Review: “Music: A Subversive History”

A nicely framed history of music is readable, interesting, and enlightening

Ted Gioia’s 2019 book, “Music: A Subversive History,” is a readable and well-framed overview of the history of music, with the focus being on the repeated and ongoing subversive nature of music, which both unsettles and advances society. And while some quibble with the approach or some of the scope, I found the book consistently interesting, informative, and consonant with modern and within-memory history.

Gioia’s framing is simple and elegant:

  • Music is a powerful and subversive cultural force
  • It appears in all settings in which power is either on display (military music, pageantry, religion), generated organically (love, sex, joy), or under threat (protests, revolutions)
    • It is variably centered around sex and violence, even if these are suppressed elements in the final expression
      • Female sexuality as a source of power or danger through music has a particularly troubled history, as male power marginalizes it
  • Music innovation comes from the edges — usually via oppressed elements of society — and is gradually legitimized and appropriated by the overall culture over a period of 35-50 years, at which point the dominant culture has been changed by the subversive element

Covering the emergence of music across multiple historical periods with a thoroughness that does not impede readability, Gioia is a great storyteller — and the stories are meaningful and cumulative. That is, as you go, the next time you encounter familiar music entering from stage left and being dismissed by the status quo, you not only learn the particulars of that instance but know what will happen in a few decades — in short, that illicit, subversive music will become the music embraced and elevated by society at large.

Separating the stories about musicians from the facts about them becomes difficult as a result of the cultural assimilation, which demands some sanitization. After all, Bach must be seen as a wise and dignified musical genius and not as a randy upstart seeking to throw musical dust in the eyes of his contemporaries.

Through this lens of music’s subversive power, Gioia also seems able to recognize more musical eruptions and embellishments that were introduced to upset the apple cart but which became normalized as their power and success proved irresistible — and, as the powerful learned to utilize them to their own ends.

It all culminates in the 20th century, with a fascinating few chapters about how outsiders again and again introduced musical forms we now don’t think twice about — jazz, blues, bossa nova, rock, hip-hop, rap, and more. From Elvis to the Beatles, the path from outside to inside recurs again and again. Gioia’s observations about the Beatles as the first major band to be too chameleon-like to be reliably imitated are striking — their creative unpredictability preserved openings for many other outsiders at a time when a single dominant act might have stultified rock music in the cradle. The section about Country music as pastoral music designed to reinforce traditions and point back to pastoral life, even in urban areas, also resonates, as does its gradual absorption of rap and hip-hop elements as it became more urban in nature.

It all makes sense in the framing.

If you like music and want a readable, interesting history that will deliver plenty of nice insights, this might be for you.