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Popular Music Theory, by Stephen Hill

The theory underpinning the study of popular music is wide-ranging and varied. Traditional musicologists have tended to analyse the structure of popular music as if it were a classical composition. This approach has been criticised by some for neglecting the ‘performative’ and improvisational qualities of popular music. The other side of this are the approaches emanating from the Social Sciences, which are often labelled the “Sociology of Rock”. Here theorists have tended to focus on issues to do with audiences and the representation of performers. Criticisms of this approach say that it ignores the musical and aesthetic qualities that make popular music distinct from other media texts. However, one of the key theoretical issues in Popular Music Studies is that of post-modernism: the blurring of the distinction between the real and the simulated. Some argue that musical recordings are the epitome of the post-modern text. ‘Records’, for example, are not usually recorded live but artificially ‘constructed’ in the studio. The music video is a good example of this as they rely heavily upon inauthentic performances and abstract visuals: storylines are often very impressionistic and the artist is usually miming. Other thinkers have tried to identify key moments in the history of popular music when it seemed to embody post-modern cultural practice e.g. the advent of digital sampling or the proliferation of music video in the 1980s. The problem, it would seem, is that it is impossible to find a pre-post-modern moment: from the gramophone to YouTube, popular music culture is inherently synthetic. For the purposes of this article I will set out some of the key approaches to popular music and consider how we might begin to conceptualise the medium in a contemporary context.

The legacy of Theodore Adorno's scathing attack on popular music in On Popular Music (1942) has cast a long shadow over Popular Music Studies. Essentially Marxist in his outlook, Adorno viewed popular music as part of the culture industry: an industry designed to pacify society by appealing to its false need for entertainment. He views the formulaic nature of the popular song (verse/chorus etc) as “pseudo individualised”: a cheap distraction for the audience from the fundamentally exploitative nature of life under capitalism. His influence can be felt in the work of David Reisman whose essay entitled Listening to Popular Music (1950) identifies two categories of listeners: “majority” and “minority”. According to Reisman majority listeners consume mainstream music and pop culture as a product and source of lighthearted fun while the minority develops “over elaborate, standards of music listening” (Reisman, 1950). On the one hand, both pieces have given rise to a post-War generation of Cultural Theorists who have produced a sterling body of work in defence of popular music. The general consensus (Angela McRobbie, Simon Frith, Keith Negus etc) is that the popular music scene is a complex world in which the attitudes and values constitute a symbolic system. On the other hand, some musicologists (Richard Middleton, Nicholas Cook, Lucy Green etc) have contended that the problem with Adorno's work is that he measured the worth of popular music in ways that were only suitable for evaluating classical music. Green, for example, argues in her study of Ideology (1999) that “traditional methods of studying classical music may not be altogether suitable” (Green, 1999) because they assume that the soundtrack has been composed as a musical score. The flip side to the approach that tries to force pop music into the mould of classic music, is a belief that popular music should be valued in its own terms. However, while there is agreement that, in some respects, popular music embodies post-modern cultural practice, there is confusion as to whether or not popular music can or should be valued qualitatively. From a Sociological point of view this is extremely problematic as the suggestion that pop music cannot be valued in terms of quality reinforces the elitism of high culture.

Exemplary of the more sociological approaches to popular music is the work of Paul Willis who worked at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies in the late Seventies. Like the work of Stuart Hall, David Morley and Charlotte Brunsden et al, Willis challenges received Frankfurt School thinking that certain art forms are more valid than others e.g. classical music. InA Social Theory for the Social Meaning of Pop (1978) he presents a case for popular music as a new form of media literacy for groups traditionally marginalized.

“(T)he vast majority of young people involved with pop music are working class, and share along with the rest of their class, an inability to articulate their meanings in an abstract verbal manner.”
Willis,1978

He views popular culture as an authentic expression of working class youth and quite clearly from the Beatles to Oasis many bands have played up the role of social rebellion. Moreover, songs like I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1964) and Wonderwall (1995) do purposefully seem to reject literary pretension in their lyrical content. Some might say, however, that this is a rather sentimental view. On the one hand it ignores the large demographic of music producers and consumers who are middle class. Many popular music stars, for example, are college graduates (Mick Jagger, Bryan May) and art schools in particular have proved particularly prolific in their output of pop musicians (John Lennon, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry). On the other hand, Willis does not account for the fact that pop aesthetics are different to those of classical music: informed by surrealism, situationism and an altogether more commercial sensibility. There is a difference between being dumb and playing dumb. Nevertheless, popular music is often seen as synonymous with the voice of youth culture. This, however, is a connection that has not gone uncontested.

In Popular Music in Theory (1996) Keith Negus challenges the connection between popular music and youth culture. He argues that popular music is listened to and performed by an ageing demographic. There are large audiences for rock and pop artists who have achieved classic status: The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac etc. He also takes issue with the view that popular music is inherently rebellious.

“Punk rock finally challenged, deconstructed and exposed the mythologies of rock at the very moment when the original teenagers and youth of the rock generation were beginning to grow old and beginning to hear things in a different way: songs of generational rebellion, sexual liberation and social concern were starting to be used to advertise wine coolers, executive cars and personal insurance.”
Negus, 1996

A recent example of this is Iggy Pop's Lust For Life from the 1977 album The Idiot. After being re-popularised as the title song in the 1996 film Trainspotting, the track was used on adverts for the cruise line Royal Caribbean. Likewise when The Clash's Should I Stay or Should I Go was re-released on the back of a television campaign for Levi jeans in 1991, it gave the band their first UK number 1: 15 years after the band split up. The issue here of course is exploitation: that commercial uses of popular music recordings turn popular art into cultural waste matter. The problem with this viewpoint of course is that it falls into the classic Frankfurt School (Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer etc.) trap of seeing all commercial uses as problematic. It ignores the messages and values encoded in the text and the fact that popular music is a commercial art form. In more recent years this commercial sensibility has been more central to the way in which popular music has been theorised.

In McRock: Pop as Commodity (1988) Mary Harron takes as her starting point the way in which pop music is constructed as a product, focusing specifically on the meaning behind commercial genres of popular music and the terms ‘rock’ and ‘pop’. Harron argues that while rock is suggestive of authenticity and the real (“geniuses and heroes”), pop is synonymous with in-authenticity and artificiality (“mutability and glitter”) (Harron 1988). From a historical perspective this has had a big influence on the institutional structure of the music industry. Pop is traditionally marketed as singles aimed at a teenage audience while rock is focused on album releases and orientated towards a more adult audience. Likewise this is reflected in the structure of the music press. The pop music press (Smash Hits, Top of the Pops etc), for example, has traditionally focussed on the more short-term achievements of the singles chart, while the rock press (NME, Q, Rolling Stone etc.) is more focussed on album sales. In Revolution Now (1997) Norma Coates extends the work of Mary Harron by looking at issues of gender, focusing specifically on the way in which genre is connected to the representation of sex. In this essay Coates argues that while rock is synonymous with masculinity, pop tends to be viewed as a more feminine genre:

“(R)ock is metonymic with ‘authenticity’ while ‘pop’ is metonymic with ‘artifice’. Sliding even further down the metonymic slope, ‘authentic’ becomes ‘masculine’ while ‘artificial’ becomes ‘feminine’. Rock, therefore, is ‘masculine’, pop is ‘feminine’, and the two are set in binary relation to each other, with the masculine, of course on top.”
Norma Coates, 1997

Certainly this argument is born out in the field of pop music video. Compare and contrast the forms and conventions of popular music videos for Abba's Super Trouper (1980) and Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love (1969): the Zeppelin clip is a riot of macho swagger, guitar solos and heroic posturing, while the promo film for the Swedish quintet is a carnivalesque pageant of colour and light, cohered around the feline charms of the iconic lead singers. The key issue for Coates, however, is that rock is the higher status genre. Indeed, look at any of the ‘100 greatest’ lists in magazines like Q or Rolling Stone and you will see that female performers are heavily marginalized if not totally excluded — denigrated often because their music is considered to be too ‘pop’. Nevertheless, many theorists have moved beyond this binary and prefer to look at the more subtle ways in which gender and authenticity are constructed in musical performance. It is generally accepted that rock is no less performative and artificial than other genres of music. Bruce Springsteen's image, for example, as the down to earth blue collar American is no less contrived than that of Madonna or Gwen Stefani. The issue here of course is post-modernism.

From the very first sound recording it could be said that popular music is the embodiment of post-modern cultural practise: long before the term came into popular use in the Fifties and Sixties. Indeed the origin of the term goes back to the 1870s and so agonising over its first occurrence in the history of modern pop seems, perhaps a little pointless. After all, records are pieces of music assembled from multiple, contrived studio performances, put together to create an illusory definitive version. Multi-tracked, over-dubbed, remixed and then mastered, they are the ultimate example of what the post-modern thinker Jean Baudrillard describes as simulacra: copies without originals that become truths in their own right. Perhaps the most sensible way of theorising popular music then is just to declare that everything is phoney and fake: that there is no such thing as an ‘authentic’ performance. In The Media Economy of Rock (1993) Lawrence Grossberg does just that. He argues that “the only authenticity is to know and even admit that you are not being authentic, to fake it without faking the fact that you are faking it” (1993). Few artists, however, are willing to embrace such candour. Milli Vanilli, for example, were ritually shamed in 1990 when their Grammy Award was revoked once it was revealed they didn't actually sing on any of their records. Likewise, Black Box's 1989 hit Ride on Time caused controversy when it became known that the vocal was not that of the model Catherine Quinel who lip-synched to the track in live performances but a sample of a song recorded by Loleatta Holloway with Dan Hartman in 1978. Whether it is vinyl enthusiasts who fetishise the crackle of a 78 inch or live music bores seeking out obscure new bands, popular music audiences are often heavily pre-occupied with authenticity: the truthfulness of the text's origin. The problem with popular music is that it is often very difficult to fix the circumstances of a record's production. Indeed part of the allure of the record industry is that it works very hard to conceal from us the mundane nature of that process. Moreover, it could be argued that for some artists the surface culture of pop, the music videos, posters and record sleeves, is as integral to the way in which the performer communicates with an audience as the records themselves.

When thinking about popular music it is important to remember that it is seldom the qualities of the music that shift but the way in which we interpret them. Abba is the same as Led Zeppelin is the same as Goldie Looking Chain is the same as Elvis. As Theodore Adorno would argue, there is a very narrow spectrum of difference in the forms and conventions of popular music. What changes are the narratives we impose upon the text. In Sample and Hold (1990), for example, Andrew Goodwin looks at the way in which sample based dance music is consumed within very traditional notions of authorship. Not only does he suggest that contemporary DJs and producers have often “learned to program every bit as skilfully as earlier generations learned to play” but he ventures that far from being an “age of plunder” sampling culture actually recuperates pop history (Goodwin, 1990). We have only to look at the mainstream pop charts to see evidence of this: Madonna's Hung Up (2005), for example, makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it borrows heavily from Abba's Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) (1979). Likewise, Bob Sinclar's Rock This Party (2006) uses a sample of C+C Music Factory's hit Gonna Make You Sweat (1990) (a sample record itself). Even a supposedly original composition like the Scissor Sisters collaboration with Elton John I Don't Feel Like Dancin' (2006) wears its musical influences on its sleeve: a curious hybrid of Leo Sayer You Make Me Feel Like Dancing (1976), The Four Seasons December ‘63’ (1976), The Bee Gees You Should Be Dancing (1976) and the Nolans I'm In The Mood For Dancing (1980).

In so far as popular music embodies post-modern cultural practice it is easy to see that the purchase of records is as much about the construction of audience identity as the acquisition of a product. As Baudrillard argues, shopping is a creative activity in which we construct our sense of self and music in this sense is no different. Allegiance to particular forms of popular music is about much more than just musical taste. Certain performers, genres, and songs embody whole systems of beliefs to which popular music audiences subscribe, or do not. The division in the Secondary School classroom, for example, between those students who listen to dance music and those who prefer indie rock probably says more about their social class identity than musical taste. While it seems there will always be friction between mainstream audiences for popular music and other sub-cultural groups, accusations of ‘selling out’ etc, quite clearly the categorisation of listeners is more complex than the binary of ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ listeners set out by David Reisman (1950). Likewise as pop music has matured, Theodore Adorno's critique has become a less than exact fit; pop music culture is now part of The Establishment. As the knighthoods of Paul McCartney, Elton John and Mick Jagger demonstrate, certain performers have acquired the kind of status and respect associated with traditionally high cultural forms like classical music. Moreover, audiences are using popular music in creative new ways. With the proliferation of digital technology consumers of popular music are now every bit as sophisticated as the producers. Popular music history is downloadable at the touch of a button and is incorporated into the portfolio of consumer choices that define contemporary life. Consequently there is less anxiety about conflicting genres, time periods and value systems. It is okay to like Led Zeppelin and Abba. Audiences have multiple strategies for listening. We can shift from The Beatles to The Neptunes because contemporary ideas about the self are less singular. We have plural identities; we are dexterous. And listening to popular music is one of the ways in which we find out how to produce new versions of ourselves. This creativity is reflected in the explosion of individuals and groups engaged in the production of new music; be it unsigned bands on MySpace or bedroom DJs making dance records on home computers, the division between the producers and consumers of popular music has never been smaller. How popular music will be theorised in the future, therefore, is now wide open to debate.

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