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.