If you’re interested in the history of the music industry, or have wondered idly how the song that’s stuck in your head got to be there, you should read David Suisman’s detailed and entertaining Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music (Harvard). Every page held a new discovery for me, from the competitive world of song pluggers (piano-and-crooner teams hired to perform songs in advance of the sheet music publication, often to “spontaneous” applause from plants in the audience), to the rise of the player-piano (in 1900, it would have been regarded as more potentially culture-transforming than phonographs), to the reason tenors surpassed sopranos in popularity (their voices better masked deficiencies in early recording), to Irving Berlin’s nine rules—some seemingly contradictory—to writing a hit song. The chapter on Black Swan Records alone, which from 1921 to 1923 attempted to combine racial uplift with a viable business model, is worth the price of admission. Selling Sounds is a profound and fascinating book, not just for academics but for anyone with ears.
As a chaser, I recommend Geeta Dayal’s Another Green World, another excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series. It’s as much a philosophy book as a “Behind the Music” breakdown, and an invitation to think creatively about creativity.
You can’t open the paper today—sorry, click open your favorite news source—without running into an article pondering China’s shifting relationship with the U.S., often against a backdrop of sharp cultural differences. Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary finds the common denominator in accounts of coal-mining disasters—one in Sago, West Virginia, the others in China. None of the words here are Nowak’s. Instead, he juxtaposes excerpts of Chinese newspaper reports with testimony transcripts (and elementary-school curricula) on the American side. The only original material consists of color photos by himself and Ian Teh, but Coal Mountain Elementary is altogether original, a words-and-image fusion that’s at once simple and rarely seen—something with the energy of a link-rich website and the beautiful, horrible inevitability of a book.