A Subversive History of Music

By Ted Gioia
Basic Books

By Ken Waxman

A Metal guitarist propelling a distorted tone, a rapper shouting sexist rhymes or a programmer/composer controlling computer algorithms may think uniquely subversive music is being created. But according to Ted Gioia’s book, insurgent impulses have been part of music from its beginnings. Music history is one instance after another of subversive sounds arising, their replacement for a time by more acceptable melodies, followed by the re-emergence of outsider sounds again.

Starting with humanity’s birth, Gioia notes how most popular music has been made by the oppressed of society, women, slaves and men deemed effeminate. But within a short time erotically charged songs or lamentation were co-opted by those in power. Initially it was royalty and the church that claimed authorship and turned those transgressive verses into moral parables that supported chastity and the status quo, such as Confucius’ purported authorship of Skijing or King Solomon’s of The Song of Song, that were both actually conspicuously feminine. Other rulers played up the violence that can be associated with music using these sounds to animate troops in battle.

Although many early vernacular melodies are lost or were miraculously transformed into acceptable avenues such as church music, alternate currents still existed throughout Greek, Roman, Medieval and more modern times up to the 19th Century, and were sometimes expressed in compositions by those Gioia deems music first superstars, including Mozart and Beethoven. But, as in the past, it was the inventions of an oppressed group, in this case African slaves and their American descendents that redirected music with Ragtime, Blues, Jazz, Rock, Hip-Hop and the like.

Gioia is at his best when he chronicles how sentimental songs about home and mother were replaced by edgier material. First by imitators – Stephen Foster’s ditty Oh! Susanna sold 100,000 sheet music copies in its day, although Gioia notes that the composer’s “fluency in black culture … made white rapper Vanilla Ice look like a paragon of authenticity” – and then as minstrel shows, vaudeville, the phonograph record and radio, spread the sounds of legitimate innovators. The rise of blues-oriented music and its eventual hegemony in popular circles, with its themes of sex, violence and superstition, harkened back to earlier popular themes throughout history. Notated music was even affected, with profound sounds composed by those influenced by African-American music like Gershwin or like Schoenberg, exiles from their home countries. Gioia goes on the posit trends that link contemporary sounds to outsider history, with rappers like NWA creating lyrics that relate to traditional murder ballads, and the Sex Pistols’ performances “less like rock concerts and more akin to frenzied cult rituals”.

However, warns Gioia, modern technology may spell the end of t music’s alternation between subversion and convention. “After decades of Africanized bent notes and complex timbres, hit songs are returning to pure Pythagorean tones, sometime delivered dead-on the center of the pitch by the singer …or later manipulated into perfection by Auto-Tune,” he writes. This profitable music propelled by streaming “likes” and mass dissemination can hopefully be countered by experimental music. At least Gioia’s exhaustive research entertainingly chronicles how this happened in the past.

-for MusicWorks #136/Spring 2020