Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity by Joanna Demers

The recent court battle between Marvin Gaye’s estate and “Blurred Lines” artists Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke demonstrated just how complicated questions of ownership, authorship, and copyright can be when it comes to music. In Steal this Music, Demers tackles this difficult question: who can claim ownership over music and sounds? She argues that the legal debates over this question have irrevocably shaped – and in some cases, limited – musical creativity. The use of sampling in hip hop, for instance, changed dramatically following lawsuits against artists like Biz Markie in the 1990s. Wary of increasingly litigious record labels, DJs couldn’t sample freely anymore and had to find new ways to make beats. Artists like Tom Waits and Nancy Sinatra, meanwhile, have tried to fight off imitators by claiming that the very sounds of their voices are their property – and they’ve had to fight intellectual property laws that weren’t designed to deal with sound. Demers shows how copyright battles don’t just take place in courtrooms: they resonate in the music we make and listen to every day.

Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture by Alice Echols

Disco’s dance beat was the soundtrack to the social and cultural changes of 1970s. Originally the music of black, Latino, and gay subcultures, disco exploded into the mainstream in the late 1970s. Disco’s rhythmic drive, soulful vocals, and funky riffs gave it a liberating quality.  Echols’ almost breathless history shows that disco changed American attitudes about sexuality and made the dance floor a space for working out new understandings of gender and race. Donna Summer and Anita Ward gave voice to feminine sexual desire with “Love to Love You Baby” and “Ring My Bell” while James Brown and Sly Stone infused early disco with the political sounds of black power. With a focus on LGBT and black perspectives, Hot Stuff is cultural history at its best.

The Castrato: Reflections on Nature and Kinds by Martha Feldman

Between the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, hundreds of young boys went under the knife as they were castrated before puberty to prevent their voices from changing. With their uncommonly high voices, these “castrati” became superstars of opera and religious music. Feldman’s The Castrato is an evocative history of how this discomfiting practice shaped classical singing as well as European ideas about masculinity. Some castrati became wildly famous for virtuosic renditions of both male and female operatic roles. Others found homes in cathedral choirs in cities ruled by the Catholic church, which frowned upon women singing in public. Audiences queued to hear the castrati sing even as their seemingly unnatural voices and bodies challenged ideas about what it meant to be – and to sound like – a man. The sound of the castrati may be lost to us, but Feldman conjures up their voices so that we can imagine how such sound inspired both awe and fear.

Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music by Mark Katz

Barely a century and a half ago, music remained ephemeral. It was only to be experienced live and in the moment. Katz shows how the ability to record sound fundamentally changed our relationship to what we hear. In the past, hearing a symphony or a band almost always meant a public event in a concert hall or a nightclub, but now iPods and stereos turn listening into something you can do at home, often alone. Musicians have also changed their performance styles in response to recording. Early recording technology was not good at capturing sounds that where too soft or too loud, and musicians had to adjust their playing and singing style accordingly. Recording also allows musicians to learn, by say, mimicking the singing style of a vocalist from the other side of the world. Recording lets music travel at an unprecedented rate. Today, artists can use sampling and digital technology to create wholly new sounds that were impossible a hundred years ago. Capturing Sound will change the way you think about listening.

Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form by Susan McClary

Music is full of patterns that repeat from song to song, from era to era. Almost all blues songs, for instance, share the same structures and chord progressions. In classical music, meanwhile, many European composers from the seventeenth century onward used and adapted a shared vocabulary of musical ideas. McClary shows how the musical patterns, or conventions, that musicians return to and re-use again and again enable creativity and community and how they give us a common vocabulary that we can use to tell stories. Musicians who know the typical procedures and structures of the blues, for instance, can easily jump in and join other blues musicians. Artists like Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, and Cream have played with and remixed those blues forms, knowing that listeners will still understand their story, because there is shared language behind it. In this collection of essays based on a series of public lectures, McClary writes with verve and panache about the political and cultural meanings of the conventions of a wide range of music, including blues, Beethoven, and rap.

Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity by Shana Redmond

“We Shall Overcome,” “Young, Gifted, and Black,” and “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika” are anthems: songs of solidarity that tell of triumph and tragedy. As Redmond puts it, these songs “have helped to sustain world-altering collective visions.” Activists use them to empower and to resist — and to get people moving. Devoting each chapter to a single song, Redmond explores the role they played in black freedom struggles around the world. “We Shall Overcome” which became a key civil rights anthem of the 1960s was used as a rallying cry by black women industrial workers in the 1930s and 1940s. What’s now known as a black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” has a history beyond America in Japan. In a year marked by collective resistance to police brutality, Anthem is a timely read that makes us think about how artists and activists are using music in the fight for social justice today.

Swing Shift: The “All-Girl” Bands of the 1940s by Sherrie Tucker

Rosie the Riveter has come to be the icon of women’s work in World War Two. But factories weren’t the only place where women stepped up. In Swing Shift, Sherrie Tucker tells the story of the women (all but forgotten in the historical record) who formed all-girl swing bands during the 1940s. Swing Shift brings this neglected history to life with first-person accounts taken Tucker’s interviews with bands like The International Sweethearts of Rhythm and the Prairie View Co-Eds, who navigated the music business as women in wartime. Many talk about life on the road, including the dangers women of color faced touring in the segregated South, and the adventure and risk of playing at US military bases abroad. It’s a gripping book that shows how ideas about femininity shaped women’s musical opportunities, and it gives voice to a generation of forgotten jazz musicians.

Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music by Deborah Vargas

Vargas considers how women musicians in Mexico and the United States have fought to create a place in male-dominated musical traditions. Dissonant Divas blends personal and historical accounts to tell the stories of women who made music in the borderland between the U.S. and Mexico. There’s Rosita Fernandez, a 1930s radio star known as San Antonio’s “First Lady of Song”; Ventura Alonza and Eva Ybarra, viewed as curiosities for daring to play the typically male accordion; 1990s sensation Selena, whose music combined soul and Latin American Cumbia. Vargas shows how these women used music to navigate the complexities of Chicano, Mexican, Tejano, and American identities. Given that working-class women’s perspectives are often excluded from conversations about the politics of immigration, Vargas offers a powerful corrective by showing how women have used music to take control of those conversations.

Image Credit: Taro Taylor via flickr

About The Author

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Lecturer, UCLA; Academic Correspondent, Hippo Reads

Alexandra Apolloni is Hippo Reads' Academic Correspondent for Music. She holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from UCLA and is a lecturer in the UCLA Music Industry Program. She studies voice and identity and has written about singers including Dusty Springfield, Martha Reeves, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Beth Ditto, and others for The Toast, the Oxford University Press music blog, and a variety of other publications. She is currently working on a book about girl singers in 1960s London.