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

"Like the music he celebrates, Steven Hamelman isn't afraid of wretched excess. His thirty-four explorations of rock 'n' roll as trash demand an answer: Why should we be embarrassed that we love this trash? A lesser writer would have tried to impress us with a sweeping theory of postmodern bricoleur, but Hamelman is content to call it as he hears it. We love rock 'n' roll because it embodies the broader culture of disposability. But we also love it because it allows us to cope with that culture. Although few readers will embrace everything that Hamelman says about rock 'n' roll, fewer will deny the insight and passion informing his readings of rock culture and of specific rock texts. Like Lester Bangs with a Ph.D., Hamelman is a unique voice in popular music studies. Chill some beer, crank some tunes, and start reading anywhere in this collection."
—Theodore Gracyk, author of I Wanna Be Me: Rock Music and the Politics of Identity

"The range of music references is refreshingly wide. . . . It's also a rather romantic book."
Urban History

"[Hamelman] uses his harrowing muscle of musical knowledge to survey how trash is applied and embedded in rock music. . . . Hamelman keeps the boring academics in check and the writing alive, two things amiss with most similar treatments."
—Andrew Earles, Magnet

"One of the most remarkable and original books about rock'n'roll and its place in society . . . published in recent years."
The Gazette: Newsletter of the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association

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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.