Musical History as Subversive History?

Assessing Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History. Is History Simply a Power Struggle?

This three-part mini-series comes to us from Jeremiah Lawson, who assesses the provocative thesis of Ted Gioia’s recent book, Music: A Subversive History. Below is part one, laying out the book’s ostensibly radical premise. 

Is all musical innovation an act of rebellion and subversion? Or perhaps more importantly, is human history itself irreducibly a drama between the powerful and the powerless? Judging from Ted Gioia’s recent book on musical history, power dynamics operate beneath the surface of every note ever written or performed. This thesis is demonstrably true for many artists, whether it be American blues musicians or the Russian composer Shostakovich, but can the same be said for human history writ large? As Gioia tells it:

The real history of music is not respectable. Far from it. Neither is it boring. Breakthroughs almost always come from provocateurs and insurgents, and they don’t just change the songs we sing, but often shake up the foundations of society. When something genuinely new and different arrives on the music scene, those in positions of authority fear it and work to repress it. We all know this because it has happened in our own lifetimes. We have seen firsthand how music can challenge social norms and alarm upholders of the status quo, whether political bosses, religious leaders, or just anxious parents fretting about some song bellowing ominously from behind a teenager’s bedroom door. Yet this same thing has been happening since the dawn of human history, and maybe even longer — although you won’t get told that side of the story in Music 101, or from the numerous well-funded music institutions devoted to protecting their respectability and the highbrow pretensions of their mission statements. (p. 1-2) […]

Musical innovation happens from the bottom up and outside in, rather than vice versa; those with power and authority usually oppose these musical innovations, but with time, whether through co-optation or transformation, the innovations become mainstream, and then the cycle begins again. (p. 3) […]

The songs of outsiders and the underclass have always posed a threat, and thus must be purified or reinterpreted. The power of music, whether to put listeners into a trance or rouse them to action, has always been feared, and thus must be controlled. The close connection of songs to sex and violence has always shocked, and thus must be regulated. And the narratives that chronicle and define our musical lives are inevitably written and rewritten in recognition of these imperatives. (p. 5)

Gioia makes his thesis plain that the history of all music is a battle between superego and id; between masculine music of order, discipline, and the state and the feminine music of eroticism, emotion, and passions; and between the ideal of music as the decoration of luxury and the healing magic of song by, for, and from the downtrodden. For Gioia, music has always been a source of magic and revolution, whose real history has been suppressed by all the powers that be since basically the dawn of history as we know it, but now, here, in the 21st century, he’s going to give us the real history of music.

This thesis is a conspiracy theory, and one that has already been given a nuanced rebuttal by Chadwick Jenkins, who asked who Gioia’s intended audience is. In an early review at the Los Angeles Times Robert Christgau wrote, “It’s often hard to tell exactly who Gioia is arguing with: mostly ‘classical’ music specialists, I’d venture, in part because few others attempted music history at all until ethnomusicology took shape after World War II.” The problem in Gioia’s would-be subversive history of music is that he reads the history of popular music in the United States back onto the history of music the world over, and uses this reading to generate a conspiracy theory that purportedly explains the history of music. As a master narrative, Gioia’s thesis is the most conventional wisdom a jazz historian could have given us.

To be sure, Ted Gioia is formidably conversant in the histories of blues, jazz, and popular music. Where he is weak is in the history and historiography of the Western literate musical traditions, and especially the history of tuning systems in Western music. Gioia references volume 2 of Richard Taruskin’s gigantic Oxford History of Western Music, but that is a five-volume series. Had Gioia read all five volumes, he would have seen that Taruskin’s account of the earliest forms of notated music makes a case that notes-on-the-page music as we know it in the West came about because the Roman Church in the Carolingian era wanted to consolidate liturgical musical norms.

Taruskin’s explanation of music history is the opposite of Gioia’s thesis. In Taruskin’s account of the origin of Western music transmitted by literary traditions, the “notes-on-the-page” sense came into existence because of the Catholic Church, not despite or against Catholic leadership. Taruskin has made a substantial case that innovations within the Western literate musical traditions, across a thousand years, have been instigated by elites and for elites. These elites were flesh-and-blood people with practical goals and interests. Though Taruskin’s history also has some controversial claims, such as proposing that we understand 20th-century music history more overtly in light of the Cold War, he makes a plausible case that we should resist the temptation to make the history of music a history of reified ideas rather than flesh-and-blood people.

Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History rolls out names and places in the service of imagined dualistic battles between irreconcilable ideals about what music is and ought to be across all of time. Pythagoras, Augustine, Sappho, J. S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Scott Joplin, Robert Johnson, and others are mentioned, but they show up in the service of Gioia’s big ideas, most of which lean heavily on assumed dualisms that have a common imagined enemy in the form of Pythagoras, so it is to Pythagoras we need to turn next.

To revisit my original question, what’s at stake in Gioia’s account is nothing short of an understanding of human history and the drama of life: Are power dynamics simply a helpful tool or the very plot of human existence? If Gioia is right about musical origins, then the same could be said for other aspects of human life like science, literature, philosophy, and religion. What moves humanity forward to create, play, or love? Is it all simply an exercise in power, or something else altogether?


Image Credit: the Los Angeles Times