Ted Gioia – Love Songs: The Hidden History
(Oxford University Press, 328pp., £17.99. Book review by Chris Parker)
One of the most telling examples illustrating the central thesis of this meticulously assembled and thought-provoking study – ‘[W]e feel compelled to sing about love but are deeply embarrassed by this compulsion. We need the outsider to extricate us from our shame’ – concerns the public backlash faced by Cole Porter over the inclusion of his song ‘Love for Sale’ in the 1930 Broadway musical The New Yorkers. As Ted Gioia points out, ‘the controversy abated somewhat after the song was assigned to Elizabeth Welch, a black singer, instead of white actress Kathryn Crawford [and] the backdrop for the song changed from the façade of a Madison Avenue restaurant to the front of Harlem’s Cotton Club’.
Mutatis mutandis, this process of ‘channeling [the love song’s] emotions into meanings less threatening to the status quo, whether religious, political, or patriarchal’ can be be detected throughout the form’s history, from the Sumerian poetic tradition, through Confucius’s Shijing (Book of Songs/Odes) and Sappho’s lyrics, to the love songs of Islamic Spain and the troubadours and trouvères of 12th- and 13th-century France, as well as the madrigals of the Renaissance (described by Calvin as having the power ‘to intoxicate mind and heart with present pleasures … far removed from a lawful use of God’s gifts’) and the secular, bawdy songs of the folk and blues traditions. Through all these varied and vibrant manifestations of the love song, despite what Gioia refers to as ‘the legitimization of romantic longing as a proper subject for musical performance’, he also traces ‘the recurring forms of the backlash against these lyrics from those who feared their disruptive effect on the social order’, identified as ‘reinterpretation, suppression, ridicule, destruction, and, the last resort of those no longer able to stop the rising tide, a wary and watchful tolerance’.
Gioia is strikingly percipient regarding the role played by slavery (whether Roman, Islamic or New World) in this process: ‘The master, who needs to maintain the values of the dominant society, with all its sanctions and proprieties, is nonetheless fascinated by the transgressive possibilities that can only come from the slave, the outsider, the infidel – individuals whose very exclusion from the established order makes them a source of innovation and creative energy’. He is also acutely aware of the role women have played in ‘determining the values and predilections that would shape this new [troubadour] conception of love’, culminating, he convincingly argues, in ‘an expansion of human rights and an enlargement of the sphere of individual choice’.
Not that all this talk of transgressive possibilities, Sumerian traditions and the legitimization of romantic longing should lead to the impression that Love Songs is dry and forbiddingly academic. As anyone who’s encountered Gioia’s other books, on subjects such as the Delta blues, jazz standards or the history of jazz itself, will already know, he is one of those rare writers who are as comfortable with the comprehensive picture as with the telling example: clear-headed and persuasive as the overall argument of this intriguing book is, it is also packed with fascinating detail about everything from the love story of Dido and Aeneas to the twerking of Miley Cyrus, and from Seneca the Elder’s complaints concerning the supposed feminization of Roman men to the singing techniques of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. There are occasional proofreading problems (the worst of which confuses ‘prostrate’ and ‘prostate’), but overall this is an absorbing, provocative but consistently thoughtful study of a somewhat neglected area of musical history, a pioneering and useful complement to Gioia’s existing studies of Work Songs and Healing Songs (both from 2006).