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Summary

"A dauntingly ambitious, obsessively researched" (Los Angeles Times) global history of music that reveals how songs have shifted societies and sparked revolutions

Histories of music overwhelmingly suppress stories of the outsiders and rebels who created musical revolutions and instead celebrate the mainstream assimilators who borrowed innovations, diluted their impact, and disguised their sources. In Music: A Subversive History, Ted Gioia reclaims the story of music for the riffraff, insurgents, and provocateurs.

Gioia tells a 4,000-year history of music as a global source of power, change, and upheaval. He shows how outcasts, immigrants, slaves, and others at the margins of society have repeatedly served as trailblazers of musical expression, reinventing our most cherished songs from ancient times all the way to the jazz, reggae, and hip-hop sounds of the current day.

Music: A Subversive History is essential for anyone interested in the meaning of music, from Sappho to the Sex Pistols to Spotify.

©2019 Ted Gioia (P)2019 Basic Books

Critic reviews

"In this meticulously-researched yet thoroughly page-turning book, Gioia argues for the universality of music from all cultures and eras. Subversives from Sappho to Mozart and Charlie Parker are given new perspective - as is the role of the church and other arts-shaping institutions. Music of emotion is looked at alongside the music of political power in a fascinating way by a master writer and critical thinker. This is a must-read for those of us for whom music has a central role in our daily lives." (Fred Hersch, pianist and composer, and author of Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz)

"A revisionist history highlights music's connections to violence, disruption, and power. In a sweeping survey that begins in "pre-human natural soundscapes", music historian Gioia (How To Listen to Jazz, 2016, etc.) examines changes and innovation in music, arguing vigorously that the music produced by "peasants and plebeians, slaves and bohemians, renegades and outcasts" reflected and influenced social, cultural, and political life.... A bold, fresh, and informative chronicle of music's evolution and cultural meaning." (Kirkus)

"As a fan of 'big histories' that sweep through space and time, I gobbled this one like candy as I found myself astounded by some idea, some fact, some source, some dots connected into a fast-reading big picture that takes in Roman pantomime riots, Occitan troubadours, churchbells, blues, Afrofuturism, surveillance capitalism, and much more. A must for music heads." (Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and Its Music and The World That Made New Orleans)

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informative

I loved everything about this book, the breath of information, analysis of overall cultural, political impact of music.

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Essential to all musicologists

This timely new history should be read by all who teach/research music at any level and I hope its reverberations will be heard throughout musicology. (Narrator a bit slow for me but can be sped up.)

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Fascinating

Fascinating explanation of music history from an unusual standpoint, from prehistory to the modern day. Well narrated.

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  • W. Norman
  • 02-11-19

Tour de force

Although I’d read and reread at least 4 of Gioia’s books on music, I was a little skeptical that the “subversive” conceit could plausibly be sustained for a whole book. I was wrong! This is a tour de force — a book he’s no doubt been training himself to write almost non-stop since childhood. The book is well read. But you will have to figure out how not to cringe as Renell mangles every single French word or name.

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  • Will
  • 22-12-19

Has expanded my mind!

Bravo! This is a magically potent walk through the history and present of music. Thank you!

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  • Chris
  • 09-11-19

Pretentious

This book was not for me. I found no thread to latch onto, and the book in general felt pretentious and full of itself.

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  • Erik A. Ritland
  • 24-11-20

Squeezing cherry-picked facts into a simplistic narrative

The argument that “the man” took everything outside of the mainstream and neutered it to control it is such a banal assertion. The banal assertion is “backed” with cherry-picked facts that make the narrative seem plausible, as you can do with basically any narrative. That’s why narrative is so powerful. That’s why it’s so easy to brainwash people. Ultimately, this is a forced, simplistic neo-Marxist narrative that pits the “subversive” pleb artists outside of the mainstream as against the terrible bourgeois establishment (that evidently stretches back thousands of years lol). Then supposedly the evil “man, maaaan,” like anyone who has any power according to neo-Marxism, shuts them down by incorporating them into the mainstream, thus taking away their power. While the author (who I love, actually, his books about the history of jazz, listening to jazz, and the birth (and death) of the cool are a few of my favorites) strains and strains to make this case, the actual truth always bubbles beneath the surface, and this truth actually gives the outside the mainstream innovators their due. What the subversives did was revolutionize the mainstream. They become accepted after years of hardship, struggle, and persecution *despite* the best efforts of the mainstream to stop them. Then the mainstream couldn’t ignore it anymore or brush it away so the subversives became mainstream. Which gives them the credit they deserve. They changed the course of history and music over and over. To cheat them is that accomplishment by saying that all they did was get co-opted by the mainstream is stripping them of all their power and diminishes their struggle. The author can’t see this, however, because he wants so badly to see history as the a Marxist power struggle. So pathetic. This book reminds me of Peter Doggett’s There’s a Riot Going On. Politics always bubbles under in his work, but in that book he got explicitly political, and it showed both just how warped his views are and how brainwashed by the far left he is. But he used music as a catalyst and engine for the book, basically ripping on any artist in the 60s who didn’t denigrate their work by getting explicitly political. What this author does is similar: he uses the subversive v establishment in music false binary as a screed to espouse his simplistic political views. Sad!