Rock & Roll Books
Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with 50s Pop Music
by Karen Schoemer
Free Press, 241 pp., $25
What began as an aimless project that threatened to get sucked into a research vortex almost a decade ago finally morphed into Great Pretenders, former Newsweek critic Karen Schoemer's tracing of the much-maligned genre of American music in an effort to understand the cultural moment behind her parents' doomed marriage. While Schoemer breaks little new ground here all those covers of R&B tunes done by Pat Boone and Georgia Gibbs were simply "white" versions of more "threatening" work by black artists she does illuminate Fifties pop for a new generation. If, for example, you think Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys were the foreparents of manufactured teen idols, Schoemer would like to introduce you to an aging heartthrob named Fabian. Her intentions are good, but this effort to peel back the layers of shitty, white-washed pop music from the era that birthed the Feminine Mystique doesn't quite jive. Schoemer intersperses honest, sometimes fawning profiles of C-rate performers (Patti Page, Gibbs, and Tommy Sands among them) with rather indulgent personal chapters in which she works out her emergence as an acclaimed rock critic and estranged daughter of a bitter mother. It's a worthy exercise but ends up being a rather disjointed read, despite Schoemer's critical self-awareness and willingness to make herself vulnerable and open to the same criticism she metes out.