The History of Popularity
By Rayyan Al-Shawaf
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JANUARY 16, 2017
DAVID HAJDU, on the first page of Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, dismisses the category of popular music:
Of the countless terms for categories of music […] the least useful phrase I know is “popular music.” It provides no information about the music itself: no suggestion of how it sounds or what mood it might conjure, no indication of the traditions it grows from or defies, and no hint of whether it could be good for dancing, for solitary listening, or for anything else.
Yet he went and wrote a book on the subject — go figure — and a fine one at that.
Love for Sale examines the shape-shifting undergone by popular music, from minstrelsy to hip-hop, and the equally protean ways in which it has reached the public, from printed notation sheets for do-it-yourself parlor revelry in days of yore to the streaming and downloading of our digital era. The result is an exceptionally astute and stimulating account of music in the United States from the late 19th century until the early 21st. Hajdu’s propensity for stepping away from the hit parade in order to mingle with its architects as well as members of its audience not only militates against the monotony that a straightforward chronicle of the charts would generate, but it also fleshes out the social context of the songs under discussion.
The author also fills in the history of popularity for different kinds of music before 1940, when Billboard, which already compiled and published lists of popular songs, devised a system of charts — albeit an imperfect one — for tracking their sales.
Hajdu comes well equipped to tackle this project. Music critic for The Nation (and previously the New Republic) as well as a professor of journalism at Columbia University, he has written, among other works, two notable books on musicians who proved not only popular — to varying degrees — but also influential with their peers: Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn and Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña.
Love for Sale takes its title from a line in folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary’s sarcastic “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” (written by Paul Stookey, James Mason, and Dave Dixon), which Hajdu’s older brother, an aficionado of folk, brought to the attention of the rock-crazed author when they were kids in the late 1960s. (For some readers, the book’s title will recall that of Cole Porter’s groundbreaking song about prostitution, written for the 1930 Broadway musical The New Yorkers, in one or another of its many renditions.) “The lyrics mock Donovan for being ‘tripped out,’” Hajdu writes, “and scold the Beatles because ‘they have the word “love” to sell you.’”
Yet that stubborn adolescent coming of age in New Jersey didn’t see any harm in the idea of songs selling love, and continued lending his ears to rock. Moreover, as he broadened his musical horizons, eventually becoming a critic, he discovered that popular music enjoyed a rich tradition of selling love across its varied genres.
Sex, too. “In jump blues, as in the blues historically,” Hajdu writes, “there was never any doubt that to slip and slide, to shake and rattle, to rock and roll, meant to have sex.” Go back further in the past, and you’ll find something similar: “Many of the popular ballads published as late as 1914 and 1915 were sweetly romantic but laced with a strain of eros that was daring, if not radical, for its time.”
This was the era of sheet music: in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the widespread availability of records and radio, listening to music outside of a live performance entailed making it yourself. To that end, members of the United States’s growing middle class began purchasing pianos. Thus was born the market for sheet music, which ran the gamut from animated dance-oriented tunes to slower ballads. The composers and lyricists of New York City’s “Tin Pan Alley” — so-called because of “the noise made by all the singing and piano playing in the buildings” housing small companies churning out such music — supplied an eager public with the printed notation sheets needed for livening up evenings in the old drawing room.
Hajdu goes on to provide an indispensable guide to developments both sudden and long-gestating in pop during the 20th century. Consider the fact that musical gems would sometimes outshine the stage plays and films for which they were created — and outlive them, becoming pop standards. For example, though Hajdu is well acquainted with stage-born musical fare such as Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (from Roberta), George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” (Strike Up the Band), and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Manhattan” (Garrick Gaieties), as well as other classics, he has never seen the plays in which they feature. The history of music is not just in its distribution, but in its redistribution.
Of course, even the biggest hits inevitably fade. But some were granted an additional lease on life when, beginning in the 1950s, singers found that they didn’t have enough songs for the long-playing records — increasingly called albums — they wanted to put out. For filler fodder, all they had to do was turn to previously successful material. With those same songs covered by so many artists year after year, they came to achieve something close to immortality. “The ongoing conception of this music as a canon [the Great American Songbook] is largely a secondary effect of a change in recording technology,” Hajdu cannily observes.
A separate example of technology shaping music was the advent of the transistor radio, which facilitated solitary listening and was coveted by young people, especially when inexpensive Japanese models hit the market in the early 1960s. The author notes that, pretty soon, “pop hits became conspicuously intimate and reflective: ‘Only the Lonely’ and ‘Crying’ by Roy Orbison, ‘My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own’ by Connie Francis, ‘Why’ by Frankie Avalon, and ‘Sweet Nothin’s’ by Brenda Lee.”
The 1960s signaled the beginning of another significant phenomenon, one that accelerated over the following decade. Hajdu points to a cultural shift in the perception of musical artists’ vocation. Increasingly, listeners expected singers to take part in composing their music, writing the lyrics, and playing one or more instruments. Those who fulfilled the requirements of this expanded role earned more respect and sold more records, dominating the charts as a result.
Some of Hajdu’s observations run counter to conventional wisdom. For example: “The fact is that the appropriation of commercial music is one of the great traditions of traditional music.” He highlights the famed Anthology of American Folk Music, which came out in a limited edition in 1952 and was hailed by many as a great contribution to musical anthropology, but consisted in its entirety of songs previously released by commercial record companies. And he indicates that while it’s true that rock, which has proven so popular among whites, owes a lot to traditionally black forms of music such as the blues, sometimes influence flowed in the opposite direction, as with all the jazz tunes derived in part from the innovative chord progression in the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm” (which featured in the 1930 Broadway musical Girl Crazy), additional songs popularized by stage plays, and other white sources.
Noticeably absent from Love for Sale is a foray into the golden age of radio, which lasted from the 1920s until the ’50s. (Woody Allen’s film Radio Days, at once whimsical and historically grounded, brings a slice of that era to life.) To be sure, the wireless keeps cropping up, but it does so in an ancillary capacity. For example, Hajdu draws attention to the fact that Harlem’s famed yet faintly minstrel-ish Cotton Club reached distant listeners who never set foot in the establishment; the United States “went there on the radio” is how the late Ralph Ellison — who initially aspired to be a composer — put it to the author. Elsewhere, Hajdu relates entertaining personal anecdotes about his transistor (which he kept switched on and used as a pillow at night during his adolescence, damaging his hearing in the process), but these naturally date from a time well after radio’s heyday.
With notions Hajdu is keen to impress upon readers, he sometimes slides into a form of repetition made only slightly more palatable through a varying of metaphors. How cultural factors affect personal taste, and specifically the circular phenomenon by which music charts serve as “social proof — testimony of popular opinion that acts to expand the popularity of that opinion,” is one point he formulates and reformulates, while the ephemeral nature of hits is another. On an unrelated subject, the author comes perilously close to tautology:
It would be easy but inaccurate to say that the degradation of sound quality in recordings of popular music since the rise of the MP3 and the proliferation of handheld devices and earbuds, exacerbated by the compression employed by the most successful streaming services, has degraded the quality of popular music.
Hajdu proceeds to assert (much too generously) that such degradation results in a sound that is “different […] not necessarily lesser.” At any rate, he demonstrates an intimate familiarity with the technological features of today’s increasingly digitized music, something that further distinguishes his book. With the MP3, there is a clear trade-off; in exchange for accepting a diminution in sound quality due to compression (more properly “strategic excision,” according to the fastidious Hajdu), you acquire the ability to download and electronically send songs with ease and speed. Moreover, as the author points out, newer songs intended for digital delivery sound great on MP3s.
If Hajdu appears overly reluctant to bemoan the corrosive effect compression or excision has on music, thankfully he exhibits no such tendency when tackling the downside of Auto-Tune, the pitch-correction device. The author starts tentatively enough, venturing that Auto-Tune resembles the microphone, which had been “doing for amplitude what [Harold] Hildebrand’s invention has done for pitch.” But, he adds, there’s a major difference. Whereas the mic afforded live performers the freedom to sing in lower decibels and still make themselves heard, Auto-Tune modulates the singer’s voice so as to make it pitch-perfect.
And that’s the problem: “It has the ability to adjust every tone with unyielding precision, squarely in the mathematical center of the note. But no one sings that way — not even the world’s most esteemed opera singers. […] Auto-Tune, by making every song perfectly correct, makes every song wrong.”
Hajdu’s conflicted take on the streaming of music is worth lingering on. “Today,” the New York City–based author muses, “I skip around Spotify while I’m on the subway or walking down the street, and when I find myself hearing something I don’t much like, I click out of it and listen to something else, because countless alternatives are always a click away.” As might be expected, Hajdu feels guilty that the artists whose music he’s playing on streaming services that offer affordable subscriptions to listeners (Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud) receive precious little financial remuneration.
That’s not the half of it. The digital revolution is bankrupting physical stores that sell music, movies, and books in traditional formats. This has rendered large numbers of curators and salespeople jobless, and denied customers an entire aspect of consumption enjoyed by earlier generations. It has also deprived the lonely and the lovelorn of places to meet and forge relationships (virtual friendships just aren’t the same).
Though Hajdu doesn’t address this particular issue, he does pinpoint a subtle yet profound transformation digitization has brought about in many people’s listening habits, including his own. Consider, to begin with, what things were like in the pre-digital age:
I remember buying the album Hejira in 1976, to use the example of Joni Mitchell […] and finding it tuneless and confusing. But, damn it, I spent a whole $7 on the thing. So I stuck with it, hoping to find a way to appreciate it and get my money’s worth. Within a few days, I did, and my taste expanded in the process.
The situation is quite different now. With a streaming service at your disposal, you can skitter from one song to another (and not only within a single album) until something hooks you from the very start. Hajdu, by his own admission, does just that. Such an approach, he pointedly remarks, “inhibits perseverance and impedes challenge.”
Of course, when all is said and done, the beat goes on. It always has, and (probably) always will. These days, that otherwise comforting reality manifests itself in a rather jarring manner. Too often, the beat changes abruptly, as we — like Hajdu — click-click-click our way from one song to another, searching for something that will immediately entrance us. The songs we glide over may well boast all kinds of qualities we already cherish or could come to value through exposure, but chances are we’ll never find out, as we won’t bother going back and listening to any of them.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviews books regularly for LARB and many other publications.