Play it loud: A rich history of American pop music

From its beginnings in blues and ragtime, American popular music has blended influences and genres. Four recent books explore its enduring appeal. 

Ann Hermes/Staff/File
With a single cone resonator guitar, a musician can create a louder, more metallic sound than that created by a typical guitar.

American jazz vocalist Lou Rawls once proclaimed, “Music is the greatest communication in the world.” Not bound by language, he explained, music holds a power to reach across cultures. 

Popular music that has emerged since the start of the 20th century has communicated identities and ideas while also fostering a worldwide industry. Four recent books examine this history, focusing on American popular music. As a group, each claims a voice in an entertaining but complicated conversation that explores the power of the music industry, the impact of technology, and the pressure of social mores. 

Black music as a foundation

What is widely viewed as “American music” has long been an appropriation of Black music – without giving credit. How important, then, to begin with the foundation provided by Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr.’s intriguing compilation of essays, “Who Hears Here?” Ramsey, a musicologist and music historian as well as a musician himself, brings an authentic voice to the discussion.

To anyone who truly cares about the history of popular music, his book and other writings by Black scholars cannot be ignored. To do so would be to sever indispensable sources of information that allow listeners to understand the history and the culture that produced the music, an awareness vital to a full appreciation of the work.

"Who Hears Here? On Black Music, Pasts and Present," by Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr., University of California Press, 310 pp.

Yet, as Ramsey’s essays make clear, that is what has occurred for decades in the field of music criticism, replicating the patterns and practices of the music industry. He recounts his awakened understanding of “what impact cultural criticism could have on Black music study if the field remained a predominately white, male endeavor.”

In the essay that lends its title to the book, Ramsey recounts efforts to shatter that silence. Sharing an annotated history, citing decades of writings by Amiri Baraka, Albert Murray, Billy Taylor, and others, Ramsey examines the harsh, complicated reception their work received while affirming that intimidating responses cannot be a deterrent to speaking one’s truth. 

The book stands as a testament to his commitment. His 14 essays capture a range of perspectives and musical styles as he traces the history of Black music from the Civil War through to the work of one of the brightest stars currently on the scene, Robert Glasper. Ramsey brings a depth and an essential understanding to the discussion of American popular music.  

Billboard Hot 100

The impact of social conventions also plays out in Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones.” A longtime music columnist, Breihan draws on the Billboard Hot 100 list of American pop music to examine the songs that permeate popular culture and emerge as the soundtrack of an era. Devoting a chapter to each, he examines 20 of these hits, calling them the recordings “that marked new moments in pop-music evolution – the ones that immediately made the previous weeks’ hits sound like relics.” 

Breihan begins with Chubby Checker’s hit “The Twist,” released in 1960. The record launched a national dance craze when Checker premiered his hit nationally on Dick Clark’s television program “American Bandstand.” Breihan notes that since “The Twist” was a noncontact dance, white television executives approved the broadcast since they did not need to worry that Black teenagers would be seen dancing closely with white teens, a violation of the social standards of the time. An earlier televised incident, he notes, had derailed a businessman’s career.

"The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music," by Tom Breihan, Hachette Books, 352 pp.

Breihan recounts how television again shaped the music scene 40 years later when MTV ushered in glam and punk rock, musical styles better suited to visual broadcast than the album-
oriented rock music heard on FM radio in the 1970s, again changing the course of the industry. 

In this very readable volume, Breihan includes Michael Jackson’s epic “Billie Jean” from 1983 and Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time” from 1998. He concludes with the K-Pop boy band BTS and their 2020 hit “Dynamite.” Most every selection will be familiar – if not an earworm – to music listeners, standing as they do as totems to each era of popular music.

All ears tuned to American pop 

Bob Stanley’s “Let’s Do It” serves as the comprehensive version of popular music history. Totaling more than 600 pages, the book examines the first half of the 20th century, serving as a prequel to Stanley’s earlier volume, “Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop.”

Stanley also weaves together the history of music with that of the developing industry and the technology of the times. He begins with the 78 rpm record that made music accessible to a wider audience and helped launch the recording business. He cites how radio and, later, television allowed for even wider audiences – and even more profits.

"Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop Music: A History," by Bob Stanley, Pegasus Books, 624 pp.

As Stanley traces the popular music of each decade through the work of Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin, and the Gershwin brothers, he also examines blues musicians and the emerging American art form, bebop, with the work of Earl Hines. With blues and bebop, the standard business model involved the selling of Black musicians’ work to Black audiences, with the profits going to white businesspeople. But records and appearances on TV widened the appeal beyond the Black community, attracting white audiences, too. 

It wasn’t only about the money. Stanley cites how, in the post-World War II era when America was viewed as the apex of the free world, its culture served as the guiding light for the arts around the globe. America’s popular music brought prestige as well.

Why we like what we like

The fourth book takes a different approach to music appreciation. In “This Is What It Sounds Like,” Susan Rogers seeks to awaken in readers a practical understanding of the music, including an awareness of the elements that enable the art form to communicate. She explores melody, rhythm, lyrics, and timbre, noting that some people might be intellectual listeners, drawn to effective lyrics, while others respond to rhythm. By isolating the components and showing how individual tastes are shaped by experience and exposure, Rogers untangles individual musical preferences. 

“Listening is not the same as hearing,” she writes. “Listening is an active process, not a passive one, and being a competent listener requires curiosity, effort, and love.”

"This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You," by Susan Rogers and Ogi Ogas, W.W. Norton, 288 pp.

A professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Rogers began her career as a self-taught audio technician who simply followed her heart and learned along the way. She writes that soul music resonates for her – Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and her favorite, Prince. In 1983, Prince was looking for a technician. Even though Rogers did not have experience or formal training, Prince, impressed by her listening skills, hired her anyway. As a result, as one of the youngest and one of the few female audio engineers in the business, Rogers served as the chief engineer for Prince’s smash hit album “Purple Rain.”

On the way to becoming a college professor, she explored music through graduate studies in cognitive neuroscience. Some readers might wish to take note that she occasionally uses this knowledge to explain a listener’s response. But, as she shares ways for nonmusicians to better understand pop hits, it is her overwhelming love of the music that she circles back to time and again.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Play it loud: A rich history of American pop music
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today