Monday, March 01, 2010

Rock On: An Office Power Ballad, by Dan Kennedy

Spectrum Culture = = an awesome website

Much of Dan Kennedy's Rock On: An Office Power Ballad is as tedious and ennui-inducing as the mainstream music acts and corporate culture he lampoons throughout the book. Based on the writer's experiences as an Atlantic Records employee during that label's clusterfuck 2000s, Kennedy certainly had plenty of material from which to base his memoir/200-plus page rambling inner monologue: music industry weasel executives whose wardrobe never advanced past the early '70s but whose self-preservation skills are finely honed; the inherent absurdities of work life as part of a company on the auction block; the mass layoffs that sent both label presidents and lowly grunts cowering under desks as they tried to avoid getting the axe. Yet the book never really manages to say anything more than major labels are prone to the same shenanigans as any other mega-corporation and are primarily focused on pushing image-conscious and blandly generic artists onto the public instead of fostering a musician's artistic growth or providing quality product to the listening public. No shit.

First, a few polite words. The persona Kennedy adopts throughout Rock On - a well-meaning thirtysomething who initially thinks his lifelong obsession with music will be fulfilled when he lands a job in Atlantic's marketing department - is likable. The author brings a modicum of common sense to a frequently bizarre world of major label internal politics, gamesmanship and ass-covering. He doesn't buy into Atlantic's effusive praise of its illustrious artists, nor does he tow the official party line or hold back criticism of the label's outdated sales methods (in print, at least). The book's best moments occur in its latter half - well past the point by which many readers will have lost interest - where Kennedy offers an insider's view of life in a sagging music company whose employees expected to be unceremoniously canned on a daily basis. Kennedy's writing here is both cynical and poignant, exhibiting a flair for dark humor and a keen eye for capturing the company's anxious mood as loyal workers - including Kennedy - were laid off.

Yet Rock On has one significant shortcoming: it's just not that funny, which is an obvious problem for a book whose primary goal is to humorously skewer the music industry. Kennedy's humor is too often of the snarky, smarmy variety favored by a seemingly increasing number of cultural pundits and hack comedians. Moreover, many of Kennedy's witticisms are fairly obvious, beyond stale and grossly repetitive; 200 pages is a lot of paper to waste to simply state that a lot of mainstream acts are lousy and that executives driven more by self-interest than any abiding love of music are hopelessly out of touch with contemporary listeners. The author's first-person writing style quickly becomes rather exhausting and, quite simply, annoying, as Kennedy at times comes across as more neurotic than George Costanza. Readers who aren't fans of inner monologue writing likely won't enjoy this book.

Rock On isn't a total letdown, but it is trite and formulaic, while rarely offering any new insight into corporate culture that can't already be gleaned from Office Space or "The Office." Kennedy gets some points for deftly - and sometimes, comically - depicting what the atmosphere at Atlantic was like when the label began to flatline, but this only accounts for a small portion of the book. It's actually fitting, in a way; Rock On is unintentionally a lot like the mainstream acts Kennedy jabs at throughout his book: there's a decent tune surrounded by a whole lot of filler and banal sentiments, none of which ever really say anything of substance.

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