It's not just that she says nice things: "the book that gives the best sense of the way that it felt to live through the decade—the confusion, desperation, and anxiety, but also at times the exhilaration—is Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive" or "Cowie’s book captures the contradictory nature of 1970s politics better than almost any other ever written about the period." That's nice. Very nice. But what makes this one stand out is her command of the subject matter, that quality of her prose, and the sharpness of her thinking. Her own excellent book on conservative, anti-New Deal, thought, Invisible Hands, has also made her aware of the dangers of naturalizing liberalism. As she says in the review, there is a risk of "making conservatism appear to be an accidental choice, instead of something deeply rooted in American politics." Couldn't agree more.
Phillips-Fein also gets what I'm trying to say about the distinct limits on the postwar working class identity even while lamenting its demise: "In the final pages of his rich book, Cowie raises the idea that perhaps the loss of the old working-class ideal is not simply to be mourned. The disappearance of the union world of the mid-twentieth century, with its emphasis on contracts and collective bargaining, could someday, he argues, open up the possibility for a more expansive, creative vision of class." Yup.
Meantime, over at the venerable old Virginia Quarterly Review, Oscar Villalon does an even handed Cowie and Stein match up calling them "complimentary books." In an essay called "The Age of Inequality," he calls Stayin' Alive an "engrossing, illuminating book." Most importantly, he quotes one of my favorite lines, a comparison between the popular mythologies of the hippies' Woodstock and the rednecks' Muskogee, Oklahoma:
"One was real, the other surreal; one worked, the other played; one did the labor, the other did the criticism; one smoked dope, the other drank whisky; one built, the other destroyed; one was for survival, the other was for the revolution; one died in wars, the other protested wars..."
Richard Greenwald, writing for In These Times, calls the 1970s "the Rodney Dangerfield of decades—they get no respect." What I like about Greenwald's piece, like Phillips-Fein's, is it hinges on the idea, only implicit in the book, "that the New Deal may not be the natural political state or norm we have come to believe." That's the essence of my new project with Nick Salvatore, called The Long Exception.
Finally, I'm thrilled to be getting the attention of as serious a music critic as Eric Weisbard (an EMP organizer and editor), even if he is on my case for practicing music criticism without a license (see December 2010 issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies). You can easily take me to task for leaving all sorts of stuff out of a book that is at best one-eighth about music. Or for not getting my disco pitch perfect. I'm even willing to take my lumps as a pathetic, hetero white-guy Brucehead (though I would have to argue that there is a hell of a lot more democratic potential in that kind of fandom than being a Trekie, come on!)* You might even convince me that there is a case to be made for Charley Pride, the sole black entrant into the Grand Ole Opry, as meaning something though I'm not quite sure what.
You can do all that, Mr. Weisbard, but dare not say that I am "not a Chuck Berry kind of music fan." Take it back.
I couldn't find footage of him playing the Carter White House in '79, but here he is with the long hair rock and rollers trying to follow his lead in '72:
*I follow Joel Dinerstein's argument that whatever makes Springsteen great, counterintuitively, is his roots in soul music. See: Dinerstein, "The Soul Roots of Bruce Springsteen's American Dream," American Music [Winter 2007]).