From the age of song sheets in the late nineteenth-century to the contemporary era of digital streaming, pop music has been our most influential laboratory for social and aesthetic experimentation, changing the world three minutes at a time.
In Love for Sale, David Hajdu—one of the most respected critics and music historians of our time—draws on a lifetime of listening, playing, and writing about music to show how pop has done much more than peddle fantasies of love and sex to teenagers. From vaudeville singer Eva Tanguay, the “I Don’t Care Girl” who upended Victorian conceptions of feminine propriety to become one of the biggest stars of her day to the scandal of Blondie playing disco at CBGB, Hajdu presents an incisive and idiosyncratic history of a form that has repeatedly upset social and cultural expectations.
Exhaustively researched and rich with fresh insights, Love for Sale is unbound by the usual tropes of pop music history. Hajdu, for instance, gives a star turn to Bessie Smith and the “blues queens” of the 1920s, who brought wildly transgressive sexuality to American audience decades before rock and roll. And there is Jimmie Rodgers, a former blackface minstrel performer, who created country music from the songs of rural white and blacks . . . entwined with the sound of the Swiss yodel. And then there are today’s practitioners of Electronic Dance Music, who Hajdu celebrates for carrying the pop revolution to heretofore unimaginable frontiers. At every turn, Hajdu surprises and challenges readers to think about our most familiar art in unexpected ways.
Masterly and impassioned, authoritative and at times deeply personal, Love for Sale is a book of critical history informed by its writer's own unique history as a besotted fan and lifelong student of pop. (This text courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)
By an almost-scientific method, the first Billboard chart purported to assess the popularity of a song by measuring record sales. The underlying principle was taken as a given: that the purchase of a record was an exercise of aesthetic will, a statement of personal taste—I like that song, and here’s the proof: I paid money for it. On the radio, meanwhile, the “Your” in the title of the show Your Hit Parade served to reinforce the proposition that buying a record was an assertion of individual judgment—a democratic act. That is to say, it was disc purchasers who made songs into hits; the privilege of hit making was theirs. The charts just documented the results.
Yet the acquisition of anything is never purely a matter of personal will. Nor, for that matter, is the sheer desire for ownership. The urges to buy, to have, to use, or otherwise to be connected to goods—cultural products, among them—are informed by innumerable factors, including marketing and social forces. Tastes and judgments are never formed independently, in a cultural vacuum. As every citizen of the twenty-first century understands from the pervasive use of social media, and as social scientists were just figuring out in the mid-twentieth century, people’s “likes” emerge in the context of what they believe other people to favor. Personal tastes are socialized tastes, and the first Billboard chart measured the popularity of songs at the same time it helped enhance and enforce that popularity by formalizing it and institutionalizing it through a process that qualified as quantification. In Danny Goldberg words, “A song is on the chart because it’s popular, and it’s not just double-talk to say that it’s popular, to some extent, because it’s on the chart.”
Available October 18, 2016.
Social scientists would categorize phenomena such as the charts as social proof—testimony of popular opinion that acts to expand the popularity of that opinion. In 1940, the era of phenomenological road travel metaphors such as the hit parade, the idea would have been referred to as jumping on the bandwagon, and the first Billboard record chart demonstrated it well. After the rendition of “I’ll Never Smile Again” by Dorsey and Sinatra became known as a number one hit, more than a dozen other musical acts, popular or hoping to be, recorded the song. The rush to capitalize on the success of the record was such that less than two weeks after the publication date of the Billboard chart, the music writer Bill Gottlieb would report in his nationally syndicated newspaper column, “Russ Morgan is the latest to supply an insatiable public with ‘I’ll Never Smile Again.’”
The pop charts elevated their own status, as well as the status they conferred upon songs and song makers, and prompted the making of more charts—more accurate charts, more extensive charts, more specialized charts, and more, more, more charts. By the late 1950s, Billboard had devised a formula for factoring information about radio play into its song rankings, a refinement that only reinforced the circularity of the charts. The chart position of a song helped determine how much a song was played on the radio, and airplay helped determine the chart position. The system seemed inscrutably hermetic, while it was also highly susceptible to corruption. Record executives knew how to rig the charts and “buy position” by influencing DJs and retailers, as well as the magazine itself, through the weight of advertising dollars.
As evidence of the popularity of songs, all sales statistics are inherently limited, anyway. The decision to divest oneself of some of one’s capital—even fifty cents, the typical price of a 78 rpm single in the early 1940s—is indisputable proof of one’s interest in possessing something, even if the thing one wants to possess is the social status of being known among one’s friends for having it. (For teenagers and young adults in the mid-twentieth century, fifty cents was not an insignificant sum. My father, in his after-school job as a delivery boy for a butcher shop in a Hungarian neighborhood in New Jersey, made sixty-seven cents per hour.) Still, commercial transactions tell only part of the story of a song’s popularity. All that occurs after the purchase (or, for that matter, what does not happen) may be as telling as the fact of the sale.
A record has been sold. Then: what? How often is the song played? When and why and where? Is it played for comfort, by one listener alone in a room, or for dancing at a Friday night party? What thoughts, if any, does the record provoke? What feelings does it stir—or relieve? How do other people in the record buyer’s house feel about the song? How long has the record remained in active use? Has it been traded for another record or passed down to a younger brother?
When I was a kid, one of my favorite records was “Cool Jerk,” a boogaloo single by a one-hit group called the Capitols. (Years later, I heard that the indelible groove track might have been recorded clandestinely by the Motown house band, the Funk Brothers.) The copy of the record my mother got from the Gateway jukebox guy was too scratched to play. My sister, Barbara Ann, who was six years older than I, had a copy that she had borrowed from one of our cousins, and I snatched it out of her room. A few years after that, when I was in high school, I dubbed the song onto an audio cassette mix by placing my shoe box Radio Shack cassette recorder next to the speakers for my stereo. That mixtape became the primary source of music in my car, a profoundly used 1963 Chevrolet that seated seven comfortably, thirteen for short hauls. Without aggrandizing my teen years, which were eventful only by the standards of a teenager, I can say that “Cool Jerk” was part of the soundtrack of multiple occasions memorable to my high-school friends and me. How could I capture the place that the song held in our lives? Certainly not by recounting the fact of the sale of a copy of the record to the cousin of mine who loaned it to my sister before I stole it from her. When I think of the song, I hear the jiggy-jaggy opening piano figure, and my memory drifts. I don’t hear cha-ching.
In 1978, the New Wave group Blondie played a show at CBGB, the New York club that had served as the epicenter of the punk-rock revolution. Blondie closed its set, surprisingly, with a cover of Donna Summer’s disco hit “I Feel Love.” For punks, the song’s blissed-out cooing epitomized the mindless hedonism of disco. In the crowd that night was fledgling music journalist David Hajdu. After the show, he got a chance to meet Debbie Harry, Blondie’s singer. “We talked for only a minute or so before a guy came up from behind Harry,” he writes in his memoir, “Love for Sale.” “Standing at her shoulder, barking into her hair, he said, ‘You don’t need love! You need hate!’ ”
This scene speaks volumes about music’s power, for some, to stoke tribal loyalties and primal impulses. For others, though, music’s effects are a more complicated matter. They cannot be summed up in a “Kill the Bee Gees” T-shirt or in a linear evolution of taste. In “Love for Sale,” Mr. Hajdu recounts a life immersed in pop music, ranging from his early 1960s boyhood sleeping with a transistor radio pressed to his ear to a teenage stint in a Monkees cover band to his footloose, Walkman-clad years crafting mixtapes for would-be girlfriends (“I don’t know if she played it. We didn’t talk much after that”) to his current status as an aging boomer in ear buds searching for fresh sounds via Spotify.
One of our sharpest music critics, Mr. Hajdu is the author of “Lush Life” (1996), a groundbreaking biography of Duke Ellington’s collaborator Billy Strayhorn. A self-described jazz fan who grew up on rock, he admits that his tastes are exceptionalist and contrarian. Though he is a New Jersey native, he has no use for populist icon Bruce Springsteen. He allows a fondness for “a rangy and mercurial music, a jazzy sort of folk-pop” of the early “E Street Shuffle” period; but with “Born to Run,” he writes, “Springsteen lost me. Its grandiosity and determination to impress felt oppressive. . . . This was the ‘future of rock and roll?’” In that summer of ’75, Mr. Hajdu preferred such Top 40 fare as “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind & Fire: This “irresistible and sonically complex pop-funk,” he writes, was “collaborative and not lyric oriented or ponderous and, hence, not well suited to the lit-class approach to criticism that most rock writers were applying in their mission to elevate rock.”
In addition to one man’s nuanced romance with pop, “Love for Sale” is an engaging history of our century-old infatuation with mass-produced music. Mr. Hajdu chronicles the wildly divergent, mongrel genres of popular music through the decades: “badass” blues divas and smiling cowboy singers; suave Big Band crooners and feral rockabillies; riotous boogaloo and garage bands and mopey troubadours—on up to today’s Auto-Tuned entertainers. Along the way, he chronicles as well the devices and delivery systems for mass consumption: from 78-rpm shellac records to the MP3; from windup Victrolas to the iPod.
Years before records, Mr. Hajdu reminds us, the sheet-music industry was providing the soundtrack for middle-class Americans with parlor pianos. Songs of Tin Pan Alley titillation such as “I Was a Good Little Girl Till I Met You,” from 1914, were among the first salvos of a cultural revolution, and they were denounced with a furor that foreshadowed the outcry incurred by jazz and, later, rock and rap.
For Mr. Hajdu, a transistor radio and the jukebox at the diner where his mother worked offered a world beyond his Jersey factory town, “the imagined landscape . . . [that] fed my adolescent feelings of alienation.” When he first heard “Cool Jerk,” a 1966 dance-floor hit by the Capitols, he was primed for his epiphany. Along with the infectious groove were the lyrics, which he fantasized were all about him. “I learned how a jerk could, by virtue of his coolness, be the heaviest cat there ever could be,” he writes. Even today it has a Rosebud effect: “When I think of the song, I hear the jiggy-jaggy opening piano figure, and my memory drifts.”
But it was more than teenage kicks that gave the music its visceral thrill. It was a sort of pride of ownership. Mr. Hajdu explores how individual listeners take permanent possession, in personal ways, of supposedly disposable songs that are made for a mass audience. His regard for the Beatles’ “Tell Me What You See,” has nothing to do with artistic merit; it was playing in his car when he made out with a high-school girl.
“Love for Sale” is enlivened with snippets of interviews that Mr. Hajdu has conducted with musicians over his long career. During a talk with Dave Van Ronk, anti-hero of the ’60s-era folk revival spurred on by Bob Dylan, the sweetly cloying sounds of James Taylor came on the radio in Van Ronk’s Greenwich Village apartment. Digging into his mashup of ice cream and rum, Van Ronk tells Mr. Hajdu darkly: “Bobby has a lot to answer for.”
Mr. Hajdu finds much to admire in the rubble of the post-record-industry soundscape, but his defense of electronica and hip-hop is thin. His words ring more true when he laments how streaming makes it harder to take in music that resists a quick fix. He recalls buying Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira” album in 1976 and finding it confusing. But he stuck with it, “hoping to find a way to appreciate it.” In a few days, he did, and his “taste expanded in the process.”
It is disappointing that, in a book documenting technology, there is no mention of the eight-track tape, the bulky, now-obsolete cousin of the cassette. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the eight-track was the format of choice for hi-fi buffs in muscle cars across the nation. Memories linger for those still haunted by the final garbled moments of a favorite Foghat eight-track being eaten in the tape deck of a ’73 Gremlin.
Even so, Mr. Hajdu brings verve to his journey from his Silvertone transistor to SoundCloud. It’s only fitting that in his house he finds room for a vintage jukebox, like the one in his mom’s diner, where at age 12 he heard the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday.” “Like a million kids around the world,” he writes, “I thought of the song as mine and mine alone.” - Eddie Dean, The Wall Street Journal
The folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary had an ironic hit in 1967 with “I Dig Rock and Roll Music.” Intended as a jab at the youthful groups that had eclipsed the folk-music revival of the early 1960s, the parody was lost inside the song’s cynical success. The culture critic David Hajdu was 12 years old at the time, which means he was situated right in the wheelhouse of the Top 40 of the moment. As he reports in “Love for Sale,” his idiosyncratic romp through the history of the American popular music industry, his older brother, who fancied himself a folkie “purist,” seized upon the song’s mocking disdain for the groovy music that was hypnotizing callow kids like David. In particular, his brother noted the line that teased the Beatles for their incessant use of the word “love.” “Don’t you realize they’re only trying to sell you something?” Hajdu’s big brother groused.
From sheet music to shellac, from 45s and LPs to digital audio files, the music industry is forever trying to sell you something. Pop music may be a mercenary pursuit, Hajdu suggests, and it’s very often disposable. But it’s also meaningful, always, to its target audience. Historically, those eager listeners have always been willing participants in the buyer-seller relationship.
In a few hundred cruising-speed pages (despite the occasional congestion of bumper-to-bumper song titles and songwriting credits), Hajdu chronicles the long evolution of the popular song, from Paul Whiteman and his dance band’s hit tune “Whispering” to the recent R&B/hip-hop radio staple “Don’t Tell ‘Em.” For readers well-versed in the music critics’s canon, the book includes plenty of scenic rest stops: Sinatra’s concept albums, the postcoital soul-searching of Goffin and King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the fertile collision of punk, soul, and hip-hop in the New York City wasteland of the 1970s.
Early in his career Hajdu, who grew up in New Jersey, was a regular contributor to the Real Paper (the old Boston alternative weekly). He is the author of the excellent folk-era chronicle “Positively 4th Street” and the somewhat sloggier “The Ten-Cent Plague” about the rise of comic book culture. He sprinkles his book with personal interludes, describing his adolescent collection of battered 45s, his parents’ modest show-tunes collection, and the time his mother, a diner waitress, introduced him to the local hack responsible for a going-nowhere song called “I’m from New Jersey.”
The young Hajdu sat in a booth at the diner with the song peddler, both of them distracted by the wall-mount jukebox “with menus of song titles on those fun-to-swing metal frame pages.” Though the Rolling Stones’s “Ruby Tuesday” was the number one song in America at the time, the future rock critic wasn’t interested in listening to the florid tune with the middle-aged man sitting across from him.
“I didn’t want him liking my music any more than I liked his song,” he writes.
Every generation since the invention of recorded sound has been defined in large part by its own music, from swing and bop to rock ’n’ roll, disco, and Kanye. Paradoxically, Hajdu notes, popular music is “a product of mass culture that reaches millions of people (or more) at one time and works for each person in a personal way.”
Just as the foxtrot “helped break down barriers of Victorian propriety,” Hajdu writes, and just as rock and roll represented “an exultant image of integration” as the civil rights movement was finding its footing, the contemporary pop of his youngest son’s generation, he submits, is the “soundtrack of the hookup culture.”
Never mind that large stacks of studies have shown that sexual promiscuity has actually declined among teenagers and young adults in recent years. Pop music has always been preoccupied with the idea of physical attraction, as Hajdu shows.
By his estimation, today’s pop music stands out for its high quotient of songs about sex without romance. Unlike those scratchy 45s he fetishized in his youth, there’s little romance in an MP3, he suggests, or in a SoundCloud stream. These days, they’re practically giving it away. - James Sullivan, Boston Globe
"Ever wonder what makes pop music so irresistible? David Hajdu, a music critic and professor at Columbia’s School of Journalism, has spent a long time thinking about the question. In “Love for Sale,” he explores the combination of luck, talent and hard work that goes into making a hit: this “product of mass culture that reaches millions of people ... at one time and works for each person in a personal way.”
He begins his story in the 19th century with the cultural changes wrought by the widespread publication of sheet music and continues on into the 20th and 21st centuries with the rise of new music-making technologies: Tin Pan Alley, recordings, MTV and digitization.
Along the way he pauses to explore the significance of the Cotton Club, Billboard charts and transistor radio, and analyzes the complex roots of rock ‘n’ roll and a half-dozen other musical genres. For the most part, it’s an exhilarating read, though not surprisingly for such a self-described music nerd, Hajdu is prone to digress and never misses the chance to untangle the convoluted genealogy of a song.
A little more than halfway through, he makes a startling confession: He has a “soft spot” for monaural sound. “The way I feel about it cannot be wholly explained as the fetishistic glamorization of archaic technology that typically afflicts geeks like me,” he notes wryly.
Rather, it’s because he can’t process stereo sound well, the result of hearing loss he suffered in his youth from falling asleep night after night with one ear glued to his beloved transistor radio. Similar reminiscences throughout the text serve to establish his musical bona fides and make this more lively and personal than a standard historical survey. He’s both critic and fan. He ends with a touching coda on the difference between his musical taste as a youthful boomer and that of his teenage son, whose playlists include such contemporary artists as Jeremih, Natalie La Rose and Kid Ink.
Hajdu admits to liking quite a few of the songs but hiding his enthusiasm because he doesn’t want to destroy for his son the signature experience of all great pop music — the way he felt, for instance, listening to the Rolling Stones’ ”Ruby Tuesday” circa 1967.
“Like a million kids around the world,” he says, “I thought of the song as mine and mine alone.” " - Ann Levin, Associated Press
David Hajdu is a considerate writer more interested in taking care of his readers than in baiting them. In this regard he is unlike a majority of pop music critics, who are always looking for a fight. His fifth book, “Love for Sale: Pop Music in America,” is easy to devour for anyone who still feels a pang of nostalgia or despair when walking past a bank branch where a record store used to be.
Hajdu favors well-ordered statements over half-mad village-square pronouncements, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the sanity of his approach had something to do with his having come of age in the wake of pioneering rock critics like Paul Williams, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Richard Goldstein, Ellen Willis, Nick Tosches and Lester Bangs, all of whom made their names in the 1960s and ’70s and three of whom will make you tear your hair out, despite their obvious intellect, talent, chops, élan, etc.
In “Love for Sale,” Hajdu, the music critic for The Nation and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, traces the history of pop from the sheet-music past to the streaming present with the friendly authority of a favorite teacher. In other words, this is not a book you will want to toss across the room.
The author put in what appears in retrospect to have been an overlong apprenticeship as a writer and editor at various publications through the ’80s and into the ’90s. He announced himself to the world, full-throated, at the age of 41, with “Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn.” For his next effort he hit upon another story that was hiding in plain sight and fashioned from his meticulous research “Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña.” While displaying the author’s expertise in music, both books doubled as deep-focus works of social history.
“Love for Sale,” which includes previously published material, is less ambitious. If it were an album, it would be a collection of singles and B-sides meant to hold the fans at bay until the next major release.
Connecting the author’s observations of figures as distant from one another as Gene Autry and Rihanna are his reminiscences of a music-besotted childhood in Phillipsburg, N.J., his years in Greenwich Village as a scholar in training and his more recent days as a Spotify-subscribing music dad.
In his youth Hajdu loved “Cool Jerk,” by the Capitols, and “Ruby Tuesday,” by the Rolling Stones. In his early 20s he was a secret disco lover among punk fans.
We meet him as a boy whose mother works as a waitress at a diner and whose father is a toll collector. At night he falls asleep with his left ear pressed against a Silvertone transistor radio, listening through the night to AM hits and damaging his hearing in the process. The transistor reverie leads to an informative discussion on the role of technology in music production and the listener’s experience of it.
His education seems to have begun in earnest when, as a student at New York University, he “arrogantly” walked into the English department office and asked if he could meet with Ralph Ellison. The author of “Invisible Man” received him with “courtly good grace” and nudged him toward an understanding of the Cotton Club as a fantasy realm constructed from a white view of the exotic uptown Other.
Later in the ’70s, at CBGB, the musical home to the Ramones and Television, Hajdu seems to have been most swept up by the apostatic Blondie, especially on the night in 1978 when the band broke with punk orthodoxy and covered Donna Summer’s influential disco hit “I Feel Love.”
The author describes himself as “a jazz fan who grew up on rock ’n’ roll,” but he is open-minded enough not to have a problem with the all-electronic instrumentation of “I Feel Love” (created by the producer Giorgio Moroder) and the genres it influenced, including house, techno and dubstep. But Hajdu draws the line at Auto-Tune, which has been a friend to many a pop vocalist with shaky pitch. “Billie Holiday, processed through Auto-Tune, would have all the soul of Siri,” he writes, and that is that.
While I sympathize with the argument, I don’t see why Auto-Tune should be considered any more of a cheat than overdubbing, another studio trick that, since the days of Les Paul, has substituted the flubbed notes of necessarily imperfect musicians with takes that come closer to perfection (and which Hajdu mentions only in passing).
Still, his critical observations are measured and nuanced, if not correct, although readers who worship the Boss may grumble at his preference for the supple, street-kid Bruce Springsteen who made the scene prior to “Born to Run,” the 1975 breakthrough album faulted by Hajdu for its “grandiosity” and “cartoonish” vision.
While moving toward Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, Hajdu notes the changes in microphone technology that allowed for the crooning style of Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra (in his early, heartthrob phase), and makes a case for the importance of African-American women like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey to the music that would become known as rock ’n’ roll.
It is all very educational and entertaining. So much so that I found myself wishing for one of those fits of pique I experience while reading certain first-wave rock critics. And then — on the final page — it happened.
Do you remember the awful 2015 hit by the multigenerational trio of Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney called “FourFiveSeconds”? Hajdu cites it among the songs he has loved and admired in recent years, calling it an “unpredictably harmonious collaboration.”
Before I flung the book across the room, I checked the song on YouTube. And when I listened to it anew, it wasn’t so bad as I had remembered.
Professor Hajdu, right again. - Jim Windolf, New York Times Book Review
No, this is not just a standard history of “Pop Music in America.” This is a very personal and utterly wonderful book about the subject by the music critic of The Nation and the man who wrote the magisterial “Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn,” and the indispensable “The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America” and “Positively Fourth Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina.”
Here, for instance, is Hajdu interviewing one of his first subjects, folk legend Dave Van Ronk, upon whose couch Bob Dylan slept when he was first starting out. Van Ronk poured Captain Morgan over his ice cream while they listened to something from James Taylor’s third album. “Van Ronk coughed up a laugh. Von Ronk both laughed and coughed freely and the sounds were indistinguishable. He listened to the music on the radio for a minute and said ‘Bobby has a lot to answer for.” Hajdu observed Dylan’s music had more “fire” than Taylor to which Van Ronk replied “It’s hard to start a fire without the right equipment. ... Bobby makes it look too easy.”
Try this on for size: After his Strayhorn book appeared, Lena Horne called on Hajdu to help with a new record she was briefly coming out of semiretirement to make. She opted for “We’ll Be Together Again” over “I’ll Never Smile Again” because she thought that Sinatra’s version of the latter was definitive. “Joking, with a big wink implied, she called the young Sinatra ‘a better woman’ than she.” Here is a critic capable of saying that Elvis Presley was “At least as deserving of coronation as ‘The King of Rock and Roll’ as Benny Goodman had been to be called ‘The King of Swing’.
Both were much more qualified for their kingships than Irving Berlin had deserved to be promoted as ‘The Ragtime King.’ Presley made brilliant rock and roll and Goodman played first-rate swing” but Berlin wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” not ragtime. It’s as idiosyncratic and vehemently personal a book as it is reliable, readable and enduringly important. One of the year’s best music books, along with Ratliff’s “Every Song Ever.” - Jeff Simon, Buffalo News
"Romance, social bonding, and self-definition are readily available for the price of a Victrola cylinder, record, CD, or iTunes download, posits music critic Hajdu in this illuminating, idiosyncratic history of pop music. Hajdu (Positively Fourth Street) goes back to Tin Pan Alley sheet-music hits, then forward through jazz and swing, Elvis and rock, disco, rap, and electronica, along with many quirky detours down forgotten byroads. (Singing movie cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, he contends, held a profound sway over later country-western innovators such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.) There’s a modicum of influence-tracing here to explain the evolution of pop styles, leavened with the author’s colorful reminiscences of stars he has interviewed and his presence at the birth of the 1970s New York punk scene at CBGB. But Hajdu is more interested in how changes in music and musical technology affect listeners—the transistor radio, he writes in a tour de force section, turned listening to music into a solitary, ruminative pursuit rather than a social pastime—and how songs shape teens’ memories and tribal mores. Writing in graceful prose, Hajdu nicely balances brisk historical narrative, shrewd cultural analysis, and opinionated personal reflection in an absorbing account of shifting musical landscapes." - Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Strolling through the archives of pop music history with an experienced guide.There are no grand theses or postmodern theoretical turns here. Instead, Nation music critic Hajdu approaches the vast stretch of pop history as a particularly tasteful exercise in picking tunes from an impossibly well-stocked jukebox, very much personally curated and with each choice well defended. Thus, as he notes near the opening, he can probably do without hearing "Yesterday" again ("I can barely still hear qualities I heard in the song at various times in the past"), preferring instead to spin the Beatles' little-heard contemporary tune "Tell Me What You See," because, in addition to its musical qualities, it conjures up a kiss from a high school girlfriend. That personal approach would not work if Hajdu were not so well-versed on his pop history firsthand. When he writes of the early history of music videos, it helps that he was one of the earliest video journalists, just as when he writes of one-hit wonders like the New Jersey band Looking Glass, of "Brandy" fame, it helps that he was on the scene, ears wide open, when the song came out. The author's ears extend beyond his own time span, though; he writes with knowledgeable appreciation of Frank Sinatra, Marni Nixon, and Billy Strayhorn—not to mention contemporary hip-hop. The center of his world, though, is the period when Brian Wilson, Ray Davies, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and their musical kin were making albums to set the world on fire. He even works in a quiet appreciation for disco, and with good humor: "Without getting too Ken Burns-ish about this, I'll point out the significance of the first dance craze of the twentieth century, the vogue for the fox-trot, in cross-fertilizing cultural values and democratizing social life (within the limits of racial segregation) for young people of the day." And so he does. A highly learned pleasure for music and pop-culture buffs." - Kirkus Reviews
"Music critic Hajdu’s deft examination of the history and meaning of popular music follows its development from the sheet-music era through the dawn of records, the hit parade, radio, video, and into the digital age, demonstrating how “pop songs...have always been part of the production of the culture.” Pop music serves as a democratizing agent that introduces ideas from “all corners of society.” Before records, sheet music created monster hits with sales of a million copies a week, enabling the general public, rather than professionals, to make music. New recording technologies turned music into commodities, giving those without access to live music the ability to listen to live performances, creating hits and stars. Hajdu discusses how African Americans’ strong influence on culture (“aesthetic miscegenation”), as embodied by minstrel shows, Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements for Benny Goodman, and the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, along with the voices of other disenfranchised segments of the population, invigorates and sustains American music to this day, defying traditions and influencing the future. Hajdu’s informative account of the evolution of popular music will be an essential purchase for all pop-music collections." - Ben Segedin, Booklist
"This latest offering by music fan, professor, established critic, and author Hajdu (Positively 4th Street; Lush Life) marvels at the history of popular music bolstered by interviews with major artists conducted over the years, personal experiences, and a wide range of supporting research. The author discusses how the publishing of sheet music in the late 1800s made songs accessible to millions and turned the genre into a commodity that could be bought and sold, thereby starting a “music industry.” Also covered are evolutions of a variety of types of popular music (with African American artists almost always breaking new ground and leading the way), with related trips through performance, recording, dance, and video. The author demonstrates technology’s contribution to shifts in teh delivery of pop music as well as its creation. For example, records originally focused on the reproduction of live performances, then the artistic role of the producer grew, playing a greater part in sonic creations and manipulations. VERDICT: This beautifully told history of popular music, like a great pop song, is full of memorable lines." - Lani Smith, Library Journal
"If music be the food of love, play on," Duke Orsino famously declared in the opening scene of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Then and now, popular music has been primarily and perennially concerned with love: yearning for it, falling in and out of it, enjoying its blissful heights and mourning its loss. Music critic and Columbia journalism professor David Hajdu, a longtime pop-music geek, takes readers on a tour of the 20th-century landscape of American popular music in his fifth book,Love for Sale.
Hajdu (Positively 4th Street) begins his account with his adolescent collection of 45s, mostly the scratched ones his mother would bring home from her job as a waitress at the local diner. But he reaches back to the Tin Pan Alley songwriters of the early 20th century, who produced music on a breathtaking (and extremely catchy) scale. From there, Hajdu roams the pop music landscape (and the Billboard charts, a more recent invention), covering a dizzying array of musical trends, artists and technologies: wax cylinders, commercially produced sheet music, transistor radios, the Walkman, the MP3 file. He explores the ways in which pop music has always pushed the racial, sexual and societal envelope: the explosive popularity of the Cotton Club in Harlem and "black" music among white listeners in the 1920s; the lyrical freedom of the early blues queens, most of whom were black women; the widespread but always slightly illicit appeal of performers such as Elvis, Michael Jackson and Little Richard, who flirted with sexual boundaries. The Beatles appear, of course, as do Bob Dylan, David Bowie and other artists whose music (and the way they promoted it) changed the course of pop. Hajdu draws on his own interviews with many of these artists, weaving in anecdotes of his years living in the Greenwich Village as a young music critic with a secret passion for disco.
Popular music, as Hajdu notes in his introduction, is "a phenomenon of vast scale and intimate effect." It is "a social art that works with every member of its enormous following in small, unique ways." Love for Sale mirrors the pop music industry in that vital aspect: it is a work of wide-ranging historical observation that also feels personal, vivid and particular. Hajdu's narrative will have music fans of all tastes and ages humming the nostalgic tunes of their youth, or scrolling through the latest digital music delivery service in search of the songs they once treasured. Pop music may be a crass commercial endeavor, but as Hajdu shows, it is also the food--and the lyrical expression--of love. - Kate Noah Gibson, Shelf Awareness
Pop music is often dismissed as light, frivolous and artistically bankrupt. But in his new book Love for Sale, music critic David Hajdu argues that it’s one of the most meaningful forms of expression in American culture. Consider songs like “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets and “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, which were able to unite listeners across race and class divides. Or the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” which reflected shifting social standards regarding sex. Or Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” which primed a generation of feminists for social change. Or flamboyant performers like David Bowie and Lady Gaga, who have helped gay youths feel more comfortable in their own skin. By nature, pop music must appeal to millions of mainstream listeners. But, as Hajdu writes, it “has a long tradition of inciting its audience to defy traditions. - Sarah Begley, Time
DAVID HAJDU’S NEW BOOK bears a weighty, Tocquevillian subtitle — Pop Music in America — in keeping with its aims but out of step with its tone. Love for Sale is a sweeping but casual book, like a spring survey class that always meets on the quad and sometimes lets out early. A blend of history, criticism, and autobiography that wraps up in under 250 pages (plus endnotes), it doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, but it does touch on most major developments in how pop music has been produced and consumed in the United States from the 1890s through the present.
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, Los Angeles Review of Books
A must-read book. Hajdu calls the term popular music “the least useful phrase” he knows. So why write about it? Maybe it’s like lyrics from Billy Paul’s only No. 1 hit “Me and Mrs. Jones”: “We got a thing going on/We both know that it’s wrong/But it’s much too strong to let it cool down now.” Hajdu’s got a thing for pop music, and he wants to share it. From early million-record sellers Enrico Caruso and Bessie Smith to Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra to rock ’n’ roll and today’s music streaming, Hajdu explains the links and similarities of different eras. - Billy Heller, New York Post
David Hajdu’s books have encompassed everything from the history of comic books in America to the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960s that produced the likes of Bob Dylan. Here, he opts for an exploration of some of the more intriguing corners of American pop, covering artists and styles ranging from Bessie Smith to EDM. Hajdu is an author with a sharp eye for overlooked details and a talent for evoking interpersonal relationships, both of which do him well here. - Tobias Carroll, Signature (“12 Great Books on Arts and Culture This Fall”)
"I was born in March 1955," writes David Hajdu in Love for Sale, "the same month Blackboard Jungle was released. I've always liked to think that I was born at the same time as rock and roll."
In his new book, Hajdu combines personal anecdotes with historical accounts of the evolution of popular music. Hajdu's writing about music is more engaging than his writing about himself, but the way he blends the two is in keeping with his thesis that pop music is "a phenemenon of vast scale and intimate effect, a product of mass culture that reaches millions of people (or more) at one time and works for each person in a personal way."
Hajdu is the author of books including Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn (1996) and Positively 4th Street (2001). Perhaps the most fascinating book ever written about Bob Dylan, Positively 4th Street looks at Dylan in the 60s through the lens of his friendships with Joan Baez, her sister Mimi, and Mimi's eventual husband Richard Fariña. Hajdu has a knack for putting music in its social context without diminishing it to merely a product of mechanical factors, and that gift is evident throughout the highly readable Love for Sale.
An important clarification: by "pop music," Hajdu doesn't mean just Top 40 fodder. He means all of popular music, starting with sheet music: a primary means of songs' dissemination and sale in the early 20th century. As Hajdu notes right off the bat, many of the criticisms now leveled at pop songs have been heard for over 100 years: in 1910, the New York Times complained about the commoditization of songs, which were purportedly "manufactured, advertised, and distributed" like shoes from a factory.
That's not to say that nothing has changed under the sun: Hajdu argues that the rise of recording technology, and then portable playback technology, has emphasized the acutely personal nature of pop music consumption. Classical pianist Glenn Gould famously said that the ideal performer-to-audience ratio was "one to zero," as he forsook the live concert stage for a hermetic existence in the recording studio. That's increasingly the way we consume and understand music. Love for Sale isn't a landmark work of original scholarship: it's a chatty and loose walk through the history of popular music through the 20th century and into the 21st. If you don't know much about pop music history, you'll glean plenty of new and accessible insights; if you do, on the other hand, you'll appreciate Hajdu's gift for pithy formulations that crystallize intriguing arguments about music. Among those arguments:
● The pop charts are best understood as a form of entertainment in and of themselves: a sort of performance by the entire music industry, which tallies "hits" based on a changing metric that captures actual sales imperfectly and captures influence even less perfectly.
● When country music replaced its "hillbilly" image with a "cowboy" image, it was a way for the genre to keep its rural associations while extricating itself from the roiling racial politics of the South.
● The fact that it was Elvis Presley who broke rock and roll into the commercial mainstream is ironic, given that he can be seen as the last relic of an era where singers and songwriters were separate. Chuck Berry, a self-contained music-making force, was the artist who more accurately "pointed to the near future of pop music," argues Hajdu.
● The album as it evolved in the 1960s — with Pet Sounds being "the ur-text of the LP as an art form" — was strongly influenced by another great American art form, the Broadway musical. Hajdu points out that even as the "concept album" was evolving in the rock world, cast albums were among the biggest-selling LPs.
● Hip-hop, distinguished as the first major musical form to use recorded music itself as an instrument, "anticipated the transformation from analog culture to digital culture and prepared the world for that change.
● One of the signal accomplishments of Michael Jackson was to establish "the ability to dance as a prerequisite for pop stardom for decades to come."
The book is worth reading if only for two virtuosic passages: one in which Hajdu tracks the way Bessie Smith's 1920s blues were reinvented as big-band swing (think Benny Goodman), then as jump music (think Big Joe Turner), then as country swing (think Hank Williams) before becoming "rock and roll" in the hands of Ike Turner, Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry. In another passage, Hajdu celebrates disco as a genre that restored dance to centrality in pop music — and, not incidentally, became the soundtrack for gay liberation.
Hajdu's integration of personal anecdotes with all of this helps to establish his bona fides (he blew out an ear by sleeping on a transistor radio, he called Springsteen in the studio while Born to Run was being recorded, he got his first Sony Walkman at the portable player's 1979 launch event, his wife knows all the lyrics to "Rapper's Delight"), but otherwise doesn't add much to the book. It's about the music, man. - Jay Gabler, The Current
Hajdu, music critic of The Nation magazine and a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, is a smart and generous guide through the history of pop music. He begins this fascinating book by reaching back to the 19th Century with first chapter “The Sheet Music Era: The Zenith of the Popular Music Craze,” and continues on through video, hip-hop and digital streaming. Hajdu's chapter “Singers and Songwriters: Potty About Dylan” was of course written before Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize, but it is an eloquent articulation of how he has drawn from varied sources, from Anglo-Saxon folk songs to Negro spirituals, to express the social conscience of a generation. No matter where his own personal enthusiasms rest, Hajdu writes about a wide range of music styles with a critical eye and contagious exuberance. - The National Book Review
As a teenager, David Hajdu owned a large collection of “nearly unplayable” 45s that his mother acquired for him from the jukebox at the diner where she was a waitress. One of his favorites was Tommy James and the Shonells’ “Hanky Panky,” which he “treasured as the filthiest thing I had ever encountered.” Working as a music journalist three decades later, he had the chance to interview Romano Mussolini, the jazz pianist and son of Benito, who, he said, “had a standing order for Blackshirt troops to confiscate any 78 rpm records that they found in enemy encampments.” Il Duce “didn’t care for” the American swing music his troops were pilfering on his son’s behalf, but he was happy to pass the records along because “he knew they would give me happiness.”
On every page of this book there is something—a memory, an observation, a wry description—that will make music fans smile. I say “fans” because it is hard to imagine that anyone who doesn’t have opinions about Robert Crumb’s cover art for the second Big Brother and the Holding Company LP—an eyesore—or the relative merits of Judy Collins’s mid-’60s concept albums—they’re brilliant—will get very far. Part-history, part-criticism, part-memoir, Love for Sale is too familiarly written and discursively organized to be an overview of what, Hajdu, the music critic for the Nation and a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, reluctantly calls “popular music.” It is to a more conventionally authoritative all-purpose pop history what Odds & Sods is to Who’s Better, Who’s Best: digressive, self-indulgent, and vastly more amusing.
Chronologically speaking, Love for Sale takes the reader from ragtime to Spotify by way of the Cotton Club, the advent of the transistor radio, and MTV. Drawing upon previously published material and his own life, Hajdu can move seamlessly from a discussion of Alan Lomax’s pioneering work on the history of American folk music to what Johnny Cash told him about “ol’ Gene” Autry in an interview in the early ’80s. By way of explaining the rough, compressed sound of Motown singles, he recounts the story of when Smokey Robinson, who insisted on a string section for “My Girl,” took a car ride with Berry Gordy and tuned the radio to a classical music station in order to demonstrate how dense orchestration sounded on AM stations. “Shiiit,” Gordy said after two minutes.
Piss-taking nastiness and contrarianism have been the hallmarks of rock criticism ever since it emerged as a genre of writing independent of industry-mag puff pieces and LP liner notes in the late ’60s. I cannot, off the top of my head, think of anything nice Robert Christgau has said about a record, but I can quote his dismissive review of Appetite for Destruction (“Axl is a sucker for dark romantic abstractions—he doesn’t love Night Train, he loves alcoholism”) almost word for word. Hajdu is no stranger to this sort of thing, but he is far more interested in conveying enthusiasm, which, after all, is what makes listeners rather than readers.
This is a book full of unassailable verdicts and memorable quips. Paul Whiteman’s surname, Hajdu says, “was a comic descriptor worthy of Dickens.” Donovan’s “Epistle to Dipsy” is “a spacey jamble of pseudo-poetic images” that a teenaged Hajdu “studied in hopes of learning what it was like to take those drugs we were being warned against in health class.” “Yesterday” is overplayed; he would rather hear “Tell Me What You Say” because it is what he was playing on his tape deck in the car the first time he kissed a girl named Mary Jane. Punk “was narrowly defined, a formal art in a sphere where the standards were as rigid as those of, say, the early-music movement. At CBGB, three-chord, two-minute guitar-band songs became the new madrigals.” Guided By Voices lyrics are “great-sounding gibberish,” and the words to most Beatles tunes “mean nothing.” Listening to music with Spotify and iTunes “inhibits perseverance and impedes challenge.”
As a self-described “jazz fan who grew up on rock and roll,” Hajdu has a certain amount of critical distance from his subject matter. “Does popular music matter, really?” he asks early on in these pages. One of the few definitively positive claims he makes on its behalf is that it has helped to improve race relations in this country, which is undoubtedly true. We have certainly come a long way from the days when the Rev. Bernard Travaille could claim, in a sermon at a Baptist Church in Los Angeles, that “Rock ’n’ roll shows that morally we are not far removed from the Kenya tribesmen. We have nailed a thin veneer of culture over our character and the rock ’n’ roll has peeled off a portion to show what is underneath.”
Unlike so many rock critics of his generation, Hajdu manages to avoid coming off as a fuddy-duddy without going out of his way to sound with it. In a book that rightly assumes familiarity on the reader’s part with everyone from Lena Horne to Joan Baez to the Sugarhill Gang, it is amusing to the see the team sued for plagiarism over “Blurred Lines” introduced as “the composer-lyricist Pharrell Williams and the rapper T.I.” He has no patience for AutoTune, which, he says, would have metamorphosed Billie Holiday’s voice into something with “all the soul of Siri.” In his final chapter, Hajdu talks about his reluctance to admit that he enjoys some of his son’s favorite music—Lorde’s “Royals,” Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”—remembering how put out he had been as a teenager at the prospect of someone from an older generation liking “Ruby Tuesday,” an endearing testament to the frivolity and modest egotism that are essential to enjoying pop. In 250-some pages, Hajdu lost me only once, in the final paragraph of the book’s coda, when he confessed to streaming with pleasure the Rihanna-Kanye West-Paul McCartney collaboration “FourFiveSeconds.”
Love for Sale is a winsome and enjoyable read for anyone who doesn’t mind taking this silly thing of ours seriously. - Matthew Walther, The Washington Free Beacon
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 theWall 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, fromBridge 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’sHistory 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. - James Medd, The New Statesman
Name your favorite song of all time, the one that you’d choose above all others to listen to on a continuous loop if you were alone on an island for the rest of your life, or the song that you’d choose above all others to be played at your wedding or funeral. Consider for a moment the reasons you’ve selected this song as the one that endures for you. Is it the song’s hook? Its melody or transcendent harmonies? Its lyrics? Does it tell a poignant story that makes you cry, laugh with joyful abandon, or stare wistfully into the distance? Does the song make you want to dance ‘til your backbone slips, or make love every time you hear it? Do you like the beat, and can you dance to it, as the raters on American Bandstand used to say? Where were you when you first heard this song? How did you first hear it? On the radio? At a school dance? Out at a club? At a restaurant? Maybe at a show you attended with a friend; you were never wild about this band, but then this song …
Who were you with then you first heard the song? Were you alone? If so, did the song make you think of someone? After you first heard the song, did you rush out to buy it in whatever format it was available? (For me, I would have rushed over to Woolworth’s—a five-and-dime store—to the record counter to buy the 45.) Who wrote the song? Did that matter to you at the time, and did you ever look for other songs by the writer(s) of the song? Was this song popular at the time you heard it, and how long did it remain popular? Did you start listening to it because it was riding the airwaves at the time? Sort of like, “I love the Beatles’ ‘I Should Have Known Better’ because it’s the top song on the charts right now and the radio’s playing it so much that I can’t get away from it?”
As David Hajdu reminds us in his sometimes breezy and superficial but largely compelling and thought-provoking new book, Love for Sale: Pop Music in America (FSG), “popular music” remains one of the least useful phrases to describe a category of music. In fact, it’s just as useless a phrase as “Americana” is to describe a category of music ("Americana," in the end, fails to describe a category of music but rather refers to an audience—but that’s another column). Hajdu draws us into his often mundane and already well-told tales of the development of popular music with his own tales of growing up with pop music. As Hajdu was developing his musical tastes, his brother Chuck teased him endlessly about them. One day, when Peter, Paul and Mary’s “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” came on the radio, Chuck seized on the line “they have the word ‘love’ to sell you” and said, “Don’t you realize they’re only trying to sell you something?”, referring not only to the Beatles songs Hajdu was listening to but also to pop music as a whole. Pop music, in Chuck’s scheme, sells love, 409s, sex, beaches, and the Tams’ gloriously message of eternal sunshine: “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy.” Chuck tells Hajdu that he’ll grow out of this music phase eventually, and Hajdu is a little afraid that he might be right.
He doesn’t grow out of it, of course, but his reflections on the music of his youth, how he came into contact with it, what it meant to him then — and now — set him off on a series of reflections about the character of popular music. He wisely steers clear of trying to define the phrase “popular music,” and instead leads off with some questions about what it is we talk about when we talk about popular music these days: “What are talking about when we talk about pop, and what bearing has this music had on America life? Does popular music matter, anyway? And why is it so relentlessly romantic and sunny? Or am I wrong to think of pop this way?” The brilliance of Hajdu’s book lies in its ability to admit that popular music is socially constructed, and that personal taste is never really personal but almost always market-driven. These aren’t necessarily new insights for folks who’ve been working in this area for a long time, but Hajdu patiently provides some clear illustrations of chapters in the development of popular music — from the sheet music era and the rise of records to the development of the transistor radio (the sly marketing tool that hinted that DJs and music were made for you alone in your room at night, which clearly changed the way that individuals listened and reacted to music, focusing more on individuals than on larger groups), the rise of the music video (which was in some ways the culmination of the market-driven character of popular music), and the digitization of music that underscore the social construction of personal taste. Hajdu is hardly a wistful Luddite, wishing for an earlier time and technology when popular music was “better” or delivered in a clearer fashion. Rather, he’s concerned that we reflect for a little on the ways that music became “popular” in different times and endured in its cultural effects.
For example, he devotes his first chapter to the sheet music era, reminding us that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sheet music industry helped create a desire for songs that could be sung around the piano at home or at family gatherings or at churches. Yet, sheet music, like the 45s and albums and eight-tracks and cassettes and CDs that followed them, were simply a technological means of delivering music, and not the music itself. Mostly middle-class families with pianos — and, he tells us, between “1890 and 1904 yearly piano sales in the United States grew from 32,000 to 374,000” — purchased these sheets, giving rise to the popularity of some songs over others. Hajdu cannily remarks (and anyone who relies on sheets or “fake books” to try to play versions of songs they love implicitly know this, too), “Largely lost on us today is the way the music of the song sheets came together in performance to make a complicated, elementally imperfect, partly commercial, partly homemade form of popular art. Without performance, there is no music, just the idea of music.” He goes on to illustrate the influence of the legendary Tin Pan Alley on the definition of popular music of the day: “Tin Pan Alley songs reflected their market-oriented creators’ conceptions of the public’s tastes at the moment while contributing mightily to the making of those tastes. Pop songs, as cultural products, have always been a part of the production of the culture.”
Hajdu richly traces the development of popular music with an eye toward the social construction of personal taste. In his chapter on digitization, which opens with a brief meditation on streaming services but quickly develops into an extended reflection on Auto-Tune, he makes much the same case that he’s made for albums and other forms of music delivery: “As we download and stream and share music files, we’re well attuned to the importance of digital technology in the popular music experience today. At the same time, we may not recognize how profoundly digitization is affecting the music we hear, because we’re not supposed to hear all its effects.” He then launches into the values and drawbacks of Auto-Tune before wandering off into a rather bewildering meditation — “bewildering” because this section seems tossed off, as if he feels like he needs to say a few words about it — on EDM. This chapter would have been more useful if Hajdu had looked more closely at the future of streaming and downloading and the ways it will change — or not change — the music industry as well as what we think of as popular music.
In the end, Hajdu reminds us that popular music involves more than just listening: “Hearing is only part of what we are doing when we experience music, popular or otherwise. We take in the sounds, and then our minds start working with them. We make connections and associations, relate what we hear to what we know or think we know, tap memories, make mental pictures, and submit to feelings of all sorts. What are we hearing when we listen to music? We might just as fruitfully ask, what are we seeing in our mind’s eye? Who are we thinking about? Where do we imagine ourselves?”
In the end, Hajdu’s book reminds us that the songs we call “great” are very often the ones that we associate with a particular feeling, a special place, time, or person, as well as the ones that continue to sell us certain feelings about our lives and thus teach us how to love or grieve or mourn or celebrate, and without which our laughter, tears, and love would feel empty. - Henry Carrigan, The Reading Room
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 forThe 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” (fromRoberta), 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, Los Angeles Review of Books