Music critic David Hajdu says that he’s looking at two book shelves of pop music criticism and history in his office at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism when we speak on the phone. There’s a 700-page book called A History of Popular Music in America by Sigmund Spaeth, published in 1948, when as Hajdu notes, “there’s no rock and roll yet, let alone digitization, let alone streaming, let alone electronic music and Elvis is in grade school.” Next to it sit books that frame popular music as if it had begun in 1955. “Every time I pick up one I think, this is really good at what it does, but I have to go to another book because the scope of the first one is so narrow,” he says. Hajdu’s newest book Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, displays an expanded historical vision that encompasses turn-of-the-century sheet music along with rap and electronic dance music. Instead of using a time period to constrain his subject, Hajdu uses his own relationship with pop music and his idiosyncratic taste. “It’s both a really big book and a really small book at the same time,” he explains. 

Hajdu is a relaxed guide through his pop music history. Rather than domineering with a fan persona, he gently invites us to share in his excitement about a certain period or musician. He also knows when to move on, avoiding obsessing over minutiae and the musicians he loves most, and instead navigating holistically through genres, forms, and periods. For instance, he doesn’t get lost in the details of the Beatles’ “Get Back” recording sessions, but situates the event in a history of musicianship changing along with recording technology, involving musicians as diverse as Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, and Enrico Caruso.

At times, his focus on pop histories outside of rock provides a corrective to what he calls the “standard narrative of popular music.” “Most writing about pop has been done since the rock era and grounds the value of the blues in its influence on rock music.” Hajdu explains:

It doesn’t address the form for its own values but rather aggrandizes and celebrates a whole different music which is rock and roll. Blues is important because Sonny Boy Williamson influenced Cream or Big Mamma Thornton influenced Elvis. Well, the blues is important because it’s a great form and had manifestations in many strains of American music including several that predate rock and roll, including swing and jump blues.

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Hajdu_Cover Hajdu’s qualm about the blind spots of baby boomer critics seems to inform the self-deprecating note on which the chapter on the blues and Elvis ends. Because baby boomers were the first generation to have pop marketed specifically to them as teenagers, Hajdu writes, “[they] would come to think that pretty much everything was their property and all about them.”

That is one effect of pop’s mid-century swerve to market to teenagers. Hajdu explores the flip side of that change, too: pop music evolving into a tool for social experimentation and progress. The later chapters of Love for Sale show how pop developed as a way for teenagers to define themselves, often in opposition to their parents’ values. Hajdu points to Lesley Gore’s song “You Don’t Own Me,” released in 1963, as a perfect example of how music can portend if not forge social progress. He remembers his sister sitting him down in front of the record player when he was a child and making him listen to it. “My parents were listening to the song ‘Wives and Lovers’ —the most misogynistic song. That’s what my parents are clicking their martinis to, while that year Lesley Gore has a hit for teenagers with a song that says, ‘you don’t own me.’ ” Like Hajdu’s book, and like the power of pop, this memory is both big and small, spread wide but rooted in the individual listener and her interpretation of the music. “Pop really has a profound effect on each one of us,” Hajdu says, explaining how he found the courage to put himself at the center of his book, “I thought, ‘I shouldn’t deny that, I can use that.’ ”

Alexia Nader is a writer living in San Francisco and the managing editor of the Brooklyn Quarterly.