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LitMonkey Special Review: “Entertainment!” by Kevin J.H. Dettmar

April 1, 2014

This is a review of an Advanced Readers Copy of Gang of Four’s Entertainment! by Kevin J.H. Dettmar, published by Bloomsbury on March 27, 2014.

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I don’t know if it’s merely a coincidence of the volumes I’ve chosen to read, or if a trend is actually emerging, but it seems that the 33-1/3 series is heading in new direction. Older entries in the series were often (though to be fair, not always) super-fan accounts of why a particular album resonated for them. Sometimes they were even offered in the form of a novella or coming-of-age memoir meant to evoke the feelings of the album without actually touching upon the music. Then last month I read Gina Arnold’s forthcoming entry into the series, about Liz Phair’s controversial 1993 debut album Exile in Guyville. I wrote that “Arnold takes the series in a direction I haven’t seen before. She is a super-fan for sure, but her analysis of the album comes from a place of intellectual curiosity, rather than mere music appreciation. It is an academic piece about a record that didn’t sell very well but whose cultural impact was significant.” Arnold writes about culture, about a time and a place called “Guyville”, and a lot about “third-wave feminism.”

Like Arnold, Kevin J.H. Dettmar takes on the challenge of writing about music from an intellectual point of view. Unlike her though, he goes through the effort of deconstructing each song to illustrate how it fits within the central themes that he is proposing, namely that (1) Entertainment! is as much a pop album as a post-punk album, and (2) Gang of Four is the ideal “political” band – they make you think without forcing their ideology upon you. I will circle back to the first point in a bit, but first I’ll focus on point 2, as Dettmar does for the majority of his book.

Dettmar summarizes his view of the album thusly: “Entertainment! is a political record: as pitilessly political as they come. But politics isn’t, or isn’t primarily, the content: politics is its medium, its very form. The album doesn’t preach political lessons: it models political analysis, teaches, by example, a supple and subtle form of political theory. And that shit is powerful.” The concluding paragraph of the book says it even more succinctly: “Entertainment! isn’t an album to think about […] There are probably a dozen albums I think about more. Entertainment! , rather, is an album to think with. And that’s way better.” If one believes this claim about Entertainment! then I agree that it is one of the most powerful albums of all time. In dissecting each song on the album through the use of certain “keywords”, as defined by Welsh literary critic Raymond Williams in his 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Dettmar makes an impassioned and very persuasive case. However, the nagging thought that I had throughout – one that I often have when I hear scholarly takes on, for example, Shakespeare – is that Dettmar may be reading more into the music than is actually there.

To be frank, this wasn’t an easy book to read. Dettmar is probably more of an intellectual than 99% of those listening to your average post-punk record (including me). As he explains here, “In my ‘day job,’ I’m a scholar of modernist literature: I write about art made by dead folks. James Joyce, whose writing was the focus of my first book, died almost two decades before I was born.” With that bit of biography in mind, this book reads almost exactly like you’d expect – Entertainment! is given the kind of treatment and analysis usually reserved for the likes of Joyce, Shakespeare, or T.S. Eliot (all among the many literary giants cited in the book).

When all is said and done, I’m not sure that I agree with everything that Dettmar claims. I hear the points that he is making, and you can certainly hear the music his way, but for me Gang of Four remains a staunchly political, radical, anti-capitalist post-punk band. I think one could dissect any number of the excellent albums from that era – The Clash’s London Calling immediately comes to mind – or later college rock albums from “smart” bands like the Minutemen or Sonic Youth, and go through a similar process yielding a similar result. Entertainment! may make you think, but it isn’t the only album from 1978-88 that made you do so, nor does it particularly stands apart as saying something entirely different from the post-punk message of the time. Moreover, in respect of his other claim – that Go4 is a quasi-pop band and that this is a quasi-pop album – I am again compelled to buy his argument but not quite to the extent that he tries to sell it. As many times as I listen to it – and I must have listened to the album 20 times while reading this book – Entertainment! doesn’t seem to be breaking any new ground. It’s not an insult to say that Go4 sounds like a poor man’s Joy Division (in my world that’s high praise) but I can’t say much more than that. Similarly, a listen to Boys Don’t Cry, the Cure’s 1980 compilation album, gives me a lot of the same feel as Entertainment!, even if its politics are different. Go4 may have inspired many popular bands – Paul Lester makes the argument in his book Gang of Four: Damaged Gods (cited by Dettmar) that among certain rock musicians, Gang of Four mean as much as the Velvet Underground did to a previous generation – but Dettmar doesn’t go far enough in illustrating that to convince me that they were a highly influential band. There is virtually no mention at all of the many bands from across the musical spectrum who either cite Go4 as an inspiration (R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana) or those whose influence can be heard in their music (Minutemen, Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand).

I’m not sure Dettmar cares whether I’m totally convinced or whether he’s merely got me thinking. To his credit, despite laboring page over page to passionately make his points, he acknowledges that this is the way he hears the music and may not be shared by everyone. Almost by definition it can’t be a universally shared view, since so much of it is based on the mondegreen, a term I didn’t know before Dettmar introduced me to it.[1] The author sometimes gives as much weight to the lyrics he thought he heard as he does to the lyrics actually sung by Jon King or Andy Gill. His claim is that this is the way that the band would have wanted it, or else why make their otherwise intelligent lyrics so unintelligible?[2] Is this actually his clever way of saying that the mondegreen is the lyric (or that they’re both the lyric, in the way that light is both a particle and a wave)? Was Gang of Four really relying on quantum physics theories like duality to get their message across? Oh no, Dettmar now has me thinking like him.

Obviously that’s not likely the case. Even with Dettmar’s (slightly) more modest claims, he admits that the band members themselves may not see the music the way he does. He says of interviewing them, “Asking them questions, venturing theories, risking opinions? The prospect terrified me. In part because, though the whole argument wasn’t yet clear in my head, I knew that mine would be a rather personal interpretation of the album, one I could hardly expect the band members to corroborate or sanction.” Fortunately he gets over this worry and goes forward with his convictions, which ultimately makes for a very gratifying book. Entertainment! still isn’t my favorite album of all time, or even of the post-punk era, but I’m sufficiently convinced that it’s an important album in a way that I didn’t recognize before and that it belongs in the conversation among the best albums of that period. After all, who am I to say that Dettmar isn’t entirely correct? Like him, I’m just another listener, but unlike him I’m one who had never heard of Raymond Williams or Keywords. When asked, both King and Gill confirmed that they were familiar with Williams’ writings when they wrote Entertainment! Score one for Dettmar, the expert listener.

Thinking again about Gina Arnold’s Exile in Guyville, I hearken back to the words I wrote concluding my review: “I’m not sure that [the book] achieved the goal that the best of these books do for me – that is, make me like the album more – but it does something more important than that. It had me thinking critically about Exile in Guyville as a piece of art. As a thinking man’s music fan, with a special place in my heart for the alternative ‘90s, I couldn’t ask for more.” Entertainment! (the book) shares many of the same attributes as Guyville (the book), but in this case, in addition to achieving something more, it did make me like the album more. It showed me that there is more to Entertainment! than meets the eye. It didn’t have me thinking critically about the album as a piece of art, it merely got me thinking critically about the album. Period. This is yet another way to enjoy (certain) records and in this case it mostly works. Another fine entry in the 33-1/3 series.

 

[1] For those who don’t know, from Wikipedia: A mondegreen is the mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near-homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning. Mondegreens are most often created by a person listening to a poem or a song; the listener, being unable to clearly hear a lyric, substitutes words that sound similar, and make some kind of sense.

[2] Writes Dettmer: “[Entertainment!’s] intermittent incomprehensibility has strategic importance: the mondegreen is a figure for drawing the listener into the song, insisting that he confess just what it is that he hears.”

 

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