I've been on a Led Zeppelin kick lately, listening over and over to their albums and reading everything I can about the band. In one book, I read the following in the preface:
“In the wake of the on-the-road-tales-of-debauchery-style Led Zeppelin books that were reaching the market, I felt the balance needed redressing. I saw it as a golden opportunity to celebrate the purely musical achievements [my emphasis] of the group.”
I'm normally a stickler for the citation of sources – the lack thereof is one of my biggest annoyances. In this case, however, I'm going to keep the author anonymous because I want to challenge the content, not the writer.
This preface - especially the words “purely musical achievements” - resonate strongly with me. In fact in my initial Led Zeppelin blog, I wrote almost identical words:
“Much like The Beatles literature, the problem with the extant Zeppelin literature is that so little of it focuses on the music. Many books seem more concerned about lurid descriptions of orgies, or Jimmy Page's obsession with the occult and Aleister Crowley, or 'hidden meanings' in their lyrics and album artwork than they are about the actual music. [Yet] it is, after all, the music – not their salacious love lives or hotel-trashing – that makes Led Zeppelin compelling and worthy of study and criticism a half century later.”
And so I was ecstatic to find another author who valued the music most.
Unfortunately, I disappointed. Because this author proceeded to write 216 additional pages without once ever addressing the music. In fact, on the subsequent page of the preface, he contradicts his earlier claim:
“So if you want to know what Led Zeppelin recorded, and where and when they did so, the details of their session appearances and pre-Zep work, their concert itineraries, a guide to rare Zep collectibles, the instruments they used, extensive discographies and chronologies, a summary of their solo careers and that aforementioned ten album track by track analysis, well it's all here.”
He first says he wants "to celebrate the purely musical achievements of the group", but then lists all the different types of information he includes in the book, none of which are the actual music. And it's pretty clear what's happening here: It's not that the author is lying or deliberately deceiving his readers, it's that in this case he is using a generally-accepted but literally inaccurate definition of what constitutes music.
Strictly speaking, music has two fundamental parameters: pitch and rhythm. So if something has no pitch and no rhythm, then it literally cannot be music. Therefore, if an analysis or commentary about music fails to address pitch and/or rhythm (as is the case throughout the book quoted above) then its subject literally cannot be music. This is why toenails can never be music – they have no aurally discernible pitch or rhythm – but the sound of clipping toenails is (or at least could be). It's also why James Whistler's famous painting Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl is (appropriately) misnamed: Of course Whistler knows that he's painting and not actually composing a musical symphony - his title is metaphorical and artistic, rather than literal.
To be clear, there's nothing inherently wrong with writing a book where the subject is history or biography or discography or chronology or collectibles or concert itineraries or instrumentation or orgies or anything else tangentially related to actual music. Indeed, a great many readers (often including myself) enjoy consuming this style of writing. But I focus on the literal music of popular music - how recording artists of the past several decades employ pitch and rhythm in compelling, sophisticated, and ever-evolving ways. And academia is the best place to do so.
To that end, I have decided on revamping my Led Zeppelin blog into a Pop Music blog. I will analyze not only Zeppelin's music, but other pop recording artists' music, as well. I will also post summaries and reviews of articles and books by authors who have written about those “purely musical achievements”.
Aaron Krerowicz, pop music scholar
An informal but highly analytic study of popular music.