For many people, popular music began in the 1950s, when Bill Haley invited us to "Rock around the clock"
and DJ Alan Freed coined the phrase "rock'n'roll". Others would cite Frank Sinatra, with his hordes of screaming 1940s bobby-sox- ers. For Colin Larkin, popular music began around 1900, the golden era of Tin Pan Alley in New York, where the young George Gershwin would soon begin his career as a song-plugger.
So he has more than a century of music and musicians to cover - a span far shorter than The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for sure. Larkin surveys a field where definition, always difficult, is now complicated by the way in which new acts are launched (the Arctic Monkeys via the web) and music consumed (increasingly via digital download). Should those whose career has yet to stand the test of time merit entry into a serious reference set intended as popular music's own New Grove?
Grove editors seemed befuddled: the last edition, published with the new millennium, included more popular-music entries than ever before. There, Wilfrid Mellers, a classical musicologist who once scandalised colleagues with a book about The Beatles, and semiotician Simon Frith made the decisions as to who made the cut and who didn't, though in many cases (and I was a contributor) their rationale was unclear. Larkin works virtually single-handed, and is to be congratulated on his achievement, but one feels that he often can't separate wood from trees.
The line between so-called "popular" and so-called "classical" music used to be clearly drawn, although that wasn't necessarily a good thing. But phenomena such as the Three Tenors and Classic FM have so comprehensively blurred it, and marketeers so shamelessly exploited that, it sometimes seems as if all but a few artists defy categorisation. That Gershwin, Bernstein and Sondheim feature in Larkin's set is easy to understand, for each self-consciously drew on non-classical traditions. But Franz Lehar, who composed The Merry Widow? His roots lie somewhere else entirely.
A better case might be made for the inclusion of Gilbert and Sullivan, for the harmonic banality of their work has much in common with many pop songs - but they aren't covered. Why is Arvo Prt in and, since he is, why not Grecki? Why Domingo but not Pavarotti or Carreras? Why not Lesley Garrett? Why is Ken Russell's biopic Lisztomania accorded its own entry - because it starred Roger Daltrey, Rick Wake-man and Ringo Starr? So why not Ned Kelly, which featured Mick Jagger? Definitions destroy (as Dylan said), but definition and focus are needed if something as vast as popular music is to be tackled in this way. …