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The Critic

When Elvis Met Beyoncé: A History of Pop Music

Photo Illustration by 731; Photos: Getty Images (2)

In 1985 the co-founders of Def Jam Recordings, Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, wanted to find a way to sell hip-hop to rock fans. So they had the rap trio Run-DMC cover Aerosmith’s 1975 hit Walk This Way—along with Aerosmith. Next, the label released the Beastie Boys’ You Gotta Fight for Your Right (to Party!). The new Walk This Way sold 3 million copies and the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill became the first No. 1 hip-hop album, even though its first single wasn’t technically hip-hop at all.

This anecdote, taken from Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music From Bill Haley to Beyoncé, is one of many in a book that shows how music feeds on what came before and morphs into whatever comes next. Elvis popularized songs black musicians had sung for decades. Bob Dylan copied Woody Guthrie. Nirvana drew from the Pixies. And the sound of every 1960s girl group is based on one song from 1956: Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers’ Why Do Fools Fall in Love? British journalist Bob Stanley tracks these changes, explaining why certain bands or songs broke out and how the culture at large changed when they did.

There’s never been a concise definition of pop music, but Stanley gets close to a good one. “If you make records, singles, and albums,” he writes, “and if you go on TV or on tour to promote them, you’re in the pop business.” It’s currently a $7 billion industry and includes rock, rap, country, and electronic dance music—basically everything but jazz or classical. The starting point for pop, as far as Stanley’s concerned, is Bill Haley & His Comets’ 1955 No. 1 hit Rock Around the Clock, which first introduced mainstream listeners in the U.S. and Britain to rock ’n’ roll. And it ends—for now—with Beyoncé, whose 2003 jam Crazy in Love was the first hit single to thrive off digital downloads.

Stanley, a founding member of the British band Saint Etienne, views music through an Anglocentric lens. He goes on at length about acts such as Kylie Minogue and the 1990 post-punk band Manic Street Preachers, neither of which found an American audience. Aside from these obscurities, the book translates just fine.

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! mentions even the smallest acts, but it focuses on the biggies—Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, and so on—who shifted the music industry in a new direction, inadvertently creating new labels and bankrupting others. Elvis helped Memphis’s Sun Records to flourish, which took money and attention away from Tin Pan Alley’s maudlin show tunes. The Beatles gave rise to the Monkees, the first commercially crafted boy band with a hit TV show. And the Supremes were the superstars of Berry Gordy’s Motown factory, the Detroit label that modeled production on “the auto-industry assembly lines that most Detroit musicians would end up on if they didn’t get the breaks.” Motown made music so quick and disposable, it actually forgot to release Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ Jimmy Mack for two years; when it got around to it, the song immediately landed in the Top 10.

The book isn’t perfect. Stanley falls back on clichés. Bill Haley was “the sound the young had been waiting for.” Ray Charles “sounded like nothing that had ever gone before.” Prince “wanted to be everybody’s lover.” (That one’s not a cliché; it’s just a really weird thing to say.) He also reports long-disproven myths as if they were facts, claiming, for example, that during the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Pete Seeger tried to cut Dylan’s electric guitar’s cables with an axe. He didn’t. These small inaccuracies don’t detract from Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’s larger purpose, though. No history of pop music is complete without a celebration of made-up drama.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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