Two Wonderful Books About Music: “Music A Subversive History” and “Pop Science”

I have read back to back two marvelous books about music. One is serious, one is a parody and both are delightful.

“Music – A Subversive History” by Ted Gioiais a solid, erudite look at music through the ages.

“Pop Science” by James Ball(Penguin Random House) reads like a scholarly book, but its brilliant humor is a perfect companion to Gioia’s treatise.

Gioia goes to great lengths to point out and disrupt many commonly held perceptions about music. The inextricable link between music and religion is deeply explored. The sacred and profane have clearly driven musical creation for centuries, across faiths and continents.
For instance, Martin Luther was known for his religious urgency, but he was also a musician and composer. Gioia asserts that Luther deserves far more credit for the creative resurgence that produced Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and many other revered masters.
“The Protestant churches throughout Northern Europe and Britain eventually became the largest employers of musicians in the marketplace. Instead of burning organs, they hired organists. Instead of banning polyphony, they paid for it and hired choirs to perform it.”
The subversive nature of music is revealed through edifying and reassessed biographies of Bach, Robert Johnson and Scott Joplin among others. Each was a scandal in his own time “but legends at a to-be-determined later date.” In other words, revered forever thereafter.
The use of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” by disparate and ideologically opposed political regimes is testament to the subversive nature of music. Anthony Burgess used Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for aversion therapy, and six years earlier Chuck Berry zeroed in on youth’s disenchantment with the old guard in the perennial hit “Roll Over Beethoven.” But, confirms Gioia, Berry missed the mark as Beethoven is clearly alive and well. A contemporary description of the composer describes him as ill-kempt and slovenly; when read again as Gioia suggests it could well be a description of Johnny Rotten or Lou Reed. Indeed, initial criticism of all three musicians’ works are similar.
Gioia traces the recurrent cycle of soft, gentle music giving way to a more raucous version. The cycle is evident from 1890 through 1980. Gioia would undoubtedly agree with Devo’s assessment that by the mid 1970s “rock music was in need of an enema and punk was there with the nozzle.”

Gioia provides page after page of eye-opening analysis, and this is a gem for all music lovers.

Ball’s “Pop Science” is subtitled “Serious Answers to Deep Questions Posed in Songs.” But as you page through the dozens of short pages, you appreciate his take on seemingly imponderable questions like:

  • Do you give me fever (Peggy Lee)
  • Do you know the way to San Jose (Dionne Warwick)
  • Am I a creep (Radiohead)
  • Are you lonesome tonight (Elvis Presley)
  • What compares to you (Sinead O’Connor)
  • Why don’t we do it in the road (The Beatles)
  • Is money the root of all evil today (Pink Floyd)

Ball treats each song as if it were a scientific paper needing peer review, so he pulls apart the thesis of each song in academic fashion, with smugly humorous results. One finds pleasure in Ball’s analysis even if the song always elicits the ‘skip’ function.


If t  is defined as trouble, then

t(go) = x


t(stay) = 2x

One of my favorites, as to the Clash’s perennial question about whether one should stay or go, Ball runs the math for us and determines that they should clearly go “for a maximum of half as much trouble versus the alternative.” But Ball always has a loving relationship to the music; in this case he points out “However we should stress the above analysis is all done under the hypothesis that [the band] wish to minimize the trouble they face, which may not be the case. They are, after all, named the Clash.”

This is a breezy book that ends too soon, and while reading it I was prompted with many other such questions I would like answered. I’d be happy to either wait for a sequel or co-author it.

Perhaps Ball can run the math on that as well.


Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.