You say you want a revolution? We prize musicians for talent and charisma, but it’s originality—new approaches, new instruments, new sounds—that put Bach, Beck, Bjork, and Beethoven on the map. And it doesn’t always go over well at the beginning.
The early reviews of Beethoven were sharply negative. The first reviews of his Eroica symphony, as Ted Gioia recounts in his new book, Music: A Subversive History, were sharply negative. One listener heckled it: “I’ll give another kreutzer if the thing will only stop!”
Haydn—the master of the previous generation of composers—hated Beethoven. “The greatest living composer in Europe saw Beethoven as a volatile outsider whose impulses needed to be held in check,” Gioia writes, “an unpredictable upstart who ought to adapt to established ways of doing things.”
Revolutionaries bending the establishment toward their sound is an undercurrent of Gioia’s book, which tackles music history from the Big Bang to Spotify. He sat down with The Daily Beast to talk about it.
Can you pinpoint when music was at the peak of its influence in American culture? Are we in it?
If you judge music by financial measures, it reached its peak around 1999. That was the point when Americans spent the most money on music. On the other hand, if you evaluate an art form by the number of people it employs, then the peak for music took place back in the ’30s and ’40s when there were at least ten thousand dance halls in the United States, most of them featuring large bands. Playing music back then was a genuine career path for many people.
But I prefer to dig deeper than either of these measures and try to find the era when music had the most pervasive impact of people’s day-to-day life. From that perspective, I would focus on the period right before the spread of recorded music—a little more than a century ago. Back then, you couldn’t listen to an album or the radio, because they didn’t exist. People had to make their own music—create their own playlist, so to speak—and they did so with passion and intensity.
And the music was more personal than commercial?
Almost every household was a place of music-making in those days. Pianos were everywhere—in fact, there were hundreds (and maybe thousands) of companies that manufactured musical instruments in the U.S. If you didn’t have an instrument, you sang or invited a neighbor with musical skills to visit you. And when people left their homes for evening entertainment, they invariably went to hear live music, which was found on almost every city block. Music was embedded into everyone’s life to a degree we can hardly comprehend nowadays.
Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky wrote music for ballet that is part of the orchestral canon today. Are film composers like Michael Giacchino and Ludwig Göransson finding that kind of acceptance?
Film music may be the most underrated genre. In fact, I once planned to write a book about movie soundtracks but was steered away from the project by an editor. The editor was probably right—at least in judging that there would be little demand for such a book. For some reason, film scores don’t get the same respect as classical music or popular genres, although many of the best composers from the last hundred years worked in Hollywood.
By the way, I do have a complaint about film composers. I believe they have become far too humble and subservient. I listen to many film soundtracks, and with each passing year the score seems to retreat more into the background, settling for subtle atmospheric effects. John Williams is one of the last of the old school composers, those bold visionaries who intrusively set the mood for a film scene. Too often, nowadays, the composer seems to respond to the visual images rather than impose an emotional perspective on to them.
The way music is used in film and TV has changed a lot in the last 25 years.
The irony is that directors will often intersperse well-known rock and pop songs into current-day soundtracks, and when these appear, they create a powerful tone to the scene. Yet as soon as the original soundtrack returns, the music moves back into the background. Frankly, I’d like to see film composers get more intrusive and play a larger role in defining the artistic posture of a movie.
TV is more accommodating right now of the kind of scores you’re talking about. Goransson’s The Mandalorian, Nicholas Brittel’s Succession, Labyrinth’s Euphoria, Reznor and Ross’s Watchmen are big parts of those shows.
That’s more than just a matter of music. Television entered its golden age during the last decade—it started with HBO and accelerated with the entry of Netflix and Amazon. They have been willing to back unconventional and highly creative projects. That shows up in every aspect of the finished product, including music.
Spotify and Apple Podcasts have become the default music apps. They have the same catalogs and functionality but—to my mind, at least—vastly different user experiences. Where are those apps headed?
They believe the future is a seamless tech-driven music world where algorithms and artificial intelligence pick songs for us—maybe even compose and perform the songs too.
But they are wrong. One of the key points I make in Music: A Subversive History is that people want disruption in their musical lives. They crave it. Tech platforms will try to dominate the music ecosystem as tastemakers who impose a smooth, non-problematic soundtrack onto society, but this will have very little impact in the near and mid-term. The music industry has repeatedly tried to reduce disruption in the musical culture and build their business on formulas (today we call them algorithms), but it has never worked for very long. And it won’t this time either.
Sex and violence in music come up over and over in the book—in opera, in classical music, in the blues, in hip-hop—and those are arguably the two main themes of film and TV. Are the reasons the same?
I know that music is often compared to other art forms, so it seems to make sense to talk about it as similar to TV, movies, and other cultural phenomenon. But the moment we do that, we miss the key source of music’s power, namely its deep connection to our body. All the evidence now tells us that music is more a physiological force than a cultural artifact.
We now know that music changes our brain waves, which adapt to the rhythms of the song. Songs can even put us into a trance or ecstatic state. Music also changes our cortisol levels and blood cell count—our immune system is actually strengthened by exposure to music. Hormones are released when we listen to music that impacts our behavior. Not only do we hear the music, but we feel compelled to move, and the urge to dance is almost irresistible.
That’s different than other art forms?
No other art form does all this. Any aesthetic theory or critical stance that doesn’t take these physiological factors into account will never grasp the source of music’s power.
So when I say that music is linked to sex and violence, I am talking about a profound connection that can be traced back to the very origins of human life. Darwin would tell us that sexual selection is the very reason why we sing. You can dispute that, but the accumulated evidence that links sex and violence to musical innovation is compelling.
I’m not just saying that songs are about sex and violence, but that these are the sources of innovation in music. That’s very different from anything you will find in any other art form. I lay out the evidence in my book in a way no one has ever done before. Once you comprehend all the ramifications and connections, it permanently alters how you view music.
You listen to a lot of new music every year. Did Billie Eilish come out of nowhere, or did you see signs bubbling up of her cross-genre sound?
I listen to lots of current-day pop music. But I must admit that I am often disappointed by the formulaic nature of so many releases, especially when some new teen sensation arrives on the scene. But I was very impressed the first time I heard Billie Eilish, and no one was more surprised by that than me. So I see this more as a matter of individual talent, and not related to larger shifts in pop culture.
We had Bohemian Rhapsody last year, Rocket Man this year, and Respect is coming in 2020. What’s the music biopic you most want to see?
The more I love a musician, the less I want to see a Hollywood biopic. So my hope is that the studios will ignore all my favorite artists.