New publication: Sounding Out Popular Music History

I’ve contributed a chapter to the newly published Routledge Companion to Popular Music History and Heritage, edited by Sarah Baker, Catherine Strong, Lauren Istvandity and Zelmarie Cantillon. My chapter is entitled ‘Sounding Out Popular Music HIstory: A Musicological Approach’.

SUMMARY: While the relationship between musicology and history has shifted considerably over time, the importance of each discipline to the other remains vital. This chapter argues for a way of doing popular music history that proceeds from and reflects on musical objects, specifically sound recordings. Recordings, it is argued, afford unique insights into the popular past while constantly posing questions relevant to the present. As objects with particular roots and multiple routes, recordings encourage critical reflection on time and distance in the mediation and remediation of musics from other places and eras. In order to illustrate this, the chapter presents three strands of historical practice related to popular music and sound recording. One strand examines recordings of the past as ways of illustrating broader scholarly concerns such as nation, empire and postcolonial struggle. A second engages with phonography, posing questions about fidelity, authenticity and representation. The creative practice of those involved with phonographic archaeology – crate diggers, collectors, DJs, producers, compilers and reissue labels – constitutes a third strand, which may welcome or reject historical musicology yet which still offers a way of doing history sonically. After discussing these strands, I reflect on the role of storytelling in musicological work.

 

‘Pop pollution’ as ‘pornography’? I can’t even

Last week, the philosopher Roger Scruton used a 10-minute talk on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Point of View’ programme to rail, once more, against popular culture. His talk, entitled ‘The Tyranny of Pop’, attacked what he sees as the denigration of culture, social interaction and education by the ‘banal melodies’, ‘mechanical rhythms’ and general ubiquity of ‘vacuous’ popular music. In what has become his typical style, Scruton blamed the ills of society on pop music, demonstrating little understanding of popular culture but rather extolling a monolithic notion of what ‘Music’ is.

The first part of the talk concerned the ubiquity of popular music in public places and the ‘banal’ noise ‘disgorged’ from hidden speakers. The resulting chaos has led to a situation, apparently, where human interaction is no longer possible and public space has been conquered by inhuman sound. Ignoring the fact that all the disastrous developments he finds abhorrent are the result of human interaction and invention, Scruton posits a timeless notion of the ‘human’ that has been destroyed by an inhuman ‘them’ (‘they’ are left unnamed except for a reference to the now-defunct Muzak company).

‘Anybody with the slightest feeling for music’, argued Scruton, is now driven to distraction when undertaking a visit to the pub or restaurant and has to struggle to endure the torture afflicting their ears. The problem, apparently, stems from the invention of the phonograph in the 1870s and the subsequent decline in musical understanding throughout the twentieth century as new technologies were accompanied by new cultures of listening and performance.

There are problems with this chronology, however. The idea that (annoying) noise is an invention of the twentieth century shows little historical awareness of sound in society. As Emily Cockayne has shown in her wonderful book Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England 1600-1770, early modern English cities were constant sources of assault on the senses. And, as numerous other studies from the disciplines of musicology, history, literature and sound studies have also shown, sonic and other sensory nuisances are not restricted to urban centres. Societies are noisy things and have been, it seems, for as long as people have been making critical noises about them.

But Scruton is not really interested in sound in this sense. Instead, social noise is used as the Trojan horse from which he can build, yet again, a set of elitist views on music, its culture and values. Pop music’s melodies, rhythms and recycled ‘stock harmonies’ signal ‘the eclipse of the musical ear’. Pop doesn’t need to be listened to because it has nothing serious to communicate. Rather, it has become the cause of, and not just one of a long historical line of ingredients in, the contemporary hubbub.

Scruton also used his talk to attack the language and culture of young people, citing the over-use of the word ‘like’ as an example and claiming that this inarticulacy of today’s youth was due to listening to pop. As the extremity of his views escalated, he stated that ‘pop pollution has an effect on musical appreciation comparable to pornography on sex’ and that ‘pop addicts lose the capacity for genuine musical experience’. Classical music is no longer a ‘universal resource’ and younger generations are left impoverished by this. There is no question here of whether, or where or for whom, classical music was a ‘universal music’, no recognition that there could be anything of musical value outside the Western European world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is a timeless ‘Music’, for Scruton, just as there is a timeless ‘Human’.

As Scruton’s attack on noise, pop and young people reached its midpoint in one rapid reactionary point after another, my mind switched to a phrase a younger generation has adopted to articulate a sudden onset of shocking, unpleasant, scary or otherwise alarming information: ‘I can’t even’. While this may seem like proof of Scruton’s points – a signal of a real inability to process ideas – ‘I can’t even’ can also be seen as a witty and self-aware status and place marker posted temporarily while its user prepares a more time-consuming response. I also thought of how Scruton’s attacks showed so little contemplation on or awareness of the ways language evolves. Far from being the death of language, young people’s communication practices are products of, responses to and new inventions of the multiform possibilities allowed by language. When David Crystal wrote a piece for The Guardian some years ago in which he defended text messaging against accusations of linguistic degeneracy, he showed how the accumulation of knowledge gained from a lifetime’s study of a discipline can and must be allied with a sympathetic understanding of contemporary, cross-generational society. Unlike Crystal, however, Scruton would seemingly have us all stuck permanently in a cultural nineteenth century.

Since at least the 1960s we have witnessed an often brilliant succession of critical responses to rock and pop music in popular magazines, newspapers, books and digital media platforms, work that has shown the vitality of the music and the culture from which it emerges. As an academic discipline, popular music studies has grown over the last few decades into a vibrant international forum of ideas, approaches and discoveries. Pop music does not emerge from such analysis unscathed or uncriticised, but it does show itself to be an object worthy of serious, informed discussion.

Given the success of such endeavours, it may seem unnecessary to rise to the bait of a talk clearly designed to stir, albeit from the fairly safe environs of a Radio 4 morning slot, a bit of controversy. After all, not only is Scruton entitled to his ‘point of view’, but there will doubtless be a large number of listeners for whom he is speaking good sense. But my concern lies not only with the fact that Scruton’s views serve to undermine the work of fans, critics and scholars who are trying to take popular culture seriously. I worry too that there are residual, often dominant, forces within the academic and critical community who are unable or unwilling to take popular culture seriously even in late 2015 and who are shaping the cultural understanding of culture and the educational environment in which it is understood.

As a self-confessed ‘pop addict’, I may, of course, have lost ‘the capacity for genuine musical appreciation’. Even so, I take some comfort from the knowledge that – as pop fans have always known and as pop criticism and cultural musicology attempt to reinforce – pop can be a launching pad for thinking every bit as ‘erudite’ as Scruton’s but of a richer, more relevant and more inclusive sort. Hopefully those voices can ignore the moral and intellectual bullying propounded in attacks on what they hold to be valuable and make themselves heard as part of, not above or beyond, the hubbub.

Upcoming presentation: ‘Excavating “Coimbra”: Genealogy, Nostalgia, and the Material Life of a Portuguese popular song’

I will be presenting a paper at the 18th biennial IASPM conference in Campinas, Brazil, on 30 June. My paper is entitled ‘Excavating “Coimbra”: Genealogy, Nostalgia, and the Material Life of a Portuguese popular song’ and the abstract is below.

This paper uses the story of a particular song, the Portuguese fado ‘Coimbra’, as a way of exploring the relationship between representational distance, ‘prescribed’ or ‘instant’ nostalgia and history. ‘Coimbra’ began its life as a musical representation of a city but later became, as ‘April in Portugal’, an international representation of a country and of a more general sense of nostalgic longing. Telling this story chronologically will encourage a focus on the twists, turns and mutations that occur during the life of a much-performed song, tracing in particular the way in which this song’s inherent representational distance grows into ever more distanced , displaced and distorted configurations. This journey will travel from Portugal to Brazil, from France to the USA, as well as many points in between. The second part of the paper reverses this historical chronology by focusing on the chronology of the research process, on the unearthing, excavation and genealogic processes involved in historical song studies. What can be understood from having all of these ‘Coimbras’ available to us, not least on digital platforms such as Spotify, YouTube and iTunes? Here, notions of the archive, of media archaeology and of the material life of music become paramount and impact on the questions of nostalgia and temporal displacement with which this panel is engaged.

New publication: “Time and Distance Are No Object”: Holiday Records, Representation and the Nostalgia Gap

My article ‘Time and Distance Are No Object: Holiday Records, Representation and the Nostalgia Gap’ has been published in the French popular music journal Volume! in an issue devoted to popular music and nostalgia.

volume-seteun-11_FABSTRACT: Whether temporally or spatially focussed, nostalgia results from a division between what is longed for and the moment of longing. This article examines this ‘nostalgia gap’ alongside the analogous gap found in representation. The relationship is highlighted via an analysis of ‘holiday records’, a genre of recordings that became prevalent in the 1960s. The genre intersects with the more familiar genres of exotica, mood music, easy listening and ambient, but is distinguished by its emphasis on a particular form of spatial reminiscence and imagination. Using the example of ‘April in Portugal’, a song that started life as a Portuguese fado and subsequently became an international hit and mood music staple, I address a set of questions that illustrate the nostalgia gap. What is being remembered or imagined in the song? Can we distinguish between described and prescribed nostalgia? How is saudade, the specifically Portuguese ‘grammar of nostalgia’, related to nostalgic languages found on other holiday records?

More information here and here.

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Upcoming presentation: ‘The Lure of Ephemera’

I will be presenting a paper at the upcoming conference One Century of Record Labels (Newcastle University, 6-7 November 2014). My paper is entitled ‘The Lure of Ephemera: ‘Record Labels as Visual and Textual Icons’ and the abstract is below.


While there is a growing body of work focussed on record labels, much of it tends to equate ‘label’ with ‘company’ and to focus on the history of particular companies, the musicians, producers and ‘house styles’ associated with them, or the relationship between different companies. Other work has highlighted the design aesthetics associated with particular companies by presenting often lavish illustrated books that dwell on design classics (Blue Note album covers, for example). Work aimed at the record collecting market has, meanwhile, provided detailed accounts of changes in sleeve and label design to aid identification of original pressings, regional versions, reissues, and so on. My interest in this paper is to tap into all of these areas of work but in particular to explore the role of the record label as visual icon in a way that goes beyond specific label history, house style or collector authentication by emphasising the aura of labels and logos as a more general aspect of the representation of past musics.

My focus is on the visual iconicity of record labels and the lure of label ephemera. I equate the fascination with the sight of late musicians to an equal fascination with the haunting of musical objects such as the label. My case studies include reissue companies such as Yazoo, Dust-to-Digital and Mississippi, as well as histories of vernacular music such as the Blues Paperbacks series of the 1970s. I highlight the explicit use of actual labels as ways of presenting the past, using label iconography as a way of narrating the story of ‘old’ musics, where the portraiture of the record (the label shot) becomes as ubiquitous as that of the musician (the portrait). Like the photographic portrait, the label shot gives us more than facts; it has aura and hints at untold or half-known stories. Recordings themselves are sonic snapshots of a time, but the objects that accompany them become visual snapshots, invitations to a mysterious past. They also invite simulation, another aspect that I will reflect on in my paper.

Music’s materiality

Here is a link to a piece I wrote for The Conversation on Jack White, Neil Young and musical materiality. The piece relates to the kind of issues to be discussed at the conference I’m organising with Elodie Roy, ‘Musical Materialities in the Digital Age’ (University of Sussex, 27-28 June 2014).

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Upcoming talk: Listening to Europe

On 27 June, I’ll be presenting a paper at the IASPM International Conference in Gijón. The title of my paper is ‘Listening to Europe: “Continental Records” in Britain’.

Abstract
Gram_ContinentalTourThis paper examines the circulation of recordings from continental Europe in Britain prior to the Second World War, focussing on the broadcast and critical reception of recordings as found in journals such as The Gramophone. I suggest that the discourse built around “foreign” musics during this period can be seen as a forerunner of later periods of interest in international recordings, such as the Anglophone fascination with “exotica” during the 1950s/60s, the “world music” boom of the 1980s and the more recent obsession with “vinyl archaeology”. While these later periods highlight greater consumer access to foreign sounds (through tourism, world music media and access to studio technology), the pre-War period is notable for the reliance on paternalistic “experts” to mediate the sound of otherness to a relatively small and privileged audience. The period thus forms a link between what can be broadly thought of as a colonial era and an era of globalization. I analyse the desire to listen beyond the boundaries of everyday audition, the dependence on imagination and memory and desire in this process, and recordings as exemplary instantiations of the making-audible of such desires.