Her solution was deep reporting. She interviewed the band, the producers, marketers, fellow critics, and social historians—not to mention the girl’s mother. The argument she staked out was that Flyover Rock creates a fantasy space out of time and political context, in which fans suspend their awareness of real-world tensions. In such an environment, she suggested, an otherwise discerning middle-aged mother can enjoy sexually explicit music with her teenage daughter, without attaching any political or even social meaning to it.

The veracity of Powers’s argument is almost secondary to the case her method makes for the authority of professional criticism. The depth of her reporting distinguishes it from the opinion-driven environment of the blogosphere, where her initial, flawed assumptions about the band and its politics would have found a natural home. And she breaks newspaper convention—which typically makes clear distinctions between news and social criticism—by delivering an authoritative appraisal of how the culture is working. What she didn’t do, as she might have done at the Voice in the early 1990s, was zero in on the band’s troubling gender politics.

Many writers who share Powers’s ambition to use mass culture to develop social arguments have taken refuge in the universities, where they may find it easier to examine the political implications of their research. Josh Kun, for instance, is a professor of journalism and American studies and the director of The Popular Music Project at the University of Southern California. In his book, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, he contends that pop music remains a powerful medium of political and cultural opposition in Mexican immigrant communities.

Kun begins his book with a scene of Los Tigres del Norte singing their Mexican-American liberation anthem, “Mis Dos Patrias” (“My Two Homelands”), in the courtroom after their naturalization ceremony. He then proceeds to place the song in the context of California’s immigration debate, which came to a head with the 1994 passage of Proposition 187, which denied health and education benefits to undocumented workers. Kun’s argument: thanks to current immigration policy, Latinos are formulating a political identity in which they see themselves as in, but not of, America.

Like his journalistic colleagues, Kun is still experimenting with the use of pop music as a tool for contemporary cultural analysis. In many cases, he starts with a specific song, then excavates the historical, cultural, political, and human arguments around it. At the moment, though, it’s easy for such individual efforts to get lost in the media sprawl.

Here is where the lessons of Rolling Stone and The Village Voice are most instructive. One reason these publications fired the public imagination, and why they are still cited and debated, is because they possessed an identifiable theory of the significance of pop music. In each instance, their politics drove their critical appraisals. Perhaps the first task in reestablishing the value of the critical perspective is to reverse that equation—to announce the authority of the critical method first, and then grapple with the political implications of the work. That would be an insurgency to reckon with. Would the pretensions of such an enterprise put it at odds with the populist instinct that first sparked pop-music criticism? Perhaps. Can writers be trusted not to be blinkered by its conceits? Probably not. Then again, all the fun of writing and reading about a figure as resonant and infinitely malleable as John Lennon lies in the distinct possibility of being wrong.

 

Jacob Levenson is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of The Secret Epidemic: The Story of AIDS and Black America.