American jazz singer Lou Rawls once said, “Music is the world’s greatest communication.” Unrelated to language, he explained, music has the power to reach across cultures.
Popular music that has emerged since the beginning of the 20th century has shifted identities and ideas while also fostering a global industry. Four recent books examine this history, with an emphasis on American folk music. As a group, each group claims a voice in an entertaining yet complex conversation that explores the power of the music industry, the impact of technology, and the pressure of social norms.
Black music as a basis
What is widely regarded as “American music” has always been an appropriation of black music – without giving credit for it. How important it is, then, that we start with the foundation provided by Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.’s interesting collection of essays, “Who’s Hearing Here?” Ramsey, a musicologist, music historian, and musician himself, brings an authentic voice to the discussion.
For anyone genuinely interested in the history of popular music, his book and other writings of black scholars cannot be ignored. Doing so would be a severance from the indispensable sources of information that allow listeners to understand the history and culture that produced the music, an awareness vital to a full appreciation of the work.
However, as Ramsey’s essays make clear, this is what has happened for decades in the field of music criticism, replicating the patterns and practices of the music industry. He recounts his awakened understanding of “what impact cultural criticism might have on the study of black music if the field remained predominantly male”.
In the essay that lends its title to the book, Ramsey recounts the efforts that went into shattering that silence. Sharing an annotated history, citing decades of writing by Amiri Baraka, Albert Murray, Billy Taylor, and others, Ramsey examines the harsh and complex reception their work has received while emphasizing that fearful responses can never be a deterrent to speaking the truth.
The book stands as a testament to his commitment. His 14 essays capture a range of musical perspectives and styles as he traces the history of black music from the Civil War through the work of one of the brightest stars currently on the scene, Robert Glasper. Ramsey brings depth and essential understanding to a discussion of American popular music.
Billboard Hot 100
The influence of social conventions is also seen in “The Number Ones” by Tom Breihan. A longtime music columnist, Brehan draws on the US Billboard Hot 100 to examine songs that permeate popular culture and stand out as the soundtracks of an era. Devoted a chapter to each, he examines 20 of these hits, calling them records “that marked new moments in the evolution of pop music—ones that immediately made the songs of earlier weeks seem like relics.”
Breihan opens with Chubby Checker’s song “The Twist” released in 1960. The record launched a national dance craze when Checker premiered nationally on Dick Clark’s TV show “American Bandstand”. Breihan points out that because “The Twist” was an unconnected dance, white television executives agreed to broadcast because they did not need to worry about seeing black teens dancing close-up with white teens, a violation of social norms at the time. He points out that an earlier televised incident led to the departure of a businessman from his professional path.
Breihan tells how television shaped the music landscape again 40 years later when MTV began glam rock and punk, musical styles better suited to broadcast than album-
Oriented rock was heard on FM radio in the 1970s, which once again changed the course of the industry.
In this highly readable volume, Bryhan includes Michael Jackson’s epic “Billie Jean” from 1983 and Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” from 1998. It concludes with K-Pop boy band BTS and their 2020 hit song “Dynamite.” Each pick will be familiar—if not an earworm—to music listeners, standing as they do like totems in every era of popular music.
All ears are tuned to American pop music
Bob Stanley’s “Let’s Do It” serves as a comprehensive version of the history of popular music. Totaling over 600 pages, the book deals with the first half of the 20th century and serves as a prequel to Stanley’s previous volume, Yes Yes Yes: The Story of Modern Pop.
Stanley also weaves the history of music with the history of the developing industry and the technology of the times. He started with the 78 rpm record that made music more accessible to a wider audience and helped launch the recording business. He cites how radio, and later television, allowed them to attract a wider audience—and even more profits.
While Stanley traces the popular music of each decade through the works of Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin, and the Gershwin brothers, he also examines blues musicians and the emerging American art form, bebop, with the work of Earl Hines. With blues and bebop, the standard business model involved selling the works of black musicians to a black audience, with the profits going to white businessmen. But the recordings and appearances on television broadened the appeal beyond the black community, drawing in white audiences as well.
It wasn’t just about the money. Stanley cites how, in the post-World War II era when America was seen as the pinnacle of the free world, its culture served as the guiding light for the arts worldwide. American folk music also brought prestige.
Why do we love what we love
Book Four takes a different approach to music appreciation. In This Is What It Looks Like, Suzanne Rogers seeks to awaken readers to a practical understanding of music, including an awareness of the elements that enable the art form to communicate. She explores melody, rhythm, lyrics, and timbre, noting that some people may be intellectual listeners, drawn to effective lyrics, while others respond to rhythm. By isolating components and showing how individual tastes are shaped by experience and exposure, Rogers deconstructs individual musical preferences.
You write: “Listening is not the same as listening.” “Listening is an active process, not a passive one, and being a competent listener requires curiosity, effort, and love.”
A professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Rogers began her career as a self-taught voice technician who followed her heart and learned along the way. She writes that soul music resonates with her—Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and her favorite, Prince. In 1983, Prince was looking for a technician. Although Rogers had no experience or formal training, Prince, impressed by her listening skills, hired her anyway. As a result, as one of the youngest female acoustic engineers and one of the few female audio engineers in the field, Rogers served as the lead engineer for Prince’s breakthrough album “Purple Rain”.
On her way to becoming a college professor, she explored music with a graduate degree in cognitive neuroscience. Some readers may wish to note that she sometimes uses this knowledge to explain the listener’s response. But as she shares ways for non-musicians to better understand pop songs, it’s her fierce love of music that she turns to time and time again.