You don't have to remember the '50s to get lost in Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with '50s Pop Music. After all, author Karen Schoemer only barely does. Yet even as she wrote about modern, angst-heavy rock as a Newsweek staffer, shades of Fabian, Tommy Sands, Georgia Gibbs and, above all, Connie Francis, hovered alongside specters of her parents at the edge of her imagination, demanding the chance to reverse history's merciless judgment.
And so Schoemer's search is about more than music. As her breathless, ironic and engaging prose suggests, it's about family no, actually, it's about love. For 30 years her parents had lived a few miles apart yet barely acknowledged each other's existence. Somehow this becomes just as important as her portraits of the stars that set the pre-boom tune. You sense this in the quick intimacy she establishes with these singers singers she had been raised to dismiss as irrelevant, empty of talent or just plain icky.
Schoemer hurls herself into their lives, like a whirlwind sucking up a sea of research factoids yet drowning in uncertainties. Invariably she sheds her cynicism and becomes a trusting believer, much like her parents must have been before their premonitions of divorce. She sits in the backseat as Patti Page and her husband drive through their tiny town, wondering if maybe she could stay and join their family. She perches on Pat Boone's lap, ready to devote herself to him forever despite his purity. She stands on her chair and screams along with the happy geriatrics at a Frankie Laine concert.
In other words, Schoemer doesn't write about this music and the people who made it: she lives it, and gets it tangled up in her daydreams and anger and innocence. And, almost without anyone noticing, her odyssey leads her to where her memory began not just into the home of Connie Francis but, wildly and improbably, into her bed, where a moment of terrifying revelation reminds us that even pop music at its worst packs enough magic to set us all free. Robert L. Doerschuk is a former editor of Musician magazine.