I take it as a compliment when people say my writing about music makes them interested in hearing the work I have described. The comment may not always be intended as a compliment. It may well be meant to say that the words on the page fall short in evoking the full character of an elementally aural art. Still, I’ll take my compliments where I can get them.
My new book, Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, is my fourth for FSG since 1996, and I think of it as the culmination of my professional life as a critic, student, and occasional maker of music. In a pre-pub review for the website Shelf Awareness, writer Kate Noah Gibson concluded, “Hajdu’s narrative will have music fans of all tastes and ages humming the nostalgic tunes of their youth, or scrolling through the latest music delivery service in search of the songs they once treasured.” To make that hunt a little easier, I’ve put together a playlist of some of the songs I discuss in the book.
“I’m From New Jersey” (Red Mascara)
Love for Sale is a personal history of pop with a hybrid design founded on the fact that popular music is an art of mass culture that speaks to each individual in idiosyncratic ways. I draw upon my own experience with pop in the book, beginning with a childhood encounter with a songwriter from my hometown named Red Mascara. He wrote an insidiously catchy, insufferably corny song called “I’m From New Jersey,” for which he spent decades trying to make the official state song. Mascara died just a few weeks after I finished writing the book manuscript.
“After the Ball” (Charles K. Harris)
There were million-selling hits in the United States before the invention of sound recording—tunes designed for families to sing and play around their parlor pianos in the Victorian age. The first monster smash of the sheet-music age was this strange, incestuously tinged lament of lost love written by commercial tunesmith Charles K. Harris in 1892. Harris himself sings it in this short film made not long before he died in 1930.
“I Don’t Care” (Eva Tanguay / Mitzi Gaynor)
The pop world has always functioned as a laboratory for experimentation with new modes of thought and behavior—ways for young people to assert their generational identity and challenge the values of their parents. Around the turn of the twentieth century, vaudeville star Eva Tanguay defied all the restrictions of Victorian womanhood in her signature song, “I Don’t Care.” In this film clip, Mitzi Gaynor reinterprets Tanguay as an emblem of mid-century Hollywood expressionism in a stylized and fictionalized movie biography.
“Single Girl, Married Girl” (The Carter Family / Petra Haden)
Much as Eva Tanguay did in vaudeville, the Carter Family—a trio featuring two women and one man related by a tenuous marriage—challenged the primacy of matrimony as a social ideal for the rural Southern audience. Contemporary singer and multi-instrumentalist Petra Haden delivers the Carters’ proto-feminist hit “Single Girl, Married Girl” in a concert dedicated to the “Harry Smith Collection” of recordings that reintroduced the song in the early days of the postwar folk craze.
“Stormy Weather” (Lena Horne)
When I was an undergraduate at NYU, Ralph Ellison was teaching at the school, and I sought him out in his office. He told me to study the Cotton Club, where African-American singers, musicians, and dancers propagated a stylized conception of blackness for white consumption. Among the songs written for the Cotton Club was “Stormy Weather,” originally sung by Ethel Waters as a cry of heartbreak. Lena Horne, a Cotton Club dancer in her teens, later took up the song and thought of it in broader terms as a message of black discontent under white oppression.
“I’ll Never Smile Again” (Ruth Lowe; performed by the Pied Pipers, Jo Stafford, and Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra)
The first number-one song on the first Billboard chart was a mournful ballad by the composer and lyricist Ruth Lowe, inspired by the death of her husband not long after the couple was wed. It was performed by Tommy Dorsey’s vocal quartet, the Pied Pipers, with a lead vocal by the rising young talent Frank Sinatra, whose singing style was so lovely, delicate, and gentle that it was criticized as subversively unmanly.
“Ida Red” (Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys)
In pop music, hybridization is hardly a twenty-first-century phenomenon, as we can see in this specimen of Western swing music from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in 1951. It’s country and Western and jazz and pop. It inspired Chuck Berry to write his first hit, “Maybelline” (originally titled “Ida May”), and its tommy-gun chanted lyrics sound today like harbingers of rap.
“Sunny Afternoon” (The Kinks)
Until the 1960s, single records were the currency of teenage life, and long-playing albums were geared for grown-ups. Among the first rock albums to be conceived as an integrated whole, establishing the album as a long-form art for the post–Elvis era, was the Kinks’ Face to Face. Released in October 1966 (almost exactly fifty years before the pub date of my book), it was a collection of story songs about everyday life, composed by the band’s chief songwriter, Ray Davies. The single, “Sunny Afternoon,” became a Top 40 hit in America (number one in the United Kingdom).
“I Feel Love” (Donna Summer)
When Blondie dared to perform this Donna Summer hit as CBGB’s, the attitudinal war between punk and disco reached a flash point. The Summer record, made entirely with synthesizers and no traditional instruments (under the supervision of Giorgio Moroder), so impressed composer-producer Brian Eno that he proclaimed it to be the sound of pop’s future. The rise of electronic dance music in subsequent years proved Summer, Moroder, and Blondie to be prescient.
“The Message” (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five)
When I first heard hip-hop, on cassette mixtapes that a girlfriend of mine got from a friend of hers who lived in the same NYU dorm as Rick Rubin, I was enraptured but disoriented. With “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the full power of hip-hop as a dramatic form became clear. I began to see what Chuck D would mean when he described hip-hop as the CNN of the street.
“Cheap Thrills” (Sia)
When I was writing the last chapter of Love for Sale, my youngest child, Nate, was twelve years old, the same age I was when I met Red Mascara, the composer of “I’m From New Jersey.” Nate is already as ardent a pop fan as I would ever be. Among the songs on his current playlist is this hit by Sia with the enduring theme of pleasures that transcend commerce. It’s a notion to be found in songs from Eva Tanguay’s “What Money Can’t Buy” to the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love”—a proposition of considerable irony in one of American culture’s most commercial arts. In pop, love is always for sale as a celebration of things that cannot be bought or sold.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The Nation and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of three books of narrative nonfiction and one collection of essays: Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn; Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña; The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America; and Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture. He lives in Manhattan.