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Telling It Like It Was: Pop Culture Oral Histories

by Carol Jackson

*This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of RA News.*

A well-written, perfectly edited oral history is like attending a cocktail party with the most interesting people -- moving from group to group and hearing everyone's version of a story. Everyone has their spin to put on a story, and you get it all in their own words. Stories dovetail and diverge and create a full and fascinating picture.

The most fun oral histories are those that come from the performing arts -- music, television, an event or personality. Although people in the public eye tend to be careful about their image, once a few years have passed, the lips loosen and the truth comes out -- or at least an interesting memory. 

These oral histories are like literary popcorn -- chatty, gossipy, digestible in small bites, possibly not that good for you, but ever so delicious. Don't forget to look for the cast list, usually located in the front or back material, to help you keep track of the many storytellers.  Enjoy!

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored History of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum 
ISBN: 9780525952305
Anyone who grew up with music videos will love this dishy oral history of MTV and how it changed the music business. From what is widely considered the worst video of all time (Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonight") to the best (A-ha's "Take On Me", of course), and all of the drug use, extravagant video shoots, unadulterated greed and bad acting in between, this is a terrifically fun history of the time, told with honesty and hilarity by the people who were there.  
The Hippest Trip in America:  Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style by Nelson George
ISBN: 9780062221032
"We wish you love, peace . . . and SOUL!"  Debuting in 1971, Soul Train was the first television show devoted to African American culture, music and dance; the longest-running syndicated program in television history; and a true pop-culture phenomenon.  Memories from famous dancers and performers such as Rosie Perez, Aretha Franklin, Barry White, and legendary host Don Cornelius himself make this a fun trip "down the line."
Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James 
ISBN: 780316781466
Uncensored is no exaggeration in this no-holds-barred look at Saturday Night Live and the colorful, hilarious, and outspoken writers, comedians and guests who passed through its doors over nearly thirty years. A treat for anyone who has loved the show and the talent it produced (and wasted). However, after reading this, you may never look at certain actors the same way again -- Chevy Chase, for one. You'll see why.
Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales
ISBN: 9780316043007
Check out Miller and Shales's Live From New York follow-up:  the inside story of how ESPN became a household brand and the most successful network in modern television history. Interviews with nearly five hundred ESPN employees (and ex-employees), sports announcers, analysts, not to mention an outspoken athlete or two, show that Miller and Shales have a knack for getting the juiciest anecdotes. Scandals, successes, rivalries, and off-screen battles -- you'll find them all here.
We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy by Yael Kohen
ISBN: 9780374287238
Disheartened by the lack of women on Saturday Night Live and tired of the premise that "women just aren't funny?" From Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers to Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig, Kohen explores comediennes, actresses and writers who fought to be funny and successful in a blatantly sexist, male-dominated profession. Funny, honest, and often infuriating, this is the kind of subject that comes to life beautifully in oral history. 
Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV by Warren Littlefield
ISBN: 9780385533744
Top of the Rock covers just five years, one network, and one Thursday night prime-time line-up. Must See TV included Frasier, Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, and ER, and it was a fascinating era in television history. Former NBC president Warren Littlefield interviewed tons of actors, writers, directors, and executives to create this funny and chatty history, and he gets the last word on every point. Wonderfully inside television.  
The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History by John Ortved
ISBN: 9780865479883
From its start on The Tracey Ullman Show to pop culture mainstay, few television shows boast as long a run, and as dysfunctional a history as The Simpsons.  Having interviewed the writers, animators, producers and executives involved in the day-to-day creation and running of the show, Ortved himself describes the history as "contentious, bitchy and riddled with vendettas."  If that's not enough to get a Simpsons fan reading, I don't know what is.  
George, Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals, and a Few Unappreciative Observers edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr. 
ISBN: 9781400063987
Founder of The Paris Review, Plimpton knew (and entertained) everyone who was anyone in the New York literary community for over fifty years. Written after Plimpton's death, Aldrich describes his oral history as "a kind of literary party, George's last…where everyone, including the reader, is gossiping about the host." The list of gossipers reads like a who's who of American literature from the 1940s onward. 
Free For All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told by Kenneth Turan
ISBN: 9780767931687
Think the big personalities of television and literature make for good reading? Try theater! Larger-than-life figure Joseph Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater and changed American theater forever. Theatrical luminaries like George C. Scott, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Wallace Shawn, and more help tell the story of Papp and his revolutionary theater.  
Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock by Pete Fornatale
ISBN: 9781416591191
Fornatale calls Woodstock "the high-water mark of the 60s youth revolution -- musically, politically and socially." This oral history, published to coincide with the 40th anniversary, brings the massive cultural event to life through interviews with 110 performers, crew, managers and attendees. Plenty of historical context and Fornatale's own personal reflections make this a conversational and illuminating history.
Nothin' to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975) by Ken Sharp with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons
ISBN: 9780062131720
Featuring heavy input from the original band members, production and promotion people, and many of the musicians (like Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, and Rush) of the same era, this is a fascinating exploration into the creation of a multimedia phenomenon. Gorgeously designed with tons of black and white photographs, this book even features a KISS-style font.  Rock on!
Yes, Yes, Y'all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-hop's First Decade by Jim Fricke
ISBN: 9780306811845
While KISS was rocking the heartland, hip-hop was starting in New York. Based on the exhibit at Seattle's Experience Music Project, this oral history follows hip-hop from its gang culture origins in the 1970s to hip-hop's domination of popular culture in the 1980s and features interviews with over fifty of hip-hop's trailblazers. Filled with candid color photographs, flyers and posters, this is a visually stunning oral history.
Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm
ISBN: 9780307464439
Nostalgic for babydoll dresses, long hair and flannel? Yarm's extensive oral history captures the grunge era from its founding in the early 1990s to the worldwide successes (and tragedies) of bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. A huge cast of interviewees (over 250) including musicians, producers, managers, scenesters, hangers-on and more document this amazing era in rock-and-roll history (even though everyone involved hates the term "grunge.")


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Carol Jackson is a Branch Manager in the Ramsey County Library (MN) system. She serves on the steering committee of the Readers’ Advisory Roundtable of the Minnesota Library Association and is thoroughly devoted to all things readers’ advisory.