A Yale professor of African American Studies argues that acclaimed Black entertainers have also been radical intellectuals, challenging the culture industry to catch up. Informed by the overlooked contributions of women who wrote about the blues, rock and pop, Brooks explores the contribution of Black women musicians from Bessie Smith to Beyoncé.
For a critic, there’s maybe nothing so central but also confounding as the question of taste—why we like what we like, and whether it’s something we decide for ourselves, based purely on our own freedom and idiosyncracies; or if our tastes can be shaped and even scripted, influenced by earnest argument, entrenched biases or cynical manipulation ... Brooks blurs and eventually explodes this binary ... Brooks traces all kinds of lines, finding unexpected points of connection ... Brooks is so fluent in both the jargon of the academy and the vernacular of music magazines that she slips comfortably between the two ... Her book is at its most generative when it’s doing this—inviting voices to talk to one another, seeing what different perspectives can offer, opening up new ways of looking and listening by tracing lineages and calling for more space. At the same time, Brooks can sometimes get trapped in the old power struggles of the canon wars ... For the most part, Liner Notes is playing its own deep layers and putting out a call for more.
The book is almost too constellatory to fully describe: its first half offers several chapters of groundwork, exploring the breadth of Black women artists’ culture-making over the course of the last one-hundred-plus years; its second half takes the baton with a focus on a handful of musicians and the critics, artists, and fans who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to frame their legacies. Brooks moves deftly between eras, from early-twentieth-century blues and vaudeville to Lemonade-era Beyoncé, just as she moves between language dense with academic conventions and playful, music-critic prose. The material is too expansive to be contained by any single mode ... Rather than argue a point, Brooks illuminates many ... It would maybe seem at odds with her Black feminism to seek out connections between, say, Greil Marcus and Angela Davis. But that generous curiosity is among Brooks’s strengths: Liner Notes functions as an indictment—of the general mishandling of Black women’s sonic legacies, and of specific mishandlings, too—but it is foremost an invitation to do more and better work, to view criticism as an act of love and artmaking as an act of historical imperative.
... a rich reimagining of the archive as both concept and wellspring, specifically in the creation, performance, and reception of blues music by Black women ... An ambitious work of great complexity and depth. For scholars and interested readers, particularly in Black studies, but also music, anthropology, and archival studies.