New book celebrates subversive music throughout history

Music: A Subversive HistoryIn Music: A Subversive History, Ted Gioia makes the case that music has challenged cultural norms throughout the ages. This constant reinvention not only helps music flower artistically but facilitates cultural change. What frightens the establishment in one generation gets embraced (and often co-opted) by the establishment a generation or more later. Gioia calls this force “creative destruction.” Music helps tear down walls, liberating society from arbitrary codes designed to control behavior. Tracing this pattern through four thousand years of history, Gioia shows how the force of change usually originates in outsiders and marginalized groups. I like the description from the dust jacket: “Music is essential reading for anyone interested in the hidden sources of music’s timeless power, from Sappho to the Sex Pistols to Spotify.”

I absolutely loved reading this book. Of course, Gioia recounts the stories behind the usual suspects more familiar to contemporary audiences. He explains how ragtime, the blues, jazz, rock-and-roll, rock, and rap overcame their dangerous labels to conquer the world. But he also looks at music in ancient societies, music in the early Christian church, and historical developments such as the rise of troubadors. Gioia shows how surviving accounts from the distant past often distorted major breakthroughs because they were deemed to be too shameful or dangerous. He details developments in other cultures such as China, and examines the subversive tendencies in classical composers from Bach to Liszt. Time and again, we see how music becomes a change agent in human affairs.

Gioia tantalizes with plenty of little known tidbits. The Greek aulos—a wind instrument that probably sounded like an oboe but is often translated as “flute”—filled Aristotle with disgust. “…not an instrument which is expressive of moral character,” Aristotle warned in the Politics. Likewise, Socrates thought the aulos appropriate only for drunkards, because its sound dissipated the spirit. This theme concerning the dangerous and subversive qualities of certain instruments and certain kinds of music haunts the history of music around the world. Gioia’s great achievement here lies not just in tabulating all of this history, but in explaining how attitudes changed to embrace what people once considered a threat to civilization.

A Song about Subversive Music

Some years back I wrote a song about this recurring pattern, titled “Dangerous Music” (from the album Tales from the Underground Bazaar, available at iTunes, Spotify, etc.). After four thousand years, you would think people would have learned the futility of suppressing certain music. Civilization continues to survive, and the music thrives. Read Gioia’s Music and find out more about the subversive history of music.

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