The folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary had an ironic hit in 1967 with “I Dig Rock and Roll Music.” Intended as a jab at the youthful groups that had eclipsed the folk-music revival of the early 1960s, the parody was lost inside the song’s cynical success.
The culture critic David Hajdu was 12 years old at the time, which means he was situated right in the wheelhouse of the Top 40 of the moment. As he reports in “Love for Sale,” his idiosyncratic romp through the history of the American popular music industry, his older brother, who fancied himself a folkie “purist,” seized upon the song’s mocking disdain for the groovy music that was hypnotizing callow kids like David. In particular, his brother noted the line that teased the Beatles for their incessant use of the word “love.”
“Don’t you realize they’re only trying to sell you something?” Hajdu’s big brother groused.
From sheet music to shellac, from 45s and LPs to digital audio files, the music industry is forever trying to sell you something. Pop music may be a mercenary pursuit, Hajdu suggests, and it’s very often disposable. But it’s also meaningful, always, to its target audience. Historically, those eager listeners have always been willing participants in the buyer-seller relationship.
In a few hundred cruising-speed pages (despite the occasional congestion of bumper-to-bumper song titles and songwriting credits), Hajdu chronicles the long evolution of the popular song, from Paul Whiteman and his dance band’s hit tune “Whispering” to the recent R&B/hip-hop radio staple “Don’t Tell ‘Em.” For readers well-versed in the music critics’s canon, the book includes plenty of scenic rest stops: Sinatra’s concept albums, the postcoital soul-searching of Goffin and King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” the fertile collision of punk, soul, and hip-hop in the New York City wasteland of the 1970s.
Early in his career Hajdu, who grew up in New Jersey, was a regular contributor to the Real Paper (the old Boston alternative weekly). He is the author of the excellent folk-era chronicle “Positively 4th Street” and the somewhat sloggier “The Ten-Cent Plague” about the rise of comic book culture. He sprinkles his book with personal interludes, describing his adolescent collection of battered 45s, his parents’ modest show-tunes collection, and the time his mother, a diner waitress, introduced him to the local hack responsible for a going-nowhere song called “I’m from New Jersey.”
The young Hajdu sat in a booth at the diner with the song peddler, both of them distracted by the wall-mount jukebox “with menus of song titles on those fun-to-swing metal frame pages.” Though the Rolling Stones’s “Ruby Tuesday” was the number one song in America at the time, the future rock critic wasn’t interested in listening to the florid tune with the middle-aged man sitting across from him.
“I didn’t want him liking my music any more than I liked his song,” he writes.
Every generation since the invention of recorded sound has been defined in large part by its own music, from swing and bop to rock ’n’ roll, disco, and Kanye. Paradoxically, Hajdu notes, popular music is “a product of mass culture that reaches millions of people (or more) at one time and works for each person in a personal way.”
Just as the foxtrot “helped break down barriers of Victorian propriety,” Hajdu writes, and just as rock and roll represented “an exultant image of integration” as the civil rights movement was finding its footing, the contemporary pop of his youngest son’s generation, he submits, is the “soundtrack of the hookup culture.”
Never mind that large stacks of studies have shown that sexual promiscuity has actually declined among teenagers and young adults in recent years. Pop music has always been preoccupied with the idea of physical attraction, as Hajdu shows.
By his estimation, today’s pop music stands out for its high quotient of songs about sex without romance. Unlike those scratchy 45s he fetishized in his youth, there’s little romance in an MP3, he suggests, or in a SoundCloud stream. These days, they’re practically giving it away.
LOVE FOR SALE:
Pop Music in America
By David Hajdu
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 307 pp., $27James Sullivan, the author of four books, including “The Hardest Working Man,” a biography of James Brown, can be reached at jamesgsullivan@
gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.