Monday, December 6, 2010

But Is It Garbage? by Stephen L. Hamelman

Spoilers. . .but it's nonfiction.

But Is It Garbage?
Author: Stephen L. Hamelman
Year of Publication: 2004
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 272
First Line: "American culture is trash culture."
Summary: Hamelman says that "analysis of rock as trash is needed because it reveals a fundamental yet complex interrelationship between trash, both literal and figurative . . and rock music and culture." Given that premise, one might expect lively discussions of Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, and George Clinton, whose lyrics revel in life's trashy aspects. One would be disappointed, however. Hamelman instead lavishes attention on the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, and their hoary chroniclers, the likes of Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus. Hamelman apparently suffers from the view that most of the most important rock was produced by bands popular in the late 1960s, and he oddly avoids black rock other than Hendrix's. If you can forgive that attitude, that sin of omission, and Hamelman's overwhelming fascination with Lou Reed's Berlin (thank Jah it's not Metal Machine Music), Hamelman's framework for discussing rock's cultural appeal makes for a fairly worthwhile book.


Review: Written by professor of English at Coastal Carolina University and drummer Steven L. Hamelman, But Is It Garbage?: On Rock and Trash explores the connection between rock ‘n’ roll music, lyrics, and lifestyle, and literal, tangible trash. The piece comes in three parts: Trashed, Wasted, and Saved. Each of these sections explains how lyrics, musical style, musician’s attitudes and lifestyles, and the disposability of the media on which the music is released reflect trash culture, particularly of the United States.

Much of “Trashed,” the largest and opening section in the book, discusses the literally disposable and wasteful natures of the media on which rock ‘n’ roll is and has been recorded. Hamelman cites records (and their tendency to warp, thus becoming useless), cassette tapes (and how often the tape is “eaten” by a player), and CDs (which, while fairly durable compared to the former media listed, are wasteful in packaging). The author includes statistics which illustrate how wasteful the packaging of CDs is, as well as pointing out how the consumerism of America results in rock ‘n’ roll being produced at uneconomical rates and quantities, thus creating even more waste.

In “Trashed,” Hamelman profiles songs as well as artists, as he creates a list of “Top Trash Forty,” listed in chronological order. Some of these songs include Sewer Trout’s “Garbage,” Korn’s “Trash,” and Marilyn Manson’s “Disposable Teens.” Helman admits this list does not include every trash-related song, but offers forty songs with a brief illustration of each song and their context. When speaking of specific artists, much of the author’s focus is on Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground. Hamelman also concentrates largely on the Beatles, spending a length of the text on the members’ opinion on their music – often, unsurprisingly, believing it is “trash.” John Lennon specifically is said to have trashed not only his own work, but also that of Paul McCartney, even in McCartney’s solo work. The quality of the music as well as its tendency to not last in the case of any rock ‘n’ roll artist is, according to Hamelman, essential to the trash culture which surrounds the genre and its many subgenres.

In the second section titled “Wasted,” Hamelman explores the “wasted” lives of rock ‘n’ roll, including Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. He explains how their talent was wasted as both, among others, died at young ages before, he argues in Hendrix’s case, the peak of success and talent had been reached. Both artists, as well as others who ended similarly, would have gone on to create even more artistically significant works, had they not died so young, thus their talent was wasted. Throughout this section, Hamelman also points out to readers that death is a common theme in the lyrics of rock ‘n’ roll. The theme of death is also related to trash culture as death and decay are often considered to be the same thing and anything that is decaying must be waste, according to mainstream culture.

Finally, in “Saved,” Hamelman discusses the artistic merit of many of the rock ‘n’ roll performers he spoke of in previous sections. One instance he mentions is how one teacher “incorporated” Rage Against the Machine into lessons on The Grapes of Wrath. He compares some rock ‘n’ roll artists to well-known and respected composers and novelists. Much of this section also discusses the similarities of “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament,” a short story by Willa Cather, and the characteristics of rock ‘n’ roll, thus drawing the conclusion that rock ‘n’ roll is more or less designed for adolescents, as Paul, who exhibits many of the same characteristics, is an adolescent. Hamelman also points out how just as Paul was saved by art – the story was written before the time of rock ‘n’ roll – so were many of the rock ‘n’ roll artists including Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Patti Smith, and Keith Richards.

Hamelman’s study of rock ‘n’ roll and its relation to garbage is a thorough, academic piece. Hamelman avoids using “et cetera,” making his lists as complete as possible and explains the rock ‘n’ roll and garbage conceit as fully as possible. His argument is clear as is his process. Readers will find themselves thinking about the work’s implications and what Hamelman’s arguments mean for the future of rock ‘n’ roll. Readers familiar with today’s music and technology should question what iTunes and similar non-physical music media means for the trash culture, or what covering – and therefore recycling – songs fits into Hamelman’s thesis, in order to make the piece all the more thought-provoking.

Worst part: I felt the argument was a little far-fetched.

Best part: Despite that it was far-fetched, the idea was really original.

Grade: C

Other Books by This Author: None.

71 / 50 books. 142% done!

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