Love for Sale: Pop Music in America

Love for Sale: Pop Music in America



The Pequod Review:

David Hajdu's Love for Sale is a short but observant review of American popular music over time, from 1920s vaudeville and blues to 1960s rock 'n' roll through to the modern era of music videos, hip hop and EDM. Some of the best sections of his book explore how the format of recorded music delivery changed the music itself:

The Beatles, I learned, had the same conception of songs as records that many children of the vinyl era have no doubt shared. "The boys got their musical education through the records they listened to in Liverpool," their producer George Martin said in an interview I did with him in the early 1980s. "They were always thinking in terms of records. Would the song fit on a single? Would it sound good on a 45 rpm record?" When Martin was supervising the production of "Paperback Writer," the Beatles single from the summer of 1966, he and the engineer Geoff Emerick mastered the record specifically so it would play as loud as a 45 rpm single could play without making the turntable needle fly off the grooves.

The fact that the full-length album became a recognized form of art was a new development with far-reaching effects:

A recording format called the album got people thinking of the old music on recordings in new terms, as pieces in a portfolio of treasurable mementos, and a common repertoire of durable, adaptable songs — most of them originally written for the stage or the movies, others from Tin Pan Alley — began to take form. With men such as Sinatra now singing greater numbers of theater songs written originally for women, and with women such as Fitzgerald singing more show tunes composed for men, both the songs and their singers seemed to deepen and to expand in emotional range. 


By 1968, LPs were outselling single records for the first time, and the album format would be central to the way musicians, listeners, marketers, and most others would think about popular music until the invention of the MP3 and the rise of digital downloading in the twenty-first century. The LP, originally designed so that a full movement of a Berlioz symphony would fit on one side of a record, allowed for twenty to twenty-five minutes of music to play without the listener having to futz with the playing equipment. Because it was a nuisance to lift the tonearm and drop it again at precisely the right spot between bands on a spinning record, listening for twenty or so minutes straight became a near imperative. For the first time since songs became popular as mass-marketable products, through sheet music in the late nineteenth century, the form that popular music took changed substantively. Musicians and their audiences were now conceiving of and experiencing a work of popular music not as a three-minute thing but as a forty-minute thing — or a pair of twenty-minute things.

The way LPs were packaged made the album a physically appealing object. The cover was called a dust jacket, suggesting that it was both protective and an article of finery. At slightly more than twelve inches by twelve inches, the jacket was larger than the cover of a hardcover book and even larger than an eight-by-ten framed photograph. Looking over an album in the store to decide whether or not to buy it, you would hold it in two hands, and it would hold your attention. The size of the jacket allowed the creation of some ambitious, often beautiful, or, at the very least, complicated cover art: the graveyard dream collage of the Beatles, surrounded by cryptic symbols on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; the 3-D penis, dressed to the right, behind the pull-able zipper Andy Warhol designed for the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers; the song run-down in comix panels by Robert Crumb on Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills... Song lyrics could be printed on the inner sleeve that held the album itself, and if the package was a gatefold, more art and information or writing could be included. The printing of the words implied that the lyrics were worth printing, prodding songwriters to write for the eye as well as the ear. There was space for liner notes of half-decent length, and record companies took to commissioning writing on the subject of the record's artist by the likes of Bob Dylan (who wrote long prose poems for several albums by his friends in the early 1960s); Langston Hughes (for Joan Baez 5); Igor Stravinsky (for his own Firebird); and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) for John Coltrane's Live at Birdland. The multidimensional, tangibly gratifying entirety of the package reinforced the value of the music in the record grooves and, sometimes, provided enough of its own value to make up for not-so-great music.

Rock and pop artists grew to treat the album as a creative form rather than a way to re-merchandise a batch of singles. Singers and songwriters who came up through the folk craze, such as Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, and Simon and Garfunkel, were early among artists of the rock generation to do this, having occupied a sphere where some of the best-known albums — Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads, and Johnny Cash's Songs of Our Soil -- were unified by theme. Each of Bob Dylan's albums had integrity as a whole and presented his latest mode of thinking as a package — social and political consciousness on The Times They Are A-Changin', personal reflection on Another Side of Bob Dylan.