Book Review: "TV a Go Go: Rock on TV from 'American Bandstand' to 'American Idol'" (2005) by Jake Austen
Television and rock and roll rose to national prominence at about the same time in the 1950s, and so the two have always had a sort of symbiotic development. That history of rock and roll music on TV is traced with great detail and skill in the book "TV a Go Go: Rock on TV from 'American Bandstand' to 'American Idol'" by Jake Austen. Austen offers an exhaustive account of rock music on television in an accessible but still substantive fashion in this enlightening book.
The chapters in "TV a Go Go" follow a roughly chronological pattern--with some overlap from chapter to chapter where subject matter dictates. The first chapter is an exploration of "proto TV rock" in a period (mainly the '50s) when rock and roll was itself still prototypical. Television musical acts such as Nat King Cole and others lead into the first appearances of rock and roll acts on shows such as "The Steve Allen Show," "Stage Show," and "The Ed Sullivan Show." Highlighted, as might be expected, are the Sullivan appearances of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Austen does more than most authors with these signal performances, though, offering important context and showing how they fit into the pattern of rock acts on Sullivan and other shows of the 1950s and early-1960s.
The book proceeds with chapters on every major movement in rock music and its intersection with TV. These include: dance shows, beginning with Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" (and a perceptive assessment of Clark's place in the history of rock on TV) but also including several important local dance programs; the phenomenon of "fake bands" on TV, such as the Monkees and the Partridge Family; rock and roll cartoons, including such acts as the Archies and Alvin and the Chipmunks (as well as others of this surprisingly large contingent); a penetrating examination of black music on TV, with a history of "Soul Train" and background on several other obscure yet significant shows; the 1970s trend for live concerts on late-night TV, most famously on "Midnight Special"; an intriguing look at punk rock on TV; the birth and growth of MTV and music video; and rock and roll reality television of the 2000s, including the indomitable "American Idol."
The final chapter of "TV a Go Go" is a fascinating case study of one figure who has been central to rock on TV and for whom TV has been central: Michael Jackson. Here Austen provides a year by year chronicle of Jackson's TV appearances, performance by performance, event by event. This chronicle begins during the Jackson 5ive years of the late-1960s and early-1970s, continues through Michael's first solo appearances in the latter '70s, reaches a crescendo with the landmark performance on the Motown 25th anniversary show in 1983 and the same period's pioneering music videos, traces MJ's post-"Thriller" career in TV performances and music videos (including such incidents as the controversial "Black and White" video of 1991), and concludes with the reality-TV like saga that Jackson's life and career has become since his 1993 accusations of child molestation. Through the story of Jackson's TV appearances, Austen manages to provide a microcosm of the preceding account of the development of rock on TV.
"TV a Go Go" is a veritable encyclopedia of rock performances on TV. Austen is a dedicated aficionado of rock music and of TV and offers exhaustive analyses of particular appearances and particular moments of importance to rock TV. These discussions treat forgotten and obscure shows (such as "Kiddie a Go Go," a dance show for the grade school set, or "Inside Bed-Sty," a local show in New York City featuring black musicians), as well as the subject of rock music on non-musical shows, most interestingly punk rock on 1970s series such as "Quincy M.E." and "CHiPs." The book has a surprisingly light emphasis on music video and the development of MTV, which leaves somewhat of a hole in Austen's analysis, but this is forgivable due to the subject's relatively thorough treatment elsewhere.
"TV a Go Go" is not a scholarly book, although it will appeal to scholarly needs due to its exhaustive historical accounting of rock music on American TV. This historical work will be of interest to anyone with a deep interest in either TV history or in the history of popular music.