- Making Easy Listening:Material Culture and Postwar American Recording
Most studies of the pre-rock era in America take one of two approaches when tackling the few decades before the rise of rock-n-roll. They view the era as either a move from the song to the singer (and eventually the group) or, more commonly, a move from sheet music to recordings as the node around which popular music organizes itself. In Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording Tim J. Anderson clearly aligns his study with the latter approach. But he bears down more insistently on the material import of recordings—not just their objecthood and how they flow through various markets but also their impact on the well-being of large groups of people who make (or, in many instances, made) their living in the entertainment industry. As such, Making Easy Listening should be greeted enthusiastically by scholars of popular music and sound studies in general.
Anderson divides his book into three sections of two chapters each: an account of two American Federation of Musicians (AFM) strikes in the 1940s under the supervision of the controversial (to put it lightly) James C. Petrillo; an analysis of the countless recorded versions of My Fair Lady and their instantiation of an endlessly intertextual economic mode; and a survey of the various meanings clustered around stereo sound and high fidelity recordings. In each section Anderson tries to circumvent the received logic that the recording industry is inherently evil and instead focuses on the new kinds of relationships fostered by the movement of records towards the center of America's musical lives in the post–World War II years. The fact that some long-standing relationships dissolved during this time never keeps Anderson from maintaining a complex view of the industry, neither hopelessly condemnatory nor replete with nostalgia for some imagined pre-rock utopia.
The first chapter does an excellent job of setting up the contexts in which the AFM strikes signify. The advent of synchronized film sound as well as the increased use of recordings in jukeboxes and on the radio significantly diminished the employment opportunities of musicians. And certainly, postwar prosperity caused sales of the new 33 RPM album and 45 RPM single formats to spike. All of these developments drove musicians further away from decentralized labor opportunities and towards the less profitable role as cast molders. Thus Anderson reads the strikes together as an attempt on the part of musicians to gain control of the labor that was escaping them via the repeatable-use values of records. This reading is a refreshing take on the strikes, which most historians view as a stubborn refusal to adapt to new technologies (no doubt due in large part to the fiery and well-publicized leadership of Petrillo).
Particularly fascinating in these early chapters are Anderson's accounts of the crafty ways in which the recording industry tried to keep moving product during the AFM's recording bans: using studio technology to give the illusion of a performance by multiple musicians; relying on imports from other countries to fill in programming gaps; allowing more folk and "hillbilly" music to seep through various gates; dipping into catalogues for reissues; etc. With [End Page 75] independent labels making more and more inroads and the often nutty array of records opening up ears to sounds beyond Tin Pan Alley, rock-n-roll was not far off. But the musicians' battle was lost, a reality Anderson beautifully evokes as he traces their devaluation on a hypothetical walk in Chicago. First, he visits a free concert pavilion whose name has since been changed from the James C. Petrillo Bandshell. Next, he notes that while walking with a Walkman (or, more appropriately for the current era, an iPod), one will rarely hear a live performance on either recordings or the radio, which would have been quite literally unheard-of in the mid-twentieth century. And finally, he makes his way to the Chicago Federation of Musicians Local #10, which...