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Dusted's Tom Zimpleman looks at This is Pop, a collection of scholarly and journalistic essays begun as a collaborative venture at the Experience Music Project.

This is Pop

The dilemma of Seattle’s Experience Music Project pretty much mirrors the dilemma of popular music scholarship. In an introduction to This is Pop, Eric Weisbard, the Senior Program Manager in the EMP’s education department and the editor of the volume, calls the EMP, “a hybrid institution: a tourist attraction with scholarly ambitions; a site for both artifact collections and performances by contemporary bands; an avant-garde building meant to encourage the musical participation of visitors who have no prior expertise.” The Experience Music Project sits less than a half-mile from my apartment in Seattle, and I have yet to figure out whether it really wants to be all of these things. If it does, I’m not sure how. Sure, it works fine as a museum, but after going to the occasional show at the EMP I can testify that it’s just too…well, avant-garde may indeed be the right phrase. Or too nice. It’s clean, it’s polished, it has brand new soundboards, a giant video projection screen, and sheet music by the Kingsmen sitting in Lucite blocks in the middle of the floor. Halfway between the Empty Bottle, and Symphony Hall, it would not easily be mistaken for either.

According to Weisbard, a pop conference – an annual affair at the EMP – “needed to be equally polyglot. Our hope was to build on earlier meldings of the academic, critical, musical, and literary, but to make such professional border crossings a regular event – and a way to promote work that combined the best aspects of scholarship, criticism, and pop’s inherent unruliness.” I was with him until those last three words. “Pop’s inherent unruliness?” This at the end of a sentence listing such “unruly” topics as scholarship, criticism, and academic border crossings? Too bad; not even one page in and Weisbard seems to have painted himself into the proverbial corner. We can assume, the pretensions of Ph.D. candidates in the humanities notwithstanding, that an academic conference about rock music will not be as exciting as a rock concert, or at least that it will not be exciting in the same way as a rock concert. Shakespeare may be interesting, and punk may be interesting, but a paper comparing Shakespeare to punk just sounds forced.

Of course, that difficulty of talking seriously about a supposedly unserious topic like popular music would have to be faced down sooner or later; maybe that can of worms needed to be opened on page one. To begin with, the camp of listeners willing to talk seriously about what they listen to – it being fairly difficult, in my experience, to get people to admit that popular music has any meaning at all, let alone that it has any cultural implications over and above, or even apart from, what the songwriter intended – must surely be a tiny, tiny fraction of the overall population. The portion of that camp made up of academics, professional writers, amateur critics (ahem), and others with the time to discuss pop music must be smaller still. Finally, within the academy, the faction of musicologists who won’t dismiss any form of pop music as boring, sonically uninteresting, or the exclusive province of overwrought adolescents must be the smallest contingent of all. No wonder Alex Ross, covering the first Pop Music Conference in the New Yorker, spent several thousand words explaining why, before God and his fellow classical music critics, he was even deigning to cover such a thing.

The authors collected in This is Pop seem to have two solutions to this problem. Either rewrite theory, and argue that pop music deserves serious scholarly attention, or just perform an end-run around the question, assume that it does, and borrow whatever interdisciplinary approach one needs in order to formulate an interesting topic. There are many such approaches – economics, literary theory, there’s even a bit of international relations in the comparison of the US and global pop music markets – on a variety of musical styles. Because, of course, once we determine that we can talk about pop music, we’re faced with the additional problem of determining that what we’re talking about qualifies as pop music. You can see the obstacles.

All told, the twenty-five contributors hold up pretty well. They are at their best when least defensive. Luc Sante, drawing a bit on his knowledge of poetic structure and identifying the blues as “a particular song form made up of twelve measures of three-line verse, with a line length of five syllables and an AAB rhyme scheme,” asks who first wrote the blues. The answer he offers – that some say someone in Mississippi, others say someone in Texas – isn’t as interesting as the premise that the blues wasn’t a distillation of countless influences floating about in the ether but rather a form that somebody somewhere consciously sat down and created.

Douglas Wolk takes on an issue of concern for many people: why does everything on commercial radio, in the words of Steve Albini, sound like a beer commercial? It’s no great mystery (it’s because of compression) but Wolk’s explanation of the technology will help out those who, like me, know very little about mastering recordings, and his exhaustive explanation of why compressed music sounds so bad will turn every musicians’ story about listening to studio outtakes on a car stereo into so much unflattering hot air. Decisions like that have set off arms races amongst radio stations throughout the country – louder, louder, and louder.

Simon Frith manages to kick off an interesting debate about the global pop music industry, arguing that while many of the tropes of rock music are American in origin they have become so entangled with local cultures that they no longer have a claim to being exceptionally American. By virtue of their prevalence they become sort of rootless. It’s as good an explanation as any as to how a band like Japan’s Ghost can be so much more exciting than the vast majority of their American counterparts. It might, however, be premature. Scandinavian bands, for instance, made a name for themselves by sounding exactly like (pick your genre) garage rock bands, metal bands, or psychedelic pop bands, with little or no evident local influence. Robert Christgau then writes in reply, positing (as few would deny) that American music spread “because it sounded so good,” before (predictably) tearing it all down by saying that rock music is virtually dead in North America anyway, limited by half-assed shenanigans from college kids (although on second thought maybe they aren’t so bad). Globally, at any rate, hip-hop is poised to dominate in the coming years. One cannot help but feel that the situation is vastly more complicated than Christgau lets on – especially considering the way that hip-hop has already been spun back to the US in slightly altered form by such popular European acts as the Streets and in drastically altered form by semi-popular acts like the Notwist – but no matter. Like the ironic indie kids he may or may not actually like, Christgau makes such a point of his own limitations as a writer – “I’ve made jokes and made fun while continuing to adduce ideas and risk Latinate polysyllables” – that he undermines any expectations regarding the veracity of his essay.

Unsurprisingly, the shakiest contributions to This is Pop concern theory. Ann Powers, formerly of the New York Times and currently of the EMP, takes the “new is good, familiar is bad” principle, a crutch of lazy music critics everywhere, and tries to turn it on its head. Clichéd songs, although they may frustrate snobbish writers, move so many people because they offer a safe form of emotional release. “What memorable songs offer, including banal ones, is a way not just to feel but to better grasp the structure of feeling, by re-creating the sense of becoming engaged, turning on, or falling in love….But it’s music’s more grounding side that keeps us coming back – otherwise its violence would be too intense, too scary.”

Few would claim that they like a formulaic Top 40 song because it offers a safe form of release: “sure, I know that Yellow Card sound like a million other bands, but frankly a song about getting dumped at the prom that sounded brand new would scare the hell out of me.” This vaguely resembles the old classroom debates about whether Aristotle really thought that catharsis could occur in an audience trolling for catharsis. Without getting into that, just let me say that ascribing such a subconscious mental state to thousands of people is most certainly problematic; couldn’t we just say that Top 40 songs catch on with audiences that aren’t quite inured to the clichés yet? (This would help to explain why a great many people stop listening to new music as they grow older.) Moreover, if music critics were reminded that “unique” is not in fact a complement for a work of art then we wouldn’t have any use at all for Powers’ principles of bread and butter songs. Since, as every tenth grade composition student is told, every work of art is unique in some way. If I criticize Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment” not because it’s formulaic but rather because the production squeezes the range out of the instruments and the composition is hamfisted and the lyrics mean nothing upon close reading, then we are right back where we started. The song is terrible, and yet people like it.

Joshua Clover, a professor of literature at UC Davis, writes about the same problem, although he constructs his defense of Top 40 radio as an answer to Theodor Adorno. Clover embraces the central complaint of Adorno’s essays “On Jazz” and “On Popular Music” – that musicians deliberately make popular music that sounds almost exactly the same. Rather than defending its originality, however, he argues that radio serves as a modern form of Cockaigne, “a Renaissance imagining of a fantasy land of sensual surfeit.” A place in which the pleasures of the real world are magnified, Cockaigne was “a (comic) thought experiment: not a vision, not a utopia.” Like Top 40 radio, it was a product of the popular imagination, and like Top 40 radio, it fed on repetition.

Clover may be correct to suggest that Top 40 radio has a precedent in art history, but whether his comparison silences Adorno’s criticism remains a separate issue. As he acknowledges, what bothered Adorno about popular music was not just that it all sounded the same but that it was built for consumption. A point he developed more fully in essays like “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening,” and in Dialectic of Enlightenment, popular music recordings and performances were virtually interchangeable, capable of mass production and distribution, and available to a public that did not like the music so much as they liked having the money to buy concert tickets and records. It is, for those inclined to think about it, still something of a problem, and certainly one not resolved by indie culture, with its vintage clothes, MoveOn.org buttons, and other signifiers of commodified dissent. Personally, I’ve never been too troubled by Adorno’s take on popular music but, as Clover writes, his deeper criticisms are not going to be answered by an essay confined solely to Top 40.

If you get the sense that none of this adds up to a fully formed take on pop music, you are right. Weisbard admits that This is Pop showcases the diversity of takes on popular music studies; in the end, it remains a topic that’s confined mostly to other disciplines. It can be approached as history, or as sociology, or as literature, but pop music touches too many other subjects to be its own discreet area of study. The topics are often unrelated, the discussions are fragmented, and the conferences are nothing like the concerts that they invoke. But hey, pop music studies is still in its infancy; at least we know that we can talk about it. Focus can come later.

By Tom Zimpleman

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