Near the end of his fascinating new book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll (Oxford University Press), Elijah Wald gives the lie to his own somewhat sensational title. "History is often written as a series of conflicts, whether the wars are between nations or artistic styles," he writes. "Battles tend to be more exciting to read about than marketplaces, though cultures have met far more frequently in trade than in war, and there are always more countries coexisting than fighting." In other words, people imagine the history of American pop music as a series of aesthetic revolutions not because the Billboard charts are actually a war zone but because they just like to think in terms of conflict. Aside from the occasional symbolic coup—Nirvana knocking Michael Jackson out of the number one spot, for instance—sudden paradigm shifts are much rarer than periods when different sounds share the charts.
The slow give-and-take between popular styles that tend to share fans and even overlap musically doesn't make for an exciting story, so it doesn't matter if it's more true. That's why one widely accepted history of rock looks like this: First there was jazz, country, and the blues. Then jazz lost its subversive wildness and turned into boring, sanitized big-band stuff that rich white folks liked, so blues and country joined forces to make rock 'n' roll. Rock transformed pop music, freaked out the grown-ups, and was eventually elevated from teenybopper soundtrack to art form by the Beatles.
Of course, this isn't exactly true.
Pop music, Wald argues, is more like a marketplace than a battlefield, so to understand its history we need to ditch the language of clash and overthrow and stop imagining its evolution in terms of abrupt extinction events like "Elvis kills off the crooners." Just as important, we need to take into consideration the music that ordinary people liked, not just the stuff that sounds good to critics and historians today.
- Sandrine Sheon
- Elijah Wald
In a 2007 essay for the Onion's A.V. Club blog, Steven Hyden writes, "Rock history, unlike regular history, is written by the losers." By "losers" Hyden means music obsessives who don't share mainstream tastes and tend in their retellings to inflate the importance of cherry-picked acts they can appreciate in hindsight—to repurpose a phrase from his essay, they focus on what people should've listened to, not what they actually listened to. (Nearly every music critic, myself included, is a loser in this sense.) For example, it's clear from a present-day viewpoint that the Velvet Underground have been massively influential—you can draw a line connecting them to almost every alt-rock band that exists, even the ones with platinum-selling records—but when they were actually making albums almost no one knew about them. When we talk about the late-60s rock scene, shouldn't we be talking in terms of bands almost everybody had heard of at the time—like, say, the Turtles?
I suspect Wald would say yes. Though he never gets around to talking about the Turtles—despite its title, Beatles concerns itself almost exclusively with the period between the first inklings of jazz in the late 19th century and the popularization of rock 'n' roll in the 50s—he makes a similar point about Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman.
History hasn't been good to Whiteman, a white bandleader who was criticized from the start as a purveyor of soulless, watered-down pseudo-jazz. But he's nonetheless had a huge impact on stuff critics consider "real jazz," for instance by commissioning Gershwin to write Rhapsody in Blue. He doesn't get written about now with the same reverence as Armstrong because the music of the Hot Five and Hot Seven is more compelling to modern critics—a refraction of the past through the lens of present-day aesthetic preference that obscures the importance of music in its own time.
Whiteman and similarly uncool artists, Wald argues, were influencing more than the tastes of the out-of-touch white elite. He points out that Duke Ellington "frequently acknowledged his debt to Whiteman." And Armstrong often referred to Guy Lombardo's schmaltzy Royal Canadians as his favorite orchestra.
This phenomenon is hardly limited to jazz. Wald quotes Marvin Gaye about his attempts to emulate Perry Como. Kurt Cobain frequently called the Bay City Rollers a big influence, and he wasn't just being ironic. Frank Zappa not only covered the Turtles' "Happy Together," he did it after hiring two former Turtles to play in his Mothers of Invention.
No one, not even a loner weirdo like Jandek, makes music in a vacuum, completely detached from the pop mainstream and his or her potential audience. Wald argues that nobody should be trying to, since how many people music appeals to in its own time is at least as important as how many rock writers it appeals to in 30 years.
Fun isn't something critics often give much weight, but Wald stresses that it has an awful lot to do with how music gets popular—he frequently cites it as a major factor driving pop's evolution. He explains the stylistic range that jazz bands covered in the 20s and 30s—before recorded music saturated the market—by pointing out that they had to be able to play whatever the folks who showed up wanted to dance to, whether it was vocal pop, polka, or hot blues. He figures that the transformation of jazz into serious sit-down art music helped rock 'n' roll, which was still fun, get popular. And he claims the Beatles "destroyed" rock 'n' roll when they stopped making music for dancing and started making records meant for listening. Recalling his own early experience with Sgt. Pepper's, he says it "simply wasn't as much fun" as their older stuff.
Wald doesn't try to hide from the fact that the importance he attaches to fun and dancing makes him sound like a teenage girl. And why would he? Teenage girls have more influence on pop music than any critic and even most artists. Not only did they make the Beatles popular enough that they could afford to take their artsier trips, they also brought rock 'n' roll to an adult audience half a decade before Sgt. Pepper's. In a chapter entitled "Twisting Girls Change the World," Wald describes how the dance craze that swept America in the early 60s inspired acts as respectable as Ellington to cut Twist-able songs; he also quotes a New York Times story on the go-go club the Peppermint Lounge, where music made popular by teenagers attracted an upscale clientele that included Noel Coward and Tennessee Williams.
In recent years the music-buying public has been fractured by the Internet, but there's still such a thing as pop-music culture—and as long as it exists, it's going to be fed in large part by fun and dancing and teenage girls. Music historians writing about the early part of the 21st century 50 years from now probably won't be interested in Soulja Boy or the Jonas Brothers, but they won't be able to escape them: any music they do write about will bear the fingerprints of those hugely popular acts, either because the artists who made it were directly influenced or because they were trying hard to sound nothing like the mainstream. By shining a light on the uncool music that helped shape rock 'n' roll, Wald has given us a more honest way to imagine the music of the future.