The Popular Song: America’s Greatest Cultural Achievement

As beloved as it is, I don’t believe the popular song enjoys the cultural status it deserves. Perhaps that’s because the popular song is not an elite institution. But neither is the democracy that produced it.

The song instinct is as old as humanity. But, just as it took technology and a particular civilization to go from the mud hut to the Great Pyramids, it took technology and a particular civilization to go from war whoops to Stardust.

All the necessary preconditions for the emergence of the popular song came together in America. Many cultures from around the world gathered here, some voluntarily, some enslaved. They all brought their folk music traditions. Those traditions evolved in the new continent.

Africans picked up guitars. Appalachians made new noises on the violin and rechristened it the fiddle. Blacks moved to northern cities and white kids in the south heard gospel pouring out of black churches. They didn’t have to like one another to love and imitate their music.

Mixing and hybrids ensued. Jazz was born on the multiracial streets of New Orleans. An American genius named Thomas Edison invented a way to preserve that music for all time. It was called the recording and it opened up a world of possibility.

We are living in that world. From Tin Pan Alley to Sun Studios in Memphis, from Broadway to Hollywood, music poured in torrents of brilliant creativity. America was to the popular song what Plutonium was to the Atomic Bomb. Critical mass was achieved here. And the fallout was Blues, Jazz, Swing, Crooners, Rock and Roll, Soul, Motown, Grunge and Hip Hop. And still they mix and meld, only now it happens all over the world.

How personal is the popular song? Well, just about every couple has one. “Listen honey, they’re playing our song!” Our song.

When a Rembrandt exhibition comes to the local museum, you might be excited to go see it. Surely you’d take your significant other along, it could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the great master.

But you wouldn’t say, “Look honey, they’re showing our painting!”

All great art can touch us. But the song can do something else entirely, we can touch it. We may not have the recording, and records in any form are becoming archaic, but we don’t need a physical copy of a song to own it.

The popular song is personal in a way the other arts simply cannot be. Painted art can inspire awe, reverence, shock, deep satisfaction. Architecture is grand, enduring, evocative of a time and place. Literature is deep, emotional, intellectual and challenging. Poetry expresses the senses and the soul, the psychic resonance of words strung together almost musically. Almost.

But what other art can make your eyes water, your hips sway, your legs leap, your heart pound and your lungs shout, all at the same time? Who holds up their phones, flashlight app on, swinging the joyous light from side to side at a ribbon cutting for a skyscraper, or, for that matter, a Beethoven concert?

It is not my intention to denigrate those amazing examples of human creativity. They are undeniably glorious. But, I assert, none of them can have the lifelong, powerfully personal, deeply intimate effect that the popular song can, at its best.

One can have a favorite painting, or building, or novel, or sculpture. But one never thinks of that work of art as theirs.

But a song, oh yes. Hey, that’s my song! You didn’t write it, you didn’t sing it (okay, maybe in the shower) you didn’t produce it. But it is nonetheless yours.

Only in popular music can we have “the voice of a generation.” That phrase says it all. The voice of a generation, singing.

I don’t think this is the best of times for the American popular song, but I could be wrong. Music tends to be generational, each having their own forms and favorites. On the other hand, I love lots of songs written before my parents were born, so maybe I’m right.

But good or bad, the popular song is as ubiquitous, and as popular, as ever. And, whatever form it takes, even as it evolves faster than the flu virus, the song goes on. Powerful, infectious and compelling. It is America’s greatest contribution to world culture.

Would I go so far as to claim that the popular song is the grandest cultural product the human species has yet created?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeeaaaah!”

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