Interpreting Popular Music

By McLeod, Ken | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Interpreting Popular Music


McLeod, Ken, Canadian University Music Review


David Brackett. Interpreting Popular Music. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995. xiv, 260 pp. ISBN 0-521-47337-3 (hardcover).

Current analytic approaches to popular music have been widely criticized for their failure to account for the unique and seemingly unanalyzable features of individual works which give them meaning. To a large degree this criticism has revolved around a debate over the relative importance of the "context" as opposed to "text" and the perceived limitations of traditional formal musical analyses in establishing why some works seem more meaningful and relevant than others. Despite this often lamented condition, few authors have actually advanced new methodologies with which to improve the situation. David Brackett's Interpreting Popular Music, however, represents a rare attempt to tackle these issues head on. Combining contemporary critical theory and cultural studies with traditional music theory, Brackett convincingly holds that "different types of popular music use different types of rhetoric, call for different sorts of interpretation, refer to different arguments about words and voices, about musical complexity and familiarity, and draw upon different senses of history and tradition" (p. 31). Rather than attempting overarching meta-theories of analytic interpretation Brackett would have us base interpretations only on the unique features and context of each particular work. As a consequence of this pluralistic approach, Brackett's book crosses a wide variety of styles such as jazz, country, rhythm and blues, and punk and includes analyses of works by artists as diverse as Gary Lewis and the Playboys, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Hank Williams, James Brown, and Eivis CosteIIo. Each artist receives a comprehensive and revealing study of the unique socio-cultural circumstances surrounding their careers, including the context of the reception and creation of their music. Issues of authorship, relationship of text to content and context, musical codes, and audiences and reception are all addressed and this information is then applied as a mirror of the rhetorical devices used in each work. Interpreting Popular Music is rich in detail and provides a wealth of background information regarding the particular social history, composition, marketing and reception of each analyzed work.

It is difficult to focus on any single chapter in Brackett's work, for to do so misses the overall strategy of recognizing the individuality of the rhetorical devices of each musical work he interprets. Brackett begins his study by contrasting Bing Crosby's and Billie Holiday's renditions of "I'll Be seeing You." Here Brackett focuses on the impact of institutional factors (marketing strategies, biographical literature, and industry publications) on the reception of each version and the impact of these institutions on the popularity and status of each performer. His main objective is to highlight the entanglement of the "extramusical" information about performers, the motivations which we attribute to them, and the information conveyed by the actual music and performances.

Crosby' s version of "I'll Be Seeing You" was initially far more popular than Holiday's, a situation helped by his image, shaped by critical reviews, biographical discourse, and film career, of being an All-American "Everyman." At first, Holiday's version was far less popular and in keeping with her image-constructed by contemporary critical and biographical discourse-of a romantically tortured and thus "authentic" jazz "artist." Brackett relates such differences in reception to similar differences in the two performances. The intimacy of Bing Crosby's closed-miked "crooning" delivery of "I'll Be Seeing You," for example, was designed to reassure audiences who were suffering the loss of, or separation from, loved ones following World War II. Thus Crosby was able to be viewed as having empathy with the plight of his audience.

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