David Hadju’s “Love for Sale” : Do we really choose our own music?

Reading up on popular music

A few weeks ago the book Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year, came out. Until then, I did not know that 1984 was pop’s blockbuster year. All I know is that in 1984, I was 17. So naturally, I listened to it all.

Add a couple of years, and I would have been in college and would have discovered “college rock” and a lot of bands you just didn’t hear much in my hometown. So I really have no clue about any popular music that happened in the late 80’s, and honestly, I still don’t care.

I like music. I grew up Baptist in a church that promoted music pretty well, so they were teaching us to read music AT CHURCH when I was in elementary school. I kid you not. I also took piano for a couple of years and played flute and oboe in the band throughout high school, so I can read music and still very occasionally pick up the flute to accompany my daughter on the piano.

The poor little only child had a mother (myself) who was a real stickler for practicing and was unfortunately located a very short bike ride from the best piano teacher in town (who was also the church pianist…those Baptists), so she took piano lessons for 7+ years and actually got pretty good. She plays to relax, and I enjoy that too.

But when it comes to popular music, I would say I’m a medium low aficionado, and it gets lower as I get older and become more and more fixated on books. So yes, sometimes I feel motivated to READ about music more than I feel motivated to listen to music. That’s just who I am.

Music is not something that is generally easy to read about, however, although having a music service subscription does make it much easier because you can take a moment to listen to unfamiliar songs. But that can also be time consuming.

In my experience, most music writers either focus too much on the singers…so that the writing sounds like a fan gushing…or they get too technical for my taste. I also suppose not that many serious music writers write for “medium low” aficandos either, also that doesn’t make sense to me because doing so would expand their audience.

But I digress.

If you are like me and are waiting for Can’t Slow Down to hit your local library, try reading Love For Sale: Pop Music in America by David Hadju in the meantime.

I found this book featured in after-words, a little hole-in-the-wall indie in Chicago, and it is an excellent pick.

Instead of focusing on music, Love For Sale focuses on the different genres that composed popular music from the days of “Tin Pan Alley” in the United States, until now. But the particular lens Hadju uses is the way the music was commodified, or bought and sold, and how it affected the way music was promoted and packaged…and even what music was popular.

For example, in “Tin Pan Alley”, the music was designed to be sold as sheet music for people to play at home, usually by amateur musicians. So I suppose the music had to be fun to play and sing too. Later, really “big” voices sounded the best on early records, so singers who could fill a room were successful, but better recording technology and amplicfication in performance made these singers passé, and performers, such as Bing Crosby, with “smaller” voices became popular.

So the focus of this book is divided between music itself, producers and performers, and the products through which music was sold and performed…we have music halls and music videos, sheet music and MP3 files.

There is also some attention to the differences between how music is marketed to children/teenagers and adults.

At my age, I can remember 45’s and owned a few. In high school and college, I owned music on cassette tapes and watched MTV when “it was still about music”. As a young adult, I began my CD collection, and of course now I mostly use music services and Sirius/XM.

Love for Sale is about something abstract is turned into a product that we all encounter, whether we want to or not, everyday.


Musical Commodities

Hadju traces music as a product from the sheet music of “Tin Pan Alley”, into records, through tape, MTV (it used to only play music), and MP3’s.

In the mid 20th century, many bars and restaurants featured “jukeboxes”. You could put in a coin and play the song of your choice (from the directory on front of the jukebox). The record was literally in the jukebox, and mechanism dropped it onto the player.

Music-Box "Rock-Ola" für 60 Single-Schallplatten, um 1960 . 3 April 2007 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Music-Box_%22Rock-Ola%22_f%C3%BCr_60_Single-Schallplatten,_um_1960.jpg

Music-Box “Rock-Ola” für 60 Single-Schallplatten, um 1960. 3 April 2007


More Readable Books about Music You Love

I love music, but not in the way I love books. Even though I can read music (unlike many younger people who can probably play their instruments and sing circles around me), I find many books about music difficult to read because they are too dense and hard to understand without constantly stopping to listen. With modern music services, at least that is possible now, but still, it’s slow going for a reader.

If you can get a copy of Can’t Slow Down (the book, not the classic Lionel Richie CD), let me know. It’s new, and none of my libraries have a copy yet.

While you’re waiting, read or watch the classic music nerd boy High Fidelty by Nick Hornby.

If you really want to go deep, read Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia, which after-words cleverly promoted with Love for Sale.

Personal Collection, after-words bookstore, Chicago, IL, November, 2020

Personal Collection, after-words bookstore, Chicago, IL, November, 2020

More by David Hadju

Hadju wrote such an engaging book about pop music, imagine what he’s probably done for comic books.

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