A history of 20th Century Popular Music

by Piero Scaruffi
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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

A preface to all histories

All histories are interesting, but the history of popular music is particularly interesting. The 20th century witnessed the rise of a new form of art that is still frantically evolving and far from stabilizing.

Four factors were instrumental in bringing this about. The first one was the rise of a new cultural power, the USA, that was largely indifferent to the cultural dogmas of the European culture. The USA adopted the European culture, but then introduced all sorts of "barbaric" variations on that culture. It is not surprising that it was in the USA that popular music underwent a rapid and dramatic change.

The second factor was capitalism, which prospered particularly in the USA. Capitalism had always existed, since ancient Sumerian times, but it was in the USA that it wed populism and it reached its ultimate scope: consumerism. American capitalism targeted the middle class, the ordinary family, the individual, and, eventually, even the non-working young individual. It was in the USA that capitalists understood that there was money to be made not in selling expensive goods/services to wealthy people for a hefty profit but in selling cheap goods/services to poor people for a meager profit: quantity matters. If you make a cent per item but sell millions of items, you made millions. Thus the USA introduced scheduled ships to Britain at a price affordable for middle-class families, and it introduced newspapers that targeted the ordinary urban citizen at a price that the ordinary urban citizen could afford. Entertainment was one the most obvious fields of application for this theory. Music publishing became a big industry and helped define popular music as a separate business (if not art).

The third factor was the record. Before the invention of the record the vast majority of "composers" of popular music did not know how to write music. Therefore popular music could spread only orally, which greatly limited its geographic area and duration over time. When the record was invented, suddenly popular music could be spread without any need to write it down. It took a while to understand the power of the new invention (and to get rid of the cumbersome cylinder), but eventually the industry started recording just about anything, not only the music that was already published by the publishing companies. One of the consequences, for example, was to deliver the first recordings of blues and country music, and thus help popularize them outside their area of origin.

The fourth factor to decisively shape 20th century popular music was the "youth culture". It is not easy to pinpoint the exact decade in which the American youth became a major factor. It is likely that young people were already among the main consumers of the dance crazes of the 1920s, although they were officially limited to expensive clubs that did not admit teenagers anyway. There may have been countless places where young people were able to play those dances outside the clubs that popularized them. For sure the youth of the USA was the main factor behind the extraordinary success of Benny Goodman's concert in Los Angeles of august 1935. The people who went crazy over swing music were mostly teenagers. There was a new segment of the market that was made of non-working young people who got money from their parents to spend on entertainment. That market segment became a social class distinct from the others, with its own features, rules and needs. It helped establish the vogue of the romantic singers after World War II (Frank Sinatra and the likes) and eventually erupted in 1955 when Elvis Presley's phenomenon basically brought all the threads together: the USA culture, capitalism for the masses, the record and the youth culture. The youth culture remained dormant for a while, but it was growing through its less publicized aspects of rebellion against the "American way of life". The Vietnam war and the civil-rights movement ignited the explosion of the youth culture as a major sociopolitical phenomenon. At that point popular music also acquired an ideological identity, well beyond its humble origins of entertainment for the masses. It became an international koine.


History of Pop music
History of Blues music
History of Rhythm'n'Blues
History of Soul music
History of Country music
History of the Musical
History of Film Music
History of Avantgarde Music
History of Jazz Music
History of Rock Music
History of Latin-American music
History of modern African music
History of modern Indian music
History of Jamaican music
History of Hip-hop music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

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