AMERICANS COMPLAIN constantly about the quality and content of their popular music. It is said to be vulgar, vicious, venal, cheap, superficial, noisy and inimical to the moral progress of society. In every decade from ragtime to rap, the verdict has been the same: Pop music is ruining the country.
Yet here's the strange thing: From the earliest days of sheet music and piano rolls to the era of digital compact discs, those same complaining Americans continue to buy pop music in staggering quantities -- and so does much of the rest of the world. Today, pop music is one of America's biggest exports after aircraft, earning billions of dollars in revenues annually.
How to explain the apparent contradiction? A hint may be found in critic Donald Clarke's provocative new book, "The Rise and Fall of Popular Music: A Narrative History from the Renaissance to Rock 'N' Roll."
Mr. Clarke, who seems unsure whether rap represents a renewal of American pop or the last gasp of an exhausted genre, suggests that the transformation of American society over the last half-century has both made possible pop's world hegemony and undermined the creative wellsprings from which it has drawn its inspiration.
It is a peculiar fact of our history that, while the country was settled largely by immigrants from Europe, the only truly original music born this side of the Atlantic sprang from the descendants of African peoples brought here as slaves. From earliest times, the music of the African-American was recognized as a unique creation of the New World.
In his seminal volume "Blues People," the poet and critic Leroi Jones (a k a Amiri Baraka) suggested that the emergence of a recognizable African-American identity coincided with the emergence of the first black songs sung in English rather than in the African captives' native languages:
"Out of what strange incunabula did the peculiar heritage and attitudes of the American Negro arise?" Jones asked. "When a man looked up in some anonymous field and shouted 'Oh, Ahm tired a dis mess/Oh, yes, Ahm so tired a dis mess,' you can be sure he was an American." The black scholar W. E. B. DuBois called African-American song "the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people."
Nevertheless, the music of the black slave was quickly appropriated by whites, first in the form of minstrelsy and later through vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, jazz and rock. Even rap, the latest evolution of African-American music, now has its white imitators.
Mr. Clarke notes that the pattern of this cultural expropriation was set early. For example, an 1845 quotation from Knickerbocker Magazine shows that 19th-century white Americans were perfectly well aware from whence their popular music sprang:
"Let one [Negro poet], in the swamps of South Carolina, compose a new song, and it no sooner reaches the ear of a white amateur than it is written down, amended (that is, almost spoilt), printed, and then put upon a course of rapid dissemination, to cease only with the utmost bounds of Anglo-Saxondom, perhaps with the world. Meanwhile, the poor author digs away with his hoe, utterly ignorant of his greatness."
Mr. Clarke also notes that the minstrel show, which appeared in the 1840s, was the first entirely American musical form to become internationally popular. And he argues that the device of white performers "blacking up" with burnt cork is one of the deep psychological archetypes of American popular music:
"Minstrelsy was essentially black music," he writes, "while the most successful acts were white, so that songs and dances of black origin were imitated by white performers and then taken up by black performers, who thus to some extent ended up imitating themselves."
This process has been a recurring theme in the development of American popular music, a leitmotif that runs through ragtime, Dixieland, the big bands, be-bop, rock and now rap. Blacks were the innovators, but their raw creations had to be rearranged and repackaged by white performers before they were seen as palatable for a wider audience.
Pop's ubiquitous presence as the dressed-up artifact of an oppressed, despised minority is a painful reminder of the country's continuing racial divide and the intractable problems that spring from it, thus the profoundly ambivalent attitude white Americans harbor toward pop music.
Pop is an intrinsically guilty pleasure because, by its very existence, it recalls a shameful social history -- though contemporary teen-agers can hardly be expected to be aware of that. Still, it's no wonder that the Puritan streak in the American character never tires of denouncing it. Pop is at once the truest expression of the national experience and a scapegoat for all the failures of its democratic ideals.
If there is something ambivalent about Americans' attitude to their popular music, it is because the music unerringly reflects the nation's traumatic racial history. Mr. Clarke suggests that coming to terms with that history might alleviate the need for a music steeped in such neurosis.
At each stage in its development, American popular music has been rescued from the arid sterility of commercial exploitation by a new infusion of African-American creativity. Yet it is hard to imagine a less fertile ground for musical renewal than the blasted inner-city neighborhoods and decaying urban institutions that have produced the rap phenomenon.
One reason that rap, for example, is a spoken genre rather than a sung or played one is that the generation that produced it is so impoverished that few any longer even have access to musical instruments or musical training -- a situation that would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago.
So one wonders what kind of renewal really is possible today under the circumstances. The choice ahead would seem to lie between radical social redemption and utter cultural exhaustion. No wonder so many Americans are troubled by what they find reflected in their popular music. Yet it is by no means clear they are willing to do what is necessary to heal the wounds left by the tragic historical legacy that makes such complaints inevitable.