|Susan Fast, In the
Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music (Oxford,
New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 247 pp. Hb. ISBN 0-19-5117565,
Reviewed by Philip Auslander
In the Houses of the Holy is a watershed. As far as I know, it’s the first full-length academic study of a single rock group. Even more important, the eclectic combination of critical methods Susan Fast brings to bear on the work of Led Zeppelin raises the bar for serious discussion of rock music from now on.
Before continuing, I must issue a caveat. I am not a musicologist and cannot evaluate Fast’s formal analysis of Led Zeppelin’s compositions. But Fast does not rely only on formal analysis-she draws on performance theory, cultural theory, ethnography, semiotics, and cognitive psychology, among other approaches, and writes in a clear, accessible style. As someone who works in performance studies, I am particularly gratified that Fast treats the group’s members as embodied performers, not just sources of sound. There is in both rock culture and rock criticism a deep-seated anti-ocular prejudice, articulated clearly by Lawrence Grossberg: “The eye has always been suspect in rock culture; after all, visually, rock often borders on the inauthentic.…” This attitude has led to a dearth of serious discussions of the visual culture of rock, including live performances and audiovisual records of those performances.
Fast defies rock ideology by asserting that the visual and corporeal aspects of Led Zeppelin’s performances are musically significant. That Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page apparently makes the same gesture at the same moment in a particular song each time he performs it probably means that the gesture in question is calculated rather than spontaneous, but this calculation does not inhibit his audience’s pleasure in the moment or keep the gesture from contributing to the song’s musical meaning. Even though most fans (like Fast herself) first became acquainted with Led Zeppelin from sound recordings, they evince a need for encounters with the group that engage sensory organs other than just the ear. Fast discusses her own experiences of seeing Led Zeppelin in concert, the tours guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant have undertaken since the group’s demise. She also refers to the concert film The Song Remains the Same (1976) and bootleg sound and video recordings of live performances. In a chapter on the corporeality of Led Zeppelin’s music, Fast suggests that recorded music always evokes the musician’s bodily presence and discusses both the ways certain songs may be said to represent (and, in some cases, cause) physical states for the listener, and the ways the group’s physical performance in concert contributed to the enunciation of their on-stage personae and the meanings of their music.
Although Fast places Led Zeppelin in the moment of historical transition as the 1960s became the 1970s, In the Houses of the Holy is not a history. It is, rather, a critical appreciation of the group’s music. Each chapter is organized around a thematic and formal analysis of one of Led Zeppelin’s famous songs that allows Fast to discuss the cultural valences of the group’s work and some of the critical problems it raises. Chief among these are the group’s borrowings from Eastern music and Page and Plant’s subsequent concert appearance with a group of Egyptian musicians. Intercultural performance of all kinds raises the same question, which can be stated bluntly as: Who’s exploiting whom? Were white westerners Page and Plant simply using the Egyptians and their music in a colonialist fashion? Or is it also possible that the Egyptians were using Page and Plant as a way of gaining a potentially lucrative foothold in the western music market? To Fast’s great credit, she introduces and explores these issues in a forthright manner. She does not deny that Page and Plant may be guilty of colonialism, but she also shows that the ways they incorporated Eastern sounds into their music and Eastern musicians into their concert are open to multiple interpretations. Above all, she does not allow the issue of colonialism to keep her from assessing the music on its merits.
Fast discusses hip-hop artist Sean (Puff Daddy/P. Diddy) Combs’s use of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” in his song “Come with Me,” a project in which Page participated, as a counterpoint to Led Zeppelin’s use of Eastern music: the appropriators expropriated, so to speak. In light of the overall generosity of Fast’s approach, it’s a bit odd that she examines this transaction from only one perspective, saying that Page was willing to play a subordinate role in the collaboration and “give” something (for a fee, as Fast notes) to Black music, from which Led Zeppelin had taken much (and been sued for it) and that he was signaling his support of rap while other white rockers dismissed it as non-music. Fast does not discuss the other side of this equation: what did Combs achieve by appropriating from Led Zeppelin and securing Page’s cooperation?
Fast takes a similarly forthright and equally admirable approach to the question of Led Zeppelin and gender. Led Zeppelin and heavy metal in general (in fact, rock in general) have long been accused of misogyny. The music itself has often been described as phallic, the culture surrounding it as exploitive of women. This has led to such absurd generalizations as the idea that women didn’t go to rock concerts in the 1970s (at least not of their own volition) and that female listeners like only romantic, unthreatening male pop singers, not macho rockers. Drawing on an ethnographic study she conducted among Led Zeppelin fans, Fast shows definitively that there are female fans who are as dedicated to the group as any male fan, that women did go to rock concerts in the 1970s, and that women are perfectly capable of deriving erotic pleasure from Led Zeppelin (the men and the music) on their own terms. Fast reproduces her ethnographic questionnaires in an appendix. Apparently, she did not ask her respondents to reveal their racial identifications. This is another political minefield that badly needs charting-just as rock is supposedly male music, it is also supposedly white music. Yet, as Sean Combs’s familiarity with Led Zeppelin suggests, rock does have Black listeners.
Unfortunately, Fast’s sample is small and includes only one man who identified himself as gay and no women who identified as lesbian. This points toward still another crucial area of further research in popular music. The musical tastes of gay people have been stereotyped as crudely as those of women: like women, gay men allegedly dislike rock and listened in the 1970s only to Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, and Judy Garland. Lesbians supposedly listen only to female folk singers. All of these stereotypical bubbles are ripe for bursting.
By disputing most of the shibboleths of rock criticism, even in its academic forms, Susan Fast has produced an important book. Because Fast examines rock formally as both music and performance and politically as a discourse in which more people participate with pleasure, on terms they dictate, than has generally been supposed, In the Houses of the Holy epitomizes a sophisticated aesthetic and cultural analysis of rock. It is to be hoped that other writers in the field will follow Fast’s example.
Grossberg, Lawrence. “The Media Economy of Rock Culture: Cinema, Postmodernity, and Authenticity.” Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader. Ed. Simon Frith, Andrew Goodwin and Lawrence Grossberg. London, New York: Routledge, 1993. 185-209.
teaches Performance Studies, Media Studies, and Cultural Studies in the
School of Literature, Communication, and Culture of the Georgia
Institute of Technology, where he is a Professor. His books include Liveness:
Performance in a Mediatized Culture (Routledge 1999); the working
title of his current book project is All the Young Dudes: Glam Rock
and the Discourse of Authenticity in Popular Music.