Histories Of Pop Music: I started this thread as an oblique way of asking whether a history of pop music is even possible. I think it is possible, though fraught with difficulty – for one thing I have no idea where it would start. When were the first mass-market sheet musics produced? Were the songs and squibs of Music Hall or Minstrel Shows ‘pop music’? And – without recorded evidence – how do we know what they sounded like?

(Even when recorded music comes in there are huge problems – for instance, the way we receive older music is fundamentally affected by the patina of static and crackle it’s wrapped in – it’s terribly hard not to hear 20s and 30s blues as somehow inherently aged.)

It seems to me – and this is seriously glib, it’s not like I’ve read many of these books! – that there are two major problems with previous attempts at pop histories.

i) They start too late. Starting with rock and roll and the mid-50s hobbles a proper understanding of the musics rock drew from, paints (however inadvertently) those musics as quaint backwaters once rock had rolled, and also encourages an idea that 1954/5 was some kind of musical Big Bang, rather than a particularly successful exemplar of a whole series of step-changes in pop production and listening.

ii) They finish too early. Or rather, the writer’s sympathies peter out too early. Many recent histories of pop seem to be histories of decline, because the author basically doesn’t enjoy pop music as much since a certain trend or point. There’s nothing wrong with such histories as pieces of criticism – they can often be beautifully written and very convincing. As history, though?

Here is where I admit to a certain fastidiousness – what I want from a ‘history of pop’ isn’t criticism, or isn’t entirely criticism. What I want is the story of how pop evolves socially, economically, technologically – how the values it expresses and the uses it’s put to alter, and how its terms of discourse change. The historian’s prejudices will obviously guide what is and isn’t included as relevant, but the rush to judge artists, records, or genres lowers pop history to a schoolbook “Elizabeth: GOOD QUEEN, Mary: BAD QUEEN” level.

Does that mean I think my phantom ‘pop historian’ shouldn’t like pop? Not at all – in fact I think the minimum she or he needs is an ability to at least sympathise with everything that’s happened in pop. An ability, in other words, to get out of any music something of what its fans and listeners got out of it. This kind of woolly omnivorous tolerance is probably the very opposite of ‘good criticism’, but I think a lot of the critics you (yes, you!) like are quite close to it. (And the easy-access Internet can bring people closer still: one of the things I really enjoy about ILM is the handful of crits there who really do seem to like everything!)