The medium and the message
Peter Doggett’s comprehensive, detailed and engagingly written account of 125 years of pop music, was an immersive and fascinating read for someone whose main musical interest is in classical music, and mainly in dead classical composers at that, so I expect this would be an even more wonderful read for someone whose passion is some, if not all of the musical history he covers.
This is more than just a history of pop music though – it is a history of what happened to music when a method of recording performance happened. How did music itself, and our reaction to it, begin to change once we could recreate what once could only have been heard as it was being performed. How did the medium of recording and storing music begin to change that music, and how did musical demands change the machines themselves?
Doggett throws down an important gauntlet, right at the start :
The invention of recorded sound transformed music from an experience into an artefact, with physical and psychological consequences which reverberate to this day. It imposed a distance between the moment when the music was made and when it was heard. It allowed for endless repetitions of what would once have been a unique performance.
This is an extremely powerful truth.
Once, we were only able to hear music as it happened, and unless you were a musician yourself, would not be able to create or recreate it from sheet music. Perhaps a more musically silent world (hiss, boo) but perhaps also a world where the power and effect of music hit an audience more potently.
Familiarity does breed contempt. Hear a piece of music which hits the heart, the guts, the soul once, and its power is astonishing. Play it again and again and it begins to diminish. And then if it is picked up and becomes part of a background when you are no longer actively listening to it – used in ads, heard in lifts and shopping malls, belted out from passing cars, then it gets quickly reduced to wallpaper
Every marvellous gift has its sting in the tail, and ubiquitous background music noise means, I suspect, we settle for easy hearing, but may not be listening. Surrounded by constant musical noise, there is no longer a space without music for the freshness of music to arise from. Doggett refers to the earbud generation wrapped in their random playlists as users of ‘the technology of solipsism’ Cool is no longer the music, but the technology.
But, back to Doggett and his great journey. Something which comes up, again and again, throughout this book, is the wonderful subversion of popular music, right at the start of any new movement, be it blues, jazz, swing, rock, punk, hip-hop or techno. When the sound is underground, when the sound is on the streets, as it were, the music beats out a new rhythm, it arises in reaction to what has gone before and has become tame. There is an electiricity there. Part of that electricity is sex, pop music is an invitation to the rhythm of movement.
The book is crammed full of wonderfully outraged quotes from ‘the parents’ and ‘the moral guardians’ of church, state and media, bemoaning the disgusting and dangerous effects of new music on the young.
As an example, in 1902
As a habit, ragtime ranks with cocaine and morphine
Right up to 1992’s jacket quote
Rap music has no place in our society
In fact, another marked trend in that 125 years is the evidence of unease which the establishment felt about music arising from black communities.
And, there is a ceaseless watering down of the subversion of a constantly new and evolving pop music. The shock of the new starts from the bottom up (except when technology creates changes from the top down) and is cult-y to begin with.
Then, as it becomes clear that this ‘new’ is tapping into the pulse of the young and rebellious, business moves in. The new becomes sweetened, toned down, softened, blander, homogenised into the basics of its nature – and grows indulgent, stale, sellable.
Sorry, Pink Floyd : this is tired, with every strum and strobe. Self-indulgent spectacle excess. Strip away the shimmer clad dancing girls and the megabucks light show: is this really listenable to for 7 long minutes?
And a slightly younger group of teens will be looking to find something else. And so it goes on
Doggett works through the initial excitement of practically every musical genre from the 1890s to date. Not to mention, amongst the small evolutions of musical change, the moments of seismic shift
And, as said previously, there is also the relationship between the medium of recording – shellac, 78 rpm discs, through to vinyl, the alteration of speed, 45 rpm for singles, 33 rpm for the LP, moving on to tape, reel to reel or cassette, through to the CD, and then to the whole revolution of the internet age, MP3, streaming, the rise of video and MTV, techno, synthesisers, as new ‘instruments’ the rise of the DJ, the VJ, dubbing, scratching, – the technology itself changing the music – and the tie up of music as dance, something not to be listened to, something to be moved to.
With more evidence of that truth of ‘no such thing as free lunch’ or ‘gift with a sting’ Doggett points out that the restrictions of vinyl – approximately 20 minutes a side, 40 minutes of music in all, and having to turn the record over, whilst a pain, did impose a certain discipline on the album. Enter the CD, and inevitably, knowing MORE music can be carried, means that the consumer may indeed resent paying the same price for 40 minutes as for 80, and the result may be a surrender to musical self-indulgence, bloat and filling
This is a fabulous book.
I have one criticism (which won’t knock me down from love to like) – pictures would have made this perfect. And this book definitely needed to exist in some sort of new reading experience, – a dedicated eReader but with embedded links so the reader could play the music they were reading about, preferably with pictures of the musicians as well!
A strong suggestion to those wanting to buy this book, which I was lucky enough to receive as an ARC – indexing, sourcing and bibliographical information on a non-fiction book with LOTS of this, which this is, is far more easily done in hard copy
Now, all you eager readers out there will have to wait. This marvellous book is not released until August 27th in the UK, and likewise in the States, and is only showing on that date as a Kindle release in the USA. But I’ll do a ‘publication day’ to remind you all! I was a lucky popper and got this as an ARC from Amazon Vine UK