Book Review: Shakin' All Over (George McKay)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Being the first to publish in a new field is always a double-edged proposition. On the one hand, you establish yourself as a pioneer and those who follow have to acknowledge and come to terms with your work. On the negative side, those who have learned from your experience, have the opportunity to make a sieve of your work and ask why you did not anticipate al those points that are so obvious to them. This is no less true in the field of disability studies than any other. Those whose work coalesces around a seminal idea such as Lennard Davis interrogation of the invention of normalcy in Enforcing Normalcy or David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's concept of narrative prosthesis in the book of that title may fare relatively better than those who are trying to describe the parameters of a new field and make sense of its content.

The September 2012 issue of Wordgathering reviewed Alex Lubet's Music, Disability and Society. Focusing on instrumental music – principally classical and jazz – Lubet tried to describe disabilities and people with disabilities function. Lubet's book included a number of case studies, but also took to task the American training system which effectively exclude musicians with physical disabilities. In Shakin' All Over: Popular Music and Disability (University of Michigan Press, 2013), George McKay of the University of Salford in the U.K. tries to do something comparable with music genre that those in the Baby Boomer generation are most familiar with. Like Lubet, Mckay sets himself a huge task.

McKay states his basic purpose at the outset: "I aim to widen the cultural scope of disability studies by looking at the arena of popular music." He makes it clear from the outset that his book is not about musicology and that he will avoid any terminology that would keep the intelligent casual reader from being able to follow what he has to say. While McKay largely succeeds in this, his writing style is not likely to win him a Pulitzer. Like many academics disguised as "just plain folks," he has difficulty keeping his syntax from convoluting – you can't always take the country out of the boy. In fairness to McKay, though, he is being published by the University of Michigan Press, so he has a fine line to walk.

The book is divided into five parts, excluding the introduction. A brief look at the table of contents shows the wide range of topics that he attempts to tame: polo survivors in popular music, vocal music and disability, performance as a disabled musician, deafness in popular music, and the demands of the music industry on the performer. The apparent obviousness of these topics belies the effort that it takes for McKay, or any other genre-shaping writer, to collect a disparate array of raw material and shape it into a comprehensible whole. As one reads through the book, the difficulty of this task becomes much more evident.

Chapter one is in some ways the heart of the of the book. As McKay points out, in studying musicians who were polio survivors, we are able to look back at the one instance in which we say that disability affected the work of a significant enough number of musicians that we have the possibility of drawing some conclusions about the relationship. He includes a table of the many musicians who contracted polio in their youth and, indeed, the list is likely to surprise some readers with names as varied as Dinah Shore, Carl Perkins, Donovan and Gene Simmons. One immediate consequence that McKay draws is that even though polio affected male and females equally, it's effect on the field was such that "we may consider popular musical disabilities…primarily a male phenomena." The result is that with the exception of his investigation of the destructive relationship between the music industry and individual performers in chapter five, the book has little to say about women musicians. One curious result of his thesis is that it seems to allow him to sweep aside the work of Joni Mitchell.

Mitchell's response to her limitations were similar to some of those described by Lubet and, in fact are employed by Lubet in his own music. (See the review of Lubet's Spectral Blues in this issue.) She devised new strategies for playing cords that were not available to her because of her reduced hand movements and, in the process created very original music. Mitchell has arguably had as much influence on other musicians as any other popular star with a disability, yet because McKay sees her as accommodating to mainstream music, he dismisses after the first thirty-three pages of the book. Perhaps this is out of a conviction that a musician who is able to pass does not really deserve a place in a conversation on disability, but one gets the feeling that the true reason is that what he really wants to talk about are the two musicians that occupy center stage in this chapter and much of the rest of the book – Neil Young and Ian Dury.

Like Mitchell, Young and Dury were both polio survivors and the comparison of their responses and its consequent effects on their music does, in fact, make for interesting reading. Most people who have turned on a radio in the last forty years are probably acquainted with Neil Young's music, but one of the services McKay provides American audiences, who are likely to be more unfamiliar with it, is an introduction to Dury's work. The contrast in their odysseys may to some extent be ensconced in the songs that McKay uses as a sort of anthem for each of the two musicians: Young's "Helpless" and Dury's "Spasticus Autisticus." Any listener who as a casual listener, was never aware of Young's polio but has heard "Helpless" countless times as I have, is likely to be intrigued by the McKay's reinterpretation of the song through the lens of his disability. It is one of those view shifts that lets you see a text in a whole new light. In contrast to Young, Dury's experiences in a residential school for children with disabilities propelled him into a pre-punk, in your face attitude towards his disability, as title of his best known song suggests.

Chapters two and three explore how writers with disabilities, whether polio-derived or not, fared in two arenas which for the musicians Lubet wrote about were not of primary importance but for pop music are critical, voice and on-stage performance. For singers such as Jonie Mitchell, whose voice was unaffected by her disability, no major adjustment to her singing was necessary, but for those whose voices were, McKay sees two major different tactics that performers took, and often this depended upon whether the musician had an established career prior to his (the focus is on men) career was already established prior to his disability. These two techniques are the use of falsetto and what McKay labels the mal canto voice.

Falsetto, of course, is a singing in a higher register that makes it possible for men who might have weakened lungs or muscle to still execute most of those techniques that are required for singing the majority of popular music and, in consequence, come across to audience as something that fits their definition of song. McKay argues that because disability in men is often perceived as a feminizing characteristic, the combination of the falsetto voice and a disability distances male performers from common notions of masculinity. Therefore, the choice to use falsetto voice, is a choice to take on a role as "other," even while it allows a make musician to maintain a career. While this was the route Young took from the beginning, for Curtis Mayfield who was already an icon at the time of his accident, it was a choice to re-invent himself. The lengths that Mayfield went through to attain this is makes for one of the books more mesmerizing discussions, and McKay does an interesting job of juxtaposing Mayfield's decision to that of Teddy Pendergrass who found himself at a similar crossroads.

The mal canto voice was an alternative for those who rejected or were unable to use falsetto. McKay writes:

A judgment is inscribed in the language of damage – as a result of which those who are damaged are in the same linguistic moment damned, condemned. Yet, in the powerful perversity of pop, as with other cultures that valorize the freakin' unusual, to be damaged is potentially to be raised, (pop) idolized, not damned.

It is in that spirit that musicians like Dury turned to screaming and other raw vocal expressions of emotion as did fellow polio survivor and faux-Cockney rebel Steve Harley.

One experience that people with visible disabilities and pop-star performers share is that they are both the objects of staring. At the beginning of his chapter on performance, McKay relates one of books most poignant examples of discrimination, prefacing it with the observation that whatever other absurdities pop culture may generate on stage "it seems…in particular we do not want female pop singers in wheelchairs." He cites the example of Kata Kolbert, the lone example of a female that he can come up with. Kolbert, who tried to launch her career in Britain in the 1980's sent in demo tapes to companies who enthusiastically compared her to Kate Bush and Nico. However, when leaning that she was in a wheelchair her submission to record companies were rejected because "Her wheelchair was not sexy." Though she did release a single, her career never got off the ground.

McKay sites this example, not only as an apologia for discussing only male performers in the chapter, but also to point out that even for men, the match between performance and persona is imperative. The major case study in this chapter is Teddy Pendergrass. Pendergrass who relied on his masculine sexual persona to attract female listeners was involved in an accident that left him paralyzed. What sent Pendergrass into a total tailspin was reading an article with effect of an obituary notice, saying that if he were to sing again it would not be the same and wondering who the next Teddy Pendergrass would be. Without the image, he couldn't sell the records.

The topics of the last two chapters of the book increasing veer away from actual music and performance and into the culture of the music industry. In the fourth chapter, on deafness and popular music, McKay couples a discussion of the career of Johnny Ray, perhaps the only truly deaf singer to actually become a star, with comments about the extent to which the music played by many performers is actually the cause of disability in its tendency to cause deafness through its continuous exposure to high-decibel sound. The final chapter covers even more territory. It first takes to task the destructive effects of the music industry on performers and then considers the dynamics of responsibility between society, musicians themselves and disability. The reader who has been going straight through the book can hardly be surprised, after reading about the pressure on performance earlier, when they come to the subtitle of chapter five "An industry that kills and maddens…" nor that the victims in the industry include a high portion of women.

The two singers McKay turns his attention to are Amy Winehouse and Brittney Spears. Neither had a physical disability, and, unlike Kata Kolbert, both possessed a physical appearance that made them more than welcome on stage. The psychological disabilities they acquired were brought on Mckay contends by the insistence of the music industry – and that includes not only recording executives but journalist and the singers' public – that they maintain a lifestyle that reflected the songs they sang. They, ironically, demanded truth in advertising. Whatever one may think of Winehouse or Spears ad individuals, McKay's thesis is hard to dismiss.

Just what the author is trying to accomplish in the very last section of the book is a bit hard to fathom. Admittedly, though, it is interesting. A fair amount of space is given to Roosevelt's birthday balls to raise funds for polio. Through them, a great deal of money was raised and, as the author points out, it was the only time in American history where the government and music industry teamed up to work on disabilities awareness. Moreover, it was an extended effort stretching over years. By contrast, the huge mega-events to raise money for AIDS and other causes come through private enterprise and are one shot projects with little if any follow up. The only exception, McKay writes is the extended effort of Neil Young to raise money in his Bridge School concerts.

Despite its grounding in academia, disability studies has taken a great interest in popular culture. Television and film have received much attention and performers with disabilities are becoming more in demand. A book that tries to stake out the territory in which disability and popular music intersect was inevitable, and George McKay deserves a great deal of credit for being the first one to jump into the untested waters. The very fact that, once he had taken blind blues singers and jazz musicians out of the mix, he had so few musicians with disabilities to base his comments on is proof in itself that something is amiss. With such limited examples on which to basic any generalizations, it is hardly surprising that McKay did not deliver a unified field theory. What he has done is culled the raw material, organized it in a way that provides a logical structure for making connections and thrown out some initial hypotheses for subsequent scholars to test out. In the process, he has provided a number of interesting portraits and introduced most readers to the work of musicians they did not know. This last accomplishment gives Shakin' All Over a crossover appeal to a non-scholarly audience who simply has an interest in popular music. For a book published by the University of Michigan Press, that is a feat in itself.


Michael Northen is a Wordgathering editor and a co-editor with Sheila Black and Jennifer Bartlett of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability.