Music: A Subversive History

Image of Music: A Subversive History
Release Date: 
October 15, 2019
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

Ted Gioia's books on jazz, blues, and folk music are both scholarly and entertaining, and his latest volume Music: A Subversive History is perhaps his most ambitious. In an analysis of the music rebels who transformed their eras creating new theories and genres of musical expression to subvert the mainstream, Gioia examines the most innovative musical insurgents—composers, singers, musicians—known and unknown—in a working thesis that busts open a lot of sanitized academic and industry lore.

Who can resist a story of one of the most famous composer outliers, snubbing his nose at the establishment, boozing it up, getting into street fights, even having sex in the church loft? No, it’s not a stoner rocker of the ’60s, but composer J. S. Bach, before he was canonized as the defining master of baroque music. 

But Gioia reveals that Bach’s lasting rebelliousness wasn’t his libertine lifestyle, but in the music itself, refusing to be chained to musical conventions of the church and royals who viewed composers as servants of the state and imposed subjective restrictions and censorship on their commissions.

Gioia delves into the musical revolutions of less famous personages, from a 12th century troubadour who became so popular that he was a favorite of Eleanor, Queen of the Aquitaine in France and also Queen of England as the wife of King Henry II.

The book time-travels from the vaulted sanctums of church and courts to the fork on a country road where blues master Robert Johnson sold his soul to invent the virtuoso blues guitar, to the 2019 artists currently trending on cyberspace digital platforms.

Admirably, in A Subversive History Gioia articulates what made pioneering outlier musicians subversive separate from the lore of their celebrity status. And most illustrative, he examines the underlying trends under the mainstream radar that emerge in spite of mainstream cultural orthodoxy.   

Gioia’s theories of musical trends vis-à-vis changing cultural landscapes, past and present, are also brought into sharp focus. Gioia writes about the co-opting of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, for instance, a composition which has, for 250 years, been propagandized by political regimes, from Nazi Germany to Mao’s China as a symbol of nationalism. 

Gioia details such fascinating musical revolutions of the louche musical underground of 19th century Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin nightclubs and cabarets. The mix of artists, intellectuals, prostitutes, and impresarios built a cabaret culture that was fertile territory for the avant-garde and even penetrated the aesthetics of the classical music world.

There is deft analysis of the great white artistic heists during the 19th and 20th centuries of the African American diaspora music and by racist agents, producers, and record companies who exploited black artists, unscrupulously profiting or appropriating the music for the white mainstream record industry, most glaringly in the early recording and radio eras; in many ways, the practice still goes on, just in different forms.

As comprehensive as it is, as in Gioia’s other encyclopedic volumes, there are questionable omissions. Scant mention of the modernist symphonic innovations of Gustav Mahler, for instance. Or referencing more recent eras, his attention on the cultural impact of the Sex Pistols, but almost nothing about David Bowie’s music except for his glam persona. 

But those occasional slights in Music: A Subversive History, are outweighed by this vibrant study, which goes a long way in correcting a lot of music history that has been ossified by industry and academic orthodoxy.