Music critic and historian Ted Gioia joins City Journal editor Brian Anderson to discuss the 4,000-year history of music as a global source of power, change, and upheaval—topics explored in his new book, Music: A Subversive History.
The music business is a $10 billion industry today. But according to Gioia, innovative songs have always come from outsiders—the poor, the unruly, and the marginalized. The culmination of his decades of writing about music, Gioia’s new book is a celebration of the social outcasts who continue to define this art form.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal.
Coming up on today’s show, music critic and historian Ted Gioia will join us to talk about his fascinating new book, Music: A Subversive History. It’s published by Basic Books—you can find a link in the description or you can find it on Amazon or wherever books are sold.
Ted’s written nearly a dozen other books on music (especially jazz), and he’s published two wonderful couple essays for City Journal, including “Jazz Central” about how New York City became the focal point of that American art form, and the “The West Coast Jazz Revival” about California’s jazz resurgence right now.
The conversation is a little bit different from what we usually talk about on 10 Blocks, but it’s a great book and I know our listeners will enjoy it.
We’ll take a quick break and we’ll be back with Ted Gioia after the music.
Brian Anderson: Hello again, everyone. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. On the phone with us is Ted Gioia. You can follow him on Twitter, @tedgioia. His latest book is called Music: A Subversive History. We'll link to it in the description, and you can find it on Amazon or wherever books are sold. Ted, thanks very much for joining us.
Ted Gioia: Well, thank you, Brian, for inviting me.
Brian Anderson: You've written a number of great books on music, including How to Listen to Jazz, which for me was the best introduction to jazz music I've ever come across. But this new book, which you've been writing, as you note in the introduction, for 25 years, has a scope that goes beyond anything you've done before. It ranges from the Neolithic era to hip-hop, by way of medieval madrigals and the blues.
Brian Anderson: A recurring theme in this 4,000 year history, which gives you your subtitle of Subversive History, is that music has always been tied to deep connections with love and violence. So, let's start at the beginning. What do you mean when you see the origin of music as a force of creative destruction?
Ted Gioia: Well, many of us tend to think of music as a kind of entertainment or diversion. And of course we realize that it's also a source of artistry and a source of high culture. But when you really dig into the history and the effects of music, you begin to realize it's almost more a physiological force than it is a cultural artifact. We now understand how much music affects our body in ways that we really didn't realize 20, 30 years ago.
And it's unlike other art forms. It's not like a statue or a work of architecture or a painting. Music changes everything. The rhythms of the music we listen to change our brain rhythms. Our body chemistry changes. Hormones are released that push us into action. And this is why, throughout history, music has had a much closer connection than most people realize to all sorts of dark and dangerous things: sexuality, violence, trance, ecstasy, altered states of consciousness.
One of the things my music history book did was bring these out into the open because, in many regards, these are seen as shameful or embarrassing connections of music. But if you don't understand how music impacts our physiology and how we deal with the world and the people around us in these powerful ways, you can't really understand the true history of music.
Brian Anderson: Even the symphony orchestra, you point out, which we see as representing a very high art form, has a link with a kind of primitive violence. Could you elaborate a little bit on that? I found that fascinating just from the way-
Ted Gioia: Well, that's a great example. We tend to think of the symphony orchestra as the epitome of establishment music, respectable. It's really at the highest peak of our cultural aspirations. But in fact, if you dig into the history of the symphony orchestra, virtually every instrument in the orchestra originated in something bloody and violent.
Really, you have to go back to hunter-gatherers. And the first horns were animal horns. The musical bow was originally the hunter's bow. You killed the animal. You took the horn. You cleaned it up. You turned it into a musical instrument. They made flutes out of bones. The strings on the string instruments were the guts; they were the intestines of the animal you killed. Again and again, every aspect of music... The drum, that took the hide of the animal, and the idea was that the drum now possessed the magical power of the animal.
These are extraordinary things, and it's amazing to look at the process by which they end up in the symphony orchestra, which seems very dignified and respectable, but it originates in blood and violence.
Brian Anderson: It's fascinating. You note the deep association that you just mentioned between music or with music and ritual and ecstatic experience and wherever ecstatic experience has been observed, with trances and things like that, music is part of the experience. Yet music has also been viewed, you note, from Pythagoras on, as an expression of mathematical truths. Could you describe that tension?
Ted Gioia: Well, there's a battle. There's a battle that's been going on in our musical lives for at least 2,500 years. And it's something that's almost never discussed or described in music history books, but when you dig into it, you see that there are two kinds of music.
And this division really came out of ancient Greece. It started with Pythagoras, who wanted to create a music of order, of discipline, of reducing everything to mathematics. And he created the first guides to scales. Every note had to be in tune. There were certain notes that you'd play. There were other notes you didn't play. And it was regimented, it was ordered, it was controlled.
And this really led into our Western tradition where you always play in tune, and the orchestra always starts by tuning. We take this for granted. You go to the orchestra, and they all tune, and they play the notes specifically in tune, dead center on the tone.
But there's this other tradition of music that's very different. It's not so orderly. It's linked to magic. It's linked to superstition. It's linked to ecstasy, falling into a trance. It doesn't have this kind of controlled mathematical precision. There are a lot of notes there that aren't played in tune. Now for the most of recorded history, that side of music was hidden from view. I mean, it always existed, but it was left out of the history books. One of the things I show in my history book is that there's this whole tradition of music that was censored. It was prohibited.
It did flourish in some places. For example, in Africa, they never reduced music to mathematics. So, they never played the notes perfectly in tune. And that's actually what created the greatest revolution in music in the 20th century with the blues, where African American musicians would bend notes. They'd play notes in the blues you couldn't write down because our notational systems couldn't allow them.
So, this is an extraordinary tension, and in many ways, it's the most fundamental tension in musicology and music history, but it's one that's almost never even mentioned by the conventional history books.
Brian Anderson: Plato, as you note recognized the power of music, and in the Republic, the argument was made that really music should be heavily regulated, if not completely suppressed by the state. What disturbed him so, especially about lamentations?
Ted Gioia: It's interesting. When you read Plato, many people are confused because sometimes he seems very afraid of music, and then a few pages later he'll say that music needs to be an essential part of education, music is essential to the well-governed Republic. And we try to feel what's going on here. Does he love it or does he hate it? But you see, Plato understood full well that there were these two types of music. And there was a kind of music he liked, which was orderly. It was disciplined. It created a coherent society when everybody marched in the same direction.
But Plato understood there was a very different kind of music that tapped into very powerful feelings and emotions, and this is the kind I'm telling you about that has been written out of the history books. And it was feared. And it was feared because they understood: in many ways, this was the most powerful music.
Plato associated it with women. And it really is linked to what I call the three L's. And these are interesting. It's three styles of music traditionally linked with women: the lullaby, the love song, and the lament. And these are the kinds of music that really weren't preserved. I mean, we know for a fact there must've been tens of thousands of lullabies sung every day throughout history, but no one wanted to preserve these.
These were songs that were considered dangerous because they tapped into such powerful feelings. And it's interesting. Even as regimes change and philosophies change, these were still feared. Thousand years after Plato, the Catholic church was trying to prohibit laments. Now why did they fear laments? But they understood full well that this was a kind of song that had so much power and was difficult to control.
So, once again, there's this hidden side of music. It's left out of the conventional accounts, but if you don't understand it, you really don't understand the musical life of culture, both in the past and the current day.
Brian Anderson: The French economist, Jacques Attali, wrote a fascinating study some years ago, I think it was the late '70s, called Noise: The Political Economy of Music. And in that book, he shows how music throughout history has been a kind of anticipatory force in which you can read the direction of the future. Your book offers a striking example of this, I thought, with the relationship between songs and then singers. And that changes over time, right?
Ted Gioia: Well, we tend to assume that every song is the personal expression of the singer. And we just take that for granted. You turn on the radio, and whether you're listening to Frank Sinatra or Joni Mitchell or Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga, you understand the singer is using the song as a vehicle of self-expression. What we don't understand is this wasn't always true, and this was a powerful change.
In fact, you could say that music is the most neglective source of expansion of human freedom and civil liberties in history. People don't realize how powerful it is. People started singing about themselves. And this was prohibited. It was fought against because it was an understanding that this was an expansion of your freedom, if you could sing what you felt. And it had an amazing impact on the audience. So, you go back in history, trying to understand: when did this first happen?
And it's pretty clear now this happened in ancient Egypt in a village called Deir el-Medina, which is the source we have of the first Egyptian love songs, where people would talk about personal emotions. Now you don't tend to think of a love song as a political song, but it was. This was a very powerful thing to do, and I think it's no coincidence that the same village in Egypt where the artisans who worked on the pyramids lived was the site of the first labor strike. It was the first worker uprising.
And many people would look at this and not understand. They would think this was a coincidence, but in fact, it is no coincidence that the first songs of personal expression also took place in the very same location where people began to assert for more freedoms in their work life and in their political life.
Brian Anderson: The book chronicles the emergence of the idea of, or the reality of, an audience, the audience for music. When did that happen, and when did the emergence of a kind of music business take place?
Ted Gioia: Well, some people will tell you that the audience was always there and that every music has an audience and that musicians always played to the audience. But in fact, once again, this is a gross misunderstanding because for the longest time you didn't sing to please an audience. You sang to please the authorities or God or the king, or to involve yourself in a communal ritual. The idea of pleasing an audience happened only very slowly.
And probably, really, the breakthrough came around the time of the Renaissance, when all of a sudden the audience became the ultimate arbiter of what was good or bad in music. If you wanted to understand whether your song was any good, you played it for an audience, and their response told you. But that wasn't true for most of human history.
And once again, it's an extraordinary expansion of human autonomy, personal freedom, is to have the people, the common people, being able to make these decisions. And once again, music anticipates the future. You had this kind of expansion of the rights of the people in music long before it becomes enshrined in political institutions.
Brian Anderson: You describe the engine room of music history, a kind of recurring dialectic in which the institutional power brokers in music, I guess you would call them, constantly need infusions of energy from outsiders. And this shift occurs again and again, you show, from religious music to the classical music tradition right up to contemporary rock and roll, right?
Ted Gioia: Well, it's a powerful force. And when I tell people that music history is made by outsiders, they can instinctively understand it because they've seen it in their own lifetimes. We all have. The most powerful music of our lifetimes, whether you're a fan of hip-hop or punk rock or outlaw country, it's not insider music. It's the music of the outsiders.
What people don't realize is, first of all, this has been going on for centuries and thousands of years. But the most important part is the history is distorted because all of these outsiders eventually become mainstreamed and legitimized. And the legitimization itself is distortion. So, what you have again and again is the outsider is cleaned up, made respectable because the insiders need the power of this music.
This is the most amazing part of it. Music is disruptive to the authorities, but the authorities itself need this. They need this infusion of energy. I mean, this plays out in the daily news. I mean, for example, just a few weeks ago, someone released a hip-hop song in Thailand that criticized the government. And this really shook up the authorities there, and they decided they needed to release their own hip-hop song. The government actually issued its own hip-hop song, which as you can expect, was mocked and ridiculed.
But it's the same dynamic. The insiders need that power of music, and they try to take it over for themselves. And that is the single biggest reason why the history books are distorted because it's the insiders writing the account from their perspective, after they've cleaned up this music.
Brian Anderson: When you reach more recent musical history in your book, especially in America, the voice of black musicians and singers becomes, really, more and more the story of American music. The black population of the Americas, almost all of them, the descendants of slaves, would reinvent popular music again and again and again. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.
Ted Gioia: Well, this is a classic example where we understand something from our own experience, but we don't realize how deeply rooted it is in history. American music during the 20th century came to dominate the whole world. Everybody listened to it, and it was really for just one reason. It was because of the disruptive power and energy infused into the music from the black population. So, slaves or the descendants of slaves are what gave energy to American music.
Now, where it becomes interesting is when you see how this repeats a pattern that has been going on, again, for thousands of years. When you go back to ancient Greece... This is very funny. If you're a music student, the first thing you're taught are the musical modes. These are the scales, and they all have names. There's the Phrygian mode. There's the Lydian mode. But nobody tells you that the Lydians and the Phrygians were the Greek slaves, and they came up with these exciting sounds. These are the ones that Plato feared. These were the prohibited modes, and they came from the slave population.
Then you see the same thing in Rome. In ancient Rome, they relied on slaves for their music-making. That's why it was so scandalous that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. It's not that Rome was burning was the scandal. It was that the emperor was playing music, which was, once again, associated with the outsider and the slave.
And then you see the same thing in medieval times. The whole Western song tradition, as I show in my book, was anticipated by the female slaves of the Islamic world. So, when you get to the 20th century and all of a sudden the descendants of slaves and the marginalized outsider class transforms things, this was just a repetition of a longstanding theme. And that leads to the question of: why is this?
And what you understand eventually is that the slave and the outsider are always a source of innovation because they have no vested interest in the status quo. They have no vested interest in preserving the tradition. They want to shake things up because the system does not favor them. So, they're the first to question it. And so, it's not coincidence, but this is something we should expect again and again in musical history, even in the future, that it's the outsider, it's the marginalized, it's the dispossessed, it's the rowdy that are the creators of musical innovation.
Brian Anderson: Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist, famously said, "The medium is the message." You offer a variation in your book: "The media makes the music." What did you mean by that?
Ted Gioia: Well, it's surprising how often new technologies completely change how people sing or perform music and that there's this interaction between the two. Let me give you just a few examples.
If you go back in the 1920s, at the end of the 1920s, there was this whole new style of singing that emerged called crooning, which was a much more whispering, conversational voice. But it only happened because new microphones developed that allowed you to sing in that kind of way. It's interesting. If you compare love songs recorded in 1925 with those recordings in 1935, you'd be amazed at the difference. The love songs from the 1920s, people are shouting. It doesn't sound like a romance. It sounds like an argument.
And they had to because that was the technology, but then the microphone comes, and all of a sudden you could have this Bing Crosby kind of voice that was very conversational and understated. And that was a completely new way of singing. So, the technology changed the music and work interactively. And this has happened almost with every passing decade. I mean, the long playing album changed how people conceived of music.
And nowadays we're living through this new rebellion where we're told that streaming and algorithms and created playlists are going to change everything. And the music changes. How people compose songs in the year 2019 is different because of streaming platforms. You have to keep people on for 20, 25 seconds to cut your royalties, so everything goes in the front of the song. There's no lingering introductions anymore. Everything is to the point. So, this is the world we live in, where music and technology, in a way, are at war, but then also cooperate. And whenever new technology comes along, musicians find some way of repurposing it for their own ends.
Brian Anderson: Just to come full circle and a last question... There's so much more that could be talked about, but we're almost out of time. Let me conclude with a mention of your chapter, which draws on the philosopher Rene Girard and his book Violence and the Sacred. It talks about music and sacrificial ritual and interprets some of the experience of rock and post-rock music through that lens. Would you elaborate a little bit on that, too?
Ted Gioia: Well, Rene Girard is one of the most amazing thinkers of the 20th century. And he had these theories that just seemed, with the passing of time, to have more relevance. Even Peter Thiel said he made a billion dollars investing in Facebook because he took a class from Rene Girard, who told him that a major force in human history is imitation, that we do things not because they're rational or because they fit with our life plan. We imitate what other people do. And Thiel said, "Well, I see this Facebook. This is perfect. I'll invest there."
But Rene Girard had this concept of the sacrificial ritual, that one of the ways you diffuse violence in society is by picking a scapegoat almost arbitrarily, and you channel all the violence into that, often in a ritualized format. Now, curiously enough, Rene Girard doesn't mention rock music at all, but he was writing his book during the whole rise of rock at the end of the '60s.
And if you look at rock, it's like that. I mean, the musicians would destroy their instruments on stage. I mean, it's a sacrificial ritual. Sometimes there was violence at the-
Brian Anderson: Pete Townshend, yes. Jimi Hendrix setting fire to his guitar.
Ted Gioia: Yeah, absolutely. And sometimes there was violence directed against the musicians or in the audience. I mean, read about the Sex Pistols' last concert at Winterland. I mean, it's a sacrificial ritual. The funny thing is Girard himself didn't see this. I mean, he never mentioned rock music at all in his book. But in fact, once you understand, first of all, the historical linkage to violence throughout music and then what was happening in the late 1960s, you understand how closely integrated rock was to this long history of violent rituals.
Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Ted. The book is called Music: A Subversive History. You can find a link in the description find it, again, wherever books are sold. Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter, @tedgioia, and if you haven't already, follow us on Twitter, @CityJournal, or on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi. Thanks for listening, and thanks, Ted Gioia, for joining us.