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.

 

Old Ideas: Leonard Cohen’s Late Voice

leonard_cohenLeonard Cohen’s death has been announced. Cohen is the second of the musicians I wrote about in The Late Voice to have died this year. When Ralph Stanley passed away in June, we were reeling from the results of the EU Referendum. Cohen’s passing was announced in the wake of the catastrophic election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. Bad news follows bad news. Cohen had long reflected on the bad times of the present and the bad times to come (‘I’ve seen the future brother, it is murder’), so perhaps there is some poetic sense in his leaving us this week. But that doesn’t make it any easier. His loss is felt deeply by many. Some comfort is provided by the wisdom we are reminded of as we are encouraged to revisit the poetic trumphs of his career.

Making my weekly long drive south on Thursday, one of the last albums I listened to, as night thickened around the London Orbital, was Cohen’s very recent You Want It Darker. Listening to the title track, particularly the parts where Cohen sings ‘hineni hineni’, I developed the fancy that perhaps Cohen would continue to live until his voice became so deep we humans could no longer perceive it. He would disappear into the depths of his own voice. In the end that wasn’t to be, but he got a lot of the way there.

Cohen always sounded older than his years, even when the only way he sounded was through the pages of his poetry and prose. Making the move to music in the late 1960s, he was notably older than many of his peers in the singer-songwriter world. It has always been his gift to channel that maturity into songs that showed that wisdom has a place in everyday culture, that lives lived can be lives shared through the medium of popular song. And we always believed him because he seemed so genuine, so human, so attuned to the dialectic of joy and melancholy that constitutes the human experience. When I started to think about trying to communicate my ideas about late voice in book form, I knew I would have to include Cohen. In the end, I decided to place him alongside Frank Sinatra, a connection that worked in my mind but one which I’m not sure others would feel comfortable with. The results are what they are and I don’t know whether this was the right way to approach Cohen. Perhaps I should have given him a chapter to himself – there was certainly much more to be said.

Today, I’ve made the pre-publication draft of that chapter available here in celebration of Cohen’s life and work. The material on Cohen kicks in towards the end of p. 26.

Upcoming presentation: ‘A Blank Space Where You Write Your Name’

I will be participating in a panel with Emily Baker, Ian Biddle and Freya Jarman at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. Our panel is on Sunday 17 April and my paper is entitled ‘A Blank Space Where You Write Your Name: Taylor Swift’s Early Late Voice’. Abstract below.


Taylor Swift’s songs invite listeners to connect art and life in the tradition, if not always the style, of the ‘confessional’ singer-songwriter. From an early age, Swift has written and sung about ‘big topics’ like time and experience with a remarkable sense of self awareness. Her songs hymn youthful experience to great effect through references to specific ages or via more general depictions of girlishness, school, first loves, summer vacations and family. Through her lyrical preoccupations, Swift exemplifies many aspects of what I call ‘late voice’, a way of thinking about the writing and singing of time, age and experience. My conceptualisation of lateness considers artists and listeners not only in terms of conventional ‘late’ periods (i.e. old age), but as subjects who reflect on such issues throughout our lives. In the first part of this paper, I make the case for Swift as an exponent of ‘early late voice’.

While a number of commentators have picked up on the maturity of Swift’s writing voice, comparatively little attention has been paid to her singing. I address this gap by looking at the conflation of writing/singing in the singer-songwriter’s voice. I examine tensions that have been noted between Swift’s art and her star persona. To what extent, I ask, is the denigration of Swift’s musical style (her singing as much as her move towards chart pop) a gendered attack on young women’s voices? At the same time, what strategies have been used to authenticate Swift as an artist by other critics? I conclude with a discussion of Ryan Adams’s cover of Swift’s 1989 album and the critical discourse surrounding it, arguing that the ‘blank space’ of Swift’s voice becomes legitimated and appropriated by a critical discourse focussed on roots, genre and masculinity.

Upcoming presentation: Be-bop-sh-boom-a-langa-langa-doo-wop: Pop’s Love of Nonsense

I will be presenting my current research at the University of York on Wednesday 27 January as part of the Music Department’s research seminar series. My talk is entitled ‘Be-bop-sh-boom-a-langa-langa-doo-wop: Pop’s Love of Nonsense’ and it relates to my current research project ‘The Sound of Nonsense’. Abstract below.

In this paper I explore popular music’s obsession with nonsense, focussing on the relationship between words, voice, sounds and sense. I discuss scat singing, vocalese, doo wop, early rock n roll, yodelling, sampling, hip hop, ‘arty’ popular singer-songwriters (Bob Dylan, Robert Wyatt, David Byrne), and artists such as Magma and Sigur Rós who have created their own languages in which to sing. Pop’s fondness for self-reflexivity, parody and wordplay is considered via the work of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, in particular his song ‘Bob’, which offers a parody of Bob Dylan’s already nonsensical ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ consisting entirely of palindromes. This presentation draws upon research undertaken for my current research project ‘The Sound of Nonsense’ and I will explain how this specifically pop-focussed element connects to the broader exploration of nonsense literature, experimental writing, sound poetry, comedy and music.

‘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.