Since the early 1970s and the first Best Albums Ever lists, most histories of popular music have followed the same course. A steady ascension via Elvis Presley reaches the birth of rock with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, followed by a gradual decline, briefly interrupted by punk. For 40-odd years after that, white male music writers posited the superiority of white, male, writerly music and took it as read that pop or dance music “didn’t count”. Then, finally, a few began to rebel until, in 2013, Bob Stanley’s invigorating Yeah Yeah Yeah went for a full rewriting of the annals, declaring outright its intention “to argue that the separation of rock and pop is false, and that disco and large swaths of black and electronic music have been virtually ignored by traditional pop histories”. Others have joined in, embracing the relativism born of popular music’s long assimilation into the mainstream and the end of the old mods v Teds or punk v disco tribalism. Most of these writers have been British, but now it seems the Americans are on board.
Love for Sale is of this new school, though its author, David Hajdu, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York and a former writer for the conservative US rock magazine Rolling Stone. His take begins by dividing the music into eras, either by technology (sheet music to digital) or movements (jazz to hip-hop), into which he folds his own experience: small-town childhood obsession, entry into punk music’s orbit in 1970s Manhattan, becoming a professional critic, watching his children develop their own tastes. He is pacy, conversational and unshowily perceptive, and his greatest virtue is his ability to see the wood for the trees. There’s something David Attenborough-like about the way he carries the reader along: for instance, tracing the journey of the song “Whispering” from composition in 1920, through instrumentals, crooners, country and bebop, to George Harrison’s rendition on an out-take from “Let It Be”.
Hajdu also has a good thesis or two, one of which he calls “the trope of the jungle”, running from the decor of the jazz-era nightspot the Cotton Club through the rock’n’roll breakout movie Blackboard Jungle and on to Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” and hip-hop’s African motifs. Listeners’ desire for the “primitive and savage”, he says, connects Duke Ellington to punk and rap. It’s certainly bold. From this, he extrapolates a social purpose for popular music: as “the sound of teen kinship” and “a for-profit laboratory of both social and aesthetic experimentation”, lightening the load along the way with the insights and discoveries vital to any history. Who knew that the “S curl” plastered to Bill Haley’s forehead was an effort to increase his resemblance to Superman? Who else has fully considered music video’s effect on live shows, with performers “costumed, choreographed and lit for the benefit of video cameras” fed to those giant screens?
Much of the rock snobbery of past histories has resided in an obsession with authenticity, but Hajdu echoes Hugh Barker’s and Yuval Taylor’s groundbreaking Faking It (2007) in dealing with commercialism head on. The US music trade magazine Billboard, he points out, began as a mouthpiece of the outdoor advertising industry; he claims that country music was invented by Tin Pan Alley to capitalise on the popularity of another fabrication, the cowboy – and reminds us that even folk’s bastions of purity, the Carter Family, were “unapologetic professionals”. He also pays proper respect to the influence of musical theatre, both through the theatricality of Ziggy Stardust and in the enduring concept of the Great American Songbook, evident in the huge success of Adele.
His efforts to distance himself from the established view may even go a little too far. He takes aim at 1970s writers and “their mission to elevate rock and perhaps, in the process, themselves”, before turning the gun on “music critics like me”. Really, his only fault seems to be that he hasn’t come to terms with his enduring passion for the music of his teens.
Marc Myers, by contrast, declares on page one of Anatomy of a Song that “at its heart, this book is a love story”, though mercifully it’s more level-headed and substantial than that suggests. Based on a column he began for the Wall Street Journal in 2011, it takes 45 songs, from Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” in 1952 to REM’s “Losing My Religion” in 1991 (25 years being the time needed to assess “iconic” status), puts each in context and then interviews its makers to form a history in snapshots. Stuart Maconie did something similar for British tastes with The People’s Songs, and in both books the chief value is in the focus being placed on song rather than singer.
Much of the music Myers writes about comes from pop, soul, or that strange place where Tin Pan Alley hack-songwriting crossed over with rock’n’roll – the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”, Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” – which rock history can’t usually compute and so pretends didn’t exist. Here, facing off against the compact power of the Four Tops’ unashamedly populist “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, the rare rock figures who appear, such as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page talking about leaving behind singles to “develop our songs emotionally”, just sound silly.
It isn’t quite a history, though. Myers wants to cover the “larger story of the music’s development”, so he uses each track to represent a stage or turning point; but you are always conscious that he is limited by whom he can interview. That said, the random element throws up interesting angles. He prefaces a Loretta Lynn tune, “Fist City”, with a summary of the evolution of country and western up to the rise of the tough female singer-songwriter, while the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” inspires an essay on gospel’s infiltration, from Bridge Over Troubled Water to Godspell.
Another side effect is a reminder that popular music is always everything happening at once. That Loretta Lynn song, for example, was competing for attention in 1968 not only with Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” but also with the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” and Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”. It’s the same impression given, rather less gracefully, by Ed Ward’s History of Rock’n’Roll, Volume 1, a comparatively traditional tome that trots along year by year. Ward, another Rolling Stone veteran, makes a strong start on 19th-century string bands and the arrival of the medicine shows and ragtime, but as the record industry picks up the pace so does he, relaying with tireless and eventually tiring enthusiasm the hits and misses of each month. Though he sets out in his introduction (worryingly titled “How to Use This Book”) his intention to steer away from “the Great Performer approach”, the barrage is so unrelenting that all that remains in the mind after 400 pages are his diversions from this rule, primarily into the story of Elvis or the Beatles.
If Ward has a theme, it’s the crossover of black and white music. Elijah Wald’s excellent How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll did this in 2009 with more verve, but the subject does at least inspire Ward to step out of almanac mode into opinion. Hank Williams’s significance, he argues, came from having “internalised the blues”, allowing him to “change the rules” of country; Ray Charles “dropped a bombshell on the American popular music world” with his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music album; and long before either, those string bands sounded much the same whether the musicians were black or white.
Many shifts in popular music he attributes to technology – the move into recording; to singles and then albums; the conversion to digital. It’s a view shared by David Hajdu, who attributes the appearance of more “ruminative” songs in the 1960s (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”) to the arrival of the transistor radio, which moved teenagers out of the family space and increased music’s role as a “symbol of the cult of teen alienation”. This is now a preoccupation of music writing, highlighted in Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever: the Story of Recorded Music (2009), but also in journalism. While it’s significant that, say, both Phil Spector and Motown’s Berry Gordy designed their productions to work on tinny radios, it is hard not to wonder if this retroactive emphasis is down to music writers’ current preoccupation with downloads and streaming and their knock-on effects.
While that obsession may well pass, what will surely be more lasting – and what binds all of these books – is nostalgia. Popular music is still thriving and even developing in 2016, but it is no longer at the centre of the culture, here or in America, even for young people. Unlike those Best Album Ever lists, compiled with the triumphalism of the now, these three books are written with that most valuable critical advantage: hindsight.
This article appears in the 11 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge