Studying Popular Music Culture


Tim Wall

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    For Gil Wall, who liked music and always wanted me to explain why.


    I would like to thank the many people who have helped and supported me in the writing of both versions of this book and the production of this second edition. In particular I need to say thank you to Nadine and Carys whose forbearance at home counted for a lot, and to Matt for his interest in how it would work out.

    I would also like to recognise the contributions of some significant individuals: Tim O'Sullivan for suggesting the idea in the first place, and to Mark Duffett for his suggestions in the first incarnation. A book like this is always the product of many years of conversations and many of the best ideas in here came from Simon Barber, Ben Calvert, Jez Collins, Andrew Dubber, Dave Hesmondhalgh, Matt Grimes, Paul Long, George MacKay, Dave Swann, Nick Webber, Sharon Wheeler and Tony Whyton.

    There should be a special mention here for Michael Green, sadly no longer with us. As well as being the bedrock of Birmingham University's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies for many years, Michael encouraged my work in this field very early on.

    Over the decades I've been teaching, several hundred students have also challenged me to think things through and explain myself clearly. They have tried out the ideas and activities, made sure I wasn't stuck entirely in the past of popular music, and given me so many interesting examples. I hope the next few cohorts will like the update.

    Mila Steele at Sage was generous enough to take the project on and has been creative, supportive and patient even though I didn't always live up to my promises. James Piper and Imogen Roome helped me through the final stages with similar patience. I would also like to thank Edward James Stokes, Stefan Klenke, Kay Blackwell and Pru Fiddy for the photographs used in this book.

    Introduction: Definitions and Approaches

    Popular music has been called the soundtrack to our lives: we can hear it on the radio, through our computer, on our iPod or mobile phone, via a CD player or vinyl record deck, piped into shops, and during television adverts and programmes. It is, of course, actually the soundtrack to many a film we watch at the cinema or on a home screen. Like the soundtrack to a film it plays an important part in cultivating our moods and feelings. We listen to it because it is a source of pleasure, excitement and passion. Music is also a key topic of media attention. It is written about, criticised and enthused about, while music-makers are photographed and their opinions sought, music videos are broadcast and pop shows present bands playing live, or miming. These experiences are not only part of our culture; they are also part of the culture of the record industry that uses them to promote the music they have produced. This relationship between music, the industry and consumers is what constitutes popular music culture. The purpose of this book is to introduce you to ways of studying this culture.

    In this short introduction you will be able to think through and answer some key questions about our study:

    • How have different people thought about popular music culture?
    • What is the difference between being a music fan and a music culture scholar?
    • How can the idea of discourse be used to study popular music culture?
    • How can you use this book to help your own study of popular music culture?
    What Do We Mean by Popular Music Culture?

    Before we start, though, we should get a few things straight. What do we mean by popular music culture? If you look for a literal definition, popular music is just music that is popular. However, the term ‘popular’ can mean very different things. It is one of a collection of words that Raymond Williams (1976) termed ‘keywords’, which are at the centre of our attempt to understand our social world, but also have multiple definitions. ‘Popular’ simultaneously has three different senses. In one sense popular things are widely liked. In another, popular things have poor cultural value and are associated with lower levels of education (as in the popular press). And in the third sense popular things belong to the ordinary people of a society and express their interests and concerns.

    These three very different definitions indicate that the concept of the popular is one that is used in different ways, by different people, from different viewpoints. This is reflected in the way people discuss and argue about popular music. Popular music is associated with the music which sells the most downloads or CDs and the stars with a large fan following. To others it is the poorest type of ‘dumbed-down’ music that is easy to listen to and enjoyed by people who know little about, or do not appreciate, more complex music. Finally, though, popular music is seen in very positive terms as any type of music made and enjoyed by a particular scene as a way of celebrating its distinctive identity.

    More often, you will find popular music is used as a wide category for a series of types of music which include pop (itself a contraction of the term popular music) and a whole range of other forms from ambient through indie and techno to world beat. In this book the term is used to cover both these sets of ideas - a culture that is argued about, and a broad category of music types - but it is not simply defined by these ideas. What is most striking about the attempts to define popular music is that so many different definitions have been produced (Middleton, 1990: 3-7; Shuker, 1994: 6-10).

    This range of definitions indicates that we are not dealing with a simple thing to be studied, but a number of processes of definition. Popular music is what it has come to be defined as and, in part, our study encompasses the processes that have produced these competing definitions. These processes take place in the institutions of our culture, in the places we listen to, watch, buy and dance to music, and in the record companies and media organisations that produce and distribute it. Interestingly, ‘institution’ and ‘culture’ are two more of Williams’ keywords, and these too have a range of meanings. Institutions are legally constituted organisations - like the record corporation Sony Music or the radio station BBC Radio One - but they are also fields of custom and practice, while ‘culture’ signals both the artefacts of the upper classes and a more general ‘way of life’.

    The institutions of popular music culture are to some degree all centred on the production and distribution of recorded popular music. Record companies create and distribute recorded music, and radio stations use it as the basis of their programming. It was the ability to record music that transformed the way music was produced, how it could be distributed, and so ultimately how and what we could consume. Today you can listen to recorded music in a vast range of formats from older shellac and vinyl disks, through various tape-based systems, to more modern digital forms like CDs and downloaded digital files. The term ‘record’ is used throughout the book to refer to these different formats of recorded music.

    Popular music culture is used to mean:

    • a set of ways of making, consuming and thinking about music;
    • the economic and technological practices ordered by those ways of doing and thinking; and
    • the sounds and images created by those practices.

    Centrally this book will be looking at music produced by a highly organised music industry and distributed by an equally structured system of media networks, constituted as a set of sounds and images, consumed by people who make it a significant part of their lives and their own identity, but derided by others. These are the qualities of popular music which makes it worth studying.

    How Should We Study Popular Music Culture?

    This book aims to develop your skills in the scholarly study of popular music. Most of you will be reading this book because you are already interested in, and enjoy, modern popular music. You will therefore already know quite a lot about certain aspects of popular music. However, fan knowledge is not the same as scholarly knowledge. One of the things we want to study is this very fan knowledge, how it is produced and distributed, and how it allows fans to make music meaningful. Your existing knowledge is very important and valuable, but scholarly study is not about simply reproducing your existing likes and dislikes, or reproducing the journalistic ways of commenting on popular music and stars you are used to. Scholarly study deepens your understanding of popular music culture based upon a series of activities:

    • researching facts and existing theories;
    • using theories to develop tools for analysing the texts and cultural practices;
    • applying the theories to understand the facts and using the facts to test the theories; and
    • developing ideas/theories of our own.

    That will mean finding things out about music and its history, the record industry and music fans, trying to work out why one type of music sounds different from another or one star appeals to one group and not another. Building on this it is possible to make arguments about many different parts of popular music culture. To do this it is necessary to engage with what other researchers have written. Different popular music scholars, just like different fans, have different ways of understanding popular music, and we need to identify these ways, test them out against our own fan knowledge and things we find out through our own research and analysis. That is not to say that fans and scholars are just the same. The best scholars reveal facets of popular music we were previously unaware of, analyse popular music culture, and develop theories which we can apply in order to understand in greater depth. However, both fans and scholars are active within what we can call the discourses of popular music culture.

    Discourses are the kinds of language that we use to talk about popular music, the sorts of social practices of listening, watching and buying we use to consume music, and the assumptions and beliefs that lie behind our use (see Mills, 2004). These practices and their underlying assumptions are often so institutionalised that they are simply taken for granted. Our job as scholars of popular music, then, is to analyse the conditions and practices of the production, textual form and consumption of music to understand how it is institutionalised, what its hidden assumptions are, and how the practices produce its meanings. The definition of discourse outlined by the post-structuralist philosopher and historian Michel Foucault (with Alan Sheridan, 1972: 49) can be adapted for our specific study and expressed as the knowledges and practices of popular music that constitutes it as a set of cultural objects. It is easy to understand what this means in practice in a case study.

    Image 0.1 The Chart Listing of Record Sales have a Significant Place in Popular Music Culture

    The practices of popular music culture not only reveal hidden assumptions and values however, they also actually define what popular music is. In Foucauldian terms the charts not only constitute a practice that assumes that commercial success = cultural success, but they define popular music as being music which is commercially successful. Equally the style of the chart shows defines popular music as new and exciting. To paraphrase Foucault's original statement even more specifically for our case study, the discourse of the pop charts is the knowledge that the best music is the best selling and the practice of listing these high-selling records which constitutes popular music as commercially successful music.

    Of course, a definition of popular music as new, exciting, commercially successful music promotes the benefits of the record companies. Any particular definition of ‘what popular music is’ gives greater power to some people than others. If popular music is commercially successful music the idea gives more power to commercial interests; if popular music is inferior music then it assigns more power to the people who say this and who like other music; if popular music is the music of communities of people then it makes those communities more powerful.

    Using ideas of discourse and cultural practice allows us to think about what we know about, say about, and do with popular music, not simply as an exercise of individual taste or opinion, but as part of a cultural construction that produces power relationships. We need to understand that when we talk about popular music we constitute it as a particular cultural object. That does not mean we have to ignore what we already think about popular music, but as scholars we need to understand the cultural implications of what we think. Likewise, we should treat what others say and do in the same way. We want to understand why they think and say different things, consume in different ways, and constitute popular music as a very different cultural object.

    Using this Book

    This book covers the main areas of the study of popular music culture. Part One aims to develop thinking about the histories of popular music that have been told. Part Two focuses on the industries and institutions that organise and sell popular music. Part Three explores the ways in which it is possible to analyse pieces of popular music and understand what they mean and how they create representations. Part Four looks at popular music culture from the fans’ point of view and examines how we listen, dance and buy music.

    Each part is based upon detailed approaches to studying one dimension of popular music culture. Although they each draw heavily on existing scholarship, they are written to encourage you to undertake your own research, apply theories to your own examples, and to reflect critically on your own music fandom and existing scholarship. Each time I use someone else's work I indicate this by naming the author and date of the published work, and you can follow this up by using the full details listed in the bibliography. There is also a list of recommended further reading at the end of each chapter. You can find out a lot from studying popular music through this form of secondary research. The authors have usually spent a long time studying the topic, and by metaphorically standing on their shoulders, you can see far more. However, there is no substitute for developing your own skills as a primary researcher and analyst. Each chapter therefore includes activities linked to the ideas outlined which encourage you to start applying theories and finding out about popular music culture for yourself. Also included in each chapter are a number of case studies, either drawn from the work of other scholars or from my own research and analysis, which demonstrate how you could conduct a study of your own.

    Further Reading
    Hesmondhalgh, David and Negus, Keith (2002) ‘Popular music studies: meaning, power and value’, in D. Hesmondhalgh and K. Negus (eds), Popular Music Studies. London: Arnold.
    Middleton, Richard (1990) Studying Popular Music. Milton Keynes and Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.
    Mills, Sara (2004) Discourse, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.
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