But Is It Garbage?
On Rock and Trash

Steven L. Hamelman

A "trashological" critique of rock 'n' roll


"Hamelman modulates, transitions, contrasts moods, shifts tones, and uses complementary colors like a classic double-album set. The closest parallel to existing work is not some other book on musicology, but perhaps London Calling by the Clash."
—Allen Michie, Iowa State University

"In But Is It Garbage?, Hamelman brilliantly explains the centrality of the trash trope to rock music aesthetics. It's a significant new approach, and the author's rock 'n' roll sensibility will be refreshing not just to scholars of rock music and pop culture, but also to the serious fan."
—Thomas Kitts, coeditor of Living on a Thin Line: Crossing Aesthetic Borders with the Kinks

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Trash has been blowing across the rock ’n’ roll landscape since the first amplified guitar riff tore through American mass culture. Throwaway tunes, wasted fans, crappy reviews, junk bins of remaindered albums: much of rock’s quintessence is handily conveyed in terms of disposability and impermanence.

Steven L. Hamelman sums up these rubbishy affinities as rock’s “trash trope.” Trash is an obvious physical presence on the rock scene—think of Woodstock’s littered pastures or the many hotel rooms redecorated by the Who. More intriguingly, Hamelman says, trash is the catalyst for a powerful mode of rock composition and criticism. It is, for instance, both cause and effect when performers like the Ramones or Beck at once critique junk culture and revel in it.

Hamelman guides us across five decades of rock to explore the trash trope in all of its audible, visual, and emblematic power. He offers up a personal top-forty list of songs that engage the trash trope at many levels, including “Yakety-Yak,” the Coasters’ lament about taking out the trash, and Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” in which the singer’s persona likens his heart to a landfill. Drawing extensively on Lou Reed’s Berlin, Hamelman gives the “Is rock dead?” debate new meaning by pondering death themes in the music and the morbid romanticism of the best “wasted” recordings. Finally Hamelman looks at rock’s “saving” powers—at how a medium steeped in tropes of uselessness and inconsequence can mean so much to countless people.

But Is It Garbage? spills over with challenging insights into how rock’s creators, critics, and consumers transform, and are transformed by, trash as a fact and a concept. In the music’s preoccupation with its own trashiness readers will perceive a wellspring of rock innovation and inspiration—one largely overlooked and little understood until now.

Page count: 288 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9


List price: $29.95

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Steven L. Hamelman is a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University.