Music History, the Conspiracy Theory: On Ted Gioia's Music: A Subversive History
Although enjoyable in that sweeping big picture kind of way, there is nothing subversive to be found in Ted Gioia's Music: A Subversive History.
Music: A Subversive History
Music critic, educator, performer Ted Gioia has published 11 books and innumerable articles (many of which are archived on his website). Wildly prolific, much of his most celebrated work focuses on music, primarily jazz and blues. But he also assays topics ranging from Schopenhauer as the systematic thinker ideally suited to the 21st century to essays on literature (Jonathan Franzen and Leo Tolstoy) to lists of what he regards as the top 100 recordings of the year starting in 2011.
I first read Gioia when he released his 2008 study Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters who Revolutionized American Music (W.W. Norton). I found his take on the Delta blues artists to be enlightening and enlivening. Gioia manages to involve his reader in the rich textures of our engagement with music, the ways in which life infuses sound and sound suffuses life. I eagerly read his various books on jazz, particularly The History of Jazz (Oxford UP, 2011). What I admired about both of these books was their attention to specificity.
But there is another side to Gioia's pursuits that come into clearer focus in his "song" trilogy: Work Songs (Duke UP, 2006), Healing Songs (Duke UP, 2006)—both honored with an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Book Award—and Love Songs (Oxford UP, 2015). These books offer a grand, sweeping approach to music and its history; they are speculative, given to flights of imagination and interpretive acrobatics. Here Gioia's take on Schopenhauer comes to fruition. For Gioia, Schopenhauer is a systematic thinker; he sees a big picture with a radical causal explanation for all of the things we experience.
Regardless of whether or not we agree with this portrait of Schopenhauer, this is the kind of thinker Gioia also wants to be. He wants to engage with the hidden reality behind the world, the profound energy that makes the whole thing operate in all its messy contradictions, in all its dispiriting disappointments and ecstatic joys. And for Gioia, the force behind the unfolding of universal history (not just human history) is music. This is the remit of his new book Music: A Subversive History, a kind of apotheosis of Gioia's all-encompassing endeavor to place music at the center of experience and existence.
This history must be "subversive" because Gioia believes that music is itself a subversive force that derails the institutional rationality of the "power brokers" of society cultivated by the poor, the disaffected, the rebels and outsiders, and then co-opted, sanitized, and legitimized by those very same power brokers. This is the underlying tension of music for Gioia, not far removed from a schematic view of Schopenhauer's tension between the active-destructive force of the Will and the reifying-formative structures of Representation.
The boredom that Gioia feels is characteristic of so much music history is simply part of a larger scam arranged by the power brokers—who are never named and therefore convenient villains to bring on stage as needed. That boredom elides the subversive essence of music insofar as "the respectable music of cultural elites gets almost all the attention, while the subversive efforts of outsiders and rebels fall from view" (2).
Just who is Gioia railing against here? We never find out. He alludes to some "leading ethnomusicologist" (368-69) who refuses to sign on to Gioia's wish to generalize about the music of herding cultures throughout the globe and throughout history. But aside from that, we get no real examples of the kind of history Gioia finds objectionable. It certainly can't be the history of rock or jazz or really nearly any form of popular music (areas in which Gioia is a skilled contributor). The entire histories of rock and jazz are grounded in the contributions of outsiders that lead to the formation of genres, styles, musical and social movements, and technical innovation.
I suppose he has some sort of Music 101, classical music history in mind. But even that seems questionable unless he is simply objecting to the dubious quality of college textbooks. Indeed, he covers a large swath of classical music: Josquin, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven all make prominent appearances in the narrative. He suggests that he is bringing out the outsider nature of these characters, but his accounts are all familiar from previous "establishment" writings.
Readers enthusiastic for sweeping claims that summarize world history through a dialectic of stability and upheaval rooted in music's penchant for giving rise to love and hate will find plenty here to bolster their convictions.
More to the point, there is a troubling slippage that emerges in Gioia's approach. If the musician is someone Gioia finds (or believes most will find) important to the development of music, then he or she must be a rebel in some manner (sexually deviant, socially defiant, etc.) no matter how securely ensconced in the establishment he or she was. This is part of the reason the "power brokers" must go unnamed. If we have an actual individual in mind, how difficult is it to find some manner in which that person deviates from the normative? Sure, Bach and Josquin were famously recalcitrant and stubborn—but so were many princes and cardinals and CEOs, and if the latter aren't examples of power brokers then the term is meaningless altogether.
Moreover, when considering the musicians mentioned above, each of them gained important elements of their creativity and their musical approach from the establishments in which they operated. Traditions are continuously negotiated and contested; that prevents them from stagnating. They are not simply overthrown constantly and when they are it requires a more careful historical assessment than to say that the musician is always the rebel that overturns the establishment. But for Gioia, creativity flows solely in one direction: the rebel gets absorbed into the larger culture and is discarded and forgotten while the culture finds a new basis for stability. This is a kind of "punctuated equilibrium" theory of music history.
In Gioia's understanding, music's power derives from its paradoxical ability to inspire both feelings of love and feelings of violence. Therefore, music not only predicts social change (as it does in the work of Jacques Attali, whom Gioia cites in his book) but it also is a catalyst of that change. This is why it must be controlled and managed by the power brokers. It engages the audience but it can also foment out and out rebellion.
This is obviously "big picture" thinking. Readers enthusiastic for sweeping claims that summarize world history through a dialectic of stability and upheaval rooted in music's penchant for giving rise to love and hate will find plenty here to bolster their convictions. Readers who approach such generalizations as intriguing missteps that elide integral historical and cultural distinctions will find themselves repeatedly frustrated by the lack of specificity.
Both types of readers will find plenty here to contemplate—things that challenge one's current worldview and things that require refutation. In what follows, I would like to look at three aspects of the book that particularly caught my interest.
Genealogy and the Genetic Fallacy
Gioia's scope in Music: A Subversive History is startlingly ambitious, nothing short of the entirety of history (as we understand it) from the initial burst of the Big Bang to the present day. Such breadth seeks out continuities that hold the entire edifice together, however loosely. Gioia's continuity derives from his view that music equally inspires love and violence and all musical (and social) development can be understood as the unfolding of music's intrinsic, dialectical force. But the search for continuities hardly ends there. Throughout the book, Gioia connects seemingly disparate musical genres and eras with an élan that elicits both admiration and doubt.
The first notable instance of his forging a continuity that others have ignored or would disavow occurs in Chapter 2, provocatively entitled "Carnivores at the Philharmonic". Gioia begins with the observation that the musical instruments that populate the stage of a symphony orchestra derived, in their most distant and archaic history, from animal bones and hunting equipment: "Wind instruments…came from the bones of prey. Hides got made into drums" (21). Gioia wastes no time in leaping over centuries in order to demand: "Are we wrong to hear this history in the music itself, in the formidable aggression and awe-inspiring assertiveness of those monumental symphonies that remain the core repertoire of the world's leading orchestras?" (23). He goes on to claim there is a "bloody history behind our stately evenings at the philharmonic" (24).
This is what is known as the genetic fallacy, and it is one of Gioia's favored argumentative moves in this book. The genetic fallacy marks the claim that because something developed from an earlier state, it maintains the meaning and connotations and manner of being of that initial state. The genetic fallacy often arises from attempts to infer present values from past values.
For example, the term "rule of thumb" is often said to have arisen from English law that allowed a man to beat his wife as long as the stick was no thicker than his thumb. Therefore, one running afoul of the genetic fallacy might claim that to use this phrase now is misogyny. (There is no real evidence that such a rule was ever truly part of English law, but that doesn't prevent this very instance of the genetic fallacy from arising.) However, the term has a perfectly valid use now that, for most English speakers, connotes nothing of misogyny.
When you back out far enough, everything inevitably looks the same.
Now, we might grant Gioia a bit of slack here and assume he is speaking poetically, making a grand historical gesture without really feeling that he has explained anything. That does not appear to be the case. Gioia returns to this kind of gambit again and again. "What is rap," Gioia asks, "but a resurrection of the pure expressivity of monophonic chant? What is the EDM-driven rave but a return to the trance-inspiring rituals of prehistory?" (360). All country music derives from the pastoral genealogy of herding cultures; all rock progresses from ancient ritual sacrifice.
These connections are not meant to be fanciful for Gioia; they are meant to be causal. Despite his devotion to the idea that music continually leads to revolution and upheaval, the underlying narrative Gioia establishes is simply an oscillation between love and violence—things are as they have ever been and will continue on forever, amen.
This is the ultimate risk one takes in writing these sweeping historical narratives. When you back out far enough, everything inevitably looks the same. There might be something interesting one could excavate out of the fact that orchestral instruments have their foundation in the struggles of a hunting and gathering society. But ferreting out those nuggets of interest require careful sifting through the vicissitudes of the passing years.
Let's take the most convincing of the comparisons laid out so far: EDM and "the trance-inspiring rituals of prehistory". There is no doubt that EDM is involved in the business of inducing trance-like states. The repetitive and corporeal nature of the music, the ecstatic exhaustion deriving from extended periods of energetic dancing, the neon lights and strobe effects, the drugs certain devotees take to enhance the experience—all of these features are indeed designed to lead participants out of their quotidian senses of self and into an altered state of bliss. No argument there.
The question arises, however: how can we substantiate the stronger claim that Gioia makes in stating that EDM is a "return to the trance-inspiring rituals of prehistory?" To do so would require a lot more historical investigation than occurs here. While I am no expert in EDM, my suspicion is that such an investigation would quickly provide a more proximate historical model for EDM's concern with trance. The obvious candidate is disco.
Certainly, one might try to trace the path further and further into the past. But the important thing to recognize is not simply a strained continuity but rather how we got there and what important elements changed along the way. This is not work Gioia wants to do and it forces his readers to take far too much for granted. It is easy to find connections between any two things (this is the remit of conspiracy theorists, for instance). To demonstrate the precise manner of connection is far more difficult and far more necessary.
Enter the Ontological Foe: the Pythagoras Plot
Gioia lays a lot of the blame for how things turned out poorly for music at the feet of Pythagoras. He claims: "Pythagoras's attempt to define and constrain musical sounds by the use of numbers and ratios continues to shape how we conceptualize and perform songs in the current day" (49). He goes on to assert that music as taught in "every university and conservatory in the world today, is explicitly Pythagorean in its methods and assumptions" (ibid.).
Now clearly the term "explicitly" is misapplied in that very few universities or conservatories explicitly state that theirs is a Pythagorean project. Moreover, and more importantly, the claim hardly withstands scrutiny as being valid in any but the most banal sense even if we were to assume that Gioia means the Pythagorean project is implicit in the manner in which music is taught.
The issue here lies in Gioia's construal of that project. That is, he mischaracterizes just what Pythagoras and the majority of his followers were attempting to accomplish and substitutes later concerns—that of course were historically contingent reverberations of the Pythagorean insight—for Pythagoras's own. Or at least what we and his followers take those concerns to have been. It is important to note that we have no direct access to Pythagoras's own thinking. Nothing he may have written survives (if he wrote anything at all, which is doubtful insofar as he emphasized the importance of spoken discourse for the proper communication and dissemination of knowledge).
Hence, the story here is far more complicated than Gioia allows. While I suppose we can say that any quantitative approach to the understanding of music (whether designed as a contributing source of insight or as a totalizing explanation) relates in some way to Pythagoras's project, the story of how we got from that project to our current concerns (which are hardly as monolithic as Gioia seems to suppose) is precisely what ought to be at issue. This is, again, the problem of genealogy that we saw with respect to the "carnivorous genealogy" of the orchestra.
The "genius" in the artist is the faculty that leads to things "feeling right" in a composition without there being a rulebook we can point to in an attempt to "demonstrate" that it is right.
Gioia's celebrates what he perceives as rebellion and difference, which is laudatory as far as it goes. But in order to do so he insists that the converse also holds. Not only are the rebellious and different to be celebrated, but anything worthy of celebration must be (on some level) rebellious and different. This leads him into rather bizarre assertions.
Accounts of African music seek quantification of its rhythmic character, leading Gioia to proclaim: "The music that broke the rules is now reduced to the rules" (50). Gioia similarly characterizes the blues as "a way of defying scales and standard notation" (ibid.) as though that were some conscious intent laying behind the brilliant work of Son House and Blind Blake. But African music and the blues were not designed to break or observe any rules pertaining to a completely different tradition of music-theoretical thought. Moreover, just to be clear, the outsized majority of Western classical music was written with little to no concern for that tradition of music-theoretical thought.
For the most part, music theory is a posthoc explanatory approach with its own set of philosophical, epistemological, and aesthetic concerns. There are no concrete rules in the act of composition (at least for most composers, aside from self-imposed rules). Rules are for students; we ought not to confuse pedagogy with artistry or cultural production. This is why Anton Bruckner, when teaching counterpoint at a university and asked why Beethoven doesn't seem to have observed the rules the students were forced to imbibe, declared that the students were able to break those rules as well: "when you are a Beethoven".
On its face, this appears to be the Kantian claim that the "genius" gives the rule to art, but even that Kantian claim can easily become misconstrued and overblown. The genius for Kant was not the Romantic hero of later generations; the genius here was simply the artist as such, or, better yet, that creative faculty within the artist that leads to things "feeling right" in a composition without there being a rulebook we can point to in an attempt to "demonstrate" that it is right.
The source of Gioia's position clearly derives from Plutarch's misunderstanding of an admittedly confusing aspect of Pythagoras's teaching, which Gioia quotes: "[T]he virtue of music could be appreciated only by the intellect. And therefore he did not judge music by the ear but by the harmonical proportion" (50).
Let's revisit the famous Pythagoras anecdote. While walking, Pythagoras passes a smithy and hears intervals that he recognizes as musical, the so-called perfect intervals: the octave, the fifth, and the fourth. He rightly assumes that the ratios between the sounding pitches that produce those intervals relate to the proportions among the objects producing them. He then tests the relationships by having the smiths exchange hammers (thinking that maybe it is the force that the smith brings to bear on the hammer that produces the pitch). But he sees that the pitches remain with the hammers.
He then (wrongly) assumes that those proportions involve the simple weights of the hammers. So, he weighs the hammers and purportedly discovers that one of the hammers producing the octave is twice as heavy as the other; thus, they stand in a ratio of 2:1. (This wouldn't be the case in reality but lest not let facts get in the way of a good story.) He then (rightly) attributes the ratio of 2:1 to the octave itself.
Now, there are several things to note here. First, Pythagoras's first move is observation through the senses. So, to say that music can "be appreciated only by the intellect" is false or, at the very least, relies on a very limited use of the word "appreciate". Hearing is required to recognize it as music at all. Second, Pythagoras in the story doesn't leap to some conclusion about mathematical order; he tests the world to get it to reveal its secrets. On the one hand, this looks like an adumbration of the scientific method, but the fact that it doesn't hold up to scrutiny (the weights of hammers producing an octave would not stand in a ratio of 2:1 in actuality) demonstrates that this is not exactly what is happening here. This is not a post-Newtonian means of demystifying the world. This is the story of a seeker (indeed a magus—a status that Gioia wants to deny Pythagoras) looking behind the curtain of surface reality in order to access a deeper truth.
Third, Pythagoras does not treat mathematics as a mere measure of physical phenomena. For him and his cult, mathematics is the true reality, the organizing matrix, that lies behind the phenomena of our experience. This is hard for us to grasp. Put simply, for the Pythagorean the "One" or the "Two" are things in themselves; the Unit and the Binary (as they are often referred to by the Pythagoreans) are the actuality of the world, its true denizens.
Rocks, musical intervals, human beings, and anything else you might think of are simply expressions of number—whereas we treat number as metric expressions of things. This means that Pythagoras is looking for an occult, mystical truth that underlies reality. What Pythagoras is doing is not science by our lights—it is magic. (Of course science and magic are not so easily differentiated through most of western history right up to and including some of the ideas set forth by such recognized scientists as Newton and the inventor Edison.)
So, if Gioia fears that music has been stripped of its magic, that it has been defanged in an attempt to sterilely account for its properties in total disregard of its effects, he should find in Pythagoras the ultimate historical ally. Pythagoras, after all, was concerned with the healing and magical properties of music (something Gioia acknowledges in passing). His conception of the application of number to music was far from a means of controlling the latter. Indeed, the very locution "application of number to music" is entirely misleading. Pythagoras sought the truth of number that underwrote the mystical value of sounding music. It seems almost a shame that Gioia's narrative, concerned as it is with rebels and outsiders, mainstreams one of the most troubling and rebellious thinkers at the dawn of western philosophy.
The crucial failing in the alluring but flawed narrative that Gioia constructs is the same failing that beleaguers many historical narratives, especially ones that paint on such a large canvas. It is the problem of causal or etiological explanation.
History, of course, has difficulty with causality. Take any event in history—for instance, the writing of the Declaration of Independence in the North American colonies. There is no one cause or even a circumscribed set of causes that would allow us to close the loop and claim that we have explained that event in total. Moreover, the causes of the writing of that document will change depending on one's point of view regarding the significance of the event.
For those who see the writing of the Declaration as an exercise in persuasion, Ciceronian rhetoric will be an influence of concern. For those examining its political philosophy, Montesquieu and Locke are central figures. Howard Zinn's views of the causal lineage leading up to that document will differ greatly from what we are typically taught in grade school. Causality is not a simple matter. And yet, without some kind of causal story, we are not doing history, we are merely providing a chronicle of events.
This puts a great deal of pressure on a narrative that attempts to trace the subversive nature of music from the inception of the universe up to the present day—particularly when Gioia argues that music essentially gives rise to feelings of love and anger and that all of its effects and all of the responses to it throughout world history derive from that essence. To substantiate this claim requires that the author continually reduce the present to the past in ways that are almost mechanical.
Gioia presents a music history of constant rebellion in which, ultimately, nothing changes.
This is not Hegelian history, one in which all history tends toward the goal of the ultimate realization of the subject of that history. It is, perhaps, Schopenhauerian (or at least one version of Schopenhauer's take on history). The two diametrically opposed aspects of music remain in a state of constant oscillation as do the cycles of rebellion and cooption. Gioia presents a music history of constant rebellion in which, ultimately, nothing changes.
The causal story Gioia constructs requires a fair amount of massaging of the history he purports to tell. Witness the claims he makes for country music:
There are numerous issues here. First, the idea that country music is "emblematic" of white culture in its entirety is dubious at best. Second, the original audience for country music (when it was blatantly referred to as "hillbilly music" by the industry) consisted of transplanted members of the "marginalized communities" from which the performers themselves sprang. Country's turn toward the mainstream (which is the only point at which it can be said to be emblematic of something outside of those communities) is a far more complex story than yet another emergence of an outsider into the larger society. Moreover, the story of country's mainstreaming involves New York and Chicago. They didn't "fall short" -- they were at the center of things.
Soon thereafter, Gioia traces country music to a pre-historical origin in early herding societies: "You couldn't wander very far if you wanted to raise a crop while breeding livestock. Maybe that's why country songs still celebrate static lives…In country, you endure and abide, make the payment on the dented pickup truck, and go back to that same sad bar you went to last week, last month, last year" (371). But this is to mischaracterize a good bit of early country music.
Sure, on the one hand, after the Bristol 1927 sessions, you had the Carter Family, representing the need to abide (although mixed with a good deal of lamenting about lovers who fail to abide). On the other hand, however, the same sessions brought Jimmie Rodgers to recording, representing an impulse to ramble. It is the latter impulse that led to the cowboy singers (like Gene Autrey) and western swing.
Gioia mentions Rodgers but doesn't see a real urge to disavow the static nature of "country life" until the outlaw country of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. But of course, "Okie from Muskogee" (the latter's memorable hit) can be read as a call for preserving the "static" culture of a rough-hewn rural life in the face of the rebellion of the counterculture.
At times, Gioia's causal explanations truly beggar belief. Late in the book, he asks why the Summer of Love so quickly shaded into riots and bombings of 1968 and the violence of the 1969 Altamont Free Concert. At this event, Meredith Hunter was beaten to death by a Hells Angel (hired for security) while the Rolling Stones performed. Gioia insists "it's worth probing exactly why [the 1960s] ended badly. This will help us understand the paradoxical nature of music as a force of social change" (396).
The causal story Gioia constructs, unfortunately, is underwhelming and, I fear, rather preposterous.
Clearly, this is another case of Gioia raising the stakes considerably. Not only will he reveal the troubling zeitgeist shift from a loving, communal striving for a freer more equitable society to violent, rage-filled clashes between the hegemony and the disaffected, he will also demonstrate that this seemingly unforeseeable and abrupt upheaval is rooted in the depths of music's nature.
The causal story he constructs, unfortunately, is underwhelming and, I fear, rather preposterous. The paradoxical status of music arises from the fact that it inspires the body to release the hormone oxytocin, which has a dual nature. On the one hand, it is the "love hormone" causing us to bond with others while on the other hand, it leads groups of people to fight with other groups. Of course, the notion that music is rooted in love and violence has been Gioia's theme throughout the book. Now, however, rather late in the proceedings, we get (really without fanfare in a book that revels in an excess of fanfare) the root cause of music's divided allegiances.
Now, there are numerous issues one might take with Gioia's condensed etiological narrative. First, the brain releases numerous hormones when we listen to music. One of the most often discussed of these hormones is not oxytocin but rather dopamine—the "feel good" hormone. Serotonin is also dispersed, creating relaxation and focus. Music heard with a partner can release prolactin, a hormone that bonds us to other people. Thus, according to Dr. Daniel Levitin, the author of 2007's This Is Your Brain on Music, oxytocin is just part of a rather complex chemical reaction we have to music. To isolate it as the root source of music's putative drive to induce both love and strife (in the manner of Empedocles) seems unjustified. More to the point, Levitin, who unlike Gioia does not treat the consequences of brain chemistry in music as a known quantity, suggests a kind of odd loop involved in listening to music.
Dr. Levitin almost always qualifies his discussion of the chemical reaction to music by insisting that these chemicals are released by music we find pleasurable (listen to this 2011 lecture, for example). That would suggest that music we find displeasing would not trigger the chemical response. But recall that the point of such brain science is to explain the etiology of our enjoyment. So, if we only (or even primarily) get the chemical release from things we already find pleasurable, then we can't use the chemical release as the sole, governing explanation for why we find that music pleasurable. It also suggests that the chemical reaction might not stem from the music per se, but rather from other things (associations, social factors) involved in the context of listening. This would displace music's centrality in Gioia's causal story.
Second, suggesting that the sudden veer from the love ideology of 1967 to the martial combativeness of 1968 is rooted in oxytocin, which in Gioia's narrative is always released when engaging with music, doesn't answer the troubling historical question as to why this upheaval occurred in the 1960s and not all the time in as marked a manner. After all, if the cause is chemical and that is hard-wired in our brains and bodies, then it fails to explain what differed in that particular era.
Third, Gioia, in my opinion, mischaracterizes the 1960s in the manner of a familiar myth that maintains that the true spirit of the era was hippie love that was too good to be true and just had to collapse into chaos. These narratives always elide the fact that the 1960s were rife with upheaval throughout the entire decade. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965. The Detroit race riots occurred in 1967 during the Summer of Love.
The love movement that Gioia wishes to deride but can't (394) was caught in the grip and served as a response to the violence that suffused the decade. Of course, I recognize one might say that the imbrication of love and violence in the 1960s might still be "explained" by oxytocin. My only point here is that Gioia purports to explain a how the "groovy atmosphere of 1967 flowed seamlessly into the social upheavals of 1968" (396).
Crucially, the very sweep of such an ambitious narrative attempts to do some of the causal work. Gioia is a gifted writer and if we get caught up in the breathless urgency of his prose, we may very well believe that causes are being provided where there are none or where those causes don't withstand scrutiny. The drive of the narrative creates an illusion of connectivity.
* * *
There are many more things to be said about Music: A Subversive History, and many more positions from which to assail its narrative, a narrative I find overly simplistic, that revels in a weak metaphysics over history, and substitutes enticement with the mythical rebel for historical explanation.
And yet…I can't help but believe that there is a place for sweeping histories such as this one, with all of their attendant pitfalls. Gioia is an engaging writer and there are plenty of people with a taste for histories that paint in broad strokes and claim to reveal the "secret truth" that underwrites the material of our experience—particularly when that material is as deeply personal and profoundly social as is music.
I disagree with just about every large claim made in this book, and yet I would still recommend that it be read and digested, contended with and considered. Part of the enjoyment of a "big picture" narrative is admiring its construction while refuting its premises. Gioia's new book provides an invigorating source for that enjoyment.
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