Popular Music: Topics, Trends & Trajectories


Tara Brabazon

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  • The Natural Home

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    About the Author

    Tara Brabazon is Professor of Communication at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). She has previously held academic posts in the United Kingdom, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Tara has won six teaching awards throughout her career, including the National Teaching Award for the Humanities.

    Tara values both higher education and lifelong learning. She holds three bachelor degrees, three masters degrees, a graduate diploma in internet studies and a doctorate in cultural history. She has a long-standing interest in sound, orality, aurality and popular music. Tara remains interested in how to use the complexities of sonic media in scholarship.

    Tara has published ten books and over one hundred refereed articles. Her best known monographs include Digital Hemlock, The University of Google, From Revolution to Revelation and The Revolution Will Not Be Downloaded. She has also written journalism for arts publications and Times Higher Education in the United Kingdom.

    For further information, or to contact Tara, please visit http://www.brabazon.net


    Most authors thank sponsors, funding agencies and benefactors for grants, facilities and study leave. This book is different. It was written early in the morning before long teaching days. It was drafted through weekends filled with hope that Manchester City would win, or at least not lose.

    This book was built on the support, care and time of four people. It would not have been possible without the range of music that filled (and fills) the house of my parents, Doris and Kevin Brabazon. Between Doris's lap steel guitar and Kevin's trumpet, this book was started – albeit unintentionally – many decades ago. My brother Stephen Brabazon packed my childhood with piano scales and his old beat-up Volvo with Rick Wakeman's Six Wives of Henry the Eighth. Without him, keyboard cultures would have remained a mystery.

    Finally, I wish to thank Steve Redhead. He is not only the best husband a short Australian woman could hope to find, he has also saturated my life with laughter, love, joy, dancing and music. From our iPod quizzes (‘You have four bars to guess this song’) through to our shared devotion at the Rickenbacker tabernacle, this book would not have been as punchy or percussive without his comments.

    Everything within it – except the references to Bob Dylan, Rick Wakeman, Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash – remains my responsibility.

  • Conclusion: Walking off the Dance Floor

    Marcus Breen, a great music writer, believed that ‘pop is like a stick of chewing gum, you take it and chew on it when you need it. The cost is low, yet the benefits are substantial’ (1996: 5). While assumptions are made about visual media proliferating through the multiple screens in our lives and the increasing importance of appearance in our celebrity-fuelled culture, the early iPods revealed the lie of such statements. The voice, rhythm and melody have never been so immersed in our daily lives. Blind media generally, and sonic media particularly, require distinct modes of engagement. When we listen, we think about and understand content differently than when vision is involved. While seeing is believing – and visual media are verifiable media – sonic media hold a different social and semiotic function. Sound is a communication platform of potential, possibilities, imagination and suggestions.

    Sonic media are also a cultural space of change. The ipodification of culture is volatile and dynamic. By the second half of 2009, it was clear that the sale of iPods was declining, including the Nano and the Classic. The purchases of the iTouch and iPhone were meanwhile increasing (Arthur, 2009: 1). The iPad burst on the market in 2010 with a splash of publicity, seemingly prioritizing the screen over sound. Such a change triggered crisis and fear once more, as has punctuated the history of digitization of music. The decline of the stand-alone digital music player (DMP) was caused by the cannibalization of its own market. The competition is increasing for interactive, connected handheld devices that play a range of media and include telephony, texting and camera capacities. Digital music continues to be important, not only as a self-standing industry, but also as an enabler of a range of new, interactive, dynamic and connected functions for users.

    Studying popular music in colleges and universities is challenging and difficult. It manages two key problems. Firstly, it is part of popular culture and suffers all the biases, prejudices and cultural assumptions that value high culture and elite behaviours and practices. The other challenge is one of categorization, as popular music is also a part of sonic media. It is composed of sounds and not written words. That is why the least effective analyses of pop attempt to anchor the ephemeral intangibility of sound to a discussion of lyrics as if they were a form of debased poetry. Actually, if scholars can shake off the predominance of the word and improve their auditory literacies, then a range of innovative disciplines can extract innovation, passion, dynamism and energy from popular music. Cultural and media studies, journalism studies, musicology, ethnomusicology, politics, history, sociology, postcolonialism and anthropology, alongside national studies like Canadian studies, New Zealand studies and Australian studies, all offer an innovative approach to music. With all these paradigms and theories it is necessary to understand what makes popular music popular, to interpret the emotional connection of a listener to the sound and the dancer to a rhythm.

    Popular music is messy. It is cross cultural and open to the vagaries of technology. If pop music scholars present our histories using a chronological narrative – Elvis, Dylan, The Beatles, Sex Pistols, Nirvana, Green Day, The Ting Tings, Lady Gaga – then we deny the complexity in both sounds and meaning. The record industry as an institution has deployed a business model that has been critiqued and unsettled by both legal and illegal downloading practices. For the last twenty years dance music has depended on the relationship between supply and demand, musicians and consumers. The ideology of rock has not only been sustained but also challenged by indie. World music has remained a category that sells exoticism. Music promotes political ideas but also maintains a clear economic function as a product to be sold.

    A book on or ‘about’ popular music can never be inclusive or definitive. There is simply too much music – even in a post-rock, post-house setting – to hold it in our analytical palm. Popular music research and writing requires specific skills. It is the most ephemeral of media, moving and changing at an intense speed, requiring the scholar to continue to discover the new, the innovative and the novel. Significantly, it will continue to carry its history forward into new mixes and movements. The survival and increasing popularity of Bob Dylan was the surprise of the twenty-first century. The documentary No Direction Home rebooted his career for a new audience. He could sing about Modern Times while remembering the past. Similarly, The Beatles Rock Band brought the fab four to life and allowed the ghosts of Lennon and Harrison to continue to play their Rickenbackers. Lady Gaga compressed the history of David Bowie, Queen and Madonna into a tight package that both embodied celebrity culture and attacked it.

    It has been an exciting time to write a book about popular music. Ulf Poschardt stated that ‘Pop culture is a bastard. It can't decide whether it is a counterculture or the dominant culture. Generally, pop is both, and mostly it is the instrument with which counterculture is turned into dominant culture’ (1998: 401). New and old genres combine in innovative ways. The marketing and branding of music has become more unstable and dynamic. In the current climate, there is a great opportunity to discuss a range of songs and sounds, knowing that readers are only a click away from hearing any track. Popular Music: Topics, Trends and Trajectories has mapped the changes and continuities in the history of sound, showing that the ‘iPod moment’ has had an effect on most entries. It is important with all the attention on technology to remember the emotional investment placed in the platform for music. Nelson George captured this emotional and social connection with musical technology.

    For those too young to remember, there were once vinyl records. New. Unscratched. Smooth. You tore open the plastic wrapping, pulled it out of the white paper inner sleeve and the sturdy cardboard jacket cover and in your hand was a black vinyl circle with a hole in the middle. Around the hole was paper with a design and words printed upon it. You placed it on your turntable and through stereo speakers the music played just like a CD. Forgive my nostalgia – I still love vinyl (1998: 5).

    The pleasures of popular music are ephemeral, but in those moments of intense commitment and connection, the songs are desperately real and incredibly important. Beyond nostalgia, the history of music in the twentieth century exhibited much continuity: performers played live, a physical musical platform was developed that enabled the listening to music and music was played on the radio. The twenty-first century has seen the revision and loss of these earlier realities. Compressed files are downloaded, having been bought or obtained free from alternative and illegal file sharing networks. Some genres continued to value live performances, but the impact of house music, sampling and remixing and its derivatives means that the notion of the original, the authentic and the live performance is lost or discredited. Finally, listening to radio in real time, along with commercial interruptions, is decentred in favour of individually selected track listings constructed either manually or through ‘genius’ programming for mobile music platforms and podcasts.

    There have also been transformations to the music itself. The post-Fordist fragmentation of genres, audiences and markets means that ‘rock music’ is neither the core of popular music nor the most important part of the industry. There remains a residue of guitar-based 1960s music through performers like U2. Similarly, Anglo-American music is augmented and transformed by new musical and social movements and relationships. The soundtracks and rhythms from Hindi musicals have dialogued with house music and electronica. What creates the pleasure from music is the capacity to repeat familiar and comfortable elements like genre, chord structures, a catchy chorus or a familiar melody or sample. Having the capacity to instigate a moment or element of change is what continually invigorates a genre.

    While the protestations from the record industry in the last few years have shrieked crisis, threat and trauma, popular music is actually one of the most suitable and sustainable visions for a new economy. The ideal commercial model for new music in the new economy has yet to be formulated. Jim Shorthose and Gerard Strange made the observation that

    At its most general level, this new economy can be identified as being increasingly global; increasingly about intangibles such as knowledge, information, images and fantasies; and increasingly decentralized, and characterized by networks and flexibility (2004: 43).

    This ‘managed creativity’ (Shorthose and Strange, 2004: 47) is a way to moderate and manage a deskilled, Fordist workforce with the flexibility required for a changing economy and a globalizing of finance capital. Specific local histories, musics and rhythms are being lost unless they can be commodified through international global networks. New relationships are formed between independence and commercialization. At their best, creative industries' initiatives develop policy interventions to provide an incentive for innovative cultural production (Jones, 2005: 5–12).

    Music has always formalized social activities. Anthems are created for nations, political organizations and schools. Music creates a consciousness of space and identity. It differs from almost every other popular cultural formation. Reading newspapers and magazines, watching television, surfing the internet and playing computer games encourage a sedentary lifestyle. Music encourages physical movement: dancing, singing along, mouthing lyrics, air guitar or – in the combination of gaming and music through Rock Band – a physical connection between activity and noise. Popular music is special, different and defiant. Our role as researchers and writers about popular music is to understand the pleasure from pop as much as the protests and politics created from it.

    At the conclusion of this journey through popular music at this moment of change, transformation and transition, it seems appropriate to note Dick Hebdige's advice at the opening of his innovative, powerful and intellectually stretching Cut ‘n’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music. He stated that, ‘this book doesn't try to tell the whole story because the whole story can't be told … every day new connections are being made that create potentialities that are unimagined here’ (1987: 10). His advice is appropriate for all researchers who write about what we hear. The study of popular culture can and should be part of understanding the multimodality of communication, including the linguistic, the sonic and the visual. Songs are the sonic landmark of our emotional lives. Instead of building monuments to the great moments of rock, our role as scholars is to understand how music is being used socially, culturally and economically. It may also be worthwhile remembering Bob Dylan's comment on popular music: ‘I remember when that Napster guy came up across, it was like, “Everybody's getting music for free.” I was like, “Well, why not? It's ain't worth nothing anyway”’ (Dylan in Lethem, 2006). Worth, like meaning, is determined by the ear of the listener as much as by the history of the hardware. But with software, revelations through sound are a single click away.

    Further Reading
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    Katz, M. (2004) Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Berkeley: University of California Press.
    Klein, B. (2009) As Heard on TV: Popular Music in Advertising. Aldershot: Ashgate.
    Tschmuck, P. (2006) Creativity and Innovation in the Music Industry. Berlin: Springer.
    Sonic Sources
    Fluyd (2005) Post Music Phantoms.
    REM (1987) It's the End of the World as We Know It.
    Talking Heads (1985) Road to Nowhere.
    The Doors (1967) The End.
    Visual Sources
    Desperate Man Blues: Discovering the Roots of American Music (2006) Dust to Digital.
    Good Charlotte: the Fast Future Generation (2006) Sony.
    The Future Is Unwritten (2008) Sony Legacy.
    The Strat Pack – The 50th Anniversary of the Fender Stratocaster (2004) Eagle Rock.


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    Jobs, S. (2001) ‘Apple Music Event 2001,’ YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kN0SVBCJqLs.
    Josh Groban in Concert (2002) WMV.
    Josh White – Free and Equal Blues (2001) Music Sales.
    Keynote with Jeffrey Veen – HighEd Web 2008 Conference (2008) YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcZQSGxnP-Y.
    Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution (2008) Plastic Head.
    Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Live (2009) Heads Up.
    Lambada (1990) MGM.
    Lang, M. Understanding Intellectual Property and Copyright, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ngps0BnLlUg.
    Legends of American Folk Blues Festival (2009) Tropical.
    Legends of Bottleneck Guitar (2003) Music Sales.
    Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey (2004) Snapper.
    Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2006) Warner.
    Michael Jackson: Fan's Camera Footage (2009) Music Video Distribution.
    Moog (2004) Flexi.
    Morrissey – who put the ‘M’ in Manchester? (2008) Sanctuary Visual Entertainment.
    Moulin Rouge (2001) 20th Century Fox.
    Neil Young, Heart of Gold (2006) Paramount Classics.
    Netanel, N. Understanding Music Copyrights with Neil Netanel, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7r7zmSJW-n8.
    New Kids On The Block – Hangin'Tough ~ Live (1989) Cherry Red.
    New York Doll (2005) First Independent Pictures.
    Nirvana: Spirit of Seattle (1995) S. Gold and Sons.
    No Doubt – Rock Steady (2003) Universal Island.
    Noise.io – The iPhone Synthesizer (2008) YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8yhQHJUll8.
    Nsync-Popodyssey (2001) BMG.
    Odetta, ‘Water Boy,’ YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSDeROnTq64.
    Patsy Kline, Sweet Dreams Still (2006) Fastforward.
    ‘Percussion Jamming’, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OT816JjmJtY.
    Pet Shop Boys – A Life In Pop (2006) EMI.
    Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (2008) Genius.
    ‘Podcasting in plain English,’ YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-MSL-42NV3c.
    Presley, E. (2006) ’68 Comeback Special. Sony BMG.
    ‘Pulp Fiction Dancing,’ YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zoUEMZnibS8.
    Punk Attitude (2005) Freemantle Media.
    Radio Days (1986) MGM.
    Red Hot And Blue – A Benefit For AIDS Research And Relief (1994) BMG.
    Rhapsody in Black (2004) Arrow.
    Rhythms of Resistance (2007) Digital Classics.
    Richard Thompson's 1000 Years of Popular Music (2006) Cooking Vinyl.
    Rick Wakeman: The Classical Connection (2004) Beckman Visual Publishing.
    Rick Wakeman: The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2009) Eagle Vision.
    Rip: A Remix Manifesto (2009) EyeSteelFilm.
    Rise – The Story of Rave Outlaw Disco Donnie (2004) Quantum Leap.
    Russ Solomon on Tower Records’ Rise and Fall (2007) YouTube, http://www.you-tube.com/watch?v=iDpk74TX6fU.
    Sam And Dave – The Original Soul Men (2008) Universal.
    Salsa: The Motion Picture (1988) MGM.
    Saturday Night Fever (1977) Paramount.
    Shadowplayers: Factory Records 1978–81 (2006) LTM.
    Shine a Light (2008) Paramount Vantage.
    ‘Simon Reynolds discusses rip it up and start again,’ (2008) YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1Ov09YdchQ.
    Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (2002) New Video Group.
    Soundtrack to War (2006) Revelation Films.
    Something in the Water (2008) WBMC.
    Spice World: the movie (1993) Universal.
    Star Wars DJ (2005) YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uw0v6kkasMk.
    Steppenwolf, ‘Born to be wild,’ YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMbATaj7Il8.
    Strange World of Northern Soul (2003) Wienerworld.
    Studio 54 (2005) Walt Disney Home Entertainment.
    Sufi Soul – The Mystic Music Of Islam (2008) Riverboat.
    Take That for the Record (2006) BMG.
    The Beatles (2009) ‘The Beatles Rock Band Twist and Shout Trailer,’ YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3YlnQze028.
    The Blackboard Jungle (1955) Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
    The Boat that Rocked (2009) Universal.
    The Byrds – Under Review (2007) Chrome Dreams.
    The Corporation (2006) In 2 Film.
    The Future Is Unwritten (2008) Sony Legacy.
    The Last Waltz (1978) MGM.
    The Mick Fleetwood Story: Two Sticks and a Drum. (2000) DVD UK.
    Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1993) Orion.
    The Strat Pack: Live in Concert – 50 Years of the Fender Stratocaster (2005) Eagle Rock.
    The American Folk Blues Festivals 1963–1966 – The British Tours – Various Artists (2007) Universal.
    The Story of the Blues: From Blind Lemon to B.B. King (2003) Quantum Leap.
    This is Spinal Tap (1984) Embassy.
    Tom Dowd & the Language of Music (2003) Palm Pictures.
    Ultravox (1980) ‘Vienna,’ music video, iTunes.
    We Are the Scissor Sisters And So Are You (2004) Polydor.
    White Noise for iPhone and iPod Touch (2008), YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9h-sWQRC0k.
    Wild Style – 25th Anniversary Special Edition (2007) Metrodome.
    Woodstock (2009) Warner Home Video.
    Youssou N'Dour – Live At Montreux (2006) Eagle Rock.

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