Pop music has lost the “pop” element and become a catchall for whatever gets played on the radio.
In essence, pop music has lost the “pop” element and become a catchall for whatever gets played on the radio. In fact, truly popular music hasn’t existed for more than 100 years. The previous century’s chart-toppers were for the most part not the taste of the vox populi but the result of carefully crafted marketing. For music to be truly popular, it needs to resonate with the majority of the population. As David Hajdu reasons in his new exploration of pop music in America, Love for Sale, this hasn’t been the case since the height of sheet music sales.
In that long ago era, songs gained popularity not through the performance of well-known artists or slick recordings, but through the sale of music by well-known writers. These were performed almost exclusively by amateurs who purchased copies of sheet music in the millions and played them in confines of their own homes. With the advent of recorded sound, professional musicians could be heard giving performances that would have previously been reserved for parlor audiences of a few people gathered around the family piano. The product of a far different society than ours, this comparatively simple form of entertainment seems quaint when viewed from the 21st century perspective.
It’s an interesting opening argument and one that doesn’t necessarily set the tone for Love for Sale. While ostensibly an examination of pop music in America, it also functions as a sort of memoir in which Hajdu recounts specific instances of pop music’s impact on his life, something that, it becomes clear, is in and of itself something of a lost cultural touchstone. Whether taping songs off the radio or spinning worn out 45s until their surfaces ran smooth, Hajdu’s youthful recollections have no bearing in a world where anyone can access nearly any song with just a few clicks. Gone is the unifying experience of hearing something en masse for the first time; listening has been relegated to an isolated, solitary endeavor.
Framed by an examination of pop music evolution from sheet music through the digital age, Hajdu goes off on several tangents that unfortunately go nowhere. For instance, he makes the intriguing argument that Elvis was a pre-rock and roll figure, but it’s granted just a sentence or two before being almost completely forgotten. That someone would consider the so-called “King of Rock and Roll” to be a pre-rock and roll figure is extremely bold. But rather than delve too deeply into what seems a controversial enough opinion to warrant a full book, Hajdu simply argues that, like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra before him, Elvis was an interpreter of others’ material rather than a songwriter himself.
Hadju declares Chuck Berry the true king of rock and roll, as he was the first to write and record his own material in the new idiom, opening the door to generations of DIY artists. Berry is a demarcation point in pop music that shatters the traditional system of singers and songwriters and combines the two, leading to an explosion of creativity that continues today. Yet the more this DIY ethos spread, the more the notion of pop music began to splinter and fracture into myriad genres and sub-genres. Like the demise of network television at the hands of cable, popular music became diluted and fragmented, encompassing hundreds if not thousands of different styles and artists rather than a handful of prominent figures. Tastes being so fickle and fleeting, it has thus become ever harder for a true pop idol to exist. Pop music has essentially facilitated its own demise through its own popularity.
Love for Sale of course explores far more, but such topics as trends, genres and have been so well-trod that it seems beyond the point to even mention them. This is where the book suffers, albeit slightly, as it attempts to cover a broader range of topics than it has the time and space to do well. Still, it offers up a series of talking points to provoke debate among those who enjoy the minutiae of pop music. Attempting a virtually impossible feat and raising salient points along the way, Hadju’s book is a microcosm of a much larger world of pop music, an advanced study more than an introductory exploration. Those farther along in their consumption of pop music and its history will find much to love.