From the Toronto Star, way back in September 2000. Review of Bill Flanagan’s novel about the rock & roll business, A&R.
“A&R,” explains the protagonist of Bill Flanagan’s new book, is a recording-industry term referring to “artists and repertoire,” a holdover from the days when companies matched songs and performers in an effort to churn out hits. These days most pop stars write their own stuff and aspire to artistic integrity, but the A&R tag has stuck – perhaps because the industry continues to view its talent as pawns to be moved willy-nilly on the march to the Top Ten. Flanagan, a longtime rock journalist and current VH1 exec, offers a breezy satire of that perennial campaign in his first novel.
His hero is Jim Cantone, a naive talent scout who’s just made vice-president at WorldWide Records, run by the aging maverick “Wild Bill” DeGaul. While Cantone struggles to remain aloof from the shadowy power struggles that define WorldWide’s corporate culture, the label’s recent signings prepare for their shots at the charts. The punk-pop outfit Jerusalem is Cantone’s pet project; Black Beauty, a seven-woman “cultural collective” of black lesbian folkies, seems destined for the delete bin; and Cokie Shea, a confident young country singer, is discovered after she slips her demo tape into an exec’s pocket at a bar.
Readers will doubtless look for signs of roman à clef, and there are some. (DeGaul’s backstory – he built his “Tropic Records” label into a success, then sold it to a mega-corporation – is a clear nod to Chris Blackwell and Island Records. And the circumstances of Shea’s discovery echo Mariah Carey’s.) But most of A&R’s characters seem modelled less on specific real-life rockers than broad, recognizable types: the temperamental soul diva, the has-been heavy metal star. Unfortunately, the non-musician characters are similarly stereotypical and sketchy. Cantone never seems to develop beyond bland affability, and secondary players, like his wife, barely register at all.
With its hidden agendas, shifting loyalties, and commerce-of-art backdrop, A&R calls to mind Turn of the Century, Kurt Andersen’s fictional funhouse ride through high tech, high finance, and high-concept showbiz. But the book can’t match Andersen’s restless wit or exhilarating pace. In fact, Flanagan – who’s produced some insightful rock journalism – turns out to be a disappointingly artless novelist. His prose rarely rises above the level of serviceable, and his dialogue, uniformly stilted, groans under the burden of exposition. The plotting is haphazard, too. One of the few unpredictable characters, the bitter WorldWide staffer Zoey Pavlov, disappears from the narrative altogether just as her story arc’s getting interesting. And few readers will fail to foresee the book’s “surprise” plot twists.
A&R’s best moments come when Flanagan concentrates on the venalities of the business. As when a talentless arena-rocking oaf blithely steals a promising song from one of his sidemen. Or when Pavlov surveys her gathered underlings with perfectly pitched scorn: “This crew of nitcombs, fanboys, and wanna-bes included ambitious student directors of college radio stations, a couple of badly ironed music editors of alternative weeklies, and two or three self-improving secretaries from WorldWide field offices in secondary markets.” And although references to the Internet threat are few, they do lend the novel an elegaic feel. “A hundred years of keeping ninety-five percent of the money and all the rights! Who’d have believed it? How can we complain?” asks one character, waxing philosophical about the forthcoming death of the industry. A&R makes a convincing case that few should mourn its passing.