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CLASSICAL  March 2000

CLASSICAL March 2000

Subject:

The Rise and Fall of Popular Music

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 17 Mar 2000 11:19:28 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Clarke, Donald.  The Rise and Fall of Popular Music.  New York:  St.
Martin's Press.  Originally published 1995.  620 pp.  ISBN:  0312142005.

Many of my favorite books begin with a grabber of a sentence:  for example,
"All happy families are alike." Clarke's begins with "Once upon a time
there were only two kinds of music in Europe:  religious music and secular
music." He then masterfully sweeps through roughly nine centuries in one
swiftly-moving chapter.  It's obvious from the first that Clarke - a native
of Kenosha, Wisconsin, USA (he makes a point of that in the book), long
resident in the U.K.  and now back among the Yanks - has absorbed tons on
the subject and has refined everything down to its essence.  He has also
written one of the best bios of Billie Holiday (Wishing on the Moon) - it
goes against the cliche of the singer as dishrag - and edited The Penguin
Encyclopedia of Popular Music, a book I haven't read, but probably should.

The problem with other books on the same subject is that either they
quickly degenerate into "and then this happened" or they have some point to
make that has nothing to do with what's actually happening and everything
to do with crotchets in the writer's head.  Charlie Gillett's The Sound
of the City, for example, cited by Clarke in his abridged bibliography,
concentrates on the sociological import of the lyrics to the point where he
forgets all about the music.  He also forgets that the music is, to a large
extent, fun.  Clarke doesn't make this mistake, and he provides trenchant
commentary on major and minor figures alike.  Furthermore, Clarke actually
goes to the trouble to define "popular music." For Clarke, popular music
(as opposed to the narrower "pop") is mainly American or American-derived,
despite its origins as far back at least as Purcell, Vauxhall, and the
broadside ballads.  Certainly the commercial force behind it derived from
American business practice of the late 19th century, particularly the rise
of industrial monopolistic enterprise.  Indeed, the word "standard"
(although Clarke doesn't mention this) - despite its present connotation of
a popular song that retains its currency from its birth to now - originally
meant a song with a standard form:  32 bars, divided into an eight-bar
strain repeated, an eight-bar contrasting strain or bridge, and an
eight-bar recap of the first strain.  New York publishers decreed this
standard.  Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" shows it pretty well, with the
section that begins "Like Jack Horner" as the contrast.  This represents
one of many attempts by the music industry to impose from above, from venue
to content to performers.  Leaving aside the abilities of the various
performers, I doubt very many were seeking out Guy , Frankie Avalon,
Fabian, Courtney Love, Milli Vanilli, or Britney Spears before they
recorded, and I doubt in ten years anyone will be seeking out their records
- all heavily hawked and promoted in their day.

Clarke makes a very good case for innovation and revitalization coming
from places the music industry ignores.  In short, the vital popular music
almost always comes from "below" - civilians decide they like what they
hear.  Then the industry discovers it and co-opts it for mass production
if it can.  Not only is most of the commercially successful pop dominated
by sampling and other technical toys, but the tempo of most fast songs is
actually the same, from label to label and artist to artist.  We get
mainly an assembly-line product, but with our minimal choice of color and
accessories.  Can anybody tell the difference between the music of Phil
Collins and Celine Dion? The danger is, however, that there are fewer and
fewer places for new pop music (as opposed to the machine-produced stuff)
to find its audience away from the industry, although there are still clubs
and small labels, at least where I live, in New Orleans.  Furthermore,
as Clarke points out, despite little industry interest and limited
distribution of the small labels, it's still possible to find interesting
performers like Anthony Braxton, Dr.  Michael White's Original Liberty Jazz
Band, the fabulous Leah Chase, and Ellis Marsalis.  Much of the criticism
Clarke directs against the industry echoes Frederick Dannen's 1990 classic,
Hit Men.  However, to quote Clarke himself:

   Just as it is easier to sell Japanese or German cars than to build
   American ones that people will buy, so it is easier to sell a million
   copies of one album than to sell 100,000 copies each of ten albums.
   (That is why all the shopping mall record shops are the same.) Today
   the major labels still throw a lot of shit at the wall to see what
   sticks, but it is much more expensive to operate that way than it
   was thirty-five years ago.  If you guarantee Michael Jackson, Prince,
   Madonna, and whoever millions of dollars for each album, you are
   taking a very foolish risk.

and

   Our only hope is that the pop-rock business goes smash, so that we
   can start all over again.  Maybe it is only a matter of time; Michael
   Jackson's latest album has sold fifteen million copies at the time
   of writing, and apparently has not made enough money for Sony.  Any
   industry that does business that way will go to the wall sooner or
   later.

The parallels with what has happened to classical music struck me
immediately, where we get new performers shoved at us and hyped before
they have developed a concert career as well as a narrowing of repertoire
on classical radio, in the concert hall, and on CD.  It's not that we don't
come across "live" the music of, say, Roberto Gerhard.  We don't even come
across the symphonies of Max Bruch.  It's not a matter of "difficult vs.
comfortable," but of mechanically trying to reproduce previous success.
Pop Will Eat Itself? It's got company.  Both classical and pop are
dominated increasingly by people who know a lot about business and law and
much less about music.  Outside of re-issues, the only major label I seem
to be buying with any frequency is Decca, mainly for the "Entartete Musik"
series.  The rest are mid-sized and small companies.  I suspect that many
classical fans find themselves in similar, if not identical, circumstances.
At any rate, Clarke makes a strong case.

Inevitable in a work of this scope, small errors creep in.  A New Orleans
"second line" doesn't follow the parade; it precedes it.  Professor
Longhair's name was Henry Roeland Byrd (not Roy Byrd).  There are others,
but they're all incidental and not worth discussing (so why did I even
bring it up?).  I also disagree with evaluations of particular writers and
performers, but that's inevitable as well.  Despite a marvelous chapter on
the breakup of Mitch-Miller Fifties pop and the roots of the Sixties
culminating in the Beatles and the Stones, I don't think Clarke has given
Dylan and especially the Byrds their due.  According to Paul McCartney (I
quote from memory):  "Everybody says The Beatles this and The Beatles that,
but everybody forgets that to begin with, there was Dylan.  The Byrds took
Dylan and added a jangly bit.  The Beatles took the jangly bit." I would
also argue that Dylan continues to influence singer-songwriters, including
, Springsteen, Griffith, and Carpenter.  It bothers me there's nothing on
Zappa, although one could argue his career as an anomaly.

If I've concentrated on the Sixties, it's because we tend to talk about
the pop that was around when we grew up.  The personal enters into general
history.  For Clarke, slightly older than me, this comes in around the
music of the mid-Fifties.  Here, we get one person's testimony about the
power of good pop to get inside you and mingle with the other parts of your
life.  I may admire Duke Ellington enormously, but Zappa evokes memories
of an exciting time I lived through.  At any rate, in spite of the
periods I've emphasized, Clarke does a masterful job all the way through,
particularly from the 1920s through the early post-World War II period -
the classic period of American vernacular music - when a lot of music was
both popular and good.  His discussion of the relations between rural black
music and rural white struck home.  We tend to treat the two as distinct
strains, probably under the influence of marketers who sold it as "race
music" and "hillbilly music." Clarke made me realize an awful lot of
swapping and crossover was going on, as one can see in the music of Ray
Charles, Doc Watson, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Jerry Lee Lewis, Josh
White, and Chuck Berry, as well as between white Cajuns and black - Cajun
and zydeco.

At any rate, a superb job. I've read no better survey of the field.

Steve Schwartz

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