Forman’s history of music in the early days of TV alternately frustrating and brilliant

book-cover-one-night-on-tvMurray Forman‘s new book, One Night On TV Is Worth Weeks at the Paramount: Popular Music On Early Television is an invaluable history, but one with a frustrating premise at its heart. The history, out now through Duke University Press, does an excellent job of setting up and proving the notion that “music television” didn’t start with MTV in the early ’80s.

In addition to the myriad shows that would feature music as part and parcel of their programming as the medium went forward, television used music from its very inception. Singers and musical combos were part of the first broadcast tests. It’s a natural progression from radio, from whose networks television would arise. It’s only logical that the earliest things to come across the airwaves into the sets would be a visual representation of the most predominant aspect of radio. Namely, music.

One Night On TV goes on to trace the technological difficulties in trying to figure out how to visually represent music in the television format, and this is where I feel the book goes off the rails. Perhaps it’s a case of 20/20 hindight on my part, but I find it incredibly difficult to believe that both the producers and consumers of television content had no idea how to approach viewing music.

Forman makes the following point in chapter three, “Harmonizing Genres”:

“Viewers in television’s early phase usually described either specific musical moments […] or else they referred to the characteristics of the musical hosy and guests in rather broad terms.”

His argument is that there’s no specificity in terms of how viewers classify programs, especially in terms of genre. However, as the author repeatedly describes programs that had no focus, jumping from comedy skit to song to interview, it only makes sense that there’s no way to classify these prgrams than under the rather broad header of “variety shows.”

Film and music genres already extant could easily be transferred to the new medium, and the likelihood of those descriptors not being applied in rather ridiculous — as we see in the quote above, they were being applied to the particular performances. It is more likely that, as the programs were vague, as those producing them were more focused on getting the technology right, rather than narrowing the focus of genre.

It’s difficult to believe that early viewers of televisions were like cavemen presented with an iPod when it came to viewing habits. So much of the evidence presented in the chapter four, “The Look of Music,” seems extraordinarily contradictory. That many folks had to “acquire TV viewing proficiency and interpretation skills, gaining comfort and fluency with television’s unique rhythms and presentational grammars” seems patently untrue when coupled with the the assertion that many folks would gather at the neighbors’ to watch television.

When one realizes that the first sets were rather pricey, and thus, many of the early adopters would open up their homes to others in order to watch programs, then why — as it was a public viewing of popular music on a screen — couldn’t viewers simply adopt habits of the musical performances they’d already seen on a screen, in a public setting? In other words, movies? Coupled with the assertion that “[b]etween 1948 and the mid-1950s, several norms for presenting musical performances emerged, including standard camera angles and shot duration (often adopted from earlier film musicals and Soundies),” it seems ludicrous that viewers of televised musical performances were flummoxed as to how they might interpret what they had seen.

It becomes all the more frustrating when Forman describes musical performances as part of travelogues in his chapter on Latin music, “Maracas, Congas, and Castanets”: “elaborate visual and narrative travelogues” had been part and parcel of entertainment “since the dawn of Tin Pan Alley in the late nineteenth century.” In other words, here Forman describes a certain genre, which people were able to follow through mulitiple mediums, and still make sense as to what they were viewing, and understand it in a grander historical context.

The historical perspective offered by Murray Forman in One Night On TV Is Worth Weeks at the Paramount is an invaluable collection of programs, musicians, and hosts, placed in a wonderful context of history. In particular, the chapters on the African-American and Latin experiences in television’s early days are especially worthwhile to any student of popular culture. In that case, Foreman’s analysis and commentary is first-rate, using none of the contradictory evidence present in his genre arguments. A greater bit of cogitation as to why Xavier Cugat could get a show, but Louis Armstrong could not, would have been appreciated, but that’s a minor quibble. If you pick this up, prepare to be frustrated for a bit before you get to the good stuff.