The concept of Zoltán Poós‘ latest book is simple and effective: take a hit song from each of the last 50 years in Hungary and write a few pages about its context, history, meaning, composer, performers, analyze the song itself and if available the album it appeared on. As easy it was to summarize “Táskarádió: 50 év, ötven sláger” as hard it will be to translate its title to English. “Táskarádió” is the Hungarian name for the boombox of the 1950’s. It is also a symbol of western imperialist material culture, idolized by undisciplined youth in Hungary. The subtitle of the book is simpler: “50 years, 50 Hungarian hits.” Except that “hit” songs are defined by their success, while the author here has a somewhat different definition. He included songs from many genre of “pop(ular)” music that never made it big, but he considers important in the history of Hungarian music.
The first thing I have to applaud is the style of the book. Each entry incorporates typical elements and idioms of the language of the era the song was born. This includes both the formal, as in the usage of the official, state-owned media, and the informal as in used in the slang of the vernacular. I loved how the author played and joined words and phrases that came from disparate section of the language. At the same time, with the same words, the book is filled with millions of references to trivia. Some of them are explained. But most of them would only be understood or even noticed by people who lived in the era or have extensive knowledge of its culture. These tidbits added great joy to my reading of the book, because when I got them I could feel that I am part of the “in-crowd”. These also make the book untranslatable to any language. The meaning of references would be lost without their context and would even read as elaborate gibberish.
My main regret with the book was repetitive nature. When the author used up the available vocabulary he just started to reuse some of the same funny, reflective turn of phrases. Same applies to some of the tidbits. I read at least 4 times that there were a few years in the early 1980’s when the leading bands of the 1970s no longer played. The exact same reference showed up in several consecutive entries. Every single of the entries on their own would have been unique and terrific as a newspaper column. But reading one after the other ended up occasionally tedious job. Maybe the book is intended to be used as an encyclopedia, where each entry has to contain all the relevant information to its topic. That it mostly did.
If I calculate correctly the author is about 2 years younger than I am. This means that he didn’t live through the 1960’s and started to get personally interested in music not earlier than the very late 1970’s. Nevertheless I found his description of early music accurate. That is the information I was familiar was true and he added a lot of information about the bands’ and singers’ histories I wasn’t aware of. So another reason I enjoyed reading this book was because it gave me information I value(d).
I could really relate to the chapters from 1982 to 1995. These were the years when I was actively following the Hungarian music scene. These were also the years when music was an important part of my life. Like many teenager I felt that musical taste is an important part not just of my own identity but as the basis of my opinion of others. Now I know better, but I also listen to much less music as it moved out from the center of my life. I still listen to music at home, but continuously, liked I used to. I also go to much less live events, which is not hard feat considering that I used to go concerts 2-4 times a week.
So the music of that almost 15 years I am intimately familiar with. This means that I can point out plenty of information that I would have considered important enough for inclusion. I can also pinpoint a few factual errors and typos. On the other hand I acknowledge that for others, this section is just a informative and fun to read as the others. Finally I have to thank Poós to cover the years since I left Hungary. Now I have a sense of the cultural significance of the bands that took stage since then. I heard many of the songs he referred to, but in the diaspora of music, without being part of the living culture they made little sense and I showed little interest in them. Now I know why I should pay more attention to the later musical artifacts and their creators.
I want to reiterate that, despite my criticism, I really enjoyed the book and here is why:
- Style: combined the subjective and objective effectively
- Language: loaded with idioms that helped recollection
- Content: provided full of contextual and detailed information
- 1960-1982: captured the history in a meaningful and meaning giving way
- 1982-1995: included (my favorite) underground artists as “hit” writers
- 1995-2010: pointed to artist I should (re-)listen to