Thursday, January 24, 2013

the history of popular music

In 2013, Donald Clarke is the author of an agreeable and sharp-sighted blog.

In 1995, before the Internet existed, he published The Rise and Fall of Popular Music, a history of (almost exclusively) American and British popular music. (It was not his first book, he had also written a comprehensive Encyclopaedia, a biography of Billie Holiday, etc.) Clarke's formative years were the 1950s. He's basically a jazz fan, from  its earliest days right through to Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, but also with an I-was-there appreciation of the early innocence of rock'n'roll, a warm appreciation for soul and country and folk musics, a comparatively critical attitude to rock, a waning interest in funk and electronic dance music, a contempt for punk and indie and grunge, a positive distaste for house and rap. He seems to know more of classical music (including modern classical music) than he needs to talk about in this book. His values are with musicians who can play instruments, with sound engineers who make good recordings of musicians playing. He writes very well on Muzak, music business corruption and incompetence. A good case can still be made for the essential justice of his polemical chapter about the 70s and 80s, titled "The Heat Death of Pop Music". I can see this even though (because I'm a little younger than him) most of the pop music that mattered to me would be classed by him as falling within the era of decadence and decay. (As a guide to rock, Clarke's book is perfectly useless. He so rarely says anything a rock fan would agree with that when he does - Velvets, Stones - it looks like a mistake.)

Because so much of the essence of pop music takes place in the now (whichever now it was) I don't know if anyone can really write its definitive history; you must be inward, be there, be a fan, or you have nothing to write about. But then a subsequent waning of engagement seems almost an inevitable consequence of past fervour. Soon enough, there is still music you like but it is not often popular; it is dispersed, marginalized, niche, it comes from all eras and from contexts whose cultural moment is forgotten, one's conception of music becomes detached from the now, it flaps its wings and starts to rise out of our small lives and to hover vaguely in the empyrean.

It certainly is remarkable that in the marketing of modern pop music nothing is more ashamedly concealed than the involvement of musicians. Only nerds can play instruments; and only nerds bother to find out who plays the instruments on a piece of modern pop. Clarke traces the origins of this to the musician's union troubles of the 1940s - this made the once-lowly vocalist (considered a non-musician and hence non-unionized) attractive to promoters. It killed the era of big bands, and established names like Crosby and Sinatra.

Even in 500 pages plus, there is so much material that no artist can receive more than a couple of pages' attention. Clarke draws us gently away from the illusion that any specific song or album or even artist is of seminal cultural importance. From the height of this Olympian overview, only movements and scenes are really big enough to register. The most that a piece of popular music can aspire to be, we learn is just "good music"; intelligent, well played, well recorded. Hyperbole is absent; rhapsody almost is.


At 7:57 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a related R&B note, I've been pondering Michael the whole sordid Jimmy Savile mess in the (d)evolution of popular culutural development. Did the Brits essentially hand their culture over to a bunch of pervs and pedos under the advertised banner of sexual liberation and liberatory mores? Is a culutral revolution on the cards in order to 'de-groom' a sick captured culture? I think the Savile (and Glitter et al) implications are far-reaching and profound. The Queen might want back some ill-considered OBE's. norm ball

At 10:27 am, Blogger Michael Peverett said...

Yes, it's a disquieting thought, this "handing over". I don't believe it started with the 1960s. I suspect that for centuries or even millennia predators of various sorts have exploited the persona of "crazy" entertainer.

Of course in 1973 those of us teenagers who were sitting in our bedrooms listening to Can (or Bowie) always regarded Savile with a loathing which was by no means only about his musical taste. We would not have considered the cheesy, degraded DJs of day-time Radio One as representative of anything that we cared for about the 60s. If anything, they were redolent of the parasitical promoters and hangers-on that had surrounded the music industry since the 40s and before - as Donald Clark describes very well.


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