The four decades from 1870 through to 1920, during which the vaudeville system was consolidated, were decisive for the immense transformations that took place in Americans’ cultural ideas and practices. From magazine subscriptions to department stores, advertising to reading practices, the society that emerged in this period was founded on a new vision of the good life in which consumption, desire, novelty, and pecuniary reward were principal values. Vaudeville was inseparable from this process. This accounts not only for the importance of the transcontinental syndicates such as the Keith-Orpheum organization, which dramatically altered the cultural experiences of musicians and their audiences in unprecedented ways. But equally, it underlines the significance of the larger movement toward corporate control in all aspects of show business, from the centralization of the booking process to song production, from the corporate reform of management to the mass circulation of trade newspapers such as Billboard and Variety. The influence of vaudeville on the practices and forms of American popular music, however, has not been sufficiently understood. This chapter assesses vaudeville’s place within well-known historical debates about popular music’s cultural value and its relationship to ideas of art and entertainment.
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