A bracing, inclusive look at the dramatic transformation in the way music was produced and listened to during the 20th century.
It wasn’t always something you heard at home or through an earpiece, writes music historian and journalist Wald (Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker’s Journey, 2006, etc.). “Until recording, music did not exist without someone playing it, and as a result music listening was necessarily social.” People went out to listen to bands, bought sheet music of the songs they liked and played it with family and friends. Even after the arrival of commercial phonograph recordings, people still went out, because they wanted to dance. Radio made professional music available at home and completed the change records had begun. Now musicians’ names were associated with popular songs, and people used to hearing a particular version on the air wanted to hear it when they went dancing as well. Wald emphasizes the important role of technology, which had at least as much impact as changing musical styles. In fact, he argues, jazz and rock ’n’ roll were not the apocalyptic breaks with the past depicted in conventional accounts. Female fans in particular tended to be receptive to new sounds, especially when embodied by a hot swing band or sexy, hip-swiveling Elvis, without feeling the need to throw out their Glenn Miller or Perry Como records. Wald rejects the purists’ disdain for popularizers like Paul Whiteman and the Beatles, who polished rough-hewn art forms and made them palatable to the mainstream. He doesn’t offer much truly new material, but he puts it together in fresh ways, with wonderful nuggets about the recording ban of the early 1940s and the impact of long-playing albums. It’s a shame the narrative essentially stops in the early ’70s, since Wald surely would have interesting insights about the fragmented, DIY world of MP3 players and musicians selling their product online.
One of those rare books that aims to upend received wisdom and actually succeeds.