The pianist Peter Donohoe recently posted an interesting piece of text on social media, in response to a question posed on Quora: ‘Is classical music truly “superior” to the popular music of any era? And, if so, why is it?’. There has been many a debate within musicological circles on this issue, not least as relate to the shaping of curricula for music education. In Anglophone musicology, it is very rare to find many scholars who would argue for any primary importance for classical music, with the result often being that it is becoming increasingly marginalised in a good deal of institutions. Those who have read this blog will know this is not a situation I favour, and have posted various things relating to the subject: see for example this set of responses to a radio talk given by Simon Zagorski-Thomas on a related subject, also another set of responses to an article by Stella Duffy on the arts, elitism and community (and this follow-up), not to mention the debate on teaching musical notation in schools following an article by Charlotte C. Gill. I have also posted some related articles on musical canons, and this on deskilling in musical education.
The dominant ideologies within academia are by no means necessarily shared more widely in the musical world – indeed can be quite antagonistic. I believe it is very important to encourage a wider discourse, involving many who care about music, on these subjects, and so with permission I am posting Donohoe’s text here, and also part of a response of my own drawing on a paper I gave on a few occasions in 2018 in musicological populism.
I welcome further responses from any angle (but would request that people refrain from any personalised insults or abuse towards others, and just address the arguments).
The following is Donohoe’s response:
This is a reply to recent tweet asking me my opinion of this: The tweeter in question asks: ‘Could it just be an era thing?’
It is only related to the era in that the determination with which the mediocre seeks to defeat the excellent is gaining ground.
However good pop music is – I include all the other brackets such as rock, country, blues, etc – by the side of the best classical music, it is always primarily commercialised, it is always primarily aimed at a majority audience, it is always the product of less skill on the part of both performer and listener, and it is always short-lived – even 40 years, as in the lasting effect of The Beatles is nothing compared to the greatest classical music. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles were all fantastic in their field, but not in the same field as the best classical music.
By what authority or standard of measurement is Jimi Hendrix the equal of Franz Liszt? The question also applies all the other absurd claims made in this piece. Dylan’s lyrics are more complex and deeper than the libretto of Mozart’s operas? The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as complex as a Haydn string quartet? The Beatles were every bit as ground-breaking as Beethoven. Give me a break – this is utter twaddle and has no basis in analysis. And who said greatness equates to complexity?
Pop music does not need to be taught as it is at its best a reactive protest against the status quo – in which case if it becomes part of the status quo it has no function – and at its worst it has considerably less content than most nursery rhymes, no harmonic grammar, no sense of shape, form and no skill. That it can be better than that is undoubtedly true, and I have a deep affection for certain pieces of pop music from across the years of my life, but to suggest that it equates to the best classical music is ridiculous, pretentious, and to my mind makes a mockery of popular culture, and its position in society.
The following is part of my response:
The arguments above about popular music being commercialised (with which I agree) would certainly make a significant body of musicologists unhappy, and they try to deny, that there is any real alternative. For example:
‘Although we live in a commercially dominated culture, the music industry, despite its many faults, more closely approaches a meritocracy and offers opportunities to a wider spectrum of artists than any other form of support – certainly more than the patronage systems of old. Music by women can continue to flourish in the public sphere, but only so long as it manages to sell tickets and recordings: the unexpected success of the Lilth Fair concerts, featuring exclusively female artists, confirmed not only the artistry of the participating musicians but also the willingness of a mass audience to support their efforts.’
Susan McClary, ‘Women and Music on the Verge of the New Millenium’, Signs, vol. 25, no. 4 (Summer 2000), pp. 1285-6.
‘…the condemnation of fusion for its commercial success drastically underestimates the vitality, subtlety, and expressiveness of the pop traditions that influenced David. It is nothing more than an antipopulist chauvinism that turns from the unacceptable view that “what sells is good” to the opposite and likewise unacceptable view that “what sells must be bad.”
And finally the contrast of commercial fusion with noncommercial earlier jazz amounts to elitism pure and simple, to a snobbish distortion of history by jazz purists attempting to insulate their cherished classics from the messy marketplace in which culture has always been negotiated. Those who advocate such a view should reread Ralph Ellison’s review of Blues People, where he reminded Baraka that even Bird and the other early boppers, the ne plus ultra for many critics of esoteric jazz intellectualism, “were seeking . . . a fresh form of entertainment which would allow them their fair share of the entertainment market” (1978:59). Or, in a different connection, they should read recent nonhagiographical music histories that have Beethoven hawking the same opus to three different publishers, or Mozart conniving, with a sad lack of savvy, at one music-business killing or another. Music created with an eye to eternal genius and blind to the marketplace is a myth of European Romanticism sustained by its chief offspring, modernism.’
Gary Tomlinson, ‘Cultural Dialogics and Jazz: A White Historian signifies’, in Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman (eds.), Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 82-3.
‘I’ve noticed that, when I go to conferences or similar events in continental Europe, people make the assumption that, because I’m interested in music, I must have an interest in and commitment to new music; that’s not an expectation about me in particular, but a taken-for-granted assumption about what it means to be seriously engaged in music. (In the UK or the USA, people make no such assumption.) [….] In my book, I referred briefly to critical theory in general and Adorno in particular, as a way of introducing one of the main intellectual strands of the ‘New’ musicology of the 1990s, but I made no direct link between Adorno’s critique and new music. In her commentary, Anne Boissière (2001, p. 32) picked this up, asking why I didn’t discuss ‘the problem of contemporary music which resists consumption’: instead, she complained, I made music sound as if it was just another commodity, and in this way passed up the opportunity to offer ‘a critical analysis of consumer society’. In which case, she asked, ‘what point is there in making reference to Adorno?’: if one’s critique isn’t motivated by moral or political commitment, as Adorno’s was, then what is there to it but nihilism?
Actually, the argument Boissière is putting forward here, and which other contributors also reflected, has a long and rather peculiar history. It originates in the conservative critique of the modern world—the attack on capitalism and consumerism that developed throughout the German-speaking countries in the 19th century (where it was associated with the nostalgic values of an idealised rural past), and fed ultimately into the Nazi creed of ‘blood and soil’; Adorno’s critical theory might accordingly be seen as appropriating a conservative tradition in order to attack the right-wing ideology of his own day.’
Nicholas Cook, ‘Writing on Music or Axes to Grind: road rage and musical community’, Music Education Research, vol. 5, no. 3 (November 2003), p. 257.
‘My contention is that petty capitalism – a term I take to encompass myriad small-scale form of entrepreneurial, commercial activity in culture – has been one of the key means by which progressive leftist, anti-racist, and resistant forms of culture, music, and art have been made possible: have been produced, circulated, and lived. It’s a despised category of economic activity and analysis, generally seen as collusive with capital, as politically irredeemable, an insignificant and ineffective in any meta-historical analysis. But with regard specifically to cultural activity it sits somewhere crucial between full-blown corporate capitalism and the quite different but just as marked forms of cultural, ideological, and aesthetic closure and policing that tend to characterize statist and other kinds of subsidized cultural institutions, whether in music, broadcasting or academia. I’ve researched statist cultural institutions rather deeply, as those who know my writings on IRCAM and the BBC will be aware. So my argument today is that while there is no necessary connection between progressive or politicized culture and these small-scale, entrepreneurial petty capitalist interventions – and in that sense there is no deterministic relation – there are, nonetheless, opportunities; they might be conceived as affordances or, better, in William Connolly’s fruitful phrase, indebted to complexity theory as pluri-potentialities. In terms of the possibility of new experimental, and alternative forms of production and circulation, informed by a politic of cultural production, we should be more aware of this category of activity and what it can achieve.’
Georgina Born, ‘On Music and Politics: Henry Cow, Avant-Gardism and its Discontents’, in Robert Adlington (ed.), Red Strains: Music and Communism Outside the Communist Bloc (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 64.
Below is a discussion which took place in early August 2015 on Facebook between a range of different individuals, responding to my initial comments, positing that the truly hegemonic musical force in contemporary society is not modernism, nor the classical canon, but Anglo-American popular music, which is ubiquitous (I had been thinking this whilst away off the coast of Africa and hearing primarily local musicians playing renditions of Anglo-American standard hits). The ensuing discussion was so intelligent and striking that I wanted to blog it (as with another discussion from 2012 following the protest at Donaueschingen by composer Johannes Kreidler). This is done with the permission of all participants, and with a few edits.
As is in the nature of such discussions, it does not entail a closed argument by any means, and there are plenty of ‘loose ends’, some tangents, and so on, whilst the tone ranges from serious, scholarly, intense, to more flippant and irreverent. Nonetheless, I believe there are many stimulating perspectives which will be of value to anyone with an interest in this subject. I don’t want to say more on who the various people contributing are; various people will know some of them, but the point is not their status, but what they have to say here.
Comments preceded by two asterisks are part of sub-threads attached to the last ‘normal’ comment which precedes them.
Ian Pace: I read lots of hot air about classical/modernist music and ‘hegemony’ – but everywhere I travel I hear mostly Anglo-American popular music. Why is there near-silence on this being the true form of musical hegemony?
Ian Pace: Where I am away on holiday, no chance at all of hearing Boulez in the hotel. But Beyonce…..
Franklin Cox: Isn’t the most successful form of hegemony the one that no one recognizes as a hegemony?
**Joan Arnau Pàmies: Concealed ideology… Such a powerful weapon.
Franklin Cox: It’s an odd thing that happens when Marxist concepts become part of the academic circuit: they tend to lose their analytical potential, instead becoming magic charms.
Ian Pace: Actually, most of the cultural studies/new musicology types who make the usual claims are amongst the most aggressive neo-liberals of all.
**Franklin Cox: Yes, and neo-liberals dare not face the magical thinking at the basis of their worldview.
Ian Pace: I cannot imagine Gramsci being happy with this situation, nor if he’d read a lot of the writings of the figure most responsible for his UK reputation, Stuart Hall.
Alan Cassar: Your point came out when Nicola Benedetti, after promoting classical music, was recently called elitist : no one says anything about the fact that we’re bombarded by Anglo-American pop music.
Jim Aitchison: I’ve felt this for years. I would say that commercial popular music (a very wide and obviously important and fascinating field, notwithstanding) is so ingrained and so overwhelmingly suffocating and THE dominating sonic orthodoxy, and has been for so long, that one can’t imagine any public or private sonic experience not informed by it, be it if you turn on the TV when you get up in the morning, or go to the bank, get put on hold when calling HMRC, waiting in a doctors’ surgery, riding on a train and having to listen to the multi-clicking tattoo of 30 iPods, walking along a road and folks with in-car audio drive past with windows down, bass pumping on full, to sitting in your own home and having to endure someone else’s taste in music when some kind of celebration makes them think that other people’s feelings about their personal spaces and homes being invaded don’t matter in the slightest. The utter saturation of amplified Anglo-American pop music is so total, that if I say what I have just written above to most ‘ordinary’ folks, they will look at me as if I’m stark raving bonkers (so I try not to). Larson, will no doubt recognise this as we’ve talked about it before…
**Ian Pace: We need ‘Anglo-American popular music free spaces’.
**Jim Aitchison: Sometimes I feel like completely music free spaces: there’s too much music of all kinds (sometimes!)
**Amelia Young: Ian you’re too bloody intelligent for most of the world’s population who have a preference for Anglo American music! Should we not be proud that the UK and our Co-Anglo counterpart USA are so popular! Wish they would play more of the best American music like Gershwin X
**Larson Powell Jim, this stuff is like McDonald’s, a kind of anthropological lowest common denominator: I-IV-V progressions and 16 and 32 bar phrases like hamburger meat, salt chips, and fat… everyone has to love it, don’t they?!
**Jim Aitchison: Larson, to me, it really does feel like a version of a kind of sonic totalitarian thought-police. I can think of folks who believe it is their scared human right to be able to ‘express themselves’ by playing their music as loudly as they wish, wherever and whenever they feel like it. In some ways I don’t care what they listen to, but the blanket society-wide *belief* that life cannot be endured for one second without constant pentatonic rhythmicization feels like a kind of madness to me.
**Larson Powell: Yes, Jim, I agree: I think the enforced pounding is in fact the real police of our society. The one thing that is intolerable is the idea that someone might actually want to think, feel, or experience at their own tempo, without prefabricated cliche emotions swallowed whole. The whole “party”-Unkultur is conformism packaged as pseudo-rebellion: the tyranny of the teenager. Can you imagine anything more awful than a world run by high school idiots? There’s where we’re going. What REALLY terrifies me is the thought of how bad it will be when my parents’ generation, who did not grow up with canned garbage in their heads all the time, die out and we are left alone with the zombies as sole “consumers,” therefore sole arbiters of truth… then I will move to the Orkneys.
**Jim Aitchison: And I will join you!
Ian Pace: Maybe it’s time to look again at the status and value popular music degree courses, as a counter-hegemonic action?
**Alan Cassar: Popular Music degree courses are there because they allow people with practically no knowledge of music to come out with a degree and some validation. Most of these courses are a con.
**Jim Aitchison: Love to see that one tried and the reaction ensuing!
**Alan Cassar: One of the problems one faces is that employers rarely differentiate between a bogus degree (eg most of the pop music ones and some musicological ones) from a bad university and a qualification/degree from a world-class college (and if your qualifications are foreign…oh god!). Neither do accreditation bodies NARIC, etc.
To get an idea of the general level in **some** universities, one has to listen to compositions and performances from BA/MA students… It’s embarrassing and dishonest (these universities still charge extortionate fees).
Adam Fergler: Because it’s a multi-billion dollar industry and where there’s commercial success we’re supposed to turn a blind eye. Money is everything. Success from (and in the form of) money is supposed to be aspirational. Anything else has no worth. Apparently.
Excuse me while I put on my Nike running shoes so I can run to Tesco to buy an Innocent Smoothie. I’d go in my over-sized people carrier, but running and smoothie drinking is part of my branded lifestyle.
Ian Pace: McDonald’s is a multi-billion dollar industry as well. If all courses on gastronomy had to include this as a shining example of all-inclusive, multicultural cuisine, then you would have a pretty good equivalent of the state of musical education.
Jim Aitchison: That’s an incredibly apposite comparison…
Adam Fergler: One has to be fair. There’s some great Anglo-American pop music (there’s drivel, too). As far as I can see, nothing good has come out of MacDonald’s
**Ian Pace: Ah yes, but according to that received wisdom which has become an unquestioned orthodoxy in musical education, to valorise anything but the most nakedly commercial is nothing more than another form of hegemony, importing values from the hegemonic culture.
**Ian Pace: Beyonce sucks, by the way.
**Adam Fergler: Hahaha! And there I was imagining you dancing away to ‘Single Ladies’
**Jim Aitchison: (That’s just a rumour Ian 😉 )
**Franklin Cox: And when you see her singing and emoting in performance–she’s just emoting, not singing.
**Richard Wattenbarger: I’ve heard very little Beyoncé, and I doubt I’d recognize her if I heard her. So, Ian, I’m giving you a thumbs up not because I agree (because I have no basis for doing so) but because you have the chutzpah to denounce the emperor’s nakedness!
Adam Fergler: Ian, you forgot to mention that MacDonald’s relies on highly addictive and demonstrably unhealthy ingredients to get its consumers hooked.
I’m just going to leave that hanging there…
Franklin Cox: I’ve had to swallow my thoughts for a long time on this. Bravo, everyone.
**Jim Aitchison: It’s amazing how incredibly powerful the propulsion towards (self) censorship is re this subject…
Ian Pace: How about, in all places, a quota of 40% on the amount of popular music which is sung in English? Having regular exposure to other languages in popular music would be great for young people’s language skills.
**Alan Cassar That would be a good start, but for this to happen, schools must first start realise the importance of languages. One must also put things in perspective : how many teachers in the UK actually speak foreign languages to a decent level? In this case, how is one going to teach foreign songs – by using phonetics?
Ideally schools would need to encourage pupils and their families to make language learning part of home-life and for them to expose themselves to the culture of the countries where these languages originate from.
Franklin Cox: I don’t like the notion of “hegemony” much (and I’ve seen indications that Gramsci was not the saint he is portrayed as), because it’s too broad a brush and tends to neutralize opposition. It is only valuable as an initial means of shaking people into awareness, but once one is aware of a hegemony, the concept tends to neutralize response to it, because the hegemony is so all-pervasive, can’t be seen directly, has infiltrated our conceptual presuppositions, etc. That’s what I object to; once one is aware of illegitimate power, one has to be able to specify what it is and what it is doing and work to curb it. I’ve run into so many people who end up using the term “hegemony” as an sort of excuse (by one in the know, mind you) for passivity.
Ian Pace: In my most cynical moments, I say that ‘hegemony’ is a term used by couch potatoes who only want to lie back and be spoon-fed what they already know, and whinge like spoilt children when anything else is suggested.
Franklin Cox: But the notion of hegemony is useful for the commercial art world, because it really is trying to remake reality in its image. There’s a pretty good book (skewered by Taruskin and the popheads) called “Who Needs Classical Music,”, in which the author writes about how people use music as a sort of mental furniture, providing a sort of sound track to their life. They go home and settle into their favorite furniture, they drive to work as though they were in a movie, with a soundtrack throbbing around them.
**Justin Benz: I’ve known an alarming number of people who only seem drawn to music that provides backdrop to their frequent trips to the gym, i.e. the only ‘Murica-approved form of self-improvement, much like what’s allowed in an actual prison. One result of the western world’s sweeping campaign of denial against self-reflection, restraint, patience, intelligence, etc.., is that this music naturally ends up being all these people listen to when they’re NOT at the gym. I specifically have horrid memories of working in a chemistry lab and having to endure loud dance/party music for eight hours a day, because we all know that silence means the terrorists win or some bullshit…
**Franklin Cox: That’s horrible to imagine. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to cool down in my responses to most difficulties, but the one thing that enrages me still is the thumping of pop music from a neighbor’s stereo–it really drives me nuts. Luckily, we have our own house now, and I haven’t had to suffer from this for over a year (I just realized this as I was typing this note!).
Ian Pace: The study of popular music would be strong if it were genuinely historical and global. But mostly it’s a quick fix for those who do not want to have to step out of the here and now.
Alan Cassar: Ian , but then will it belong to music courses?
Franklin Cox: Tia DeNora evidently did a paper or book studying how some bureaucrats in the UK piped classical music into certain areas as a means of reducing rowdyism, etc., using this (if I remember correctly) as a demonstration of the manipulative nature of classical music. How odd that she would focus on the rare use of classical music–comprising probably .00001% of the existing cases of the use of music in public spaces to control crowds–as her focus of concern.
Franklin Cox: That’s how hegemony works.
Ian Pace: Quite so. She is the person who wrote a book on Beethoven’s career, without engaging with the music, and without appearing to be able to read German.
Franklin Cox: The book on Beethoven is one of the most embarrassing things I’ve seen. Rosen skewers it effectively, as does Kivy.
**Ian Pace: Have a look at this if you haven’t already seen it, especially footnote 33, on DeNora. https://ianpace.wordpress.com/2015/04/22/musicological-observations-3-multicultural-musicology-for-monolingual-academics/
Ian Pace: This hegemony thing, like – can’t you see how children from primary school onwards, all over the world, are force-fed Ferneyhough? It’s an outrage, and the clearest sign of white male privilege. 😦
Ross Feller: Wait, what? I thought I was the only one force-feeding Ferneyhough. Ha
Anne Ozorio: The hegemony stems from the domination of the English language, further exacerbated by the dominance of the internet by English speakers. Ignorance and insularity feed upon each other, Eventually everyone comes to believe that the narrow world of internet opinion “must” be right.
Ian Pace: Not just in the internet – throughout the educational sector as well.
Anne Ozorio: and the more people hear the dominant dogma, the more they believe it and forget their own culture
Larson Powell: The reason why this kind of orthodoxy about popular music is never challenged is that Anglo-Am pop has been the most effective and influential means of spreading a certain kind of semi-egalitarian, but also deeply resentful, chauvinistic and anti-intellectual lower-middle class culture (and its attendant political position or ideology) worldwide. The European Continent – France, Germany – could not produce this sort of cultural virus, since there were too many archaic survivals from court, church and aristoratic cultures, too strong a tradition of étatisme. But Anglophone culture is the triumph of the lower middle classes, who can ONLY admire the likes of Beyonce, since all of them think: I could do that too! I could play three chords and sing out of tune too, and if only I got lucky I too could be rich and famous! But confront that same mentality with a string quartet, or Proust, and they know they couldn’t “do that too,” so they can’t admire it. since it threatens their petit-bourgeois Ressentiment — which is the real key to a lot of pseudo-left cult stud, unfortunately. Anglopop is the most faithful servant of Anglo-Am cultural imperialism, hiding under specious claims to ‘democracy.’ The best escape from it is to speak other languages comfortably. (The rulers of Anglodom are doing their best to make sure few English speakers are ever able to escape the narrow confines of their own culture.).
Franklin Cox: There’s a real-world factor as well: one of the keys to weakening the Soviet bloc was evidently Western popular culture, and especially popular music. When the rock sensation hit, people in the East bloc wanted to hear this music, but could rarely get access to it. Governments tried to create their own pop groups, but none of them had the magic allure of the Rolling Stones. The Sword and the Shield, based on the Mitrokhin archive, has descriptions of KGB reports assessing the subversive effects of Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd. One musician I knew toured the Soviet Union with a rock band shortly before the end of the USSR and told me about the overwhelming impact of the music. Our analysts figured this out pretty quickly and by the 1960s were switching the focus of artistic outreach from high culture (which is how Cage, Cunningham, and others were able to travel around the world) to popular culture. In addition, the economic impact of popular music was at one time forming significant amount of economic activity; I used to joke that if you criticized pop music during a recession, you might be accused of harming the economic recovery. I think both of those factors–international image and economic impact–have been significant in validating popular music studies within the academy. There’s another factor, which is that popular music and arts are one area that African-Americans and minorities have played a large role, so I can see good reasons to avoid blanket denigration. However, there’s a big difference between the superb jazz musicians of the 20th century and Beyonce and company, and I don’t have any moral qualms about pointing this out.
Ian Pace: There are plenty of minorities working in McDonald’s too.
**Franklin Cox: That line has been tried as well. After the Los Angeles riots in 1992, McDonald’s got lots of good press for being one of the largest employers of minorities in the inner cities, and one of the few “legit” career paths for them.
Anne Ozorio: Yet there is/was plenty of popular music in other cultures.
Larson Powell: But how much of it is just an imitation of the US? Would this all have happened at all without US influence? I doubt it very much. Franklin’s point about the Cold War is well taken – this is, of course, uncritically hyped to the sky by many US academics as being somehow emancipatory, but much of the effect of it is the destruction of any idea of artistic or craftsmanly authority beyond commercial “success.” This is the main point of Americanization: to destroy any and all cultural alternatives to US global domination, while pretending the latter is somehow “democratic.” Central to this is the destruction of any idea of cultural authority outside that of the mass market; which is why Adorno remains, even now, the arch-enemy of this creed.
Larson Powell: (So much of this fake rebellion was already skewered back in the 1960s by figures as otherwise dissimilar as Lacan, Foucault and Habermas… but the more time has passed, the more the orthodox dogma that this was all “progress” has become entrenched, whether in the university or elsewhere, to the point where one cannot criticize the dogma publicly anymore without instantly being labelled “fascist,” “racist,” etc. etc.)
**Franklin Cox: Larson, there’s also the aura of the natural–the release from oppressive restrictions, etc.–about so much of the reception of and publicity for rock music in the early years. The reception in the Soviet bloc was really interesting, though, because people were not being told to love this music; in fact, they were being told the exact opposite. There was something genuine about this, which I find fascinating. Something as simple as listening to entertainment music with no serious political content was viewed as threatening to the regime. Although of course, much of what was seen in this music was a projection–something exciting happening “over there”, in another land full of wonderful cars and shops loaded with food that few people could visit. It was smart marketing on our part to push this product. But it is an awfully shallow representation of American culture, and a thin basis on which to define freedom. And it’s a serious problem when academics can’t distinguish a rationale that served as effective marketing overseas until recently (the Islamic radicals are reacting precisely against our entertainment products and are using them against us) from a serious ethnomusicological or sociocultural analysis of this music.
**Franklin Cox: I know you don’t like Arendt much, but one of my favorite essays is her “Truth and Politics” in “Between Past and Future”. She has a wonderful discussion of the ways in which rationales that used to be confined to state policy are mixed with Madison Avenue methods of persuasion, with the result that the rationale starts to be treated as truth, and even its fabricators have trouble distinguishing the fable from reality.
Justin Benz: In the church of secularism, questioning the works of ‘the invisible hand’ is heresy.
Adam Kondor: Did not some old Chinese theorists write about the relationship of music and power? Consciously or unconsciously there is always a relationship. You need to “synchronize” people. One beat, one folk. You don’t need an emperor materialized in flesh and blood but you need the function of the emperor. (Actually the Chinese emperors were also non-existent as persons for the majority of the people ruled by their ‘name’, by the function.)
There is also some mathematics showing that the rich must be richer: the tendency for concentration of resources, power, narratives, etc. is a natural fact. Languages spoken by small communities are just dying out. Not much you can do against it, particularly not on some moralizing ground.
(Note: this is not an argument FOR pop music. Over-saturation is lethal, no doubt about it.)
Anne Ozorio: The US did not invent popular culture. Just because Anglos don’t know, doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Therein the dilemma
Larson Powell: We’re not talking about the same thing. There are light years of distance between la France profonde, the world of French peasant culture, of Eugen Weber”s Peasants into Frenchmen, of bransles de Bourgogne and ah! ça ira, ça ira, ça ira on the one hand, and Anglopop on the other. Global Anglopop has destroyed local popular cultures. I wonder what Jean-Pierre Le Goff (La Fin du village) would say about this? I am not sure it makes much sense to call Beyonce and French or Italian popular customs (those that Pasolini saw destroyed by TV) by the same name. We need a better terminology. It is precisely the attempt to claim that all of this is just one and the same “popular culture” that is problematic.
Natalie Tsaldarakis: I feel an Adorno coming up ! You do not attack a convenient medium of subjugation of the masses to a life of idiotic or at least mindless (self)consumption. The danger is for classical music in its “pop” packaging and commercialism to become just as mindless or even obsolete. The “blame” lies in the semiotics, rather than the repertoire: adoption of sexualised images of performers (but an attractive performer or a beautiful dress per se is not the problem: the intent of achieving marketability is); rock-star gestures where preponderance of visual cues divert from accessing the actual music; and even an overconsumption of certain repertoire in pop culture manner…
Anne Ozorio: Larson, I’m talking about Asia and popular traditions there which go back hundreds of years
Larson Powell: Of course, of course! (I studied Chinese and Japanese for years…) All I am suggesting is that the blanket term “popular culture” may be too general? Isn’t the English working class culture of E.P. Thompson different from that of the countryside, or from global pop now? Modernity means the end of “the people” in the old sense (Durkheim)… so wouldn’t the word “popular” mean something different now? I think the romanticising of the popular among us Anglos is as harmful in its own way (not of course in the same way!) as German ideas of Volk…
Larson Powell: Chinese “popular traditions” included powerful millenarian religious beliefs (a bit like Joachim de Fiore or Thomas Muenzer in the West) that fed into massive peasant rebellions in the 18th c. and early 20th (see Döblin’s Die drei Spruenge des Wang-lun on popular Taoism and Jacqueries)… completely different..’
Franklin Cox: What is commonly called pop music should really be called commercial music. Popular music traditions are something different,although they are easily turned into commercial music, as long as you cut out most of the interesting bits. Commercial music is a standardized product designed for mass production and distribution. It uses whatever will sell on a large scale, so elements of existing popular music traditions are often employed as hooks.
**Alan Cassar: Thanks for reinforcing that!
How could one define in more detail ‘commercial music is a standardized product designed for mass production and distributions’?
One could possibly argue – but with caution- that in ‘commercial music’, lyrics mainly avoid a sophisticated use of language, and pathos.
Themes emphasise mainly basic emotions such as crude, graphic sex ; and basic expression of love. Political and social themes ; and references to the arts or to history are avoided. There is an increasing element of shock factor through gang-crime-related themes and misogyny in both lyrics and videos (the latter is possibly an aftermath of androgynous and homosexual imagery of the 70s and 80s which nowadays has ceased to widely shock).
Musically, the musical language tends to be basic (e.g. triadic harmony, simple melodic lines, formulaic writing, simple structures). There is also an increasing trend to refer to older styles such as funk, soul and bubblegum rock, but the outcomes are simpler.
In all of these elements,’reduced risk-taking’ is omnipresent.
Sound engineering has also been affected and has become increasingly ‘homogenised’ : heavy pitch correction has reduced expression making voice sound ‘perfect’ (which translates as ‘too perfect and unnatural’) ; heavy compression is often used in order to make the music sound louder and therefore be more suitable for radio and club use.
Conspicuous comparisons of ‘standardisation’ could be drawn with fast food industry.
Larson Powell: Franklin, couldn’t agree more; think of how complex the rhythms are in Greek popular music, not to speak of Africa; not much to do with endless 8-16-32 bar phrases.
Ben Leeds Carson: The dissemination of popular culture normally goes hand-in-hand with hegemony. Hegemony is that condition in which the oppressed are complicit in their own subordination; popular culture and hegemony mutually reinforce one another, almost necessarily. Of course not all consumption of popular music is internal self-oppression…subcultures can and do turn popular music back on itself in defiant acts of self-determination. But when music “belongs” to an activist audience in that way (rather than to what Adorno called “official culture”) that’s not really popular culture.
When musicologists run off at the mouth about the hegemony of European Art Music, they’re usually just trying to map their undergraduate comprehension of post-colonial theory onto the landscape of the world’s musical cultures, i.e. the British enjoyed a hegemony of moral and economic power in pre-revolutionary China, so, someone blandly imagines, the dominance of European classical music among Chinese audiences must be just an extension of that kind of cultural power. This neglects the core of arguments by Said, Spivak, etc. (whether you favor those or not), which tie hegemony distinctly to modern cultural production. The Chinese didn’t come to love Mozart in some sort of isolated propogandistic endeavor. They came to love Mozart mostly within the same array of cultural forces that we did. Some of them learned to hear Mozart and Stephen Foster as part of the same bourgeois symbolic world—as part of the same (popular) cultural system, in which it’s possible also to love low tea in a rose garden, or lacey furniture drapings—in which case the term hegemony applies. Others learned to love Mozart as a foil to all that, as a testimony to the possibility that musical ideas and their relationships actually matter. In that case pin the hegemony on other forms –
**Franklin Cox: Ben, I think we’re talking about the same thing, but I still think it’s useful to distinguish popular culture from commercial culture. The oppressed are complicit in their oppression in practically all cultures and cultural subsets, so following your definition, any popular music would be hegemonial. But if hegemony is tied to modern cultural production, then pre-modern popular musics can’t be hegemonial, or at least in the same way (this is part of the problem I have with the “hegemony” concept– once one tries to pin it down, it seems to me to turn into a distinction without a difference). However, there are popular cultures that don’t map onto the dominant culture, especially in all those periods in which the upper classes pretty much sealed themselves off from the rest of society–which is a good chunk of world history. But maybe the term “popular music” is too loaded and “folk music” is better; the problem here is that “folk music” has become a sort of genre instead of a descriptive term that could apply to various cultures.
**Franklin Cox: Commercial music at the top of the charts now is pretty much like fast food: it is written by a team, using standardized progressions, vocal figures, lyrics, and emoticons. An artist is affixed to the product and lip-syncs it while writhing or emoting on stage. There is pretty much nothing there at all beyond a burp of energy.
**Franklin Cox: Ben, when you say “subcultures can and do turn popular music back on itself in defiant acts of self-determination”, what kind of music do you mean? Political art on the right or left (non-state supported, I mean)? I’m just not sure if there’s a clear dividing line here. Precisely the same popular tune could be sung in a saccharine way and be popular or have new lyrics and be delivered with a critical twist. But I doubt that anyone in the reception community for either would claim that one song is popular art and the other isn’t. You’ve brought up an interesting way of looking at this, but I’m not sure if I can see such a clear distinction between these cases that I could consider one popular art and the other not.
**Franklin Cox: Whatever Brecht intended, the Threepenny Opera became popular art of a sort, didn’t it?
**Ben Leeds Carson: Popular culture is best defined not as those forms that are “most popular,” or “most successfully commercialized,” but as those forms whose meaning arises ***specifically as a result*** of its dissemination beyond the boundaries of a particular community, i.e. across subcultural and cultural distinctions and into those larger landscapes (and a plurality of “cultures”) connected by mass media. No, certainly, there is no rigid distinction (!), as there are countless cultural forms that function in one way (i.e. are valued, interpreted, etc. in one way) in their community of origin, and in other ways across a greater cultural breadth. But it’s a rigorous one.
Big Mama Thornton made a kind of music that most of Elvis’ audience could only regard as aesthetically (and also morally) remote, as “belonging” to a group of midwestern working-class dance-hall musicians (and their audiences), in a way that resisted legibility to outsiders. Reactions to Soulsonic Force would have been similar, had any of hip-hop’s future bourgeois/suburban audience heard them prior to 1983. That doesn’t prevent either Thornton or Bambataa from making popular culture; in Thorton’s case by taking up a Lieber & Stoller song like “Hound Dog”, essentially a kind of minstrelsy, to romanticize her own cultural remoteness for a wider audience. The distinction isn’t rigid because certainly some of her former audience could love “Hound Dog,” and her new audience could love her earlier material, but it’s rigorous in that the diverse set of values and meanings that “the blues” acquires in the 1950s among pre-baby-boom suburban teen audiences is barely recognizable to the mostly rural adult swing-era audiences to whom Thornton and her contemporaries were writing/performing. Same goes for the way you and I likely interpreted Run DMC and Public Enemy ca 1986— which, speaking for myself and my white-and-latino peers in a rural farming town, was a kind of cultural revolution, a whole new way of understanding the world. But that worldview has little to do with the set of meanings and values that drove hip-hop’s early formations in Bronx housing projects. And yes, how the music makes the transition from one set of meanings to the other is almost always hegemonic; almost always a kind of minstrelsy. For her peers, Thornton can be a hundred things in a hundred different songs, but to become a “blues singer” (or for Redding to become a “soul singer”) the material needs to be repainted to emphasize what a popular audience wants black music to be.
In this formulation of the term “popular music,” the quaint and unilluminating categories of “folk” music and “court” music are actually in the same—sure, one might be vernacular and the other institutional, one oral and the other written, but aside from those superficial distinctions they share a reliance on conventions that are learned and reinforced in one particular social context. We can enjoy an early 17th-c French dance suite or a West Virginia fiddler’s jig without being in their native cultures, but we know they’re court music and folk music in part because we’re not in that court, not part of that folk.
Both of those “white” musics can be subordinated and repurposed in popular culture as well, as long as they are insulated from modernity (either by history, in the case of the baroque, or by class, in the case of the fiddler). It won’t surprise anyone to hear those W.Va. fiddling gestures in “popular” music (commercial country music), but now the gestures’ rhetorical power is flattened in order just to serve (again) the simpler cultural function of identity formation—the fiddler no longer suggests we should turn a dance partner, or listen for a B-section in which the step changes, the way it would register for its “folk.” Now the fiddle just says “I’m country” or “I’m nostalgic for small-town life where probably there were barn dances.” On the other hand, it might surprise you to know how many baroque ritornelli can be found in the tracks of albums by Method Man or Bone Thug n’ Harmony. Their producers aren’t as much interested in counterpoint as they are in that unmistakeable sense of the militant gothic that 18th-c counterpoint puts across almost as well as Middle-English calligraphy on a black silk-screened t-shirt. (I do hope it’s clear, by the way, that I’m NOT arguing this is equivalent to the hegemony in which contemporary black music operates.)
The relative “popularity” of this or that painter or sculptor or novelist in one era or another doesn’t qualify her as popular culture, and the relative unpopularity of a group like the Grateful Dead doesn’t disqualify them either. It’s a question of cultural function. I like to think of popular music as music that the audience injests, or maybe just wears, passively, as a badge of identity, in a way that’s indifferent to what’s expressed in the material creation of a recording or performance. In the mid-1990s, college-aged men “dress up” in ska and reggae and gangsta rap, while their younger sisters dressed up in “80s” music to launch Spears’ and Aguilera’s careers. 20 years later, those audiences’ kids are entering their own college dorms, and they flash “gangsta” signs on Facebook and listen to the exact same hip-hop that their parents did, without even realizing that it’s old. That’s how far removed they are from the moment of production. And yes, for some audiences, Beethoven and Bach even Stravinsky can be “worn” that way.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Franklin Cox wrote: “following your definition, any popular music would be hegemonial”
“if hegemony is tied to modern cultural production, then pre-modern popular musics can’t be hegemonial, or at least [not] in the same way”
Yes and yes. For me at least. I can’t really think of the term “popular culture” in a way that would be compatible with personal or community self-determination. And there’s very little use in applying the term popular culture to anything prior to the rise of the “middle class” in the 19th century.
Some exceptions of course—you see popular culture’s characteristics to some extent in the promotion of late 18th-c opera in Italy and France (and the sale of sheet music in the latter), but those exceptions prove the rule; they’re nascent formations of a bourgeois consciousness.
**Ian Pace: I’m not sure if that definition of popular music wouldn’t encompass a good deal of art music, and exclude some commercial work.
One factor insufficiently filtered into this debate is the hegemony of music sung in English.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Folk (Volk) music, as a concept, also comes into existence in the 19th c, along with nationalism and that same rise of a middle class who wants to think of itself as having an epic past (cf. J.G. von Herder). Folk, art, pop; all of these are modern pretenses that quickly evaporate when one examines pre-modern musical practices. Still, the term “folk” is meant to describe a music that’s “authentically” tied to an ethnicity and a language, and so although the term is recent, it can describe pre-modern musics. The “art music” badge, likewise, is retroactively applied to early composers whose art matters to us even though their audiences didn’t share our 19th-c sense of the term “artist.”
**Ben Leeds Carson: The term “popular culture” (and popular music) absolutely should include some art music in some of its contexts.
**Ian Pace: I wonder whether we need the term ‘popular’ at all for music. I would sooner look at the relationship to commercialism.
**Franklin Cox: Ben, the problem is that terms are coined or altered in order to deal with changes in reality, and one can’t arbitrarily declare them null and void on the basis of earlier historical practices. “Revolution” doesn’t mean “return” anymore, even though it had that meaning (“or if revolution be the same”) longer than it has the present one. The more important question for me is if terms can be clearly understood and delineate useful distinctions. I’d rather use existing terms and try to sharpen them than throw them out and try to invent a whole new set. Perhaps I’m just a bit irritable about this right now because I’ve spent a month delving into neo-Riemann terminology. This is a perfect example of chaos ensuing when a group of very bright and headstrong theorists go hogwild trying to build the perfect symbolic mousetrap.
**Ben Leeds Carson: I agree with Frank as well that commercial music and popular music are overlapping but non-identical concepts. Frank invokes commercialism to refer to standardization, mechanization, and, well, thoughtlessness; i.e. a mode of production meant to maximize profit. But surely not all popular music fits into this category, and surely it’s possible to produce a Woody Guthrie or a Beethoven CD with that in mind. We shouldn’t want any of these terms to be mutually exclusive of one another.
I think we need the term “popular” for the same reasons that Adorno and Horkheimer needed it, which is to understand that there are cultural forces at work in the music, which would be otherwise unaccountable. To substitute the term “commercial” puts emphasis on the agency of producers who seek the profits associated with music … and on the puppet strings they might hold above their audiences. That would exclude examples of independently produced music that, when popularized, impacts culture deeply in ways that profiteers couldn’t have envisioned. It wouldn’t really make sense to describe the music of Duke Ellington or Johnny Cash as “commercial” music, but they were prominent & central forces in American popular music and culture.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Frustration understood Frank, but I *think* I’m using the term “popular culture” the way that Adorno and Horkheimer used it.
Vernacular (from linguistics): arising from unlearned usage and rhetoric
Folk: music associated with a cohesive ethnic or social group, usually oral and usually “authentic” to a group in the sense that it’s insulated from modern institutional influence.
Court: music cultivated by a politically empowered group, usually to ceremonialize its power, and/or to formulate a distinction between the civilized and the uncivilized
Art: I’ll pass on defining this 🙂
Popular: culture whose value isn’t situated within a community, but within the mass media that connect varied audiences and communities in the modern era, mass culture separated from its means of production
Commercial: music made for commerce and profit
**Franklin Cox: Ben, maybe we’ve been arguing at cross-purposes, which is what I suspected. I was originally talking about the sort of canned pop music that has by and large taken over the popular music field. Justin Bieber, Brittany Spears, M. Cyrus, are all products. This is commercial music, plain and simple, produced in accordance to audience surveys. Adorno had a wonderful early essay form the 40’s about this process, in which a lyrics team hitches up with a songwriting team, matching word and tone to audience survey. This is all part of the field of popular music, using “popular music” purely in a pragmatic sense. But most of the time popular music can’t be reduced to commercial music, except when the entire field has lost its vibrancy. I do think that pop-rock in the US has become so formulaic now that most of the best-selling songs are pure commercial products.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Not only across purposes (perhaps) but across comment-drafts. 😉
**Ben Leeds Carson: I’d like to say, though, that I don’t think we’re in much more than a semantic disagreement. I belabored the definition of popular culture mostly to offer the perspective that, from a dialectical materialist view anyway, hegemony is pretty much built into it. I agree that commercial music is nefarious too, for reasons you’ve outlined, and minor points aside we pretty much agree that the distinction is important because the two categories are problematic in different ways.
**Franklin Cox: Indeed…I just now saw your “Popular culture is best defined not as those forms that are “most popular,” or “most successfully commercialized,” but as those forms whose meaning arises ***specifically as a result*** of its dissemination beyond the boundaries of a particular community, i.e. across subcultural and cultural distinctions and into those larger landscapes (and a plurality of “cultures”) connected by mass media.” reply, which is wonderful. Okay, I think I can buy most of this definition. My problems here are first that the culture of the nobles was constantly being disseminated beyond its community from the Middle Ages on, without any mass media to convey it. And second, mass media weren’t necessary for the success of the big Handel festivals in England in the 19th century. But I agree with the general form of the definition.
**Franklin Cox: I guess my old objection to “hegemony” returns: if it’s everywhere, then it’s nowhere specific. The term is only useful in a critical sense if one can differentiate its presence from its absence.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Thank you! I’m working on this stuff these days.
Yeah, I kind of see the dawn of the public concert series in Handel’s London, and the (even earlier) 17th-c appetite for virginal and harpsichord scores, and madrigal parts, in both England and France, as exceptional early examples of popular culture—these urban Londoners were unique on the planet at that time in that they were numerous, literate, and had disposable income, and had access to massive printings of editorial pamphlets, poetry books, and musical scores. The Messiah really was a “hit” in the sense that we use the word now.
Btw, popular music scholars usually regard the sheet music industry arising in the early 1800s as a form of mass media. In its proper history, popular music begins at that time with pirated copies of Haydn symphonies reduced and simplified for performance on spinnets and parlor pianos, sold to a growing middle class in Paris. The “parlor song” genre of Stephen Foster was on the heels of this—simplifying the idea of art music for popular consumption.
I’m not sure nobility tried to transmit its culture to serfs in Medieval Europe; I’d like to learn more about that. An argument could certainly be made that the religious and academic elite did the opposite, maintaining an elevated literature in Latin and preventing the undeserving from learning that language. There are other examples of cultural transmission, of course—Asoka spread governing and educational philosophies across thousands of miles and dozens of languages—but those processes aren’t driven by consumer demand in such a way as to qualify as hegemony.
**Ian Pace: My one question about the definition from Ben, cited by Frank: who gets to determine how such a meaning arises, or what that meaning is?
**Ben Leeds Carson: The most useful thing about the term hegemony for me, in teaching undergraduates, is to distinguish for them that they make choices as consumers that might lead to compromises in their own development and autonomy, i.e. that serve interests other than their own. But I agree… it’s definitely overused.
**Anne Ozorio: But the 19th cent choral thing was an outgrowth of religious singing which goes way back before the growth of classes not defined by agrarian values
**Ben Leeds Carson: Ian, I’m not sure we need, as academics, to say *what* the meanings of “the blues” are to one community or another, to know that they are different. Angela Davis’ book “Blues Divas” does a pretty good job, arguing from cultural context and testimony, in showing that what Bessie and Clara Smith meant, when they sang about jealousy and woman-to-woman competition, was pedagogical; i.e. meant to show black women the dangers of turning against one another in a racist society. But even if she doesn’t persuade you that those meanings arise in “Empty Bed Blues”, I think it’s clear that a chasm separates those blues singers’ early creative efforts from the hypersexual meanings broadly associated with them.
Bessie Smith was an educated Vaudeville singer who didn’t see herself as a “blues woman”…she sang the same repertoire as her white contemporaries, and then added the blues in the 1910s when W.C. Handy’s sheet music started to sell. W.C. Handy’s case was similar—he led a (non-stylistically-specific) brass band and taught music at a Louisiana College. After he realized his patrons were more likely to buy music with the word “blues” in the title, he recomposed previously published fox-trots and cake-walks with 12-bar patterns, and achieved great commercial success. (Btw, all of this was before you could get any of that on a record or over the radio.) There’s no doubt, from visual and textual evidence, that consumers of the blues were interested in finding some elemental force of nature within an unruly “negro” culture, and that artists like Handy and Smith could capitalize on that by suppressing their middle-class modern sensibilities. And let’s keep in mind that they weren’t corrupting the blues, they were inventing it. No one started recording the “authentic” delta blues guitarists until the mid 1920s, and by then (it’s widely testified), those musicians had changed *their* styles to match what Handy was doing so successfully. The “birth of the blues” is a process in which popular culture reshapes black identity from something pluralistic, multi-ethnic, and complex… into the giddy monolithic humor of a single 12-bar form.
There’s just as much evidence for similar distinctions of meaning in minstrelsy—which was *the* dominant form of American popular culture for nearly a century—and in swing (Ellington’s music was marketed as “jungle music,” meanwhile, in interviews, he questioned whether jazz should even have a categorical name to distinguish it from classical music), and of course in hip-hop. The problem is particularly acute and consistent across the two-century history of African American music, but as I’ve tried to note above, it also affects other traditions.
**Ian Pace: My point was really to do with how often, and easily, claims about ‘meaning’ are bandied about, but these can be so extremely subjective that their weight is often determined by the power and status of those claiming to identify such meaning (and this is itself another form of hegemony).
**Ben Leeds Carson: @Anne, thanks for the clarification … absolutely, madrigals and rounds have both folkloric and religious roots. I didn’t mean to argue that the genre arises because of popular culture. I’m arguing that popular culture is a phenomenon grafted onto it, which transforms what people will do with it, and how they’ll use it. Choral singing, as a musical practice, really changes when suddenly you have this literate middle class who can read parts, and can make a major family activity out of rehearsing and performing them. It encouraged this whole new vogue, in England, for comical and harmonically expressive Italian secular music, which would have been impossible to imagine before. Without music literacy and cheap printing, choral music is either passed down via an oral tradition, or it’s disseminated by religious authorities.
**Ben Leeds Carson: @Ian, I agree. Too many cultural studies scholars try to tell us that hidden meanings in popular culture portend a revolution of activist re-appropriations. Evidence is often sloppy, and some of them are even proud of that.
**Ian Pace: I’d be the last one to try and deny that music has meaning, but it is an amorphous thing (as with sculpture and architecture), and that can be a strength as well as a weakness.
**Ian Pace: The case of Bessie and Clara Smith seems to be one of intent rather than meaning. I’ve seen so many cases of popular music celebrated by those who are antipathetic to its politics as to feel this to be extremely problematic.
**Ben Leeds Carson: There is a subtle level, yes, at which differences in the way we might understand a particular recording are primarily about intent. But coupled with that is a larger level at which these artists shift, willingly (thus the term hegemony) to a whole new (and narrower) mode of expression, in order to serve a broader view of what a black singer is supposed to be.
**Ian Pace: Absolutely, but those two things are perfectly compatible with one another.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Yes! Which is why it’s so important to me that we define popular music without a sense of mutual exclusion from other categories like art and folk.
**Larson Powell: This is one of the best discussions of popular music I have ever read, thank you. Learned a lot here.
**Franklin Cox: I’ve just been reading Auerbach, and he makes the point that Boccaccio’s Decameron applied the high style traditionally applied to serious subjects to ordinary men and women, for a largely rich bourgeois audience. There is certainly a constant process of this happening throughout the middle ages. The exclusive, hermetic troubadour poetry was extended outside of this enclosed sphere by the Italian poets, and then via Petrarch was applied to the beloved throughout Europe, seeping down the social ladder. The romance followed a similar path. I would make the case that the massive production of dances in the Baroque period, seeping down from the royal courts, was another case of this. Yes, printing was a mass medium from the beginning.
**Franklin Cox: Isn’t one common factor in most of what is considered popular music a certain basic expertise in the style on the part of much of the audience for it, so that substantial amounts of it can be performed by the consumers? This certainly was the case in a fair amount of popular music in the US over the last century, from the people who leaned standards by heart to wannabe jazz performers and rock guitarists. What’s happening now with this is that the skills that people need for current commercial products have more to do with technology than with musical performance (although many people still imitate pop singers). No band on earth can get the complex textures and range of samples found in many current pop tunes; and the singers aren’t actually doing much of the vocal product we hear in the final mix, as autotune has become a standard factor in most of the pop tunes. Of course, all of this doesn’t apply as much to genres such as Country music or folkish music. I wonder if one could make a case that such amateur-level basic expertise is the norm in popular music traditions; perhaps an emphatic definition of the term would require it.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Hi Frank, yes; this is a common dynamic in popular music, dating back to the early 19th-c examples described above. In my view, there’s a tension here: you had to be able to put the notes in front of your accompanist sister or mother (usually the women were the ones cultivating music literacy), and you had to be able to sing it yourself. But the opposite constraint was just as important. There’d be no point in buying a spinnet and taking up lessons if you couldn’t feel that the whole endeavor made you in some way aristocratic; this is a definitive component of the bourgeoisie, of that distinctly middle-class consciousness that in its leisure time aspires to the culture of the ruling class. It’s for this reason that I don’t really think we need the term “popular culture” in reference to premodern societies where the phenomenon of modern class consciousness, I think we can agree, is unrecognizable.
In the 20th century, popular music goes through brief periods of over-professionalization, and there’s always a corrective reaction. Rock and roll is partly a reaction to 1940s post-swing crooners. Professional songwriters and producers of Brill-building pop and Motown beget the personal, rustic authenticity of Dylan and the Rolling Stones. The whole concept of DIY that thrived in late-70s punk, which perhaps resonates most strongly with your point here, was widely considered a reaction to disco (“disco” being an inadequate term for the professional songwriting and romantic pop sensibilities that included bands like Journey, Air Supply, Dan Fogelberg, the Carpenters) … but actually the two cultures’ rise and fall pretty much coincided. In our own generation the success of producers like Brian Eno and bands like Nirvana and U2, leading to the whole “Indy” concept in the early 90s, was largely a corrective campaign against overvalued professionalism in the synth-pop and glam metal of the late 80s.
I think these moments in which pop devotes itself to virtuosity and other displays of technical or intellectual prowess are the exception, and DIY aesthetics the rule. But this tension is nearly always present, and popular culture can never really be without both impulses: the romantic/heroic one that appeals to bourgeois ambitions, and the fundamental need for the music to have some element of participatory creativity that engenders a more “authentic” sense of ownership on the part of a non-expert audience.
**Ian Pace I’ve always thought of punk, at least the UK variant, as more a reaction to prog and heavy metal than disco. The US precedents in the form of the New York Dolls and the Ramones were somewhat different and overlapped in various ways with glam.
**Ian Pace (Also, I would need to see more evidential data to view Dylan and the Stones as a reaction to Motown)
**Ben Leeds Carson Yes, that’s right. Disco, at its core at least, is an over-maligned category, and usually misunderstood… To really grasp what punk artists in the US were reacting against, you need to broaden the definition as I did above, to include an array of sappy popular spin-offs that were only loosely connected to it.
The coexistence of these impulses is really evident when you consider the haphazardness of how we identify watershed moments in both metal and punk… from critical reactions alone it’s clear that Black Sabbath itself was arguably more on the “punk” side of the equation, with “blues” bands like Cream and the Yardbirds being seminal to the “prog” side. And Malcom McLaren’s role in both the New York Dolls’ and the Sex Pistols’ breakthrough performances should remind us just as much of professional, producer-driven boy-band pop as anything truly DIY.
**Ben Leeds Carson: Not Dylan contra Motown; Dylan contra the norms of early-1960s pop. What’s useful to consider at least in the case of Dylan is that in his prime he was praised for the perceived “authenticity” of his approach to songwriting (not only in contrast to pop, but in contrast to the norms of folk); the love songs in particular were about specific relationship experiences rather than universal ones. This was a starting point for “confessional” values in songwriting, in contrast to the notion of songs as “standards.” Although the Beatles, and Hank Williams, and countless blues artists, wrote their own material, the only artists prior to Dylan that had made a public point of //expressing themselves as individuals// in the act of writing a song were the great blues divas. John Lennon famously remarked that prior to hearing Dylan he hadn’t realized that songwriting of that sort was even possible.
So the contrast I’m drawing up here is along the lines of the professionalism/DIY distinction that Frank alludes to. I’m less confident in my sense of the Stones’ audiences’ relationship to the phenomenon, but the point isn’t that Dylan fans wanted something contrasted with Motown, it’s that they relished the idea that he was, in song form, being himself; that’s certainly in sharp contrast to Neil Sedaka, the early 60s girl groups, and anything Phil Spector or Holland and Dozier wrote in that notoriously professional period in pop from around 1958-1962.