The Project Ahead: Some Thoughts on Developing a Popular Music Curriculum

Article excerpt

Popular music studies has come of age. Twenty-five years ago it would have been difficult to find a single, regularly offered university-level course in popular music anywhere in Canada. Today, even a casual survey of university calendars and Web sites reveals a wide variety of such courses offered in a diverse range of institutional settings: from courses in music and popular culture offered in departments of English, communications or cultural studies, to surveys of rock history and musical style in departments and faculties of music, to courses in sound recording and the music business found in professional colleges and the polytechnic schools. Furthermore, the number of book titles (and book series) devoted to popular music has been growing steadily in quantity and diversity for at least a decade and, perhaps more significantly, the recent appearance of "textbook" histories, anthologies, and surveys of popular music theory attest to the burgeoning market for university-level readers in popular music.1 From the standpoint of the development of an academic community within the field, a number of academic journals, devoted in whole or in part to the field of popular music, have been launched during the past two decades, and the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM), now in its twentieth year of operation, has fostered the development of a network of affiliated organizations-from Scandinavia to Australia, from Europe to the Americas and to the Far East-sponsoring conferences and symposia at both the national and international level. And finally, in many recent university job announcements, most notably in advertisements for positions in music departments, popular music is finally beginning to be treated as a legitimate field of specialization and not simply as an "asset" of potential candidates-the term "asset" too often betraying the marginal status of popular music in most academic programs in the past.

Yet, despite these gains, the presence of popular music in most university curricula in Canada (and indeed throughout North America) remains at the level of the individual course: few departments offer more than one or two courses in the area and, even among those that do, little resembling a broadly based, comprehensive program of study could be said to exist.2 But perhaps more serious than the paucity of existing programs is the fact that when one compares the syllabi for courses offered in different faculties and departments, it is sometimes difficult to discern anything resembling a commonality in approach or literature. Of course, this might (and perhaps should) be construed as a healthy thing, an expression of the essential, interdisciplinary nature of the field.3 It is equally, however, the result of a diverse set of discipline-based assumptions that continue to define popular music, as an object of study, in significantly different ways. What I want to argue here is not so much that we need a common paradigm for the study of popular music, at least not at the level of the individual course, but rather that, as the field continues to grow and take on a more significant role in university curricula, the requirement of more fully developed models of what a program in popular music studies can or should be will become critical.

One of the immediate problems to be faced in developing a popular music curriculum is the fact that there exists no obvious disciplinary home within which such a project could be housed. While much of the foundational work of the past two decades or so in popular music studies has been conducted by individuals working within sociology, cultural studies, and related fields, popular music has remained surprisingly marginal to these areas of scholarship as a whole. For example, within Canada, there have been significant historical links between the emergence of the field of cultural studies and that of communications. Furthermore, given the degree to which popular music can be seen to traverse all forms of media-from print to live performance, from sound recording to radio, film, television, and the Internet-it would appear to be an ideal form through which to examine the effects and interrelationships between cultural products and various aspects of media and communications. …