Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Donald Clarke: The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (1995)

Published: Viking, 1995

What requirements are there for a history of "popular music"? In some ways, Clarke's work seems to fit the bill admirably. While he doesn't actually define what he means by the phrase, and discusses music which has never been all that popular with the general public, the book basically covers music from non-classical genres in the US from the early nineteenth century to the 1960s. He talks briefly about British music in the eighteenth century, and again looks at the UK in the prelude to the British invasion of the mid sixties, and ends with some discussion of later trends (of which more later) and a couple of paragraphs about the music of the rest of the world, but actually he what Clarke is looking at - and what the history of popular music effectively boils down to - is the way that the modern music industry developed, from the first publishers of sheet music for a mass market. In musical terms, the body of work produced by this industry most deserves the label "popular", as a major part of the American cultural domination of the modern world. This doesn't just include music which is popular at the time, but should reasonably also discuss the music which influences popular genres or is not yet popular (such as the blues), and popular music which is no longer primary in the market (such as post-war jazz). Clarke does both, perhaps concentrating too much on the latter. Overall, he has chosen a reasonable interpretation of what is meant by "popular music".

The author of such a history must be knowledgeable about the subject; this is not so easy as it sounds as there are few people who know much about nineteenth century black-face performers and about bebop. While Clarke manages this admirably up to about 1965, he is opinionated and dismissive of almost all popular music since then - jazz, becoming a niche interest by that time, no longer really falls into the "popular" category and should really have been discussed mainly to suggest reasons why it became less popular - it became viewed as "art music", but was this because it became more difficult to understand as a listener, or was it due to perception or marketing?

This brings us to the main problem with the book, which is this antipathy to anything more recent than 1965 or so that isn't jazz. The problem with rock music, as Clarke sees it, is poor musicianship. It is certainly true that the standard to which instruments are played is often lower (though there are virtuoso players - many heavy rock guitarists, for example) and the stars are often bolstered by unsung session musicians (and Clarke misses the opportunity to point to one of the most famous examples of this, the original single version of Mr Tamborine Man by the Byrds) or by production techniques which smooth over the rough edges. However, the democratisation of popular music brought in by rock and roll is something of a return to the earlier traditions of folk musics, with the first half of the twentieth century where professional players and singers provided music for the masses being something of an aberration. This change, though, is effectively what Clarke means as the "fall" of popular music, and he talks about it as the legacy of the fame of Elvis Presley (as a former truck driver with no musical education) and the Beatles (who made it fashionable for bands to write their own material, however poor, rather than relying on professional song writers). However, rock music is popular, without a doubt, and (despite the judgements explicitly promised in the title) a history of popular music shouldn't be so dismissive, particularly as it leads to the omission of several important developments. It would be possible to dismiss jazz for equally personal reasons (I used to feel that except in the hands of an absolute master, improvised solos were just too banal to be worth listening to, for example): just because the author doesn't like a genre, doesn't mean that it's not popular music.

Some of the issues he raises have basically ceased to be the case: Clarke bemoans the loss of local music stores with knowledgeable personnel, and the Internet has more or less replaced this, as people can order just about any recording that's in print (and many that aren't) through Amazon or other record stores, view Web sites which tell them anything they want to know about a band, and listen to music from local (or not so local) up and coming musicians through MySpace and its competitors. Similarly, he is scathing about the quality of US radio, and the rise of independent media such as podcasting has thrown up an alternative. (However, since the nature of podcasts is that the listener needs to actively subscribe, it requires more engagement than overhearing a radio station playing inside a shop, so the two kinds of media are not precisely parallel.) The current fuss about the sharing of music over the Internet is also something which might well have been mentioned had the book been written now (and the importance of the Internet is a measure of how much has changed in the last ten years): it would follow on from the discussion of earlier attempts by the music industry to act restrictively against changes in the marketplace.

In other cases, his opinionated stance means that Clarke almost completely ignores developments which to me seem to be important. The rise of the power of an artist's image is really important in modern popular music, and it is not something ever mentioned directly (MTV and video, crucial elements of this change, get a brief mention). There are entire genres and approaches to music making that are either completely (punk) or almost completely (reggae) left out. Synthesisers are ignored. As a result, The Rise and Fall of Popular Music is at best a personal history of popular music, rather than one which covers everything which should really be in such a book.

In the end, it is fascinating to read, but will probably infuriate many readers. Re-reading it now has certainly inspired me to listen to more jazz: and that means that The Rise and Fall of Popular Music has done the best thing that a book on music can do, which is to send the reader back to the music itself.

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