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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Social History of Music

  Discussion is drawn from A Social History of Music: From the Middle Ages to Beethoven by Henry Raynor.

   If you want to talk about the "history of music" you are  basically talking about "biographies of composers" or, if you want to consider the 20th century, "biographies of musicians."  If you want to pull in the most recent output of those who write and read music hisof tory, you could add the "ologization" of music history, where historical subjects are analyzed using non or quasi historical discourses (sociology and anthropology, for example.)

  However, I would argue that if you go back to the "biographies of composers" era, another route of analysis exists, namely looking at the environment and human relationships of "famous musicians."  This is quite easy to do using the techniques of social history, and it's a wonder that it is such a neglected era of inquiry- almost... not interesting to contemporary intellectuals.  I honestly have no idea what Music Professors are doing these days, but they are not writing social histories of music. Also not writing social histories of music: history professors.

  In fact, the only comprehensive Social History of Music that I have found is the one by Henry Raynor circa 1978.  That is a generation ago.  And it's not a popular book, either.  I read A Social History of Music back in January and at the time I thought, "there has to be something more recent."  BUT- I don't believe there is.  And Raynor does a really, really good job of laying out the terrain is his introductory essay, which I am about to quote at length.

        Raynor's approach has only one methodological flaw, and unfortunately, it's a whopper.  Specifically he is a victim of "Bacon's Fallacy" which is the idea that the investgating intellectual must collect all the facts "as he finds them."  I.E. there is a pretense of objectivity in the collection of factual information.  Despite the flaw, the Introduction is a ready introduction to a Social Historian perspective on Music.  Raynor notes that "music history" consists of two main themes: biographies of composers, story of music styles and their development.  From this perspective (the non-Social Historian of Music) the purpose of Music History is to appraise specific Artists and approve their output as being significant.  Raynor does not dismiss this approach as irrelevant, in fact, he thoughtfully observes:

  "The mutability of stylicistic history does not invalidate what it has to say. A history of historians of music..would demonstrate quite clearly the function of historians as historians of taste."

   Obbiously though, Social History takes a different approach in that is starts from the premise that music exists socially:

"It is written down so that people  other than its composer can play it.  The bulk of it presupposes the creative and interpreative efforts of two, three or up to a hundred performers.  Most music presupposes the attention of the audience."
     A neglected area of Music History is the attitude of notable Artists towards their Audience (What Mozart, Beethoven and Bach thought about the people who listened to their music) and the views of the Audience itself.  A critical shift in this regard is the growth of the University in the 18th and 19th century, which led Artists, Audiences and Intellectuals to be much more detailed about their views regarding music.  This shift reached it's apogee with the "neglected genius' Schopenauer, whose legendary contempt for the Audience was a watershed moment for Artist/Audience relationships- not to mention Intellectual ideas about that relationship.

    As for an explanation for WHY the social history of music is neglected, Raynor has a clear villain:

 "nineteenth century conceptions of art as pure activity, occupying only the higher strata as those which reckon up the bills and consider the possibility of paying them, that we do not consider the Artist's relationship to the musical world in which he performance and publication."
        I would say nothing has changed in that regard 30 years later- that quotation is still perfectly true when it comes to intellectuals and their ideas about music.

Monday, March 14, 2011


HERO SLAY SERPENT.  Hero slays serpent is a mythic formula that resonates in multiple countries.




Sunday, March 13, 2011

Be My Baby: The Ronnie Spector Story


Be My Baby:  How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts & Madness, or my Life As A Fabulous Ronette.
by Ronnie Spector
w/ Vince Waldron
Introduction by Billy Joel
Foreword by Cher
p. 1990

   I think it's worth throwing out there the idea that the "Phil Spector story" is the primary narrative in the story of popular music in the 20th century.  First of all, Spector encompassed a large swath of the actual history of popular music in the 20th century:  He has equally interesting chapters dealing with the pre-rock Brill Building songwriters/music industry,  had huge hits DURING the rocknroll era (1953-1963),  recorded a Beatles record and ended up becoming a tabloid specatacle.  What more can you ask for?  And like any good mythic figure, you can look at the story from multipe perspectives.  I prefer to see Spector as a Pre-Christian god:  Remote, Foreboding, Violent Tempered and quite monstrous at times.  Not a god I would choose to worship, but embodying the kind of mythic characteristics that one associates with gods and god-like figures.

      Knowing that Spector is currently serving a life sentence for murder makes the story all the more mythic.  My thought though is that if you were to do say, a film, about Phil Spector, the main setting would be the mansion where he kept Ronnie Spector nee Bennett locked up for a decade or two.  And who better to give a perspective on that location then Ronnie herself?  At least, that seems to be the thesis behind Be My Baby, the clumsily subtitled (How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts & Madness, or my Life As A Fabulous Ronette) "auto"-biography from Certified Rock and Roll Survivor Ronnie Spector.

      This is book is fascinating because Spector is the Queen to Spector's King- quite self-consciously, I think.  I mean, she kept the last name, through it all.  I totally understand, but Spector's lack of agency is the headline in Be My Baby.  Truly, she was manipulated from the start by a master manipulator.   In my view the key to understand the Phil Spector/Ronnie Spector relationship is 1) Phil Spector hated his mother:  His father committed suicide when he was very young, and it's not hard to imagine that he blamed his Mother, who was also very pushy and bossy well into his adulthood.  2)  Ronnie Bennett wanted to be famous, and she believed that Phil Spector could help her achieve that goal.

    The smell of race and money permeates Be My Baby.  Spector places emphasis on her upbringing in a single-parent household, and her status as a mixed race child in a majority African American environment. Spector was working towards a career as a singer of popular music, but Phil Spector was the first person to really "get" the potential of Ronnie Bennett's voice/style.  To give but one of several examples, an early Brilll Building affiliated writer/agent said that the early Ronettes could be like the Andrews Sisters.  That guy... was just clueless.  The Phil Spector/Ronnie Bennett story has some similarities to the Barry Gordy/Diana Ross story.  In both instances, the male producer was LOOKING for something specific, and was operating in an environment where there was competition among aspiring musicians for music industry attention.
       The Bennett/Ross figure is DRAWN to the male figure by his POWER.  On the other hand, the Spector/Gordy figure is drawn to the physical characteristics of the Bennett/Ross.  In one sense that is "OK"(Spector said to Bennett after hearing her sing "that's the voice I'm looking for.") and in another sense it is creepy and weighted with power inequalities and sexual exploitation.  Shrug.  That's life, or at least- it was back then, because the same facts repeat themselves over and over again with female popular music artists.

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