Review | Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability by George McKay

Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability. By George McKay. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. [242 pp. ISBN 978-0472052097. Paperback: $33.75; Hardcover: $80.00]. 

Reviewed by Jessica A. Holmes/ McGill University


The first monograph-length study of disability in popular music, George McKay’s book is a welcome and timely contribution to the burgeoning body of scholarship on music and disability. He explores disability’s many expressions and representations within American and British pop and rock from roughly the 1950s to the 1970s (with several worthwhile diversions outside this geo-historical frame). Through a series of case studies, McKay considers musicians whose performance and reception has been indelibly shaped by disability and necessarily mediated through other positions of identity and marginality. At times he draws the reader’s attention to unexpected places, recasting familiar figures through the lens of disability (e.g. Neil Young), and also presenting characters that have nearly faded into obscurity because of their disabilities (e.g. Johnnie Ray). While he thoroughly investigates the many ways pop/rock can empower disabled musicians, he simultaneously contemplates the industry’s disabling capacities. He engages numerous disciplinary angles including, but not limited to, cultural and media studies, disability studies, Deaf studies, and music research, what he aptly refers to as a “crossing” and “cripping” of disciplines. His musical readings strike an excellent balance between the formal and extra-musical dimensions of his chosen texts such that the book is accessible to a general humanities audience. Similarly, the book is available to those unfamiliar with disability studies since the author effectively primes the reader on important theoretical concepts in the field. McKay’s lifelong journey with disability beautifully informs the writing of his book; it is through his love of pop music and his crip rock icons that he first came to understand and ultimately embrace his own disability.

Taking polio as its conceptual link, the first chapter surveys such artists as Connie Boswell, Horace Parlan, CeDell Davis, Carl Perkins, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Ian Dury. McKay asserts that memories of childhood institutionalization, isolation, and the physical trauma and degenerative paralysis that polio begets left an enduring imprint on these musicians who all came of age during the youth countercultural movements of the 1960s and 70s. Many fashioned and adapted their playing techniques to accommodate their individual bodies, which in turn came to define their unique sound (e.g. Mitchell’s idiosyncratic guitar tunings; jazz pianist Carl Perkins’ lateral, left-handed playing technique), and in certain cases, their musical output is tinged with a melancholic sentimentality both in voice and lyric (see McKay’s reading of Young’s “Helpless”). English rocker Ian Dury figures prominently in the book and serves as this chapter’s polio-survivor musician poster-boy. McKay argues that without a crip precursor, Dury’s dual performance of sexual deviance and disability was exceptional in its defiance but likewise reinstated the seemingly perverse incongruity between disability and sex. Dury’s legacy, explains McKay, was to pave the way for later artists like Johnny Rotten and other members of the punk generation where self-enfreakment became a vital part of the genre’s aesthetic.

In the second chapter McKay engages with the work of Laurie Stras and Andrew Oster to further “crip” the Barthesian grain, maintaining that the singing voice can bear traces of the disabled body. Retaining the falsetto technique’s typical associations with heightened emotion, sexual desire, infantilization, emasculation, and feminization, McKay suggests that the false voice, when deployed by disabled male singers, can additionally signal authentic bodily pain and failure. Neil Young’s fragile, shaky body (a result of polio and epilepsy) finds its ultimate expression in his signature whiny, falsetto vocals, and Hank Williams’ yodelling, with its abrupt registral leaps, directly reflects the embodied experience of his spina bifida. These analyses fall short of fully convincing the reader, however, since they rely primarily on simplified, direct analogues between body and expression. McKay likewise theorizes the mal canto singing style as a counterpoint to the bel canto style: “the disabled body sounds the corporeal and cognitive experience and knowledge of its own disability through its strained, damaged, or disfluent voice” (86). Here he successfully distinguishes between real and performed vocal disfluencies: stuttering can exist in song either as a naturally occurring expression of a speech disfluency, or as a self-conscious performative device used to bolster a lyric’s meaning (e.g. The Who’s “My Generation”).

The spectacle of the disabled body takes center stage in the third chapter where McKay explores instances of “adventitious” disability, that is, disability encountered later in life as opposed to disability present from childhood. In particular, McKay interests himself in the unique challenges in transitioning, often suddenly, from able-bodied to disabled amidst the prying eye of the public and in a phallocentric, hyper-masculine music culture. After a car accident that left him semi-paralyzed and in a wheelchair, the African-American soul singer Teddy Pendergrass maintained his sexual appeal by seeking continuity across his pre and post-accident repertoire and performances (with his deep vocals and “late night love routines”), achieving new erotic possibilities for the disabled, black male performer, observes McKay. In the second half of the chapter, the author investigates the performance of mental illness and cognitive impairment in pop music, returning once again to Young and introducing the late Ian Curtis, lead singer of the British post-punk band Joy Division, whose frenetic on-stage performances both intimated the experience of and triggered Curtis’ epileptic seizures.  

The fourth chapter features an especially compelling discussion on a nearly forgotten musical great: deaf singer-songwriter and jazz pianist Johnnie Ray (aka. “the scrawny white queer with the gizmo stuck in his ear”). McKay demonstrates that Ray’s “stylized speech disfluency” (i.e. sobbing, stuttering, speech slurring, emphatic consonants, delayed/drawn out entries, etc.) and manic physical gestures (i.e. banging on the piano while standing, falling to the floor, etc.), both integral to the singer’s signature heightened emotional display, was an authentic performance of his deafness where staying in tune and in time as well as remaining physically balanced was a significant challenge for Ray, even with the use of his hearing aid. McKay also persuasively argues that the emotional vulnerability of the singer’s performances further exacerbated the insidious speculation about the depravity of his bisexuality and likewise feminized his disability. Ray’s deafness had an immediate impact on his singing voice, especially in the years following a surgical mishap that nearly eliminated his hearing altogether.

McKay concludes the fourth chapter with a discussion of the “self-negating,” deafening practices ingrained in our contemporary listening culture. The ear-splitting volume (over 135 dBs) mandated by the hyper-masculinist and ageist imperative driving certain heavy-metal, rock, and electronic dance music genres, as well as the repeated use of personal ear-buds and headphones at excessive volumes are but two examples of the industry’s many “occupational hazards” that can cause tinnitus, auditory discrimination challenges, and hearing loss for both musician and consumer. Expanding on the theme of pop music’s disabling potential, in the final chapter McKay problematizes popular music as a “destructive economy” in its promotion of certain harmful, but no less “authentic” lifestyles such as substance abuse, “madness,” and suicide among the industry’s youngest members. He writes, “to do well in this career is frequently to be or to get a bit or a lot fucked up,” referring in particular to the lead singers (152). His sobering account of this pervasive, “romantic eschatology” extends to pop music’s audiences as well where there exists an ongoing controversy regarding an ostensible culture of emulative self-harm ingrained in certain bands’ cult fandom (e.g. the purported rise in teen suicides among Nirvana fans in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death). As a counterpoint to his assessment of the industry’s destructive forces, McKay turns to pop music’s emancipatory potential, highlighting its historic place in disability activism (e.g. polio Birthday balls; the March of Dimes) and also critiquing such activism’s corrupt, capitalistic, and exploitative tendencies. 

             McKay’s book covers an expansive selection of artists from across several decades and makes significant strides forward in our understanding of disability’s multi-faceted role in pop music. Particularly notable is his ongoing consideration of the industry’s masculinist impulse and the implications this has had for male expressions of disability, race, class, and sexuality together. Often this is to the exclusion of pop music’s women, however, especially in the chapters on the voice, the body, and deafness. McKay attributes this absence to what he understands as a historical gender bias: there existed little opportunity for transgressive female expression in the pop industry where freak self-display was generally only permissible for men. Yet there were numerous female musicians that boldly defied the normative limits of feminine voice and/or body (e.g. Patti Smith; Annie Lennox) and many whose performances arguably invite a sustained disability reading (e.g. Karen Carpenter and anorexia; Janis Joplin, vocal damage, and substance abuse). I appreciated that in an otherwise decidedly male-oriented treatment of music and mental health, the final chapter includes critical discussion of both the late Amy Winehouse’s anthemic hit-single “Rehab” (2006), and pop-icon Brittney Spears’ 2007 song “Piece of Me” as genuine autobiographic reflections of feminine celebrity breakdown and resistance. Ultimately, McKay’s book is a compelling and vital complement to recent work on music and disability that has centered on Western art music. In revealing further avenues for critical exploration, the book will undoubtedly influence future developments in the scholarship on music and disability. 

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