October 15, 2003

Prof. Altschuler Publishes Book on Rock 'n' Roll

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All Shook Up: How Rock’n’Roll Changed America, by Glenn Altschuler Ph.D. ’76, Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies, was published last month by Oxford University Press. The book is the fourth in the publisher’s series called Pivotal Moments in America History.

Prof. Altschuler, who teaches a two-semester course on American popular culture, said, “I have given some thought to the relationship between rock’n’roll and controversies over rock’n’roll and the 1950s for some time in my class, so it was a wonderful opportunity when the Pivotal Moments series approached me to take the project on.”

All Shook Up places rock’n’roll and its surrounding controversies in a social and historical setting with chapters dedicated to such issues as race, sexuality and generational conflict.

On his reasons for writing All Shook Up, Altschuler said, “the aim of the book was to show not only that conflicts over rock’n’roll provide a window to some of the conflicts of the 1950s, but to make the point that there are greater continuities between the 1950s and 1960s than we sometimes think there are.”

Eric Alterman, in a book review for The Atlantic Monthly, said [All Shook Up] is “one of the first to do rock-and-roll the significant service of locating it within the cultural and political maelstrom it helped to create.” Alterman’s review continues to say that “Altschuler surpasses the admittedly sparsely populated field in the nuanced way he places the music within the conflicts — racial, sexual, commercial, and political — that it variously helped to encourage, exacerbate, and (occasionally) ameliorate.”

Prof. Steven Pond, music, also believed that this book covers aspects of rock and roll never previously addressed. He said that “one of its chief virtues is the way that Altschuler’s analysis dovetails with Reebee Garofalo’s work and with Simon Frith’s work. In both cases, rock’n’roll is treated as social history, but in Frith’s case it’s with a decided Anglo orientation, and Garofalo’s concatenation of social, political, and economic issues leaves room for Altschuler’s discussions of sexuality, public policy and teenage identity struggles.”

Some reviewers have criticized Altschuler for not exhibiting sufficient musical expertise to cover the topic of rock and roll.

“In the end, however, All Shook Up commits the unpardonable rock’n’roll sin of failing to satisfy. While Altschuler does fine when he digs in, he ultimately covers the decade from the birth of rock in the mid-Fifties to the arrival of the Beatles in the U.S. in 1964 in less than 200 pages. Consequently, the book runs out of steam in about 1960 and races through topics that could easily warrant a book in themselves. And, although he makes few mistakes, Altschuler’s discussions of music never feel fluent,” wrote Anthony DeCurtis in a review for the Oct. 16 issue of Rolling Stone.

Altschuler believes that he and DeCurtis have a conflict of interest in the book. “Reviewers always have their own tack on things. When your book is subject to mass circulation publications like this, then sometimes your purposes are lost in the shuffle a bit. This is a book about the 1950s, so when a reviewer says that the events of the 1960s are rushed through, then perhaps there is a gap between my aims and that person’s purposes. And that’s OK — perfectly OK,” he said.

On the aims of his book, Altschuler said it was to “use a mass-culture phenomenon like rock’n’roll, and in this case the hysteria that erupted over it, to think about the values of the era in which those controversies occurred. [Also], to look in a serious way at what rock’n’roll reveals about teenage sexuality, about generational conflict, about racism and integration and most importantly, about the emergence of teenagers as a separate identity with consumption patterns that were distinctive and important in the 1950s.”

With these aims in mind, the book is an account of the social history of the 1950s, an era in which rock’n’roll played an integral part. Altschuler hopes that some of the issues of the 1950s that arose through rock’n’roll will be enlightened to his readers, which are supposed to include both students and general readers.

Altschuler said, “although it’s designed for undergraduates, [it] certainly aims to meet a general reader. Not somebody who’s really looking for insights about the music, per se, but about the era in which the music appeared.”

Archived article by Tony Apuzzo