To Ted Gioia, music is a form of cloud storage for preserving human culture. And the real cultural conflict, he insists, is not between “high brow” and “low brow” music, but between the innovative and the formulaic. Imitation and repetition deaden musical culture — and he should know, since he listens to 3 hours of new music per day and over 1,000 newly released recordings in a year. His latest book covers the evolution of music from its origins in hunter-gatherer societies, to ancient Greece, to jazz, to its role in modern-day political protests such as those in Hong Kong.
He joined Tyler to discuss the history and industry of music, including the reasons AI will never create the perfect songs, the strange relationship between outbreaks of disease and innovation, how the shift from record companies to Silicon Valley transformed incentive structures within the industry–and why that’s cause for concern, the vocal polyphony of Pygmy music, Bob Dylan’s Nobel prize, why input is underrated, his advice to aspiring music writers, the unsung female innovators of music history, how the Blues anticipated the sexual revolution, what Rene Girard’s mimetic theory can tell us about noisy restaurants, the reason he calls Sinatra the “Derrida of pop singing,” how to cultivate an excellent music taste, and why he loves Side B of Abbey Road.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded October 23rd, 2019
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello. I’m very honored today to be here with Ted Gioia. Ted is probably my favorite writer on music and also my favorite person to read and follow on Twitter, and he has a new book out, which has made a big splash, called Music: A Subversive History. Ted, welcome.
TED GIOIA: Thank you for having me.
COWEN: Let’s start with some questions about music. Do you think our collective memory from music is decaying more rapidly because communications technologies move so much faster and preserve things so much better?
GIOIA: What people don’t understand is that, for most of history, music was a kind of cloud storage for societies. I like to tell people that music is a technology for societies that don’t have semiconductors or spaceships. If you go to any traditional community, and you try to find the historian, generally it’s a singer. Music would preserve culture; it would preserve folklore.
Well, nowadays, we rely on cloud storage to be the preserver of these same things. And I think there’s a strange shift. Both we rely on the cloud to preserve our music, but also, we no longer rely on music to preserve our culture. This is potentially a dangerous thing because it could create a situation where our musical lives grow more and more distant from our actual social lives with the people around us in our larger community.
COWEN: Does music today still carry new ideas? If you think about radio in the 1960s, there’s the idea of drug culture, of psychedelia, antiwar protests. Those are often carried by music and by the radio. But today, the internet carries the ideas more or less for free. Do we even need music for that?
GIOIA: There’s a very prevalent view now that music is just diversion or idle entertainment. You know, Steven Pinker is the great exponent of this. He calls music auditory cheesecake, and he’ll tell you that music is just for brain stimulation. For example, I would listen to a song the same way I might drink a martini or use recreational drugs.
I really think this misses the point. I do think music is embedded in ideas and culture and takes place in the world at a much more intricate level than Pinker understands. For example, hardly a week goes by when I don’t read about a musician somewhere in the world getting into trouble with politicians. Putin will try to stop a group from performing in Saudi Arabia. Somebody will be thrown into prison for a song.
Recently the Hong Kong protests have used music very actively. I just read the other day about a protest song in Hong Kong, where the composer has to remain anonymous because it’s so dangerous to have composed this song. This is a good reminder of how powerful music is. It’s not just diversion.
Another example: recently there was a rap song in Thailand that criticized the government, and this really shook up the politicians. The funny thing is, they tried to respond to it. The government released its own rap song, which of course was widely mocked and ridiculed. But it tells you that the people in position of authorities know that music conveys ideas. It conveys power. It’s not just idle entertainment. One of the things I try to do in my history books, for example, is to show that larger power of music.
COWEN: Is the advent of streaming for music a net gain or a net loss for the quality of music? Not counting convenience of the listener, but just the quality of the music. Don’t they now put all the good stuff in the first 30 seconds of the song?
GIOIA: Well, that’s right. You have to have people hold on for a few seconds in order for you to get your royalty from the stream, so people have actually changed how they compose music to match the technology. But I will say, that’s always been the case to some extent. I do believe every kind of new technology changes how people sing and perform.
If you go back into the 1920s, the first really advanced microphones were developed, and this allowed people to sing differently. All of a sudden, Bing Crosby comes along. He can use these new microphones, and he can sing at a very whispery, conversational voice, which is very expressive. So if you compare, for example, recordings made in 1925 with 1935, a completely different way of singing took place.
We’re going through the same thing right now. People are singing differently to prosper on streaming sites. I don’t think that bothers me as much as the economic impact of streaming and also just the impact on sound quality with the compressed sound. In fact, I would say that music is the only form of entertainment in which the technology has gotten worse during my lifetime.
I go to movies now, and it’s this big screen and surround sound. Video games put the Pong that I used to play to shame. TV is so good, it’s being called a golden age of television. But in music, most of us listen to songs on these lousy handheld devices. Most people in my generation had better sound systems as teenagers than they do now. That worries me more than the whole idea of how songs are written. I’m really concerned about the technology lessening the whole listening experience.
COWEN: Why has music been special in this regard? You can still buy an audiophile sound system, but it seems fewer people are interested.
GIOIA: I think the key thing is that the technology stopped advancing, so people aren’t excited about it anymore. I think it’s very useful to go back and look at record companies in the 1930s, 1940s.
RCA was the premier record company back then, but they were also the Apple computer of their day. RCA invented new microphones. They invented the 45 RPM single. They invented a lot of sound technologies, and they did it to enhance the listening experience. Classic example: in the 1960s, RCA really commercialized color television. The reason they did it is because they owned NBC, and they understood, if you improve the technology for the audience, it will get people to consume the TV shows.
What happened in the 1980s is, record labels stopped investing in new technology. The way Columbia would invent the long-playing album or Sony would invent the Walkman — that stopped, and they handed technology off to Silicon Valley, which had very different reasons. They didn’t want to increase the listening experience. They wanted to sell devices or advertising.
I do believe that there’s a fundamental change. People can, it’s true, buy high-degree audio equipment, but they don’t because the companies in the music industry have stopped innovating.
COWEN: Now, you also have a background in management consulting and venture capital. So tell us, does Spotify have a viable business model, yes or no?
GIOIA: I’m well known as a critic of streaming, and I also believe that the economics of streaming are fundamentally flawed, but I don’t believe it’s going to go away. I do believe there’s going to be a painful retrenching and downsizing. We already see Netflix, which has $15 billion in debt, announce the other day they’re going to borrow $2 billion more. They’ve got a huge audience, but they can’t even cover their costs. They’ve been negative cash flow every quarter for five straight years.
Spotify still isn’t profitable. I believe Spotify will become profitable, but they’re going to do it by putting the squeeze on people. Musicians will suffer even more, probably, in the future than they have in the past. What’s good for Spotify is not good for the whole music ecosystem.
Let me make one more point here. I think it’s very important. If you go back a few years ago, there was a value chain in music — started with the musician, worked for the record label. The records went to the record distributor. They went to the retailer, who sold the record to the consumer. At that point, everybody in that chain had a vested interest in a healthy music ecosystem in which people enjoyed songs. The more people enjoyed songs, the better business was for everybody.
That chain has been broken now. Apple would give away songs for free to sell devices. They don’t care about the viability of the music sub-economy. For them, it could be a loss leader. Google doesn’t care about music. They would give music away for free to sell ads. In fact, they do that on YouTube.
The fundamental change here is, you now have a distribution system for music in which some of the players do not have a vested interest in the broader musical experience and ecosystem. This is tremendously dangerous, and that’s the real reason why I fear the growth of streaming, is because the people involved in streaming don’t like music.
In fact — and this is amazing — the CEO of Spotify said, “We’re not in the music business. We sell subscriptions. We don’t sell music; we sell subscriptions.” That’s very dangerous, and that tells you that you have parties here that are going in completely different directions, and it’s not going to be good for the health of our music culture.
COWEN: What’s the chance we simply regret the entire advent of the internet?
GIOIA: Well, I don’t think that’s true. I am not one of these Luddites. I hear people in the music industry saying, “Oh, Ted, everything would be great if the internet would just go away.” The record labels wanted to make that happen, so they sued everybody. They sued Napster. In fact, I say that the record labels had their strategy, which I call the three Ls, which was lobbying, legislation, and litigation.
I don’t think those are strategies. The strategy they should have is the consumer experience. I wish that the record labels had invested in new recording technologies — super vinyl, better technology for the listener — instead of just suing everybody and trying to pass new laws.
COWEN: As you well know, if you compare American popular music in 1963 to American popular music in 1968, over a period of five years, it sounds really quite completely different. And you can tell, upon hearing music from either year, which year it’s from. That doesn’t seem to be the case today. Is there still real innovation in American popular music?
GIOIA: Well, what happened in the 1960s is an anomaly. I don’t think it will ever happen again. And what happened is — you must give credit to the Beatles because everyone was imitating the Beatles, and they changed their sounds every six months, every year.
People always tell me, “Ted, do you like the highbrow music and the lowbrow music?” I say, “No, no. The real conflict is not between high and low. The real challenge in music is the formula, where formula emerges, and then everybody imitates the formula.” And that’s what deadens your musical culture, the repetition of the formula. And the Beatles, for a period of five, six years, made sure there was no formula. This is amazing. It never happened before. It probably will never happen again.
The real challenge in music is the formula, where formula emerges, and then everybody imitates the formula. And that’s what deadens your musical culture, the repetition of the formula.
If you tried to imitate the Beatles in 1964, ’65, you soon were out of date. For example, the Monkees tried to do exactly that. The Monkees imitated a certain Beatles sound. But by the time the first episode was on TV, the Beatles were already off to something else.
I do think you had this amazing period for five, six years where there was no set formula in the music business. It was an amazing time. I think we should enjoy it for what it was, but I don’t think we should expect it to come back.
COWEN: What’s the most subtle Beatles song?
GIOIA: The most subtle Beatles songs?
GIOIA: Well, that’s a hard one. I’m one of these strange chronologists who believed the Beatles just got better and better. And I think you could make a case each album is better than the last.
When you get to side two of Abbey Road, for me, and when they stitch together all these song fragments — these weren’t even completed songs. These were just things they had been sitting on, and they found some way to bring it all together into this album in which they had a complete suite to literally end their career on the album. To me, that’s probably the epitome of both subtlety and artistic expression.
COWEN: But if we look at broader trends — so in the 1960s, we have what we now call classic rock and the Beatles, also in the ’70s. The early 1980s, rap comes along. It’s still with us — maybe that’s surprising. In the early ’90s, you might say there’s electronica. But what has been since then that’s new? What’s the next big thing? Or has it stopped?
GIOIA: Well, there’s a certain irony here. The music business always prided itself on disrupting the culture with some new sound. But the big thing in the last 20 years is, the music business itself has been disrupted. They’re on the receiving end, and tech companies in Silicon Valley have done the disrupting. And what they’re disrupting is not the sound of music. It’s actually the whole socioeconomic setting of music.
Now, you ask yourself, what did the music industry do to respond to this? What was their big innovation? And it’s almost laughable. If you go back to the early years of this century, when the internet was taking over music distribution and the music culture, the biggest innovation in music was — and this is sad to say — it was the TV reality-show singing contest. [laughs] This was the big innovation that the music industry used to respond to this complete disruption and everything else.
“Well, we’ll do American Idol; we’ll do America’s Got Talent.” It would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic.
I want to make one more observation, though. There are periods in music where it seems like there’s a lull and that we’ve reached some happy end point. My historical research tells me that those happy end points never last. Take for example, the rise of rock and roll. Five years earlier, the music industry thought they had it all solved. “Oh, people want lifestyle music. We’ll do romantic ballads by Sinatra.”
They came out with mood music albums. They invented these amazing albums called bachelor pad albums back then, and novelty songs. And the music industry in 1952, 1953 thought they had it all figured out. They thought they had reached the perfect song for every moment in your day. And then five years later, rock and roll changed everything with disruption.
How did this happen? What they don’t realize, people want disruption. The same thing happened in the 1970s. The early 1970s was the gentle singer-songwriter. You could take those Carole King albums or James Taylor albums. You could play them for Grandma. Grandma would love them. You couldn’t have something that was more beautiful and had wider appeal, but people wanted disruption again. So at the end of the ’70s, you had punk rock, disco, new wave.
The important thing to understand is, not only is there disruption in music. People crave the disruption. Look at right now. Right now, we’re told that we’ve reached this happily ever after. Tech companies were going to use artificial intelligence to find the perfect song for every moment in our day. It will be curated. There’ll be these wonderful feedback loops. Robots will create the perfect musical life.
My belief, based on my understanding of music history, is that won’t happen. There will be disruption, and it will come from an unexpected place, and this happily ever after we’ve supposedly reached won’t last.
COWEN: What’s the popular song you’re most embarrassed to admit to really liking?
GIOIA: What are the popular . . . I mentioned the Monkees before. I like the Monkees.
GIOIA: I love well-crafted pop music.
COWEN: But what really embarrasses you? What admission can I squeeze out of you?
GIOIA: When I was a teenager, I listened to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
COWEN: Now that’s embarrassing.
GIOIA: Right before I discovered jazz, I was listening to Keith Emerson. This was the quandary I was in.
COWEN: It was jazz, in a way.
GIOIA: It prepared me for jazz. It really did. When I was a teenager, I was playing piano, and this was the problem I faced. I liked rock because of its emotional immediacy, but it didn’t have the sophistication I wanted. Then I loved classical music like Bach for the sophistication, but it didn’t have the emotional immediacy. And I said, “I need something that brings together both.”
Then I walked into a jazz club. Literally, I walked into the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California. I was a high school student. I sat down, the music started, and within 10 seconds, I said to myself, “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” Really, it was this epiphanal moment. But before that, it was Keith Emerson.
COWEN: Who is the best shaman in the history of rock music? It’s a key theme in your book, right? Music: A Subversive History. The importance of the shaman, the rebel, the outsider.
GIOIA: I would say Bob Dylan. I think that there’s this mystical aspect of music in which it becomes very hypnotic, but it’s also embedded in the culture. It’s life changing. It reaches on a personal level but also has these broader social levels. I don’t think anybody’s brought that together better in my lifetime than Bob Dylan.
I was very happy when he won the Nobel Prize. I know purists were angry. Songs are not literature. But hey, if you go back to the roots, Homer was a singer. If you go back to the roots, Sappho was a singer. The origin of literature is song. So for someone like Dylan, he would capture that for me.
COWEN: Was Jim Morrison a wonderful shaman but a terrible musician and poet?
GIOIA: I think he was. How many times can you rhyme fire and higher?
COWEN: “I Am the Lizard King,” right? That’s shaman-like.
GIOIA: Okay, I will not dismiss the importance of someone’s charisma and their personal magnetism. And someone like Jim Morrison possessed that definitely. And you have to give the Doors credit for that. But if you were evaluating Morrison just on his songwriting skills, I don’t think they hold up.
It’s funny, one of my favorite pianists, Friedrich Gulda, did these theme and variations on “Light My Fire.” I thought he was a brilliant musician, but that was just not the piece you could turn into theme and variations. It was even worse than Diabelli’s Melody that Beethoven worked with.
COWEN: Is Gulda better as a Beethoven player or a jazz musician?
GIOIA: Well, he’s famous more as a Beethoven player, and he’s great, but he’s very underrated as a jazz musician.
COWEN: But also is a Beethoven player. His Sonatas №1, №25 are maybe the two best recordings of those sonatas.
GIOIA: And Gulda’s an amazing guy. I don’t know why he’s forgotten. He’s also a great composer. His compositions should be resurrected. Occasionally I see someone play them. But a fascinating guy, and he’s one of these people that was punished by being able to do too many things well because society wants to put you in a pigeonhole.
I felt this in my own life. Society wants to put you in a certain pigeonhole that you just do this, and if you don’t want to live in that narrow space, you’re punished. And Gulda was like that.
COWEN: If we think about the accelerated advancement of women in music — today it might be St. Vincent, Laura Marling, but there are many, many more. Do they fit into the shaman model the same way that the men do?
GIOIA: Well, my book shows that, again and again, throughout history, female musicians were innovators. Then once their work was assimilated by the broader society, these origins were hidden from view. One of the reasons why women were innovators is because their music tended to tap more into the emotional power of music.
If you go back to Plato, it’s very clear that there are two kinds of music. There’s a music that he favors, which instills order in society. It sings the praises of great men, and it brings people together for the social good. But he understood that there was a second kind of music that was really involved in personal emotion and self-expression. He associated that with women, and rightly so, because that really comes out of Sappho. And it comes out of what I call the three Ls of female singing: the lullaby, the love song, and the lament, always associated with women.
So the idea that women have a special place in musical culture going back for thousands of years is something I take very seriously. And I think it’s surprising, in fact, nowadays, how much connection there is between the music women sing now and the origins of the music that came out of women thousands of years ago.
COWEN: Why are restaurants so much noisier today? And they’re still getting noisier.
GIOIA: In fact, I’ve got to say I prefer the quiet restaurant, but I understand everybody else wants the noisy restaurant. And I do think we’re going back to René Girard territory, where everything’s imitation, where you choose the restaurant not on what’s the best food, but what other people are doing that I can imitate. There are two restaurants in town. You go in the one with the most people. I think that imitative behavior patterns explain much more in society than we care to admit.
COWEN: But there’s much more noise pollution more generally. Restaurants are noisier. It seems that music, in general, is louder. And in terms of dynamic compression, the range is much narrower. So why is there this general tendency toward more noise? Why are markets undersupplying peace and quiet?
GIOIA: Because they want to stand out. It’s interesting, in my book I talk about the very first musicians, who were hunter-gatherers. What they did was fascinating because back then there were no loud sounds. You could live your whole life in prehistoric times and maybe never hear a loud sound unless you went near a waterfall or maybe during a thunderstorm. But for the most part everything was quiet.
So that’s why there’s a plausible theory that the early hunter-gatherers invented choral singing to hunt. They were scavengers, and they didn’t try to kill the lion themselves. They let the lion kill the prey. Then they would sing together to scare away the lion, and they would get the food. That tells you that back then, loud sounds were so rare that they were an amazing expression of power.
You could live your whole life in prehistoric times and maybe never hear a loud sound unless you went near a waterfall or maybe during a thunderstorm. But for the most part everything was quiet.
So that’s why there’s a plausible theory that the early hunter-gatherers invented choral singing to hunt.
The thing to remember is, even today, loud sounds are an expression of power, notoriety. So you have competition in terms of sound, and the restaurants believe — and maybe rightly — that they’re going to stand out with the noisier environment. Now, once again, I will avoid those restaurants. I’ll go to the quiet one, but I really think the same way there was an arms race in the 1960s, there’s a noise race in society right now.
COWEN: When and why did jazz stop being cool?
GIOIA: Well, you know, cool stopped being cool. I wrote this book called The Birth and Death of the Cool a few years ago. It was a shock to me because I was going to write a history of cool as this timeless thing. People always want to be cool. Then as I was doing the research, I realized that, in fact, the cool ethos was something that had a beginning and an end. In around the year 2000, cool became uncool.
COWEN: Why did that happen?
GIOIA: Why? I’ve got a larger theory — which is still very primitive — about these 50-year cycles between hot and cool in society. I think we’re in the middle of a hot phase right now. It’s a culture of anger we live in. I don’t think anyone can deny that.
But I do believe that you had this birth of the cool with Miles Davis recording that around the year 1950, and for the next 50 years we had a cool society in which cool jazz was at its peak. There were certain cool techniques that you used in your day-to-day life, which were irony, humor. You would deflect aggression with irony or with a joke.
Then around 2000 — and people will say 9/11 made this happen, but I think the roots were already before that — everything changed. People now pride themselves on their frankness. “I’m going to say it just the way it is. I’m going to say it right to your face.” And so it goes, from cool to hot.
Back to your earlier question, when did jazz stop being cool? Well, as cool itself phased out, jazz lost a lot of its audience, and jazz itself had to embrace more of a hot dynamic to thrive in the new setting.
COWEN: Can jazz today still sound hot in a musical world where basically all the rhythms have been tried out? People have heard everything. If you play Varèse, “Ionisation,” for someone today, they might like it even. It doesn’t sound that weird, but they’re not deeply impressed. It doesn’t sound that radical. They’ve heard rap. They’ve heard electronica. Are the rhythms of jazz just boring in 2019?
GIOIA: Well, I think there’s a larger question there that relates to that. As you may know, I’ve listened to lots of new music. Over the course of a given year, I’ll listen to more than a thousand newly released recordings.
COWEN: And every year you put out a great list of what is best from what you listen to. I’ll just tell everyone.
GIOIA: That’s right, my 100 Best.
COWEN: It’s on your home page.
GIOIA: I spend two to three hours per day listening to new music. One of the things I’ve observed is that the most creative music happening these days usually is at the intersections of different genres because the genres themselves have been overcome with the formula. As I said a little while ago, the formula is the curse. If you try to get on country radio, there’s a certain set sound you imitate, and it leads to this sameness. But there’s amazing music being made in the intersection of the genres.
For example, in jazz right now, there’s amazing music happening in Los Angeles and London, of musicians who are taking jazz music and contemporary music and dance beats and hip hop and R&B, even some other classical and folk ingredients. They’re bringing it all together, and it does sound exciting, and it sounds new, and it doesn’t sound clichéd, but it’s only because they’re leaving the formula behind.
Unfortunately, and this is the real mismatch in our society, the music industry rewards you for following the formula. That’s how you get on radio. That’s how you get a record contract. But in fact, the creative world rewards you for going into these intersections between the genres.
COWEN: Why are the blues disappearing from popular music?
GIOIA: That’s interesting. I think we’re reversing this whole amazing process that happened during the 20th century. I like to think of the African influence as reversing what I call the Pythagorean Paradigm, which emerged 2,500 years ago, where Pythagoras developed the first scales in Western music. But even more important, he developed this mathematical notion of music that every note came in a scale, every scale was tuned, and you always played in tune.
We accept this so instinctively that we don’t even think twice. When you go to the orchestra, the first thing they do is tune up. Well, in the 20th century with this infusion from blues and jazz, you could play notes that were no longer in tune. You could bend the note. You could distort the sound, and this was an amazing reversal of 2,500 years of mathematical Pythagorean music.
COWEN: But early classical music did that plenty, right? Was the Pythagorean tradition ever so dominant?
GIOIA: If you go back — and of course it’s hard to speculate on what music sounded like 2,000 years ago — but if you read the books, they are obsessed with tuning and scales. The music guides from ancient times are obsessed with tuning systems, and they tried to squeeze out sounds that didn’t fit into the scale.
So you had a reversal in the 20th century with the advent of black music, but now that’s dying out in many ways. Just auto-tune — the idea is every note’s going to be perfectly in tune. Or a lot of this digital music — everything is perfectly in tune, and the bent blues notes are disappearing.
COWEN: But isn’t it that distortion and note bending have been picked up by, say, indie music, and they’re being done in more commercially appealing ways than the blues, and maybe the blues is a bit exhausted?
GIOIA: I think for a while it was being assimilated in popular music, but I believe that has stopped in the last five, ten years. I would love to see some PhD student study hit records of different decades and figure out how frequently notes deviate from pitch, and how that’s changed over time. I think you would find an amazing reduction in that.
So we’re going back to this mathematical vision of music as everything is perfectly in tune and perfectly organized and perfectly aligned rhythmically. There’s less syncopation in music. Everything is becoming regularized. Now probably, the advent of digital technologies leads to it, but I think we need a new African infusion in our music that shakes things up and gets us away from mathematics and back toward sound.
COWEN: And rap music is not that new infusion for you? Yes or no?
GIOIA: Well, rap music is also becoming formulaic. Rap — it’s interesting — 30 years ago, NWA did an album that was so dangerous, the FBI tried to shut down the record label. Nowadays, that same album has been enshrined as a national historical treasure by the Library of Congress. The Smithsonian last year announced they’re putting together a panel of 50 academics and scholars to come up with the official Smithsonian guide to hip hop. So rap and hip hop is also becoming streamlined and mainstreamed.
Also, you see — and this has been going on for a number of years — rappers, to have really big sales, team up with a pop star. So you have that melody, which is often very auto-tuned, and once again, very much this Pythagorean mathematical approach.
There’s people trying to tame hip hop, so it’s hard to understand where the disruption’s going to come from. I tend to think there will be a big disruption in music over the next few years, but it won’t be a repetition of jazz or hip hop or something from the past. There’ll be something new coming at us, which will surprise us.
COWEN: Are prosperity, peacetime, and racial integration bad for the blues?
GIOIA: Well, that’s a big question. I think that you look at the blues, and it’s definitely a music of anguish and tragedy and personal suffering. But from a completely different point of view, the blues did other things as well. It broadened our musical techniques, and also, it was a music of lifestyle values.
I tend to think that the blues anticipated the sexual revolution of the 1960s. All the things that were sung about in blues music in the 1920s were about these lifestyle excesses that didn’t reach mainstream society for 40, 50 years.
COWEN: But we had them in the ’20s too, right? The ’30s are sexually more conservative than the ’20s had been, it seems.
GIOIA: Well there was, but in fact, it’s very interesting to go back and see this. For the first 10, 20 years of the 20th century, if you wanted to sing about sex in a song, you would put a picture of black people on the cover of the sheet music, and the idea was that it was acceptable.
You know “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” It’s a song about an adulterous affair. You could sing that song, you could publish that song, but you had to associate it with black lifestyles, and there were a bunch of other songs as well. Whenever you sang about something that was sexy or dirty, you put black people on the cover of the sheet music.
This is how it entered the music industry. You’re right, there were certain behavior patterns there that were everywhere, but where it really went mainstream and came out and was considered acceptable, it’s acceptable in many people’s eyes to have free love or altered mind states. That was the 1960s, and that came out of blues music first, when it first was sung about on the airwaves.
COWEN: How and why was John Hammond such an amazing spotter of musical talent?
GIOIA: Well, those people have disappeared. Those people have disappeared.
COWEN: Why is that?
GIOIA: I don’t know. I really don’t know, but I do think there was this notion of having a talent scout who knew a lot about music, had been around for many years, really understood the ups and downs, often was a musician, too. And someone like Hammond then could discover Billie Holiday or Aretha Franklin or Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen he discovered.
COWEN: Count Basie, many others.
GIOIA: Count Basie — you could go on for a long time — out of his cumulative experience. In the 1960s, though, the record industry decided that the best way to scout new talent was to rely on young people. This is sad but true. They believed that the path to success was to match their music to the musical taste of a 16-year-old. Because of that, they needed young people that understood that vibe.
For a while, that worked really well. But what you sacrificed over the long run was having people like John Hammond, who had seen music change up and down, in and out, over a period of decades, and brought that larger vision.
I think it’s a larger thing of how do record labels spot talent then? How do they spot it now? What they’re doing now doesn’t seem to be working. They’re having enormous trouble building careers of younger musicians. Even if the first album does well, there’s this sophomore curse. And I do think that it would be good if they took more time understanding the process of discovery because discovering talent for a record label is as important as R&D for a tech company.
COWEN: Let’s try a round of overrated versus underrated.
GIOIA: Let’s go.
COWEN: Heavy metal music — overrated or underrated?
GIOIA: I think it’s underrated. If you say that you like metal music, that’s supposedly shameful, or maybe you’ve got some dark, satanic impulses. But metal music has persisted at very high levels of virtuosity, and they take musicianship seriously. They take the entertainment aspect of it seriously. Sometimes it’s almost performance art. I’m not personally a huge fan of metal music, but I think in terms of the whole music ecosystem, it’s tremendously underrated.
COWEN: Leo Tolstoy.
GIOIA: I think Dostoevsky was better. I know that’s controversial. Okay, let me clarify this. I think Tolstoy is overrated as a novelist, but he’s underrated as a social figure because he influenced people that joined these communes. There’s still Tolstoyan communes out there in Britain. Many people adopted vegetarianism because of Tolstoy. People changed how they viewed marriage.
The impact he had on the broader society has been hidden from view. The Soviet Union tried to change Tolstoy’s image because he was so dangerous. They reframed him as just a novelist.
COWEN: A nationalist to some extent.
GIOIA: Very much so, but I would think that if you view Tolstoy just as a novelist, you don’t understand the full scope of his influence.
COWEN: Horror fiction — overrated or underrated?
GIOIA: I believe all genre fiction deserves more credit from serious literary figures. There’s a tremendous amount of creativity. Stephen King’s one of the best writers out there. Those novels are beautifully crafted, and in terms even of things like character development, plot structure. No, horror fiction’s underrated.
COWEN: Elton John.
GIOIA: Elton John in the 1970s, underrated. Elton John after the 1970s, overrated. His early material is amazing, is amazing. Just the number of good songs, including ones that were never hits, and his singing — his singing’s extraordinary. His singing is still good, don’t get me wrong. But the way Elton sang in the 1970s, very underrated.
COWEN: R.E.M. — overrated or underrated?
GIOIA: Once again, it feels too much like a formula for me.
COWEN: But say, the first two or three albums — wasn’t it something new?
GIOIA: I’m going pass on that.
COWEN: Murmur, “Letter Never Sent.”
GIOIA: Like I said, to me, it sounds formulaic. But once again, I’d have to go back and listen again to give you a more authoritative view on that.
COWEN: Stan Kenton.
GIOIA: Terrible person in his private life.
COWEN: What did he do?
GIOIA: I think he sexually abused his daughter.
COWEN: Oh, I didn’t know that.
GIOIA: I don’t have all the details at hand, and those kind of aspects I don’t like to probe into, but there’s this whole issue of how do we deal with Michael Jackson? How do you deal with Roman Polanski? My general belief is that, most of the time, you’ve got to separate artistry from personal life — most of the time. But I do believe that there’s a certain crossing point. Like Hitler and painting, for example. You don’t put a painting exhibit of Hitler on, regardless of what the quality is.
COWEN: But it was also bad. In that sense it’s overdetermined, right?
GIOIA: But the whole question is, should Michael Jackson’s music be put off the air? My general belief is Kenton was a great innovator in jazz, but I believe that does not . . . And I want to be very clear about this because I feel this very strongly. Your artistic skill, your intellectual ability, your talents do not give you permission to violate rules of human decency in your private life. That said, you do evaluate the artistry, for the most part, on different terms. But I don’t like it — all these artists that think that they can exploit people just because they’re famous.
COWEN: K-pop — is any of it interesting?
GIOIA: I have yet to hear the K-pop album that excites me. But I do believe, in principle, the idea that we’re getting musical innovations from outside the English-speaking world that are going global is a good thing. Personally, K-pop’s not my cup of tea, but I love this idea that someone can upload something on the internet today in Indonesia, and I can hear it at home tomorrow.
COWEN: Who is the great underrated 20th-century classical music composer?
GIOIA: My favorite is Shostakovich, who, to me, is at the peak for a variety of reasons, both in terms of just the sheer artistry of the works and also his ability in his personal life to take oppression and tragedy and not only overcome it, but use it as an impetus to get even to a higher level on his creative platform.
COWEN: Where should the neophyte start with Shostakovich?
GIOIA: I love the symphonies and the string quartets, but those preludes and fugues — oh, that’s maybe my favorite classical piano work of the 20th century.
COWEN: Which recording?
GIOIA: The Jarrett one is probably the place to start, surprisingly enough. I would say Keith Jarret, yeah.
COWEN: John or Paul — who was better?
GIOIA: I am more of a Paul fan because he had the better musical craft. But he needed John because John had the edginess. This is my view: if it was just Paul without John, it would have become sentimental, and you wouldn’t want to listen to it. If it was just John without Paul, it would have become incomprehensible. You needed both. But if I had to pick one, I’d go for Paul because with my background as a musician, Paul mastered the craft more.
COWEN: What is it that you sing in the shower?
GIOIA: Unfortunately, it’s the same thing everybody else sings, which is probably some lousy commercial jingle or some pop tune I heard the previous day. I’d love to tell you that I work through opera arias or I do the Wagnerian repertoire, but no. It’s probably the Juicy Fruit jingle or the Beverly Hills theme song.
COWEN: Is Prince actually an interesting musician?
COWEN: So much quantity, but what is there in Prince when you go back to it, it sounds better?
GIOIA: I like the stuff right before he died. He was going to go back to just piano and voice. It was jazzier. It was more downscaled, and a little of that was recorded, but I would have loved to have seen where Prince would have gone if he had lived another 10 years.
COWEN: Do you think music today is helping the sexual revolution or hurting it? Speaking of Prince.
GIOIA: It’s very interesting. If you go back to the earliest songs in human history, they were linked to fertility rituals. There was an idea that the king would have sex with a goddess, which, usually, the high priestess had to step in because it was hard to find a real goddess, and there were songs associated with it. They were very explicit. Some of them I couldn’t even say to you, Tyler, because I would get into trouble because of the explicit quality of the works.
The point I would make is, songs these days are very similar. Someone studied recent hit songs, and 92 percent of them refer to sexuality. The typical hit song has 10½ reproductive phrases. That’s the word the researcher used — not just the dirty parts, the reproductive phrases in the songs. I do think there is — and this I bring up in my new book — the long-standing connection between music and sexuality.
Even as we see a new Victorianism and sexual primness entering our larger mainstream culture, there’s a tremendous force that forces popular music to address sexual issues.
COWEN: But is music in some way antisex or a substitute for sex? Or maybe some kinds of romantic music, like Bruce Springsteen — they’re best for people who are not in love? And if you’re actually in love, you don’t need Bruce Springsteen. And now we’re doused in music and the internet, and we have less sex.
GIOIA: Well, I believe, actually, Darwin was right. He thought music was linked to sexual selection, and we use music to attract a mate.
COWEN: When you created it, right?
GIOIA: No —
COWEN: But now we’re in a world where you don’t have to create it.
GIOIA: It’s very interesting. There’s market research and focus groups about how people use music in their day-to-day life. Take, for example, this: you’re going to bring a date back to your apartment for a romantic dinner. So what do you worry about?
Well, the first thing I have to worry about is, my place is a mess. I’ve got to clean it up. That’s number one. The second thing you worry about is, what food am I going to fix? But number three on people’s list — when you interview them — is the music because they understand the music is going to seal the deal. If there’s going to be something really romantic, that music is essential.
People will agonize for hours over which music to play. I think that we miss this. People view music as distance from people’s everyday life. But in fact, people put music to work every day, and one of the premier ways they do it is in romance.
COWEN: Let’s say you were not married, and you’re 27 years old, and you’re having a date over. What music do you put on in 2019 under those conditions?
GIOIA: It’s got to always be Sinatra.
COWEN: Because that is sexier? It’s generally appealing? It’s not going to offend anyone? Why?
GIOIA: I must say up front, I am no expert on seduction, so you’re now getting me out of my main level of expertise. But I would think that if you were a seducer, you would want something that was romantic on the surface but very sexualized right below that, and no one was better at these multilayered interpretations of lyrics than Frank Sinatra.
I always call them the Derrida of pop singing because there was always the surface level and various levels that you could deconstruct. And if you are planning for that romantic date, hey, go for Frank.
COWEN: What was music like in ancient Greece? What do you think?
GIOIA: Well, I do believe that there were different types of music. There was this officially sanctioned music that was preserved, but there was a more exciting music from outsiders that people liked but also feared.
Here’s an interesting thing. If you’re a music student nowadays, one of the first things you learn are the musical modes. These are essentially the building-block scales of music. And they have names. There’s the Phrygian mode, there’s the Lydian mode. But what no one tells you is the Phrygians and the Lydians were the enslaved populations in Greece, and they have these exciting sounds. Those were the dangerous modes. So the exciting sounds were associated with these enslaved people and outsiders.
Unfortunately, the musical culture that’s preserved is the kind that supported the ruling class. For example, the most popular lyric poet in ancient Greece was Pindar, who sang the praises of heroic men and powerful people. This is the establishment music, but there was another kind of music that was darker, deeper, and more emotionally intense.
COWEN: What are three parts of the world where their musics are currently seriously underrated?
GIOIA: Well, I tend to think that the places to look are the countries that have large population bases, diversity, but don’t get heard often on the radio or don’t get picked up much by record labels. Let’s take, for example, Brazil and Indonesia. It’s very interesting.
There’s a jazz piano player named Joey Alexander. He’s a kid. He was a child prodigy. He got a record contract around age 14. He’s from Indonesia, but he had to move out to New York. He’s now winning awards and showing up on the Grammys. When his jazz album came out, somebody told me this was the first time in history an album by an Indonesian music hit made the billboard chart.
That’s amazing. Indonesia has a huge population and a great musical culture, a very diverse one, too.
I try to listen to music from all over the world, so I’m always trying to figure out what is happening in Asia. Just two days ago, I did a search on Bandcamp for any recording in the last month from Jakarta. I’m trying to find these things. So I would look at those large countries with diverse populations that have been left out of the music industry’s radar screen.
COWEN: Why is the music of the pygmies so good?
GIOIA: Well, listen to how they sing! There’s a view in the public mind that if you listen to traditional African music, it’s just intense rhythms. But that’s not true at all. And the pygmy music — a lot of this is this vocal polyphony.
They sing stuff, and I swear, you could not write it down. If you’re a trained musician, you have a good ear, you can listen to this over and over again, and you can listen to it the 20th time and you’re still saying, “What’s going on here? How are they doing that?” That’s one of these great musical experiences where people can go through their whole life and not hear it, but they really should track it down.
COWEN: What’s the solution to contemporary classical music being too academic? Or would you not accept that premise?
GIOIA: Contemporary classical music now is great. There’s a lot of exciting things happening, and classical composers are mixing up classical music with rock and jazz and folk styles. There’s all sorts of interesting things happening.
But the problem is, they created a public image over the course of 50 years that classical music was just noise and difficult to listen to. So they’ve got to overcome their own reputation. But if you sit down and listen to contemporary classical music seriously over the course of several months, people would be amazed at how much they enjoy it.
COWEN: After Philip Glass, what is it from contemporary classical music that will last?
GIOIA: Well, this is interesting because, like I say, you could listen to Jennifer Higdon or David Lang. There are a bunch of great composers out there. Caroline Shaw — wow, just amazing stuff. I don’t know if it’s found an audience yet. It deserves to find an audience. It deserves to last. But the question is going to be more a socioeconomic one. Will these great composers that are around us now get the platform they need to reach people?
COWEN: What percent of the people who go to the opera actually enjoy it?
GIOIA: It’s interesting. I came to opera late, and when I did, I actually had to force myself to listen to opera. At a certain point, I realized this was a gap in my musical education. There was a period, day after day, I would just listen to the opera, and I would study it to fill that gap. But I’ve met many people that are passionate about it. My older brother, Dana.
COWEN: He writes operas.
GIOIA: This is interesting. I was named after my uncle Ted, who died before I was born. He was a merchant marine, never went to college, died in a plane crash. And my mother says that Uncle Ted was the smart one in the family and that supposedly he had all Dante’s Divine Comedy memorized in Italian. You could just open up the book at any line and say it and he could quote from it.
He corresponded with a great Mozart scholar, Alfred Einstein, on Mozart because my uncle was an expert on Mozart. He was just a sailor. Never went to college. When they came out with an album by Haydn’s brother of music, they had to get my uncle to write the liner notes.
COWEN: You mean Michael Haydn.
GIOIA: That’s right. At that time, the only biographies were written in German, so they had to go to my uncle, the sailor, to help them with the liner notes. Anyway, the story I’m told is that when he was 11 years old or 12 years old, he snuck out of home one night where he hid clothes in his bed and then snuck out the window, took the streetcar into downtown LA to see the opera. Twelve years old! So that’s passion.
Yeah, there are people out there that are absolutely passionate about opera. They will live and die for it, God bless them. But you don’t sell season tickets just on the basis of those people. There are a lot of folks that are just going there to get their cultural street cred.
There are people out there that are absolutely passionate about opera. They will live and die for it, God bless them. But you don’t sell season tickets just on the basis of those people. There are a lot of folks that are just going there to get their cultural street cred.
COWEN: You mentioned your brother, Dana, who’s been a well-known poet, CEO. He ran National Endowment for the Arts. Where do you and he most disagree about music?
GIOIA: Well, like I say, he —
COWEN: He loves Samuel Barber more than you do, or what would it be?
GIOIA: Like I say, Dana loves opera, he loves opera, he’s passionate about opera. And opera is . . . like I say, I’ve gotten an education in opera, but it was very pragmatic, doing that. I’m more of a jazz person. But Dana knows a remarkable amount of jazz. You get Dana involved in a music conversation, even though that’s not his specialty, he can keep up with me point for point on everything.
COWEN: We’ve been talking about music, but you’ve had other lives, in fact. Was it a waste of time to get a Stanford MBA?
GIOIA: Well, I did it for the worst possible reason. I came from a poor family, and when I went to college, I felt I owed it to my parents to get some marketable skills. Even though I knew that jazz was my thing, and I was practicing the piano three hours a day, and I was very interested in arts and culture, I got this MBA to have those marketable skills because I felt that I owed that to Mom and Dad.
But as it turned out, it has proven very useful. You’d be surprised how much of my music research, I rely on what I learned at the Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey, just applying those analytical skills.
COWEN: What would be an example of that?
GIOIA: Well, let me give you an example. When I was at the Boston Consulting Group, we were analyzing new product introductions. So, the idea—a new product is coming out, a new computer or something, and you have to predict how it’s going to sell over the next five, ten years.
We had these mathematical formulas we used to predict the spread of an innovation, and I found that these mathematical formulas had all been developed to track diseases. These were the same formulas they used at the World Health Organization. If there’s a new flu somewhere, they use the same formulas to track the spread of a disease that we used to track the spread of an innovation.
Now, fast forward. Fifteen years later, I’m working on researching the history of jazz, and I’m studying New Orleans, and it was such an unhealthy city. In fact, New Orleans was the unhealthiest city in the United States at the time when jazz was invented. And I asked myself, could there be a connection between the spread of disease and the spread of a musical innovation? Because based upon what I learned at the Boston Consulting Group, there might.
Then I started looking at other situations, and I found a surprising number of situations in history where unhealthy settings and situations had created artistic revolutions. Most people date the start of the Renaissance to the year 1350 in the city of Florence. They don’t realize, 1348 was the Great Plague in Florence. What people don’t realize, the troubadour revolution spread from the South of France into the rest of Europe. It followed the exact same dissemination patterns the Black Death did.
So, classic example: I am taking analytical tools that I learned at the Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey, and I’m applying it to music problems. I’ve done this in many instances. A lot of my work on blues is taking aspects of things I learned back then.
COWEN: Was it a waste of time to get a philosophy, politics, and economics degree from Oxford?
GIOIA: In full disclosure to you, I have to say that I was able to get a degree from Oxford in philosophy, politics, and economics without ever studying the economics. I used a loophole. I didn’t do any economics. Most of my approach was philosophy. An extremely abstract kind of philosophy interests me.
COWEN: You mean like analytic philosophy?
GIOIA: Well, yeah, which I studied at Oxford. But existentialism. I dug into everything. I still read a lot of philosophy, and I believe it has made me a much better music writer. My first music book, The Imperfect Art, was essentially applying philosophical concepts and using them to build a new aesthetic philosophy out of jazz practices. And I think in my latest book, I’ve come back to some of it. I really believe that understanding the history of philosophy and contemporary thought helps me at every stage in my music writing.
COWEN: How has your own Sicilian-Mexican family background shaped your approach to music history and criticism and the ideas in your book Music: A Subversive History?
GIOIA: I came from a very complex ethnic past, and it’s often a question, how much of that shows up in your own musical preferences? I grew up in the thick of an Italian family, where I was always around my Italian relatives, some of them that didn’t speak English, and to some extent, my Mexican relatives as well.
And I look at the Italian culture’s love of melody and the Italian composers’ great emphasis on melody. And I know in my own musical preferences, melody is so important to me.
This is why I wrote a book on West Coast jazz and cool jazz — people like Chet Baker or Paul Desmond. And people say, “Well, they’re not hot enough, Ted. Those aren’t the real jazz musicians.” But I have a real soft spot in my heart for any jazz musician that really masters the art of crafting a melody. And sometimes I wonder if that’s my Italian heritage coming to the forefront.
COWEN: Does music criticism have an economic future? Newspapers are laying off their music critics, right?
GIOIA: Well, this is a big thing. My sons are both interested in arts and culture. My nephews are, and it seems everybody in my family wants to be a writer. And I always say, “Why doesn’t somebody in a family want to trade mortgage derivatives or something? Why does everybody want to be a writer?” And the truth is, it’s hard at this phase in history to make a living as a writer.
The one thing I tell people is, if you’re going to do this, you must find some area of expertise and that you know that better than anybody else. So I still think that in music, if you want to be a music writer, you can do it. But you must have the goal of being one of the few people in the world that really knows your section of music as well as anybody.
Then it’s not just writing. People will call on you to do liner notes, give talks. They’ll want to consult your expertise. You’ll get called to be a judge on panels. The key thing as a writer is to develop the expertise, and then to use writing as one aspect of what you do.
COWEN: Can you ever trust someone who does not have actually good taste in music?
GIOIA: Well, you might be able to trust them in other things, but there’s no substitute for taste and discrimination in music. I think Wynton Marsalis was right. He said — and this is controversial — but he said, if you take somebody who spent their whole life just eating McDonald’s hamburgers, you could take them to the best Michelin-starred restaurant in the world — they wouldn’t enjoy it because they would not have cultivated their taste to understand that.
Music is no different, so unless you’ve cultivated your taste, your ability to appreciate — especially new sounds — will be severely limited.
COWEN: Let’s say a smart 18-year-old comes to you, and that person has been listening to good popular music but says, “Now I’ve learned there’s more out there. I want to cultivate better taste in music.” What do you tell them to do?
GIOIA: Well, I tell them the same thing I tell anybody in any field whatsoever, which is work to get outside your comfort zone. I don’t care what you do. I don’t care whether you’re a scientist or an engineer or a teacher or a music critic or music fan. The most broadening experiences you will have in your life is when you go outside your own comfort zone into new territory.
So I would tell them to do what I do. I have consistently, over a period of years, tried to expose myself to new kinds of music that I hadn’t heard before. And if you do that, you will learn. But also, you’ll enjoy it. This is the path to enjoyment, to open your ears up to these new experiences.
COWEN: For our final segment, I have a few questions about what I call the Ted Gioia production function. Is it better to work and read to music? Or should those be separate activities?
GIOIA: It depends. I believe you can make a very strong philosophical case for what I call the New Age philosophy of music. And that philosophy is that music should be integrated into every aspect of your life or can be integrated into every aspect of your life. I believe that.
Now what I have to say is, in practice, the New Age music that did this was lousy and unlistenable. But I still believe very much, in principle, it’s okay to have music integrated in your life. I know it’s very fashionable to say background music is awful, or music should always be in the foreground. But after having done all the research I’ve done in music history, I now see the exact opposite.
And I’ll just give a couple examples. It’s amazing how many surgeons use music while they operate — 60 percent of surgeons will have a song on while they’re cutting you open. We now learn that at the highest level of peak athletic performance, a lot of care is taken to what songs you listen to while you do your athletic work. And I could give you 50 other examples, but the point is there’s nothing wrong with music being integrated into life experiences, and in fact, we should cultivate that.
COWEN: How is it you manage to listen to so much music?
GIOIA: I think the most important skill anyone can develop is time management skills, how you use your day. But there is one principle I want to stress because this is very important to me, and when people ask me for advice — and once again, this cuts across all fields — but this is the advice I give. In your life, you will be evaluated on your output. Your boss will evaluate you on your output. If you’re a writer like me, the audience will evaluate you on your output.
But your input is just as important. If you don’t have good input, you cannot maintain good output. The problem is no one manages your input. The boss never cares about your input. The boss doesn’t care about what books you read. Your boss doesn’t ask you what newspapers you read. The boss doesn’t ask you what movies you saw or what TV shows or what ideas you consumed.
But I know for a fact, I could not do what I do if I was not zealous in managing high-quality inputs into my mind every day of my life. That’s why I spend maybe two hours a day writing. I’m a writer. I spend two hours a day writing, but I spend three to four hours a day reading and two to three hours a day listening to music.
People think that that’s creating a problem in my schedule, but in fact, I say, “No, no, this is the reason why I’m able to do this. Because I have constant good-quality input.” That is the only reason why I can maintain the output.
COWEN: And what’s your most significant tip for how we can learn to listen to music better?
GIOIA: The most important thing right now is to understand that the best music in our society is under the radar screen for many complex reasons. Record labels are looking for the formula. Radio stations are following the formula. Even these amazing curated playlists are just a feedback loop. They’ll tell you what to listen to next week based on what you listened to last week. And because they’re a feedback loop, they won’t show you anything new or interesting.
So what you need to do, if you really want to broaden your horizons as a listener, is to get exposed to new things. Pick somebody. It doesn’t have to be me. I recommend a new album pretty much every day on my Twitter feed. And every year, I talk about the hundred best albums of the year, and I focus specifically on albums most people would never hear otherwise. So you can turn to me, but it doesn’t have to be me. Find somebody who you trust as a guide, and let them open your ears to these new experiences.
If you do that, you will be rewarded infinitely because music is an amazing part of our life. And if you don’t enjoy the riches of it, you’re selling yourself short.
COWEN: Ted Gioia, thank you very much. And for all of our listeners and readers, I very much recommend Ted’s new book. Again, that’s Music: A Subversive History. Thank you, Ted.
GIOIA: Thank you for having me.