounds. Liverpool is a port city, meaning that the Beatles come from a very different context than London. Paul McCartney talks about all the different types of music he heard as a kid in Liverpool, which we don’t think about in London as much during this period. The other thing is that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, England is experiencing a really profound shift in its racial makeup, with immigration from the former colonies. A fascinating story that I don’t really get to talk about in this book is that in 1964 England sees its first massive Jamaican pop hit, “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie Small. The popularity of Caribbean music continues through the rest of the ‘60s. That’s where “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by the Beatles comes from: “Desmond” in that song is an homage to the Jamaican musician Desmond Dekker, and this is happening in England in a way that’s totally not happening in the States yet. Mick Jagger’s experience with blues music is fundamentally different than Elvis’s, because one grows up in London and one grows up in Memphis. And both situations are different from Buddy Holly’s.
So broad questions must be asked: What was the relationship of British youth culture to racial thinking in the 1950s? (This is what the second chapter is largely about.) What’s the milieu that the Rolling Stones really come out of? How are people in that scene thinking about race? They’re thinking about it in really intense and kind of weird ways, in ways that are pretty different than, say, participants in the US folk revival are thinking about it.
AC: At the beginning of the book, you gesture towards the “disco sucks” protests of the late 1970s, and how the denunciation of disco is just another manifestation of the whiteness (and maleness) of rock. Moving forward, how do you think the standards of authenticity and musical individuality play out in American popular music more broadly? You argue that authenticity means two different things, according to race: for African American artists it means coming out of a collective, for white artists, it’s about individuality. How does this affect music in the 1980s-1990s?
JH: I don’t want to make too broad a claim, because the specifics really matter, but I do think broadly speaking, you can see certain trends in hip hop as being a response to what happened with rock. Hip hop has, for the most part, maintained a fundamentally black identity. There have certainly been white rappers, and successful ones, but they’re still seen as white rappers. You don’t qualify when a rock star is white. There are a lot of reasons for that, and I don’t want to say that it’s solely because of this, but hip hop took steps to maintain a particular cultural identity. The other thing about hip hop is that it prizes originality. It is so important for an MC or a producer. Being a biter in hip hop is the worst thing you can be accused of — or, at least it was until pretty recently.
AC: And hip hop, especially in its earlier period, was really about this sentiment of “we don’t want what happened to rock to happen to us.”
JH: There are a number of things in hip hop that serve as bulwarks against this happening. At the same time, the cultural context of hip hop is pretty different. The biggest things to me are: 1) rock and roll is always mass culture. The earliest emergences of that term are linked to mass culture; it’s never really linked to a subculture. 2) rock and roll, from the very early uses of the term, is interracial. You have white and black performers. It’s not entirely accurate to say that rock and roll starts out as exclusively black. It’s always had country influences. Whereas hip hop has strong Caribbean influence, and the practice starts off as a subculture. The big bang of hip hop is usually placed in 1973 with Kool Herc, and it’s six years before it emerges into the broader popular consciousness—that’s an important gap.
AC: In some ways, your book fits into a recent line of scholarship which troubles the rockist mode of popular music studies. I’m interested in the decline of rockism, especially when I think about how my students interact with music. As a teacher, how do you find that your students encounter rockism and/or poptimism?
JH: I don’t think my students really do at all, because I think rockism has ceased to be a prevailing mode of mainstream music criticism. It’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, it just doesn’t exist in the reviews that my students read. I can barely think of any critics for mainstream publications who are currently covering pop music who are rockist. If anything, I think the opposite is true. A section of my book is called “What Was Rockism?,” which is sort of a little glib. But as a critical disposition, it is something of an artifact as this point. There are still critics kicking around who engage in it…
AC: …And music scholars who engage with it.
JH: In academia, it is probably more pronounced, just because there’s such an obsession with writing about Dylan. And frankly, a lot of the discourse around Bruce Springsteen really smacks of that to me, you know, aging white males, left-intellectual who are talking about Springsteen as the last truth. I remember a few years ago, a writer who I like — not a music writer, more of a politics writer — wrote a piece that was like “How Bruce Springsteen Won the Election for Barack Obama.” That’s so ridiculous. But I think it’s kind of a relic. With students, I don’t really bring up rockism very much in my classes unless there’s some reason to. The idea that there would be critics who think Coldplay is fundamentally more worthwhile than Drake because they plays guitars… that would strike them as self-evidently silly.
AC: And when it comes up in the Grammys, for example, which is where for my students they really see it happening, they just think it’s a joke.
JH: Totally. I did have some really interesting conversations with students after this year’s Grammys. What’s the cultural itch that Adele scratches? It gets into some sort of rockist stuff, like “She really sings, no auto-tune, etc.” I wrote this somewhere after the Grammys, Adele’s like what Eric Clapton Unplugged was to people back in the early ‘90s, as this sort of packaged authenticity. To me, it’s so boring, but to Grammy voters — who are kind of a stodgy group — she’s intelligible: “She’s a super talented singer.” It does bother me immensely that all of the musicians who influence Adele were never given a Grammy. That’s pretty fucked up. But the Grammys are so transparently out of touch.
Jack Hamilton is assistant professor of American Studies and Media Studies at the University of Virginia. He is also the pop critic for Slate magazine, and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, NPR, Transition, ESPN, Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications.
Amy Coddington is a PhD candidate in the Department of Music at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation examines the racial politics of hip hop’s crossover to a mainstream audience in the late 1980s and early 1990s via programming on Top 40 radio stations.