Is Great Music Always Subversive?

American music writer and critic Ted Gioia (Photo: Dave Shafer)

Is Great Music Always Subversive?

A major book by American writer Ted Gioia, published last autumn, explores the history of music and many overlooked traditions, and argues that the best music has almost always been subversive. James Camien McGuiggan reviews.

Ted Gioia has probably never been accused of a lack of ambition. His eighth book follows on several books on jazz, most notably The History of Jazz (1997), and, more recently, a trio of books on the history of song: Work Songs, Healing Songs (both 2006), and the award-winning Love Songs: The Hidden History (2015). Music: A Subversive History is an openly, proudly revisionary history of music. Its big claim is that the best music has almost always been subversive. Not just the obvious candidates – the subversiveness of Beethoven and N.W.A. hardly requires a historian to discern – but all of it, or as close thereto as makes no difference, from Sappho to medieval troubadours, from Mozart to the blues. This is a bold claim, but then Music runs to over 500 pages, and Gioia makes his case well, systematically going through the ages, synthesising his own and others’ research into a coherent and plausible narrative.

It is a limpid book that only hints at the serious scholarship that went into it (though the book is more a synthesis of research than it is a novel contribution). The book progresses chronologically and thematically: the first chapter is about the origins of music in prehistory, as well as a reflection on the connections between music, sex and violence. A later chapter is about Mesopotamian music (and Enheduanna, the earliest poet (and songwriter) known to us by name), but also about gender in music and in music history (Enheduanna was a woman) in general. Another chapter is about the emergence of folklorism in the nineteenth century, but also about ‘folk’ or ‘popular’ music, and its relationship to the ‘legitimation’ efforts of the establishment, in general. One of the last chapters is about the Sex Pistols, but also about cults of sacrifice as they appear and re-appear in music throughout history. This structure is often quite loose, but it works: it makes for a very readable book. And of course it’s always entertaining to read about just how badly behaved our cultural saints are. Did you know that baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully got in hot water with the royal court for seducing a young page when he (Lully) was in his fifties? Or that J.S. Bach pulled a knife on a fellow musician during a street fight?

Gioia advocates some heterodox positions, but he is admirably upfront about where he diverges from the musicological mainstream, and only in passing does he say anything that’s definitely false. (For instance, he says that no artform creates tribal loyalties as much as music does (p. 25). Any fan convention (e.g. WorldCon, the science fiction convention) would quickly dissuade Gioia from this unhelpful attempt to make music unique.) Indeed, musicology in the past few years or decades has generally come around to the importance of subversives and outsiders in music history, and Gioia is actually closer to the mainstream than his rhetoric implies. Much of what he says ‘they don’t teach you in music school’ I was in fact taught in music school. But ill-advised flourishes are easily forgiven. Music is still valuable for consolidating this research into one accessible work, because the countervailing narrative – smug men in wigs and waistcoats… dancing without touching’ (p. 1) – still has too much traction in society more generally.

Subversives rarely win
Writing a history of subversion is intrinsically challenging, because subversives rarely win, and so they rarely get to write their histories. The greatest strength of
Music is how adept Gioia is at reading between the lines of the official histories to find the real, subversive history. When William IX, Duke of Aquitaine is acclaimed as the first troubadour, Gioia is canny enough to suspect that the duke was involved in the writing of this history. Instead, he argues, ‘we would be wise to consider the troubadour revolution as a process of legitimisation rather than innovation, as the decisive moment when ways of singing previously censored and marginalised found powerful champions’ (p. 153). Who were the innovators, then? Here and always, Gioia looks to the underclass: slaves, outsiders, and in this case, peasants – but not just peasants, peasant women. This is another point of great importance. It has often been deemed a victory when isolated musicians from under-represented groups (for example, Hildegard of Bingen) are rescued from unjust obscurity. And indeed it is a victory – but to leave intact the shape of the history of music, revising it only by appending the occasional woman or immigrant, is to leave unchallenged the systemic oppression on which it was formed. It is still a bowdlerised history: a history of Vatican masses and kings’ courts. Gioia’s revisionism is more ambitious: he doesn’t look for overlooked figures within familiar musical traditions, but for overlooked traditions. (And indeed, in his careful attention to paramusical things such as audience reception and business concerns, to all sorts of overlooked things.)

Unfortunately, we have no way of actually hearing peasants’ music: it was not preserved (it was not notated), and so our only access to it is via its transfigured version in written music. Gioia can observe that various melodies and ideas we find in, say, the masses of Renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem have their roots in peasant songs (pp. 198–9) – but we can’t accurately reconstruct these songs from Ockeghem’s incorporation of them. What we can do, though, is know that Ockeghem partially owed his greatness to the low-brow music of his day, and know that he borrowed with surprising disregard of class and propriety. (And indeed, so long as contemporary musicians are unwilling (or, thanks to copyright law, unable) to borrow with similar freedom from other contemporary music, I think it is a freedom from which we can learn.) We can also see how the powers that be, in co-opting subversives’ music into their anointed composers, erase subversives from history: Ockeghem borrowed melodies and ideas from peasant women, but music history has stolen them.

If this is a frustrating history, it is also more accurate than one that restricts itself to what is well-documented. It also gives a better sense of the messiness of history, of the interwovenness of different musical genres and cultures. And this is one of the central points of Music

is riddled with anecdotes and insights, and there’s much more to it than I have covered in this review. I even learnt something about Plato: I had not realised that his hostility towards musical lamentations was gender-inflected, but this was a sort of song that was particularly sung by women (p. 73). I thoroughly enjoyed Music, and would certainly recommend it to anyone with a broad interest in music.

However, there are some limitations to this book that need mentioning. One is its scope. Despite the grand claim of its title, Music does not offer a history of all music. The history starts with some speculations about the prehistoric origins of music, and then spends quite a bit of time in the Ancient Middle East. From Ancient Greece on, though, this is a history of Western music. And not even all of Western music: up to the twentieth century, it’s a history of Western European music, although as mentioned above, it is to Gioia’s credit that it’s a history of the music of all classes. From the time of the birth of the blues, though, it’s a history of popular and jazz music from the point of view of the US. Even hugely subversive classical composers such as Stravinsky get only a passing mention, and Boulez isn’t mentioned at all!

To a large extent this focus is justified. Music is written for a particular audience – educated music fans in the US and Britain, roughly – and in offering a revisionary history, it goes through the implicit music history this audience believes, revising it point by point. Gioia’s audience, on the whole, knows little about the history of Chinese or South American music, so there would be no ‘vision’ to revise there, no received wisdom to subvert. This said, not once does Gioia signal that Music is focused in this way, and the time has long past when it is acceptable to pass off Western music as music simpliciter.

This is tiresome, but it also doesn’t affect any of Gioia’s key claims. There is a more substantive problem with Music, one which I think is in danger of unravelling his whole enterprise: the ambiguity of the central claim of the book, that all or most of the greatest music in history is subversive. There are four sources of ambiguity here: first, whether Gioia is talking about ‘all’ or ‘most’ music, or just ‘more than you think’. The second ambiguity is in the meaning of ‘subversion’. The third ambiguity is in what sort of music is subversive. Is it the best music? The most popular? The most historically important? And fourth, is it the music or the musicians who need to be subversive?

This is quite a lot of ambiguity. It doesn’t always matter: Beethoven is great, has been lastingly popular, and marks the hinge between the classical and romantic eras; also, he was outspoken against unjust power structures as well as revolutionising music. Gioia builds his argument on cases such as Beethoven’s, who are both brilliant and highly subversive, and he does a good job of arguing for the subversiveness of music and composers that are (to this reviewer at least) less obviously subversive, such as the Song of Songs or Francis Child’s collection of folk songs. 

But what about all the music Gioia doesn’t mention? I struggle to see how Schubert’s Impromptus could be seen as subversive, but they are superlative. Gioia does talk about Schubert a bit, and seems to want to claim him as a subversive, but he does so by talking about Schubert’s strangeness as a person (p. 267 ff.): his reclusiveness and so on. But is a retiring disposition subversive? This is rather a stretch. And it is the kind of stretch Gioia often makes. Elsewhere, he seems to think that being an ‘outsider’ to a community ipso facto makes a musician subversive, such that the Beatles were subversive in the context of their appearance in the US simply because they were British. (Gioia thinks the Beatles were also subversive for other reasons, but he still thinks that their outsider status was itself subversive.) Now being an outsider can of course give one insight into a culture, as can the fusion of endemic and immigrant music. But the fact remains that ‘outsider’ and ‘subversive’ are different concepts, and I don’t know which of them Gioia thinks is important. Gioia does this with other concepts related to ‘subversion’, too: Bach, for instance, was ‘subversive’ mostly just in that he was cussedly self-willed, not in that he had any particular objection to the political status quo. Again, gangsta rap and the Child ballads are often ‘subversive’ in that they celebrate misogyny and rape, but we need only a passing familiarity with the patriarchy to see that such attitudes more entrench than subvert extant power structures. 

Speaking of this ‘immoral’ sort of subversion, if ‘subversion’ is the word at all – is music that’s subversive in this way supposed to be somehow thereby better? More important? Or is the subversiveness just an idle fact? I ask because this sort of subversion – the sort that perpetuates an unjust status quo – is diametrically opposed to the subversiveness of, say, Rage Against the Machine, who fundamentally express a moral anger against an unjust status quo. A definition of ‘subversion’ that equally encompasses these two sorts of music is broad indeed, and I wonder whether it is so broad as to approach meaninglessness. What music isn’t subversive on this capacious definition?

I wonder whether there’s anything left of Gioia’s big argument after all this. Perhaps a dose of common sense is all that would be needed to resolve all these ambiguities well enough to be getting on with, and sometimes I feel that I can ‘see what he’s getting at’ – but then again, sometimes I think any substantive point Gioia wanted to make is lost in the morass of vagueness. 

Look again
Nevertheless, even if the various things he calls ‘subversive’ are fundamentally different, I am grateful to Gioia for showing how many different and unlikely places great and important music can arise from. I am also grateful to him for outlining the generation-or-two-long cycle between some new and unusual music being invented and denounced, to its being embraced, appropriated, and eventually muzakified. I don’t think that Gioia’s arguments leave us with anything as strong as an artistic or historical
principle, but perhaps we don’t need a principle. Perhaps all we are given is a heuristic, something like: ‘If it appears that some great musical innovation has emerged from the halls of power, look again. If you think you can write great music by drawing exclusively on established and privileged devices and sources, think again.’ Gioia supports the validity of this heuristic with a wealth of historical knowledge. If the outcome of Music is that people stop thinking of Western music’s history as comprised of ‘smug men in waistcoats’, and instead see it as an unruly procession of provocateurs and insurgents [who] don’t just change the songs we sing, but often shake up the foundations of society (p. 3), then it is to be celebrated.

Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia is published by Basic Books. Visit

Published on 5 August 2020

James Camien McGuiggan studied music in Maynooth University and has a PhD in the philosophy of art from the University of Southampton. He is currently an independent scholar.

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