Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Colliers Encyclopedia

Popular Music

Some sort of popular music has existed for as long as there has been an urban middle class to consume it. What distinguishes it above all is the aesthetic level it is aimed at. The cultural elite has always endowed music with an exalted if not self-important religious or aesthetic status, while for the rural folk, it has been practical and unselfconscious, an accompaniment to fieldwork or to the festivals that provide periodic escape from toil. But since Rome and Alexandria, professional entertainers have diverted and edified city dwellers with songs, marches, and dances, whose pretensions fell somewhere in between. In the Middle Ages, itinerant musicians of widely varying quality and ambition--the courtly troubadours and classless jongleurs of France, the juglares of Spain, the minstrels of England, and many others--developed an "all-European" style far more homogeneous than those of the quirky, highly localized folk musics of the regions they passed through. Moorish and Turkish invaders as well as gypsy singers and dancers assured that Asian and North African usages would color this style, which also showed considerable national variation.

As capitalism and urbanization took hold, the theater proved an influential new source, and with John Gay's ballad opera The Beggar's Opera (1728) especially seminal. Even more important, however, was the gradual availability of printed music, and with it the earliest attempts to uplift the masses with musical instruction. In this context, the role of popular music as a bridge between rural and urban culture shifted significantly: what began as adaptation evolved toward standardization, as the folk tunes that had always been assimilated to urban uses were written down by well-meaning educators and rendered conventional and genteel in the process. Music lessons also encouraged a standardization of vocal technique that would continue almost unimpeded until the invention of the microphone.

Starting around 1700, in English pleasure gardens such as Spring and Vauxhall (followed a little later by the beer gardens of Germany and Austria) singers performed the strophic melodies of such composers as Thomas Arne and James Hook. These established a market for the book-length collections of popular songs that were published well into the 1800's. In France, the characteristic setting was the café, in which cabaret-style entertainments had been presented since the time of François Villon. Also, in France, the topical tendencies of popular song took on special prominence, starting with such singers as Bellerose and Beauchant during the Revolution and continuing through Joseph Darcier, Aristide Bruant, and others in the 19th century.

Eighteenth-century English popular music anticipated the music industry of 19th-century America, which was to achieve worldwide dominance starting after World War 1: song collections evolved into sheet music publishing and professional songwriting and pleasure gardens into the less refined music halls of England and the minstrel and variety theaters of the United States. But by no means was the English model definitive. With its large immigrant population and cheerful willingness to steal useful materials from anywhere, 19th-century America made its own all-European style, embracing the Irish airs first popularized by Thomas Moore, the complex harmonies of such German composers as Franz Schubert and Franz Abt, and the florid embellishments of Italian opera. In addition, an African influence was already making itself felt, although there is reason to believe the supposed Negro content of the minstrel show was mostly show business (an even more exploitative cousin of the romantic exoticism that inspired the stylization of gypsy music in Eastern Europe, flamenco in Spain, habanera in Cuba, and so forth). Perhaps most significant of all, two basic modes of distribution established themselves: the artist tour, which, as travel became more acceptable, speeded the breakdown of rural isolation, and mass-produced copies. In the sheet-music era, both of these developments upset popular music's always precarious balance of the oral and written traditions while also setting off an unprecedented explosion of amateur performers and composers.

A pivotal figure in popular music's evolution into an industry is Stephen Collins Foster. Surviving on publisher's royalties rather than by selling his songs as a performer or attaching himself to a troupe, Foster was the first modern professional songwriter and the first master of the new American style. Although his work consisted primarily of parlor ballads, his relatively few minstrel-style comic songs are the basis of his enduring fame. While tunes like "Old Folks at Home" are more indebted to Irish models than to the Afro-American music with which he had a passing acquaintance, they are thought of as "plantation songs." Such tensions and confusions between the vulgar and the genteel, often equated with black and white, pervade modern popular music.

This tension is also evident in the history of dance. Until the 19th century, "popular" dancing was the pastime of aristocrats, who regularly adapted folk rhythms and movements to balletic techniques devised to complement the refined music of the court. The face-to-face couple dancing typified by the waltz and later the polka began to change the courtly tradition around 1815. While most dancing continued to take place at balls sponsored by the very wealthy, public dancing spaces gradually multiplied, and with them dance orchestras obliged to serve the common crowd, which especially in the United States was not always content to emulate the upper class. At first, African influences appeared in Latin America and the Caribbean and worked their way outward, but soon they began to make more direct impact in the United States. This in turn affected songwriting, which remained popular music's chief form of expression.

The first hint of American dominance came in the 1890's, when the Boston and the cakewalk brought black-influenced popular dancing to Europe, but the groundwork had been laid a few years earlier, when publishers located in a few blocks of New York City known as Tin Pan Alley were establishing the first exclusively pop song-manufacturing system, complete with payola-wielding promotion men and million-selling hits. Although we have been discussing popular music as a discrete entity, until this time many musicians and listeners declined to make the distinction. Outside of the minstrel show and the music hall, programs would commonly showcase both German lieder and "Home Sweet Home," and no publisher specialized in "pop," a term that originally denoted low-priced concerts of easily assimilated classical selections. Tin Pan Alley changed that. In songs like Charles K. Harris's "After The Ball" and Harry Von Tilzer and Arthur Lamb's "Bird in a Gilded Cage," and most impressively in the somewhat later oeuvre of Irving Berlin, pop music hewed to a simple melodic formula emphasizing catchy choruses. Even the ballads that were the staple of the industry utilized dance rhythms, especially the waltz. Starting around 1900, the syncopated four-four known as ragtime began to dominate upbeat tunes. Whether the ragtime rhythm was purely African in origin is doubtful--the folk dances of Ireland and Eastern Europe, where many of the composers and performers were born, probably made their contribution, as did the march tradition brought to a jaunty commercial peak by John Philip Sousa. But as in minstrel music ragtime was perceived that way, an effect heightened by the colloquial, minstrel-based vocal styles in which it was often performed.

Still, most methods of vocal production, especially for ballads, continued to project propriety, as did lyrics that were often sad and invariably sentimental. Nor was Tin Pan Alley the only source of popular songs: the operetta style perfected by Victor Herbert has many followers, and so did European imports, especially comic music-hall material. But on the other hand, two complementary styles were rising in the South: country music, which derived from the minstrel tradition as well as from folk and popular balladry; and the guitar blues of the Mississippi Delta, East Texas, and elsewhere, more raw than the "classic" blues styles identified with composer W.C. Handy and singer Bessie Smith. Country music and guitar blues were rural inventions, but although they were transmitted orally they were not folk music--they assumed urban notions of entertainment and supported their own cadres of professional and semiprofessional performers. At the same time, jazz polyphony was synthesizing European and Afro-Caribbean influences in New Orleans.

One final change was under way during the same pre-World War 1 period, and it would eventually subsume all the others: the marketing of sound recordings. Once the disc that replaced the cylinder in 1902 made records affordable, it was only a matter of further technical advance before they could be used to disseminate pop songs. The crucial breakthrough came in the 1920's when improved microphones opened recording to voices that were neither trained (like that of Caruso, the first recording star) nor naturally penetrating (like those of Al Jolson or Sophie Tucker). Soon microphones would make unnecessary the diaphragm control that for centuries had been essential to the production of effective volume in public spaces, inspiring the crooning style introduced by Bing Crosby and enabling various intimate, conversational folk vocal techniques to be adapted commercially. Augmented by radio, records accelerated the spread of oral traditions and diminished the industry's dependence on vaudeville and Broadway. What's more, records created a new kind of audience. Sheet music was purchased by listeners who hoped to recreate in their own home sounds they had heard elsewhere, but records were sold to listeners who just wanted to hear those sounds again. They were a giant step for passive consumerism in music. But they also encouraged connoisseurship.

Before this could happen, however, there was a time for what many regard as the golden age of pop music. First, Tin Pan Alley became self-consciously artistic. Inspired especially by Irving Berlin and his classically inclined contemporary Jerome Kern, a younger generation of composers--George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Harold Arlen are only the most famous names--brought unprecedented harmonic inventiveness to the structural confines of the now standard verse-chorus song, which they jazzed up with American rhythms and undercut with flip humor and jaded savoir-faire. It was these composers who inspired some to call musical comedy the first purely American art form. On the other hand many would grant that honor to jazz, which enjoyed one brief period of mass success toward the end of pop's golden age, when the big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie spun off the smoother swing of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller. Swing was the only primarily instrumental style to ever dominate the pop marketplace.

For various reasons the golden age could not last forever. Broadway composers were simply too sophisticated to communicate indefinitely with a mass audience. By responding to public demand and emphasizing vocalists, swing bands made themselves extraneous. With a boost from radio broadcasters, country music and the dance-oriented rhythm-and-blues of the growing urban ghetto had built large audiences of their own by the late 1940's. The always young pop music audience was getting younger as even working-class teenagers gained economic autonomy in the post-World War II boom. Yet another battle in the great war between the genteel and the vulgar, here equated with adult and young, was the development of rock 'n' roll. Although it is commonplace to define rock 'n' roll solely as a rhythmic country-rhythm-and-blues hybrid aimed at the young, it also fits into larger historical patterns. After a century of increasingly urbanized pop music, rock 'n' roll resisted standardization by reassimilating rural usages.

There are no purely African elements in American pop music, and it is hard to pin down just when its prevailing identity became Afro-American. The fame of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole preceded rock 'n' roll, whose seminal heroes, Elvis Presley and the Beatles, were white; and the shift in balance from popular dancing from the feet to the pelvis was due as much to the "white" lindy hop of the 1940's as the "black" twist of the 1960's. But rock 'n' roll opened the doors of the music business for blacks in much the same way that the Tin Pan Alley system did for such composer-publishers as Charles K. Harris and Irving Berlin. Since rock 'n' roll, the number of visible black artists has increased markedly. And so has the music's rhythmic influence.

As rock 'n' roll and its many offshoots took over world pop music in the 1960's and 1970's, it reflected familiar tensions. Black artists such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown cultivated not only roughly emotional soul singing and the percussive neo-African polyrhythms of funk, but also blander pop styles and the mechanical dance beat of disco. Many white rock singers adopted the poetic lyrics associated with Bob Dylan and attempted various fusions with jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and 19th-century classical music. The result was the almost symphonically bombastic arena-rock style. But in many cases they rejected pop music's romantic sentimentality and enlarged upon the ease with which rock's simple chords and electric (later electronic) instrumentation could transform untutored young music connoisseurs into credible performers. From folk music to punk, self-conscious primitivism, sometimes willfully rural and sometimes defiantly urban, proved a fruitful tack.

Aided by the growth of the long-playing record, which made the basic selling unit the song collection, records became big business in the rock era. The United States towered over this market, seconded by Great Britain, thrust into prominence after the Beatles made the self-contained rock group the industry's typical mode of expression in the 1960's. American leadership was at least partially made possible by cultural factors. The Euro-African heritage combined with an aura of prosperity to make the American brand of pop music universally attractive. But this is not to imply that local nonrock styles have not survived and sometimes proliferated in almost every nation--vallenato in Colombia, tango in Argentina, kroncong in Indonesia, ryokaka in Japan, countless varieties of song in Italy, countless varieties of dance music in Africa. As the United States' international influence has diminished, governments from Canada to Sweden to Chile to Jamaica to Tanzania proved that well-designed economic measures can encourage local music, a category that often included local rock 'n' roll hybrids. "Outsiders" have made significant inroads into the musical establishment--Jamaican reggae, or the Swedish group Abba, for example. While the rock phase of popular music seems likely to endure far longer than anyone but its young fans once thought conceivable, that is primarily because its simplicity makes it malleable, capable of absorbing elements from a world music palette that would seem for all practical purposes infinite.

Collier's Encyclopedia, 1984