From Sap­pho to Elvis and be­yond

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - John McBeath

Love Songs: The Hid­den His­tory By Ted Gioia Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Press, 315pp $35.95 “The book of love has mu­sic in it. In fact that’s where mu­sic comes from.”

That ti­tle-page quo­ta­tion from Stephen Mer­ritt, a pop/rock singer-song­writer, ar­guably over­states the case but the im­por­tance of love songs is un­de­ni­able. In Love Songs: The Hid­den His­tory, Amer­i­can mu­sic his­to­rian Ted Gioia ar­gues the love song de­serves re­spect as a ‘‘battle-hard­ened mode of artis­tic ex­pres­sion … trail­blaz­ing for so­cial change’’.

The ori­gins of love songs go so far back in his­tory that their ear­li­est emer­gence may never be known, but Gioia be­gins by trac­ing them to Me­sopotamian fer­til­ity rites in 2300 BC. He also turns to Charles Dar­win, who said: ‘‘Just as birds sing to at­tract the op­po­site sex, some early pro­gen­i­tor of man prob­a­bly first used his voice in pro­duc­ing true mu­si­cal ca­dences ... es­pe­cially ex­erted dur­ing courtship of the sexes.’’ (‘‘Put sim­ply,’’ Gioia com­ments, “all songs were orig­i­nally love songs.’’)

Greek poet Sap­pho from the sev­enth cen­tury BC is seen as some­one who ‘‘taught the rest of us how to ex­press ro­man­tic sen­ti­ments in song form’’, and who might, if she were alive to­day, ‘‘spread her mes­sage as a singer­song­writer akin to ... Joni Mitchell’’. The re­cur­ring re­pres­sion of love songs emerges: Gioia cites the burning of Sap­pho’s works in AD 380, and again in 1073 on pa­pal or­ders.

The sixth cen­tury BC Chi­nese philoso­pher Con­fu­cius was ap­pointed to se­lect the best of 3000 works in the Shi­jing, or Book of Songs.

Th­ese songs of­ten re­lied on scenes from na­ture to evoke hu­man long­ings for a beloved. Here, as through­out its his­tory, pow­er­ful in­ter­ests tried to prove that love song lyrics ap­par­ently fo­cus­ing on love were re­ally about some­thing else.

In the third cen­tury AD, Quin­til­ia­nis de­scribed Ro­man rit­ual mu­sic be­com­ing en­ter­tain­ment with per­sonal ec­stasy as the pri­mary goal, but once the con­nec­tion with the di­vine was lost and songs dealt with love and sex, sung by women, slaves and out­casts, and Chris­tian­ity was the dom­i­nant reli­gion, sus­pi­cions were raised by peo­ple in power.

For a thou­sand years Chris­tian­ity tried to erad­i­cate the love song, but with lit­tle suc­cess and although few love songs have sur­vived from late an­tiq­uity to the early me­dieval pe­riod, Gioia is cer­tain they ex­isted, “if only by the ve­he­mence with which au­thor­i­ties con­demned them’’.

By the late me­dieval pe­riod the love song breaks out of its re­pres­sion in Chris­tian Europe and ‘‘takes cen­tre stage via the troubadours, gain­ing ac­cep­tance and serv­ing as a path to fame and ac­claim’’. For 250 years troubadours’ songs were im­por­tant in the emo­tional life of south­ern Europe, of­ten em­body­ing ‘‘courtly love’’, which oddly evoked both erotic in­ten­sity and spir­i­tual de­vo­tion, prais­ing women mar­ried to oth­ers.

As the Re­nais­sance be­gins, an earth­ier at­ti­tude ap­pears in the love song in Italy, ex­press­ing car­nal im­pulses.

Car­ni­val and folk songs gave in­sights into love and mar­riage, but the Re­nais­sance de­manded greater depth and in­no­va­tion.

The re­sult in the mu­sic of love was the madri­gal with its con­tra­pun­tal com­plex­ity. Be­tween 1530 and 1600, 2000 vol­umes of madri­gals were pub­lished. How­ever, au­di­ences found the qual­i­ties of the madri­gal could be raised to an even higher pitch in the per­for­mance of opera where the most popular love songs were em­bed­ded in elab­o­rate spec­ta­cles. The chap­ter ti­tled Di­vas and De­viancy out­lines the ‘‘aura of scan­dal and ro­man­tic in­trigue that

Love Me Ten­der sur­rounded the art form’’, and brings the book up to the mod­ern era.

An­other chap­ter is de­voted to the im­pact of black mu­si­cians on Amer­i­can song from the late 19th cen­tury, ‘‘lay­ing the ground­work for a revo­lu­tion in song that is still re­ver­ber­at­ing to­day’’. Ex­am­in­ing why the love song has a hid­den his­tory re­veals that ‘‘we feel com­pelled to sing about love but are deeply em­bar­rassed by this com­pul­sion’’, but the ex­clu­sion of slaves from the dom­i­nant cul­ture freed them from such stric­tures.

Croon­ers, torch songs and bob­bysox­ers are all ex­plored, Gioia not­ing an in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of emo­tional im­pact and eroti­cism in popular mu­sic in the 1920s fol­low­ing the in­tro­duc­tion of record­ings. By 1950 less in­hib­ited love songs were on the rise, but mostly in black com­mu­ni­ties, where rhythm and blues be­came a cat­e­gory name. The ad­vent of rock ’n’ roll in the mid50s led to Elvis Pres­ley, the Bea­tles and the Rolling Stones, with per­for­mances charged with un­prece­dented erotic en­ergy.

By the 70s, af­ter glam rock, disco ar­rived and per­form­ers were re­placed in clubs by DJs of­ten sup­ply­ing just a mes­meris­ing beat or ‘‘short­hand ad­vice’’ to Shake Your Booty or Get Down Tonight.

Dur­ing the 80s other styles ap­peared: house mu­sic, techno, trance and acid jazz. Rave par­ties re­placed lyrics with beats and pro­grammed sounds, but many fans craved some­thing stronger, ‘‘just plain nas­tier’’, and turned to punk rock and new wave, with ro­mance and eroti­cism mostly re­moved.

Then ‘‘ MTV and the video for­mat brought them back … in a new for­mula, re­defin­ing the love song in the mod­ern age’’.

This book, re­searched for 10 years, is ex­tremely com­pre­hen­sive, cov­er­ing a huge swath of global mu­sic his­tory in a con­ver­sa­tional yet knowl­edge­able style. It is dense with statis­tics — names, dates, ti­tles — as well as anal­y­sis, anec­dotes and his­tor­i­cal data. Some­times those in the teem­ing cavalcade of peo­ple are sim­ply named, when a short ex­pla­na­tion would have been wel­come.

The book concludes with a re­minder that love has spurred many mu­si­cal rev­o­lu­tions in the past and can do so again. ‘‘When love fi­nally calls the tune it’s likely to be from an un­ex­pected di­rec­tion: from the bo­hemian, the out­cast, the ex­cluded, the marginalised ... and the most hid­den places.’’

Elvis Pres­ley in

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