A new spin
A writer looks to redeem the much-maligned genre of 1950s pop and thus understand her parents' failed marriage
Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair With '50s Pop Music
By Karen Schoemer
Free Press, 241 pp., $25
Karen Schoemer begins ''Great Pretenders," an ambitious medley of journalism, memoir, and music criticism, with an unsettling confession: As she worked on the book, she did not know what she was doing.
She discloses this in the book's lengthy introduction, which concludes with this: ''My lack of direction, and the anxiety it caused me, became the fuel that propelled me forward. Not until I got to the end could I find out where I was going."
Reading that is like getting in a car with a driver who tells you that she failed her driver's license test a dozen times. The resulting ride through ''Great Pretenders" is rarely dull and sometimes revealing, but the journey is more satisfying than the destination.
Schoemer, a former pop music critic for Newsweek, sets out to ''get to know [her] parents better" by interviewing seven pop stars from the early rock 'n' roll era: Patti Page, Frankie Laine, Pat Boone, Georgia Gibbs, Tommy Sands, Fabian, and Connie Francis. These were the singers her parents listened to when falling in love, before divorcing and evidently hating each other's guts.
Schoemer's estrangement from her father and discontent with her mother are two of the truths she reveals, as is her mixed evaluation of herself as a woman and a journalist. She does not cast herself as a morally superior heroine, such as when admitting her habit of ''falling in love" with the people she interviewed. It happens again in this book, most notably (and inexplicably) with Boone.
Eventually Schoemer explains that she is relieved to be freed from the intellectual demands of music criticism. Yet one of her book's strengths is her analysis of music that is usually maligned for its superficiality -- for its failure to be more like rock 'n' roll, which can ''shock . . . or break new ground," as she writes, unlike pop music, which can merely ''soothe and coddle."
Schoemer listens to long-ago songs from these seven performers, insightfully describing and analyzing everything from the novelty songs of Page to the ersatz Elvis of Fabian. Her interviews with the singers showcase her skills as a writer of profiles, as she digs deeper than a blurby ''Where Are They Now?" feature would.
These profiles, in fact, are far more interesting and complex than the music these people made -- although that's an opinion that Schoemer might dispute. For she tries hard to redeem the music, to refute the standard view that pop music that competed with rock 'n' roll was not only inferior, but sometimes indirectly racist in the competing cover songs put out by white singers: pale imitations of the grittier, deeper versions of the same songs by black singers. One of the book's more interesting developments occurs as Schoemer comes to a more complex and forgiving assessment of music and cover songs by Boone, Gibbs, and others.
But Schoemer is trying to redeem not only the music, but her relationships with her parents. And this is the high note she cannot hit. Instead of beginning with her parents and then moving toward the music -- her mother doesn't even know that she is a part of the book -- Schoemer profiles the singers and analyzes the music, hoping that this will lead her back to her parents.
It doesn't. The superficial character of the music is no help: How can someone explain a deep and significant truth through distant and superficial means?
She has set a difficult goal not only in purpose (to redeem family relationships), but in technique (moving among memoir, journalism, and criticism). She might have salvaged this technically with a stronger narrative voice and structure. But her narrative is marked by non sequitur shifts in diction and tone, and the structure seems almost random, as if chapters could be reordered with little effect. Even the chapter titles are oddly artless, named for either the first name of the profile subject (''Frankie," ''Patti," and so on) or for her (''Me," ''Me Again," and ''More Me").
The final chapter further reveals Schoemer's awkwardness with narrative. She is visiting Francis, a favorite of her mother's, after having visited her father and his wife. The time with the father is miraculously pleasant; the visit with Francis is rendered with excessive details and followed by dramatically unearned revelations about herself and her parents. By the time the chapter ends, she is discrediting rock 'n' roll and glorifying pop.
In this chapter, and the chatty afterword, the analytical writer steps in to bail out the narrative writer. Ultimately, however, her confusion after listening to a Francis box set --''How was I supposed to make sense of someone who dabbled in so many different genres?" -- applies to her story as well. She probably could have written a better book if she had focused on the music and herself as a woman and music critic, leaving the parental connection as a passing mention at most.
Revealing and entertaining in its parts and its technical daring, but less successful as a coherent whole, ''Great Pretenders" is most fascinating for what it tries to do, rather than what it actually accomplishes.
David Maloof, a writer in Belchertown, can be reached at dmaloof@earth link.net.