Paul Whiteman used to be huge. In fact, back in his day–the big band era of the 1920s through to the 40s–no one was more popular than Paul Whiteman. Yet when we look back on that era, his name is almost never mentioned. Instead, we hear about Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and other critically-lauded bandleaders of the time. We know about them because the critics like what they did and committed their works to history. Populist bandleaders who pleased audiences by playing the big hits of the day–people like Mr. Whiteman–were derided in the same way we might scorn Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys. In fifty years, it’s possible that critics will have reduced them to pop music footnotes.
Now let’s talk about rock stars. Who will be remembered in the future as great geniuses of their day? There’s no reason to assume that certain rockers won’t be held in the same esteem as Mozart or Beethoven. There’s no way, for example, history is going forget Lennon/McCartney and the entire Beatles oeuvre. Is there? The New York Times explores this idea of musical immortality in this excerpt from a new Chuck Klosterman book called But What If We’re Wrong?, which is due next month.
Classifying anyone as the “most successful” at anything tends to reflect more on the source than the subject. So keep that in mind when I make the following statement: John Philip Sousa is the most successful American musician of all time.
Marching music is a maddeningly durable genre, recognizable to pretty much everyone who has lived in the United States for any period. It works as a sonic shorthand for any filmmaker hoping to evoke the late 19th century and serves as the auditory backdrop for national holidays, the circus and college football. It’s not “popular” music, but it’s entrenched within the popular experience. It will be no less fashionable tomorrow than it is today.
And this entire musical idiom is now encapsulated in one person: John Philip Sousa. Even the most cursory two-sentence description of marching music inevitably cites him by name. I have no data on this, but I would assert that if we were to ask the entire population of the United States to name every composer of marching music they could think of, 98 percent of the populace would name either one person (Sousa) or no one at all. There’s just no separation between the awareness of this person and the awareness of this music, and it’s hard to believe that will ever change.
Now, the reason this happened — or at least the explanation we’ve decided to accept — is that Sousa was simply the best at this art. He composed 136 marches over a span of six decades and is regularly described as the most famous musician of his era. The story of his life and career has been shoehorned into the U.S. education curriculum at a fundamental level. (I first learned of Sousa in fourth grade, a year before we memorized the state capitals.) And this, it seems, is how mainstream musical memory works. As the timeline moves forward, tangential artists in any field fade from the collective radar, until only one person remains; the significance of that individual is then exaggerated, until the genre and the person become interchangeable. Sometimes this is easy to predict: I have zero doubt that the worldwide memory of Bob Marley will eventually have the same tenacity and familiarity as the worldwide memory of reggae itself.
But envisioning this process with rock music is harder. Almost anything can be labeled “rock”: Metallica, ABBA, Mannheim Steamroller, a haircut, a muffler. If you’re a successful tax lawyer who owns a hot tub, clients will refer to you as a “rock-star C.P.A.” when describing your business to less-hip neighbors. The defining music of the first half of the 20th century was jazz; the defining music of the second half of the 20th century was rock, but with an ideology and saturation far more pervasive. Only television surpasses its influence.