The History of Popularity

Rayyan Al-Shawaf in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_2527 Jan. 22 19.59David Hajdu, on the first page of Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, dismisses the category of popular music:

Of the countless terms for categories of music […] the least useful phrase I know is “popular music.” It provides no information about the music itself: no suggestion of how it sounds or what mood it might conjure, no indication of the traditions it grows from or defies, and no hint of whether it could be good for dancing, for solitary listening, or for anything else.

Yet he went and wrote a book on the subject — go figure — and a fine one at that.

Love for Sale examines the shape-shifting undergone by popular music, from minstrelsy to hip-hop, and the equally protean ways in which it has reached the public, from printed notation sheets for do-it-yourself parlor revelry in days of yore to the streaming and downloading of our digital era. The result is an exceptionally astute and stimulating account of music in the United States from the late 19th century until the early 21st. Hajdu’s propensity for stepping away from the hit parade in order to mingle with its architects as well as members of its audience not only militates against the monotony that a straightforward chronicle of the charts would generate, but it also fleshes out the social context of the songs under discussion.

The author also fills in the history of popularity for different kinds of music before 1940, when Billboard, which already compiled and published lists of popular songs, devised a system of charts — albeit an imperfect one — for tracking their sales.

More here.