The Literature of American Pop

Acclaimed journalist and author Michaelangelo Matos talks with Museum of Pop Culture’s Eric Weisbard about his important new tome Songbooks

Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music by Eric Weisbard (Duke 2021)

Eric Weisbard’s Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music (Duke) is the kind of book you keep picking up and dipping into for the rest of your life.

It’s an argument that, just as “pop music” is an agglomeration of individual genres and styles, pop music writing is a category unto itself made up of everything from academic criticism to magazine-piece collections to music-business lays-of-the-land to chart compendiums to works of fiction to actual song collections, though Weisbard leaves the latter largely to the early entries. 

Helpfully, and dauntingly, Weisbard gathers every titled mentioned therein in a “Works Cited” that stretches to sixty-eight pages—an incomplete bibliography of pop. This was by design: “People kept saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re writing an encyclopedia?’,” says Weisbard. “And I kept saying, ‘I really hope I’m not writing an encyclopedia.’” Nevertheless, that appendix, and the book itself, are a music lover’s dream reading list.

Songbooks contains a 160 of entries—each, in the Table of Contents, gets its own carny-poster-style header, a touch that Weisbard credits his wife, the NPR music critic Ann Powers, for instigating. (Powers co-edited Rock She Wrote with Evelyn McDonnell, 1995, one of Songbooks’ entries.) My favorites are for Mezz Mezzrow with Bernard Wolfe’s Really the Blues, 1946: “White Negro Drug Dealer”; and for Theodor Adorno’s Essays on Music, ed. Richard Leppert, 2002: “When Faith in Popular Sound Wavers, He’s Waiting.”

That telegraphic, highly condensed style, deployed with a ready sense of humor, has been Weisbard’s hallmark since he came up writing for alternative weeklies in San Francisco during the early nineties, where he met Powers (they married in 1998). The two moved to New York together—Weisbard grew up in Queens—where she worked for the Times and he edited the Village Voice music section. Then in the early 2000s, they moved to Powers’ hometown, Seattle, to work for the Experience Music Project (now Museum of Pop Culture). There, Weisbard debuted the Pop Conference, an annual gathering that has fostered a coterie of music writers of all stripes—academics, journalists, performers, DJs, fans—into a far-flung community, which includes me. (It is scheduled to continue in-person in 2022, at NYU.) 

More recently, the two moved to Nashville, with Weisbard commuting to the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, during the school year—he’s in the American Studies department. Weisbard also, along with Carl Wilson (Let’s Talk About Love—A Journey to the End of Taste, 2007) and Kimberly Mack (Fictional Blues, 2020), puts together the Pop Music Books in Process, a Zoom discussion series with a YouTube archive worth exploring.

In many of Songbooks’ entries, Weisbard clusters multiple titles—sometimes a few, sometimes more than a dozen—suitable for further research in that category. It’s a mapmaking exercise far more than an assertion of a canon, though as you’ll see below, he’s hardly shy of opinions. In the many cases Weisbard chose a lesser book for historical reasons, it’s to signpost a turn in the narrative of music writing itself. Surely there are better books on Frank Sinatra than Kitty Kelley’s His Way (1986), but, as Weisbard persuasively argues, Kelley’s initial digs into his criminal associations and sexual peccadilloes changed the framework of how Sinatra was treated in print. In that entry, he also recommends, among others, a later, more definitive title, James Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice (2010)—released the year Weisbard cuts Songbooks off. 

The night before we talked, I decided to read the first chapter in order, after months of regular dipping in and out of the digital galley, and hell—it does feel like one story. It has momentum. We spoke over Zoom on a Friday afternoon. 

 

What was the start date for this project?

Six-seven years ago, I was at the stage of getting tenure and moving to Nashville. I wanted to do a project that I could do driving back and forth between cities a lot: I could have a stack of library books from Tuscaloosa, take them to Nashville, read them, and then try to be done in time for the teaching week. And I did have a sabbatical.

I wrote a lot of it at the Vanderbilt music library. This book was my tribute to the little me who, in elementary school, checked 23 books out of the Queens Public Library with his mother’s blessing. The family has been teasing me about that ever since.

Eric Weisbard (Art: Ron Hart)

How many books a week were you reading during your sabbatical?

It really depends. There’s a difference between reading a book and reading in a book. That was something that I was coached in as a grad student. And I think it’s actually very similar to the way music critics spot-listen to some albums and spend intensive amounts of time with others. I wanted to see what would catch my eye.

Then there was a lot of stuff where it was really about just going through it quickly, and seeing if there was some relevant thing in that book that could justify its inclusion—the fourth minor book by an important author, the seventeenth treatment of punk rock’s legacy in Los Angeles [both laugh], the ninety-seventh attempt to codify the word “cosmopolitanism” in a different foreign country experiencing pop culture . . .

 

Let me throw in one more: The book mentions only one Grateful Dead book [David Browne’s So Many Roads, 2015].

Yeah, there’s a lot of omissions that, probably more than anything else, come down to my own personal proclivities. I think I’m someone who’s been actively in the top five or ten people on the planet reading books of this kind for 30-plus years. But I do have things that I’ve read more of than others. I habitually, when I read articles and books, notice what’s cited in the footnotes and the endnotes, and all of that’s given me an ongoing sense of how certain things matter, and how they connect to other things. That’s what I prioritized in doing this book.

What I was hoping was that I could give a good sense of why music books of the 1950s asked different questions than music books of the 1980s. There are questions being asked around Black music by primarily white authors in one period, and eventually, primarily Black authors. 

 

From your introduction, this parenthetical: “(. . . let me note that while jazz factors heavily in this book, the goal is never to explain that genre as an art form set apart, always to view it as a category of popular music expression.)” Which books, if any, might have made it in had you dropped this rule?

It’s the freakin’ Gunther Schullers of the world! In a more modern context—and I won’t castigate it, because I’m pretty sure it’s an important book—George Lewis on the AACM legacy [A Power Stronger Than Itself, 2007] would be a great example.

The thing that I most wince at—that a good solid lunch would teach me—is if I sat down with Gary Giddins [Visions of Jazz: The First Century, 1998] and said, “I never did crack open that George Simon book, The Big Bands (1967). Want to tell me the forty other equivalent things from when jazz was as close to the dominant form of pop music as it would ever be, that I’m not cognizant of because, apart from Will Friedwald, no one thinks about it anymore?” The truth is, I probably would have gained a lot.

There’s probably all sorts of in-between writers who haven’t fully gotten their due. I still feel like I don’t know as much about Samuel Charters [The Country Blues, 1959] as I want to know. I would really like for someone to write an entire book about him. I want to know more about what the jazz critics and early jazz academics made of developments in music between 1945 and 1960 that went outside [the things] they were writing about in liner notes for LPs.

I think that as a structuring device for thinking about pop as a form of modernism, the F. Scott Fitzgerald [Flappers and Philosophers, 1920] version of jazz, it was absolutely central to this story. [That] development leading to jazz being called America’s other classical music—it was a category of sound that some of its participants chose to take out of the pop category all together. And to the extent that happens, I didn’t follow that story as much.

 

The book that I immediately thought of was Val Wilmer’s As Serious as Your Life (1977).

Yeah, totally fair point. I wrote 160 entries; I probably should have stuck to my goal of writing 200 entries. I was going to declare defeat at some point.

 

Which kind of music did you learn the most about from all that concentrated reading? Did any recordings enter your personal canon as a result?

One of the things about this project that’s so damn weird is, I went into it taking a quality I already had more than most people: I can enjoy music writing more than music. And I almost exaggerated that. I almost said to myself: It’s not important to be listening alongside every book you read, even though that’s the most fun way to read a book in the 21st century, if it’s a book about music, I’m gonna not do that because I want this project to end in a reasonable number of years.

I don’t think that this book had that much of an effect on me as a listener. There were certainly moments where I realized there was a whole bunch of listening to be done. And I gave myself a day or two to play around in what Will Friedwald’s monstrous encyclopedia [A Biographical Guide to the Great Pop and Jazz Vocalists, 2010], for example, has inside of its innumerable pages. I’ve only scratched the surface of that, and I know that at some point I really want to spend a lot more time on that. 

I ended up really enjoying taking a week or a two-week visit to a particular writer, a particular topic, a particular approach, and letting the sound of that writing be the be the main thing. It would have almost spoiled it, in a weird way, if I had listened to a lot of records around that.

 

So, you were reading these books in the clusters you wrote about them in? 

I only wrote one entry at a time. I never worked on two entries simultaneously. So, if I was writing about a topic like blackface minstrelsy, then, by golly, for three weeks I was reading books about blackface minstrels like, or rereading them.

The most important thing for me was when I was inside that process of going through the research for an entry. Maybe it’s on books about Duke Ellington [Barry Ulanov’s Duke Ellington, 1946]; maybe it’s on books about or by Woody Guthrie [Bound for Glory, 1943]. I just was trying to come up with a coherent story to tell about how that one book mattered how opinions of the performer changed how views of a topic shifted. 

In a bigger way, it was more about: Why, if you look at it right, is this still interesting? Why is it fascinating to see how Emma Bell Miles [The Spirit of the Mountains, 1905], thinking about American music for Harper’s in 1905, had something going on that made people reissue her work, more than a hundred years later, that had not been put out in between?

E.B. Miles The Spirit of the Mountains (Image: Duke)

But you couldn’t have written all these entries in order they appear in the book, right?

No, I wrote the entries completely in disorder, chronologically. Initially, the book was going to be all entries on single books. At some point, that wasn’t working for me. I wrote an entry on books about Stephen Foster [Morrison Foster’s Biography, Songs and Musical Compositions of Stephen C. Foster, 1906], and was suddenly interested in how some of the earliest books on American music, regardless of category of music, had Stephen Foster at the center, just like, later, they had Charles Ives at the center, because these were figures who were composers or songwriters, who mixed high and low, who could be claimed for different categories of art. And you couldn’t really tell that story through just one book. But there was a story to tell in how what was written about Stephen Foster in the 1860s in Atlantic Monthly is different than what Ken Emerson [Doo-Dah!, 1997] has to say about him in the 1990s. Or what, from a different perspective, Eric Lott has to say about him [in terms of] cultural studies in blackface minstrelsy.

 

I think the book you mention the most often may be Eric Lott’s Love and Theft (1993). When did you first read it?

Probably not too long after it was published, because I had done grad school research on blackface minstrelsy before that. I was already interested in the topic when I was a grad student, fall of 1989. I read microfilm—the Indianapolis Freeman, which was a Black publication with a stage column. Over the course of many years of that weekly column, plus subsequent columns in the New York Age, if I’m remembering correctly, you saw the nature of Black entertainment changing. Those columns were essentially Xeroxed and eventually put into books by the scholars Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff [Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895, 2002]. 

So there I was in a history program at UC Berkeley, having already read some cultural studies in college, knowing there was an explosive story there—whereas Lott was a couple of years later, and a couple of years older than me, made those connections between the kinds of books, like Resistance Through Rituals [ed. Stuart Hall and Troy Jefferson, 1976] and Subculture [by Dick Hebdige, 1979], we’re talking about, and this period of the 1830s to 1850s, when blackface rules American entertainment and America falls apart as a nation. And he sees a very different kind of American music story than the one I had learned about in the rock critics of the Village Voice. It’s not the blackface minstrel story about redeeming the best music from the worst music. It’s a story about finding in that music a notion of culture that’s as complicated as the world. And I love that. 

This book is written at the intersection of the Village Voice music section, and the Pop Conference, that way in which what Eric Lott was doing intersected Village Voice music writing, which is where I came in. One of Eric Lott’s students was Rob Sheffield. One of the biggest hugs I’ve ever seen in my life was when Rob and Eric hugged each other after a Pop Conference day in New York in 2012.

 

You wrote about William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), and you’ve said you were a science-fiction fan before you became a music person. My sense is that in SF circles that book, and cyberpunk generally, represented a break from Boomer orthodoxy that I see mirroring your entrée into college radio.

Once again, it’s also about the insights of cultural studies finding their way into a new category. I mean, “The street finds its own uses for things” is one of the lines that Gibson uses in “Burning Chrome,” he first short story he writes in the cyberpunk vein. That’s essentially [the University of] Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies’ language; I would be shocked if Gibson hadn’t gotten that from reading Dick Hebdige’s book Subculture.

In this book, all I could do is be suggestive and make a lot of arguments. First in the Harlan Ellison entry [Rockabilly, 1961—later retitled Spider Kiss]: it’s Ellison writing a rock and roll novel, but also it’s an entry on science fiction’s relationship to pulp literature as a genre and popular music as a category. Then with the cyberpunk entry [on Neuromancer], and maybe even a little bit later with the Jonathan Lethem entry [Fortress of Solitude, 2003]. What I do throughout the book was suggest correspondences, what Duke Ellington called “tone parallels,” or in cultural studies, they call homologies. How, if you look at the world a certain way, they’ll do this, that, and the other thing.

This book is a loose is an almost decentered way. One of the things that it’s about is why, come the 1980s, everyone is rethinking the Baby Voomer narrative—the narrative of vernacular music as inherently revolutionary and likely to change the world—when the world didn’t change as much as people wanted. In the 1980s, lots of people start to rethink, and that’s cyberpunk, that’s Love and Rockets cartoons [Los Bros. Hernandez’s Music for Mechanics, 1985], that’s RE/Search Publications [V. Vale and Andrea Juno, eds., RE/Search #6/7: Industrial Culture Handbook, 1983]. And not all of them are as thoughtful as the next one, but they’re all part of the same common enterprise: What do we do after the revolution?

William Gibson’s Neuromancer (Image: Amazon)

Do you read music? If not, was it an impediment to understanding the actual songbooks you cover?

Yeah, that’s true. I don’t read. There’s a whole other book to be written about notation. It’s in there in small portions: The John Cage entry [Silence, 1961] is really about notation. But I’m definitely like the character in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), who teaches Hitler studies, but doesn’t speak German. That’s his big shame. I’m not humiliated by it, but I increasingly do accept that it limits some of my perspective. Had I read music, and come at music with that sensibility, there’s a whole other chunk of stuff that would have made it here.

 

Who are some non-writers that have shaped your taste?

I’m not sure that anybody has ever shaped my taste was also not able to write in some fashion.

 

I’m with you, actually. 

Like, I got more out of Wim Wenders’ writing in that book Emotion Pictures—I got more of his sensibility there, as he wrote about loving that way that, in a Hollywood Western of the classic sense, you didn’t just see the first cow go into the river, you saw the last cow leave, and a million other little things like that—I couldn’t have gotten what I got out of the movies without his ability to do that. Like the Cameron Crowe entry [Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1979]: He’s not a great writer, but he has a great perspective that is partly covered by the fact that he writes.

 

What were the fastest and slowest entries to write?

Hmm. It’s a weird book, because I was really ruthless: If something wasn’t working. I just found my way through it. And I never hit writer’s block, and I never slowed down. I just, for some reason, kept the mandate as: Go with what you want to do next; there’s always something else to do.

I am willing to be a little bit of a hack about this stuff: I even have my tributes to the three hacks of music writing inside this book. It’s about, how selfish do you get to be about your writing versus the other things you need to do, like be a good parent, or teach your classes, or millions of things? 

It was a really fortunate, fun project. I don’t think there was really ever a moment where I lost energy, or switched gears. I don’t think I ever felt blocked. There’s entries that, looking back, I’m still not sure I got to the core of. A great example would be books about Bob Dylan. I just think, for some reason, there’s a way in which everyone writes badly about Bob Dylan.

 

The same for Springsteen. 

Yeah, well, I didn’t even try. I just don’t like Bruce Springsteen that much. You could make a total case for an entry on books about Bruce Springsteen, but then I would have had to read books about Bruce Springsteen.

I do take a little bit of a potshot at [Springsteen biographer] Dave Marsh, who I’ve particularly had issues with. It’s very odd what bugs me about Dave Marsh. For most people, it’s his inability to get punk rock in the 1970s: “You’re crazy, slamming of all this great music because it was too weird for you in the [Rolling Stone] Album Guide [1978].” That’s all totally fair. No, I hate Dave Marsh to the extent I hate Dave Marsh because he used his perch in the New York Times Book Review to slam Mary Beth Hamilton’s book on blues collectors [In Search of the Blues, 2008]. And the notion that, because Dave Marsh was personally friendly with John Hammond, that invalidated Mary Beth Hamilton’s take on blues collecting as a subject that needed to be rethought, and his willingness to just cut that down, stuck in my craw. I didn’t write a whole entry making fun of Dave Marsh, but I did write a nasty parenthetical.

 

To go back a bit: Just for the record, who are the three hacks?

[laughs] Can someone write a song for me, “The Three Hacks”? Sigmund Spaeth [Read ’Em and Weep: The Songs You Forgot to Remember, 1927] the tune doctor of the 1920s and 1930s whose ability to get on radio and in movies as the great middlebrow explainer of how to hear classical music inside of pop music and writing all these weird little books—he’s the first hack.

The second hack, and perhaps the greatest of the hacks because he wrote the most, is David Ewen [Men of Popular Music, 1944], who is responsible for my favorite piece of memorabilia collected for this book—[Weisbard takes a small yellow pahphlet from his bookcase]—the Men of Popular Music Armed Forces Edition, carried by soldiers into combat because it would fit in their little lunchboxes. Ewen was essentially a Jewish writer writing from this amazing perspective of America as a place of refuge and tolerance, all great stuff, but it just ultimately becomes someone who writes the same book a thousand times, many of them on Broadway music, and it’s just insufferable.

    The third hack is Arnold Shaw [Honkers and Shouters: The Golden Years of Rhythm and Blues, 1978], who was writing about popular music having been in the publishing world, so he knew about the side of music that was about helping secure the publishing rights to Elvis Presley music, which is a great perspective. But he basically wrote quick, big books that never got to the core of their subjects. Those were the books that when, in the 1980s, I was getting interested in music, were the ones dominating the public library systems, and I was disappointed by one after another of them, but I also loved that he was out there. I’m sure there’s stuff to be gleaned from the interviews he did, in some cases with people who were never interviewed again after he talked to them. His archive is at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

    I love my hacks, don’t get me wrong, but they were hacks. And I’m a bit of one. You know, I’m married to someone who’s kind of a genius writer. And I’m always going to be conscious of the fact that I can’t, in a sentence, do what Ann Powers does in a sentence. 

 

How early did you think this book would go, and was it earlier or later than where it does start?

There was a Pop Conference dinner, and at that dinner was Eric Lott, Greil Marcus [Mystery Train, 1975], Robert Christgau [Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies, 1980] Ann, and RJ Smith. I asked people, well, what’s the first book? And no one had an answer. I think Greil suggested Emma Bell Miles as a starting point. Most of them didn’t really suggest anything. At some point, William Billings [The New-England Psalm-Singer] suggested itself because it was 1770, because Paul Revere did the damn art for his book, because there was just so much going on there. And I was like: That works. That’s my start. 

 

In your Andrew Holleran entry [Dancer from the Dance, 1978], you mention a necessary, and as yet unpublished, “Disco Reader.” What other such imaginary volumes did you think up from all that reading?

Throughout the book, there are places where I say, “This person deserves a collection.” Carl Van Vechten was one of the first white guys writing about Black music as basically the form of popular music that we understand today. That’s a real story that needs collecting. Phyl Garland, who put out the first book by a Black woman on soul music [The Sound of Soul, 1969], needs a second book of all her writing subsequent to 1969. It’s unclear who has her literary rights, but I think that one has more of a chance to come together.

The Sound of Soul by Phyl Garland (Image: Amazon)

I learned about Phyl Garland because all of the Johnson Publications, like Ebony and Jet, are on Google Books, and I utilized them for my book. I cited at least three pieces by her. My favorite stuff I read of hers was in Black Enterprise.

And she had this ability to write from the Johnson Publications perspective of: Let’s promote a vision of Black unity. If one of the offshoots of doing this book is that I either get a book series deal to put out readers and collections of music writing, or other people take it on and do it, that would be no small thing. 

I still think that holding an old book in your hands can really inform you, whether it’s a teeny little Armed Forces Edition of Men of Popular Music, or the mammoth first edition of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History [of Rock, 1976], or one of those RE/Search books. There’s something still about having the object as part of what you scrutinize and work with. But nonetheless, essentially, we’ve been gifted with this access; my hope is that I’m doing at least a little of that here, like when I’m talking about a different way of anthologizing the Beats, so it’s not all Jack Kerouac. But there’s room for a jazz and literary fusion, or trying to kind of talk about these different ways of coming at disco, or soul, or cyberpunk. What I enjoyed doing here is attempting to [offer] some of that access, without being dry and encyclopedic.

 

You said something that stuck in my mind recently, in the Pop Music Books in Process series appearance by Hanif Abdurraqib, about a prospective area you dubbed “YouTube studies”—he had talked about watching every episode of Soul Train from a hard drive he’d traded from another collector. It rang a bell to me as someone who writes about dance-music history through DJ sets, and also it made me think of Jesse Jarnow’s forthcoming history of the unofficial musical archive.

YouTube came along in 2005, and your book’s timeline ends in 2010. By then, YouTube was being felt within book publishing a little bit, but not to the degree it would shortly after that—I’m thinking of Greil Marcus opening The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs (2014) with a “discography” that reads, in full, “Most of the songs mentioned in this book can be found on YouTube.” Now, I don’t think YouTube had anything to do with your cutoff, but I do think that the wide availability of that unofficial archive has unavoidably altered music writing since then. Where else are you seeing this kind of work? Is there, in fact, a “YouTube studies”?

One thing that makes this book and one thing that didn’t: The Will Friedwald entry is all about this YouTube question. He was writing about these jazz and popular music singers, and there’s places in this where he’s basically like, “Go to YouTube. Go find this moment when Jack Teagarden is on the Timex Show with Louis Armstrong doing this song. That’s why God invented YouTube.” It’s something that he would not have been able to do when I was editing him in the 1990s. But in the 2010s, he could, and he because he’s Will Friedwald, he brought in any moment where that made sense to him.

Contrast that with Lenny Kaye’s book on Russ Colombo, [You Call It Madness, 2004], which was published just before YouTube. He makes the biggest deal of watching some footage of Russ Colombo, thanks to a collector friend, and the sound isn’t working, but he can still see it at least and it’s chasing the beast and it’s so magical. And now you can read those pages, go on YouTube, and just watch the damn clips. 

What YouTube has done is changed all of the rules of what we should tell stories about. It used to be that there was the record. You could play it over and over again. You could hear little things in it. And if need be, you could find a friend to help you get access to a record you didn’t have access to. But [for] everything else, you’d need to go to the Museum of Television and Radio to help you hear every Dolly Parton appearance on Johnny Carson. That’s something I did when I was writing Top 40 Democracy (2014). It was work; it was a pain in the ass. And it made that material secondary because you couldn’t spend as long as you wanted with each and every example. You got quick little glimpses of it, and you had to make do.

The book I’m working on now is a little book for a series on music singles: I’m writing about Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.” For years, obviously, everyone could hear the version that was a single backed with “Don’t Be Cruel.” But to watch Elvis Presley on Milton Berle and then watch Elvis Presley on Steve Allen, and realize he recorded the song after the Milton Berle appearance and the Steve Allen appearance, and then watch him after he’s recorded it, back on Ed Sullivan—finally, doing it in different ways than the first appearance and the second appearance—that’s not incidental. That’s the Elvis Presley that hundreds of millions of people encountered. 

What’s changed is, I can slow down those appearances. I can watch those appearances the way I used to concentrate on a record; I can capture exactly how many seconds Elvis Presley is doing the bump-and-grind section after “Hound Dog” is, by all rights, over as a TV performance on that first Milton Berle [appearance], and see the camera cut to the girls. All that stuff becomes the equivalent of what listening to a record used to be—something that I can dissect. And I think that is enormously different.

 

I will say, a lot of that footage was available on DVD long before there was a YouTube.

You’re right to bring that up. But what’s changed is, when you want to track a story now, you can track it instantly. To go from Berle to Allen to Ed Sullivan, it’s possible that with Elvis, in particular, those three things could have been, thanks to Graceland, available on DVDs, but to essentially recreate the trail of pop culture [is far easier].

One of one of my figures in this book, Charles Hamm [Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, 1979], was a musicologist who loved to write about songs. He was also one of the first people doing popular music studies. One of his key articles says: We have this completely misguided notion of what pop charts are, because we value records that sold a lot of copies and we’re played on the radio. That’s a real thing, he’s not denying it. But, he says, we give almost no consideration to how many times a performer was on a big Johnny Carson-type show, doing their music that way, how many times a song was used in a commercial—these other ways of how to register with a mass audience coexisted with this one measurable category of the hit record. I think YouTube has started to address that.

 

VIDEO: Carl Wilson, Ann Powers and Eric Weisbard discuss Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music 

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Michaelangelo Matos

Michaelangelo Matos is the author of Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year (Hachette, 2020). He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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