- Supremely American: Popular Song in the 20th Century: Styles and Singers and What They Said About America
Nicholas Tawa, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, is the author of numerous volumes on the history of music in America. His most recent book, Supremely American: Popular Song in the 20th Century: Styles and Singers and What They Said About America, is a study of popular music and how it has been influenced by changes in American life and culture. Tawa examines the way popular music fits within the context of twentieth-century society, why musical styles changed, and what the new styles that emerged suggested. Songs of the jazz age and swing era are considered in terms of their relationship to the time, while post-World War II songs are classified more by styles and the audiences the variations in styles created. The book is written for the general reader with little or no formal training in music. As the author states: "I have not concentrated on a technical analysis and explanation of songs" (p. ix).
The arrangement of the first three chapters of the book seemed to flow more fluidly than later chapters, as Tawa's survey of popular song is organized chronologically. Beginning around chapter 4, the emphasis is on popular music after World War II, with the chronological arrangement being replaced by classification of styles and the audiences the variations in styles created. Perhaps there are just too many overlapping musical styles that flourished after World War II, but I found that I had to reread passages in some places to remember where I was and to what the author was referring.
As the title suggests, the book examines many types of song that were popular throughout the twentieth century. Preliminary consideration is given to the close of the nineteenth century, and Tawa continues his survey with the jazz and swing eras. He explores the torch song, novelty and dance songs, and both light and serious love songs. There is early emphasis on the art of the crooner, and in the variety of singing styles that arose in the early to mid-1900s.
As America changed, popular music changed with it. Prohibition, war, crisis, and controversy led people to seek out entertainment like never before (p. 31). The types of entertainment sought by the American public varied according to ethnicity and economic status. Brought to the fore are influences from African American musical styles such as soul, funk, the Motown sound, reggae, hip hop, and rap. Influences derived from British traditional music are discussed as precursors to the more political folk music that gained popularity in the United States after the Vietnam War, with singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez. Other influential American popular music styles such as country, folk rock, disco, heavy metal, punk, and grunge are covered as well.
As a historian, Tawa appears to be more comfortable chronicling the earlier part of the twentieth century. His coverage of jazz and swing was by far more readable than his later coverage of rock, reggae, disco, funk, punk, rap, and hip-hop. I found the latter chapters to be unfocused, and they seemed to ricochet between styles and between time periods. The author manages to at least mention most of the variations in style during this postwar period, but these chapters are filled with too many factual errors to inspire confidence. Musicians and bands are often placed in conflicting style categories; for example, the New York Dolls are first mentioned in the section "The Rebellious Posture: Heavy Metal" and then are mentioned again later in the section "Progressive to Punk."
Although most of the book seems very well researched (including the use of chapter endnotes), there are quite a few inconsistencies [End Page 986] and errors that are not referenced with a source. He mistakenly suggests that the New York Dolls were members of a Brooklyn...