Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Dan Kennedy: Rock On: An Office Power Ballad

Happy offices are all different, but every unhappy office is unhappy in the same way. Getting his dream job at Atlantic Records led Dan Kennedy to write two books, a series of pithy, brilliant short pieces, and a more conventional story about the dehumanizing effects of corporations. Those books are unhappily wed between the covers of Rock On: An Office Power Ballad, a memoir about work whose central narrative is as commonplace as the marketing meetings Kennedy lampoons.

A chance assignment to make a commemorative video for Motown Records got Kennedy, a low-paid freelancer and previous member of three bands, the chance to work in marketing at Atlantic Records. Uneasily wedged between long-time employees—for instance, Rush Hair, whose early discovery of prog-rock is enough to garner him prime office space for life—and overenthusiastic hit chasers, Kennedy tries to focus on writing his Phil Collins promos, directing an elaborate TV spot for rapper Fat Joe, and wondering how his new assistant became so seemingly omniscient. Disillusioned by the hit-making process, Kennedy is nonetheless shocked when layoffs and rumors of a sale claim his office crush, and eventually, him as well.

Sprinkled among these linear chapters are shorter pieces like "Before We Begin, A Record-Business Riddle" and "Office Supplies For The Unemployed," which suggest Kennedy, a regular McSweeney's contributor, felt the need to stuff his best observations into a more traditional narrative casing. But his true liability as a narrator isn't improper humor, it's timing. He joined Atlantic when digital downloading had reached such a volume that he himself installed LimeWire on his corporate computer. Kennedy defends himself by pointing out that his soon-to-be-hated office job was too enticing to pass up, and that his attempts to help steer the business toward the future in the office were mercilessly thwarted. (In one cringe-inducing moment, he faults Atlantic's web division for being too lazy to build a web-based iTunes killer.) But his naïveté about the daily indignities of office life, from muffin scuffles to bad parties, is more pathetic than charming. While it's true that nothing Kennedy said or did could have saved the music industry or his own job, the fact remains that he went into a house on fire and then wondered why he smelled like smoke. Which makes Rock On a pretty pallid account of the dangers of getting what you want.

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