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Rock On recounts pushing paper in the culture factory

Death of the cool



Rock On: An Office Power Ballad
By Dan Kennedy
Algonquin Books, 224 pp.


An antidote for anyone who's got recession blues is Dan Kennedy's Rock On: An Office Power Ballad, the story of a "glorified foot soldier" who navigates the peccadillo-laden multimillion-dollar music industry. As his firm survives a somewhat hostile takeover, where even seven-figure salaried executives start to get laid off, Kennedy is laughing, biting all the way.

While a lot of the humor plays upon the bizarre nexus of the long-haired rock demagogues and the middle-aged tie-wearing world of marketers who create them, Rock On is completely approachable to those who may not be music savvy. Though the humor doesn't stay within the confines of the office, this might as well be an insider's guide to being a cog in any corporate machine. Nothing is safe from Kennedy's critique, from the stylish accoutrements of the Chihuahua in your purse, to interoffice relationships, to the meaning of adulthood, fueled by and large by the culture industry's obsession with cool.

Rock On is not a novel, but a memoir-novel—a sensationalized nonfictional account, self-described as "an office power-ballad." Kennedy's nonfiction is an exciting hybrid; he can wander beyond the facts of his story to muse upon such things as how to reinvent Jewel as a heavy-metal artist. Whole chapters are sometimes simply lists or bullet points or ballads, much like the brief posts Kennedy writes for the McSweeney's Web site, and the book as a whole seems a collection of vignettes and musings.

Humor invades every aspect of the book—even a chapter title can be a joke (through which you can hear the Byrds singing): "So You Wanna Be a Chart-Topping Rock-and-Roll Star Embraced by Major-Label Marketing Executives and Corporate Radio, Well Listen Now to What I Say." The chapter that follows this title is a list of qualities certain band members must possess, such as moves: "Moves should be odd combination of sexual advances and a temper tantrum, punctuated with moments of apparent hypoglycemia. Best-case scenario, you have long hair that is worked into moves." This is not so much a traditional narrative as a mosaic of quirks.

While Kennedy often traffics in stereotypes in the pursuit of comedy, there is a real strength of voice that makes this a captivating comedic monologue. It is as self-deprecating as it is cynical about the music industry and all its major players. Kennedy mocks himself both for being a part of that industry and for being such a small part that doesn't quite fit in. Kennedy has the rare ability to narrate a situation ripe with comedy and satire but not make the obvious joke.

Even working in a "cool" office where leather pants can sit beside pantsuits in perfect, horrid harmony, Kennedy expresses what might be a more universal predicament: "The line between today's anxiety attack and tomorrow's stroke or unemployed cross-country spree of petty theft committed in a blackout is thinner than ever now that I'm working in an office full time." Kennedy can make us laugh at what might in any other context be called despair.

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