Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Review: Li'l Abner and Abba Gold

I had some time yesterday to read two "fluffy" books on pop culture. The first one is an oddball that I found at the library.


Somehow, a 1970 cultural studies book on Li'l Abner made it through many years of weeding. The strip ended in 1977, leaving people of my generation with a detritus of merchandising that would quickly be replaced with Peanuts and Garfield media tie-ins. I doubt anyone younger than myself knows of Dogpatch at all.

Not that they necessarily should. I've read a few "best of" collections, and they come off as, just, alright. Al Capp had a tendency to tell the audience the moral of the storyline, over and over again. It is funny and well drawn, but doesn't have the elegance of Peanuts, or even of that other continuing middle-class humor strip For Better or For Worse.

At it's height the strip did have some effects on mass culture, and added some nonsense words to the American language, but it's hard to make an argument that any of those effects were lasting. I can read this book as a historical document, but the author is writing in the present tense from the 1960s, when the mania for Dogpatch was fresh and visible.

Berger is attempting here to show that Li'l Abner is a reflection of American Society. The problem with this sort of argument is that, objectively, any form of communication reflects that original author's view of his audience, more than the audience itself. Additionally, with mass media, the audience is limited to a "choice" offered to them by corporate editors. There's a mention, for instance, of Italy's comic strips reflecting a more conservative view while adhering to a strict Moral Code. Berger doesn't seem to know about the similar American Comic Book Code, much less take into account the standards held by syndicates, newspaper editors or local censorship groups. If Americans are offered many variations on mediocrity, are they really choosing something that reflects their own views, or are they just reading to keep up with the water cooler conversations?

For this is a large part of the Li'l Abner image that Berger doesn't go into, the constant merchandising, contests and magazine interviews that Al Capp churned out. If this comic strip is a reflection of culture, than surely something must be said about how the readers are treated as a mindless crowd of consumers willing to buy anything with a Shmoo pictured on it.

Berger does much better when he examines Al Capp as part of traditional American humor writing, particularly as compared to Southwestern humorists such as Thorpe or Harris. There's also a brief look at Yiddish traditional humor and possible etymology for the word Shmoo. He then moves on to try to analyse the technique of the strip, which is interesting because Berger is working in an academic vacuum. It was obviously much easier for him to research the history of satire than to find any serious writings on comic strips.


In most rock criticism, the concept of "keeping it real" vs. "selling out" usually takes precedence over any actual weighing of musical ability. With this prejudice in place, albums that are perceived as whole conceptions are analyzed while collections (which I'd wager that most consumers actually purchase) are seen as not worthy of discussion. And any mention of the fact that this music exists in order to generate money would destroy the illusion of artistic individuality.

So Vincentelli has an interesting battle to fight before even getting down to a discussion of the album itself. She has to show that not only can a "greatest hits" collection be worthy of analysis, even over "real" albums in an artist's catalog, but that something like Abba Gold can have an important cultural impact. Which she does with great a plumb and humor.

For despite the best efforts of the manly, Rolling Stone-led music press, the taste for Abba had a revival in the 1990s that coincided with the release of Gold. And really, was the co-current trend for Seattle rock bands any less contrived than the renewed popularity of a band associated with gay sub-culture and disco fashion? As Vincentelli points out Abba may actually be more "rock" and "rebellious" than most of the popular music of that decade.

When getting to the discussion of the collection itself, the author groups the songs according to what albums they originated from (or, in the case of a few orphan singles, would have originated from). I found that this led to my listening to the songs in a new way, having grown very used to the Gold playlist order. And I highly recommend listening to the album along with the book, with a good pair of headphones.

As a calculated pop group, Abba rewards close listening more than many rock bands, with weird layers of vocals and instruments. Vincentelli takes us through these orchestrations, pointing out the repeating tricks that Benny and Bjorn used over the course of the represented time period. We also get an interesting look at which tracks were Agnetha or Frida songs, and whether their personalities were revealed in any way by these vocal roles.

In the end, this book is a bit of a love poem written for a popular band which is still somehow considered obscure and marginalized. People who believe in the mythology of rock probably won't be swayed by the context presented in Vincentelli's argument, but anyone interested in the intersection of commerce and art should give this a look.

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