David Metzer, Music Historian

The new book from Cambridge University Press

The Ballad in American Popular Music: From Elvis to Beyoncé

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About the Book

The Ballad in American Popular Music: From Elvis to Beyoncé 

Read an excerpt  from the book

Read an excerpt from the book

While ballads have been a cornerstone of popular music for decades, this is the first book to explore the history and appeal of these treasured songs. David Metzer investigates how and why the styles of ballads have changed over a period of more than seventy years, offering a definition of the genre and discussing the influences of celebrated performers, including Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston. The emotional power of the ballad is strongly linked to the popular mood of the time, and consequently songs can tell us much about how events and emotions were felt and understood in wider culture at specific moments of recent American history. Tracing both the emotional and stylistic developments of the genre from the 1950s to the present day, this lively and engaging volume is as much a musical history as it is a history of emotional life in America.

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Listen to the music that inspired the book

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About David Metzer

David Metzer is the author of The Ballad in American Popular Music: From Elvis to Beyoncé, the first history of this cornerstone genre.  

He has published books and articles on a range of topics, everything from spirituals in Duke Ellington’s music to heavy metal power ballads. Interviews with him have appeared in HuffPost and on BBC and CBC radio.

He is a professor and Distinguished University Scholar at the University of British Columbia.

Full biography


What makes a power ballad 'epic'?

David talks to BBC Radio about one of the greatest, Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You"


Featured Writing

"Modern Silence": What Modern Artists Have Made of Silence

Samuel Beckett.  Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Beckett. Wikimedia Commons

Theirs is a closed relationship—always two, never three. When brought together, words and music keep to themselves. There may be others but they are merely observers, standing on the outside listening in. They are the ones who discuss the ups and downs of the relationship: how well the two get along with each other, which one has more to say, and who does so more clearly. Some of the observers have even written dramatic works about the two. Think of Salieri’s Prima la musica, poi le parole and Strauss’s Capriccio.

Think of Beckett’s Words and Music. Turning to the radio play, we can hear a very different presentation of the starring pair. With Beckett, Words and Music are actual characters instead of being represented by the stand-in poets and composers of the earlier two operas. More than that, they speak their own languages—Words utters words and Music utters only music. There is no Countess to choose between them, as in Strauss; rather, a tyrant named Croak bullies the two and commands them to elaborate upon a series of words and images, including love, age, and “the face.” Imploring them to “be friends,” he grows tired of them talking past each other and departs. Words and Music are left in tantrums and despair.

From Journal of Musicology 23 (2006): 331-74  

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