Sunday, June 19, 2011

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll

First of all, let me state plainly that I am NOT a fan of the Beatles' music. Sorry to those of you who might be shocked by that, but I can think of only one song off the top of my head that I actually like: "Can't Buy Me Love." In contrast, the creepy and weird "Come Together" ranks among my LEAST favorite of all. So how could I resist when Amazon Vine offered me a copy of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald?

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular MusicActually, in spite of a provocative title this book isn't really a criticism of the Beatles. In fact, other than the introduction and the last chapter, they're barely mentioned and even then it's not likely to offend any fans. But it's hard to imagine buyers selecting a book with a less interesting title like "An Alternative History of American Popular Music." I think Mr. Wald's editor or publisher decided they needed to come up with a title that would attract attention (unfortunately, I think it also attracted a number of negative reviews by some who clearly didn't read it). I read it a couple of years ago and it has remained one of my favorites.

This book is really a history of music in America and attempts to examine what was popular and why. Race factors in frequently, and "black" and "white" music and the influences and interactions between the two are put into perspective - especially as it relates to the musicians - as well as the differences between male and female listeners. Ragtime, jazz, big band, rhythm and blues, country/western, rock & roll - all are looked at as they influenced popular music, in addition to the changes in technology (radio, records), society (prohibition, the Depression, WWII), and the industry (genre labels, Billboard rankings, etc.). It helped me to better understand music history and answered questions I wondered about - I wish it had continued into the 80s or later.

Mr. Wald makes an important point that is central to his theme: "The people who choose to write about popular music, even while it is happening, tend to be far from average consumers and partygoers and often despise the tastes and behavior of their more cheerful and numerous peers" (pg 97). In other words, music critics and historians aren't often representative of what was and is really popular, and he cites many examples of musicians who were extraordinarily popular in their time yet are usually ignored or even denigrated today (Pat Boone and Paul Whiteman, among many others). He also emphasizes that we tend to see history through the lens of our own experiences since that time, and miss the context of the time when it was actually happening.

But the book is perhaps a little more detailed than many people will want (and the font seemed unusually small). Mr. Wald frequently says something like "not to belabor the point, but...", and then goes on to belabor the point some more, but even then l found it interesting and entertaining. I had to remove the dust jacket while carrying it around because of the provocative title (one lady in the Taco Bell was positively miffed that anything so blasphemous could be said about the Beatles), but I enjoyed it. (And yes, the Beatles did destroy Rock n Roll.)

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