'Love For Sale': A History Of Pop Music That's As Personal As It Gets
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Lots of us mark our lives with popular songs - what we were listening to the summer of a first crush, the night of a prom, the morning of a day in which some unforeseen event will change our lives.
David Hajdu, music critic of The Nation magazine and a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, has a history of pop music that's as personal as the one that each of us has in our own life. David Hajdu joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
DAVID HAJDU: Oh, thanks for having me.
SIMON: You don't find that term pop music very useful though.
HAJDU: (Laughter) No, I don't because it doesn't really tell you anything about the music apart from the fact that it's popular. It doesn't tell you what it sounds like, what style of it is, how you should use it, should you be listening to it seriously or dancing to it. So I find it a vexing term...
SIMON: Is "Yesterday" the quintessential pop song? You write about it at length.
HAJDU: Yeah. Well, according to "The Guinness Book Of World Records," it qualifies as the most popular song of all time, meaning it has been recorded more often than any other song and broadcast more often than any other song. People have used it as the first dance at their wedding, which is a little strange since it's about, you know...
HAJDU: You know, it's really about - it's a pretty sad song.
SIMON: It's about a lost love, not a wedding, yeah.
HAJDU: It's a - right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YESTERDAY")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they're here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday. Suddenly...
SIMON: One of my favorite sections in the book is about cowboy music. And as you describe it, it had probably little to do with any real riding, roping cowboys.
SIMON: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, they were movie stars.
HAJDU: (Laughter) Right. At one point early in my life as a music writer, I interviewed Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson for the Hollywood Reporter, and I interviewed them backstage at a performance.
And being a young writer, I asked them sort of boilerplate questions. Who were the artists most important to you when you started? And I was expecting to hear about Jimmie Rodgers, say, or the Carter Family, you know, the seminal pioneers of country music. And all three of them said Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN")
GENE AUTRY: (Singing) I'm back in the saddle again out where a friend is a friend.
HAJDU: When Gene Autry played the guitar, a million kids saw him, and the next day, they all went out and bought a guitar. And that was eye-opening to me because I think of the rise of the guitar as an outgrowth of the folk boom and, maybe before that, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
But I didn't realize that Gene Autry made dozens of movies that reached tens of millions of kids. They were among the pop - most popular stars of their day, and they made a kind of music that adults looked down on and it spoke to kids. And the popular music tends to always have that quality.
SIMON: Yeah. And let me ask you about Bob Dylan. We speak in a week in which he won the Nobel Prize for literature. You write a lot in here about Bob Dylan and his contribution to the popular song.
HAJDU: We hear in Dylan's music everything that popular music was at one point or another. We hear the blues. We hear gospel music. We hear country music. He was revolutionary, of course - and this is so obvious now that it's almost a trope - for bringing a kind of overt poeticism to popular music. Joni Mitchell talked about hearing the song "Positively 4th Street" and saying, oh, I see. Now we can write about anything. And the unfortunate...
SIMON: Give us a Dylan song.
HAJDU: Sure. "Like A Rolling Stone."
(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN'S SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")
HAJDU: It's extraordinary for being poetic, elusive and yet still sort of gets us in the gut.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Once upon a time you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
HAJDU: And the song brings us into that sweet spot where the listener is sort of struggling to find the meaning in something - also has a great beat.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A ROLLING STONE")
DYLAN: (Singing) How does it feel? How does it feel?
SIMON: My ringtone is "Firework" by Katy Perry.
HAJDU: (Laughter) How did that happen?
SIMON: My daughters. And I'll think of that song when I think of them. And that's how pop music works, isn't it?
HAJDU: Yeah. I have a 13-year-old son, too. He blares his music in the shower and in his room. And I walk by and I find myself feeling like my dad and it both drives me crazy...
HAJDU: ..And then I thought that's exactly what the music is supposed to do.
SIMON: David Hajdu - his book, "Love For Sale: Pop Music In America" - thanks so much for being with us.
HAJDU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.