How Strange the Change: On David Hajdu’s History of American Pop Music
By Dylan HicksOctober 16, 2016
Love for Sale by David Hajdu
Hajdu is the music critic for The Nation and the author of four earlier books on music and popular culture, including Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, and a biography of the jazz composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn. Love for Sale might have begun its survey with minstrelsy, Stephen Foster, and other early examples of American popular music, but the book’s scope is broad enough as it is, and Hajdu wisely starts with pop’s transition from a mom-and-pop business into a genuine industry.
The beginnings of that industry are in publishing rather than recording. In the late 19th century, New York’s song publishers came to be centered on 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, a stretch of real estate satirically dubbed Tin Pan Alley for the alleged cacophony of so many writers demonstrating songs on upright pianos. Songs were sold as sheet music, the market for which expanded dramatically as Americans gained leisure time and acquired relatively expensive musical instruments. Between 1890 and 1904, Hajdu reports, annual US piano sales increased from 32,000 to 374,000.
These amateur pianists were predominantly female. Fin-de-siècle popular music, Hajdu writes, was “[a] symbol of domestic refinement performed by girls or their mothers or aunts at the piano, generally speaking, [and] took on associations with femininity that it would carry forever.” (Of course amateur musical refinement, particularly on piano, was chiefly a distaff realm well before the period under examination, as we know from the novels of Jane Austen.) The living rooms of the United States were forested with pianos, and the hits played on them could be big, proportionally bigger than most of today’s. During its first 10 years in print, for instance, Charles K. Harris tearful waltz “After the Ball” reportedly sold five million copies, in a nation of about 76 million people.
Musicians often position the public as the ultimate judges and interpreters of their work, if only to flatter their fans or gainsay critics. During the height of the sheet-music era, this wasn’t just talk. “The music of the song sheets came together in performance,” Hajdu writes, “to make a complicated, elementally imperfect, partly commercial, partly homemade form of popular art.” The Tin Pan Alley creation, though produced and promoted in the industrial fashion, was in its principal early domain a pro-am affair, “inseparable from the irregular character and the limits of everyday voices and rudimentary musicianship.” Songs would have been altered by out-of-tune instruments and pitchy singers, and by deliberate variations: a smartly elided note, an expanded harmony, a discovered nuance. As a boy in the ’70s, I was introduced to several ’60s hits by hearing them performed by my stepfather, a talented amateur singer and guitarist. Around the turn of the last century, this was how pop songs were customarily experienced: by hearing friends and family members play them, and by playing and singing them oneself.
There were, of course, other ways to encounter popular music in those years. The decades of sheet music’s dominance, roughly from the 1890s through World War I, overlapped with the creative peaks of ragtime composers and performers such as Scott Joplin, Ben Harney, and Eubie Blake; the emergence of blues as a published form through the work of W. C. Handy; the early songs of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern and a budding golden age of American musical theater; and the advent of jazz. Then as now, there were stars with signature songs, and there were certainly opportunities for people without extraordinary means to hear popular music performed live by professionals and gifted moonlighters, at vaudeville houses, theaters, barrelhouses, cabarets, traveling shows, revues, county fairs, bordellos, and so on. But many people didn’t have regular access to such places, or avoided them for fear of perdition. For such folks, your mother’s rendition on the parlor piano was the closest you could get.
There were also records, but in the first decade of the 20th century, the majority of them were of classical music, including arias and excerpts sung by the popular tenor Enrico Caruso. Home audio gear wasn’t only available to the rich — Bing Crosby’s working-class family had a phonograph by 1906 — but it was a significant investment. As phonographs entered more homes, the experience of listening, and thus the relationship between pop’s consumers and producers, changed dramatically. If “sheet music industrialized the production of popular music,” according to Hajdu, “records professionalized the experience of it.” Now the latest hits didn’t just fill one’s living room, but did so through skillful, often brilliant musicians. This was among the cultural shifts that encouraged songwriters to explore more challenging melodies, harmonies, and rhythms, one of countless instances in the history of pop in which the possibilities and limitations of technology and format have shaped artistic practice. “A change has come and the popular song is no longer written to be sung, but to be played,” the cultural critic Gilbert Seldes wrote in 1924. By the time great pop and jazz recordings started to flow in impressive numbers and with vastly improved fidelity after the emergence of electrical recording, the quintessential pop consumer was no longer the interpreter, who wanted to play, but rather the fan, who wanted to listen.
A certain alienation may have attended that turn toward relative passivity. But the rise of recordings also fostered intimacy and identification between performer and fan, both because records allowed for a variety of private listening experiences, and because the stars often seemed, deceptively or otherwise, so similar to their audience. Bing Crosby was a virtuoso, but because he used the new condenser microphones for intimate effects, his relaxed swing seemed more earthly and neighborly than that of a vaudeville star who had to belt it out to the back rows. Later, Hajdu notes, a less technically proficient singer like Gene Autry appealed in part because “he came across like the most talented amateur in town, the kind of person one might actually find singing at an actual barn dance.” The porous division between amateur and professional is one aspect of democratic pop that reliably distinguishes it from classical or jazz, as anyone who’s listened to Ernest Tubb or ? and the Mysterians or Roxanne Shanté knows. The main reason you’re not playing Bach in concert halls or headlining the Montreux Jazz Festival is probably simple: you’re not good enough. The reason you haven’t made a great pop record might be that you haven’t tried.
Hajdu is writing with the general reader in mind, and he covers some well-trod ground as he proceeds through the 20th century’s various technological, artistic, commercial, and practical innovations and tendencies. But even the sort of people who file their doo-wop 45s by region ought to learn something from Love for Sale, and Hajdu’s affinity for a range of genres lend even the more familiar stories the dimensionality of a stereo mix. His discussion of the pop album’s usurpation of the single, for instance, devotes attention to Frank Sinatra’s thematic Capitol LPs and Ella Fitzgerald and Norman Granz’s songbook series before moving on to the Beach Boys, the Kinks, the Beatles, and other ’60s stalwarts. In doing so, he also shows how the ambitious album-makers of the ’50s, hungry for material that wasn’t filler, mined the past and helped invent the idea of a pop canon. The album, Hajdu writes, “got people thinking of the old music on recordings in new terms, as pieces in a portfolio of treasurable mementos, and a common repertoire of durable, adaptable songs — most of them originally written for the stage or the movies, others from Tin Pan Alley — began to take form.”
Hajdu doesn’t just stick to the usual monuments on his tour of American pop music. He makes a compelling case for the singing cowboys, remembered more in histories of film and merchandising, as harbingers of rock and modern country. He’s good at spotting continuity, as when he traces the jungle motifs demanded of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway during their Cotton Club residencies through The Blackboard Jungle and the urban narratives on Bruce Springsteen’s first three albums. And he chooses good examples to reveal pop’s ineluctable interconnectedness, as when he cites the country-music historian Bill C. Malone’s recognition of an apparent Appalachian folk song as a rural reworking of the aforementioned “After the Ball.”
Pop music is always a personal matter, and Hajdu interlaces his cultural history with autobiographical touchstones: the scarred jukebox 45s his mother brought home from her waitressing job at a “chrome-clad diner on Route 22”; the transistor radio that enriched his bedtime and permanently damaged his left ear (“that seemed a fair price to pay”); his days on the skirts of New York’s punk scene. Remembering his years as a working-class New Jersey teenager in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Hajdu writes that his true home was “the imagined landscape of pop music. That’s where I lived in my heart and mind and where, in a contradiction of propositions I could not see at the time, commercial products that were popular among millions of other young people fed my adolescent feelings of alienation and exceptionalism.” None of this material is deeply revealing, but Hajdu is an amiable, often funny narrator, and the autobiography is smoothly integrated with the history and criticism, especially in the excellent chapter on transistor radios and private listening. Though he’s now an accomplished songwriter whose collaborators include the jazz pianist Fred Hersch, he has more fun describing his teen beat group, the Ryders, inspired by a local Monkees cover band and thus “a copy of a copy of a copy of the Beatles.”
“I like to think of myself as a jazz fan who grew up on rock and roll,” Hajdu says in his introduction, before reminding us that the borders between genres are always porous. Broadly informed and receptive without being a pushover, he’s in many ways an ideal docent for this sort of tour. His perspective is middle-aged but not cranky. He doesn’t indulge in facile diatribes about how pop’s soul has been stolen by drum machines or Scandinavian producers, even if the description “chirpy [and] blissfully artificial” underrates the music Max Martin makes with Taylor Swift and others. He does complain about Auto-Tune, but only because he’s a champion of the emotional and musical possibilities of pitch, thwarted when software is used to “adjust every tone with unyielding precision, squarely in the mathematical center of the note.”
At times, however, Hajdu seems too quick to throw punches at acknowledged lightweights. “When we think of the pop charts,” he writes, “we tend to conceive of hit songs as bouncy and cheery puff.” He means to challenge this received idea, to show that pop, like all art, thrives on longing and discontent as much as on joy. But anyone who’s listened to pop with a modicum of attention knows this, just as blues partisans know their favorite form isn’t universally mournful. And, truth be told, Hajdu does dismiss a lot of pop music for being too bouncy, cheery, or puffy. Like many who became rock and soul converts through the vanguard hits of the ’60s, Hajdu seems to be deaf to the softer melodic and harmonic pleasures of ’70s AM hits, the “goofy pap” of America’s beautifully fabricated “Sister Golden Hair,” the “fizzy junk-food music for middle-school ears” that record labels marketed on singles rather than albums during Hajdu’s late teens.
Hajdu’s chapters on hip-hop and contemporary pop might be of greatest value to the reader who is naturally averse to the styles, as Hajdu initially was, but open-minded enough to get a feel for their methods and merits. In these areas he presents himself as a curious, occasionally enthusiastic foreigner, and though he provides useful analysis of rap and other ’80s forms, one misses the authority he brings to earlier pop periods. In a section on how Kool Herc turned the drum breaks from old soul and rock records into the rhythmic foundation of hip-hop, Hajdu writes that the pioneering DJ “worked out a way to manipulate multiple turntables to mix back and forth between similar breaks on separate records, extending the effect from a few teasing seconds to an ecstatic five minutes or more.” To pick nits, that’s not quite accurate. While beat-matching separate records is a crucial DJ skill, particularly for transitions, Herc developed his “merry-go-round” technique with two copies of the same record, so that a break from the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache” or James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” could be seamlessly extended, as Hajdu says, for many minutes. A little later, he argues that house music, in its “relentless and carnal muscularity, was the near antithesis of the dozy Southern California folk-pop all over the radio, and it provided overnight fuel for the gay awakening of the post-Stonewall period.” That contextualization feels imprecise: while it’s true that house’s club origins coincide with the apex of, say, Fleetwood Mac, the opposition is less germane to the genre’s history than the disco and R&B from which house sprang and with which it was in dialogue; and by the time house emerged, around ’84, as a distinct producer’s genre of growing influence, other sounds were all over the radio, and Stonewall was 15 years in the past. Later still, Hajdu calls Napster’s early 21st century users “the first students ever to be using computers.” Many of us who were educated in the ’80s and ’90s have so little to show for it; at least grant us our computers.
Though Hajdu often goes into detail about a song’s iterations and legacy, for the most part he doesn’t linger over a recording in the manner of Martin Williams or Greil Marcus, or Ben Ratliff in his recent book, Every Song Ever. Hajdu has good ears and ideas, so one wishes he would more frequently delve deeper into a record; as it is, his analysis sometimes seems incomplete. He does a nice job of setting up the Shirelles’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the 1960 hit written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, as a gleaming example of how Brill Building writers applied the old Tin Pan Alley model to soulful, hybridic pop with teenage concerns. But he doesn’t quite convey the song’s musical and lyrical power. “With words written by a man,” he writes, “the song hangs on the premise that the boy in the relationship holds the girl’s self-worth in his hands. It is hardly as enlightened as a Bessie Smith song in its view of the sexes. Still, it deals fairly bluntly with sex as an adolescent at the cusp of the 1950s and the 1960s might have thought of it.” This is all true up to a point, but it lowers the stakes. The song’s narrator, embodied by Shirley Owens in the original, is anxious not only about the heartbreak to follow if her partner’s motivations prove to have been loveless, but also, the listener can infer, about the risks of unwanted pregnancy, potential familial disgrace, locker-room betrayals, and a tarnished reputation that could end friendships or spur harassment.
Speaking of sex: The book’s title, taken from the Cole Porter classic, promotes the commonplace notion, adumbrated in passing throughout the book, that pop is a fundamentally erotic form. Even when the sex in pop songs is encoded or sublimated or invisible at the level of lyrical content, it’s really all about sex. According to Hajdu, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s 1860 phonautograph of “Au Clair de la Lune,” in which a young man’s attempt to borrow a pen from a neighbor leads to presumably amorous goings-on behind closed doors, “foreshadows the whole history of recorded popular music in thematic content.” Dancing, in popular music, “is always code for sex.” There’s ample evidence to support such claims, and the point of a generalization, I realize, is to distill a large truth, not to deny exceptions: Walter Pater’s maxim that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music” endures because it feels profoundly true (for about five seconds). But considering that Hajdu’s book elsewhere excels at suggesting pop’s multivalent contradictions, these attempts at generalization intrude more than they illuminate. To adapt a line from Drake: Sometimes a song can only mean one thing, but don’t the best ones mean everything?
In Love for Sale’s coda, Hajdu writes that “the miracle of popular music, for me, is that so many songs provide the satisfactions and the surprises that they do, considering the sheer quantity of work produced every week, every year.” Even at the age of 61, Hajdu still finds new pop songs to fall in love with, often through his teenage son’s playlists. My own teenage son has likewise steered me to new favorites, and I’ve also enjoyed watching a pattern of parent-child exposure and reclamation repeat from my youth. I originally turned my son on to one of his favorite artists, the defunct alternative hip-hop group Das Racist and the solo projects of the group’s co-leaders Heems and Kool A. D., but he has asserted his independence by becoming much more expert on their music than I, just as I tried to surpass my father’s knowledge of, say, Miles Davis or Bob Dylan. As we walked home from the grocery store the other day, my son quoted lyrics, discussed the group’s social and political critiques, and generally demonstrated what I’d missed by not listening often, or closely, enough.
Or, perhaps, by not being able to summon a certain intensity of fandom that, for better or worse, is the privilege of youth. It’s not so hard to be moved and inspired by artists notably younger than yourself — the alternative is a pretty dismal stagnation in the swamp of nostalgia — but in all likelihood you don’t look up to those artists: you don’t want to be them, or quit your job so you can work their merch table. Listening to my son talk about Das Racist, I remembered one of the simplest truths about pop: for him, the group wasn’t just making great music. They were teaching him how to be cool.
Dylan Hicks is a writer, musician, and the author of the novels Amateurs and Boarded Windows. His recordings include the album Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, a collection of songs written to accompany his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Nina Hale, and their son, Jackson.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Weighing in at a hefty 670 pages, "Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink" is an impressively detailed, career-spanning narrative....
Robert Christgau, Dean of American Rock Critics, is a much-needed example of the public intellectual unafraid of tapping into his academic voice (and persona)....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.