How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music BY Elijah Wald. Oxford University Press, USA. Hardcover, 336 pages. $24.
The cover of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

Millions heard the sound of freedom in the Beatles’ music. Elijah Wald hears a death knell. In the songs of the Fab Four, he argues, pop music completed its decades-long transformation from a kingdom of democratic dance and authorless song to a lonesome land of private pleasures and isolated audiences. The result was segregation along lines of race as well as taste: In the late ’60s, as white rock sought introspection in albums and black pop chased good times on singles, an “increasing divide between rock and soul, listening music and dance music,” developed. Wald writes that the Beatles destroyed rock ’n’ roll by leading “their audience off the dance floor, separating rock from its rhythmic and cultural roots,” and “point[ing] the way toward a future in which there need be no unifying styles.”

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll is meticulously researched and dispassionately argued but only partly about rock ’n’ roll and the Beatles. More than half the book centers on jazz forms of the early twentieth century—ragtime, swing, romantic croon—with an analysis of later non-jazz genres such as hillbilly and Latin, and sociological sidebars on contemporaneous dance and clothing fads. Though Wald means to stress “the continuity and connections between pop eras,” his history lacks unity: Chapters are often linked only by Wald’s refusal of received wisdom. Sometimes this thread snaps midway: A promising chapter on girl-group records and female empowerment dissolves into tangents on protest folk and surf music.

If the book has an overall theme, it is that pop music was better before technology got involved. To Wald, phonograph records and radio shows weren’t innovations for music distribution so much as attempts to commodify the ineffable. He mourns a long-gone day when listeners discovered songs at social events like fairs and dances, instrumentalists weren’t limited to replicating solos familiar from recordings, and performers tended to be anonymous working stiffs. In his view, the decline began when pop music became tied to personalities who were seen to elevate its quality (’20s jazz maestro Paul Whiteman was the Beatles’ precursor in snob appeal) and records and radio unmoored music from its egalitarian foundations. Wald’s perfect pop world ended, we gather, around 1910.

What this book does best is convey how pop music was consumed before the advent of celebrity and technology. Although conventional music history has focused on the singer-star, audiences eighty years ago cared chiefly about songs, not performers: Sheet-music sales measured a tune’s popularity, and a fan’s enjoyment wasn’t bound to a particular singer’s rendition. So rather than judge the relative merits of artists and works, Wald excavates a sense of how each was absorbed by its time and resists a retroactive bias—the urge to fit the past into rigid categories and movements, with no significant advances occurring outside those classifications.

The history of pop music is varied enough to generate many conflicting narratives, each with its own supporting data—chart placements, contextual quotes, etc. As Wald writes, “There are no definitive histories because the past keeps looking different as the present changes.” More important than Wald’s data, which are solidly documented, is his failure to charge this chronicle with attitude, drama, and vivid language. Such things matter in a book like this: Revisionist history, if it means to topple shrines and blast platitudes, shouldn’t sound as potted and prosaic as that which it would subvert. Alternative history needs an alternative vision, a third eye to spot miracles on the peripheries. Wald has that eye. What he lacks, or represses, is a style alive with the momentum of change, the juice of rhetoric, or the melancholy of loss. So what if the Beatles destroyed rock ’n’ roll? Wald never gets angry about it. He never even seems sad. I want an alternative.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (Harvard University Press, 2003) and is at work on a biography of Henry Fonda.