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Music Friday: Lester Bangs and Writing About Music

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Music critic Lester Bangs

Lester Bangs was born on December 14, 1948. Bangs wrote about popular music, and he was one of the most influential music critics of the 1970s. He wrote for Rolling Stone, Creem, The Village Voice, and a variety of other magazines.

Bangs's style was often irreverent and devoted to tearing down the idea that rock stars were special people. He once said that he liked to begin an interview with "the most insulting question I could think of" as a way of avoiding the "groveling obeisance" of so much music writing.

Bangs was only 33 when he died of a drug overdose, so his body of work is relatively small. The best of it is collected in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (e-book | print). In his honor, this week's Music Friday will take a look at some of the other music criticism and history available in our collection. We can only begin to scratch the surface of what's available, but here are a few of the many titles worth exploring.

Several critics have published collections of their best short work, including Anthony DeCurtis's Rocking My Life Away (print) and Robert Palmer's Blues and Chaos (e-book | print). The title of Jessica Hoppes's The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (e-book) is a regrettable indication of how heavily dominated by men rock criticism has been.

Some writers have attempted to tackle the whole of rock history in a single volume. Ed Ward's The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963 (e-book | print) and Bob Stanley's Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! (e-book | print) are entertaining and comprehensive; Ward is American and Stanley is British, so their books offer different perspectives on some of the lesser-known acts from each side of the Atlantic. Greil Marcus tells The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs (e-book | print), and David Hajdu widens the scope to include pre-rock pop music in Love for Sale (e-book | print).

4 colorful book covers about Lester Bangs

If you'd rather focus on the history of your favorite type of music, there are lots of fine single-genre histories. Andrew Earles's Gimme Indie Rock (e-book), Joachim-Ernst Berendt's The Jazz Book (e-book | print), Nick Tosches's Country (e-book | print), and Matt Doeden's American Latin Music (e-book | e-audio) are good starting places for those genres. The early years of hip-hop are the subject of Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop (e-book | e-audio | print), and Darryl W. Bullock explores "100 years of LGBT music" in David Bowie Made Me Gay (e-book | print).

Want even more finely detailed sub-genres? Alan Brent Houghtaling explores the saddest pop songs in This Will End in Tears (print); Graeme Thomson looks at the history of songs about "death by murder, suicide, fire, flood, drugs, disease, and general misadventure" in I Shot A Man in Reno (print); and Edward J. Whitelock's Apocalypse Jukebox (print) focuses on the surprisingly rich history of the end of the world in music.

Writers have explored a wide range of ideas by writing about music. In Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution (e-book), Dick Weissman looks at the intersection of music and politics; Denise Sullivan's Keep on Pushing (e-book | print) narrows the focus even further to look at the protest music of the civil rights movement. Ann Powers considers the relationship between popular music and sexuality in Good Booty (e-book | e-audio | print), and Steven Hyden looks at the great musical rivalries in Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me (e-book | print).

Nick Coleman's Voices (e-book) looks at how and why the specific voices of certain singers have such power over our emotions. Chuck Eddy argues in Terminated for Reasons of Taste (print) that we can learn as much from the "losers" of music history as we can from the winners. Nadine Hubbs looks at the relationship between two groups we don't often think of together in Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (e-book | print); and in Let's Talk About Love (print), Carl Wilson wonders why Celine Dion provokes such strong reaction from both her fans and her detractors.