Music for Pleasure: Essays in the Sociology of Pop/Facing the Music/On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word/Rock Music: Culture, Aesthetics and Sociology

By Straw, Will | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1990 | Go to article overview

Music for Pleasure: Essays in the Sociology of Pop/Facing the Music/On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word/Rock Music: Culture, Aesthetics and Sociology


Straw, Will, Canadian University Music Review


Simon Frith. Music for Pleasure: Essays in the Sociology of Pop. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Simon Frith (ed.) Facing the Music. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin, (eds.) On Record: Rock, Pop and The Written Word. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.

Peter Wicke. Rock Music: Culture, Aesthetics and Sociology (trans. Rachel Fogg). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. [Originally published in German as Rockmusik: Zur Ästhetik und Soziologie eines Massenmediums. Leipzig: Reclam, 1987]

At a recent conference devoted to charting new directions in "Cultural Studies," one of the keynote speakers confessed to me that he only attended events of this kind in order to travel to hitherto unvisited cities and explore their record stores. The conference had been fine, he acknowledged, but the international circulation of intellectuals and theoretical paradigms took place with such efficiency that there were few academic reasons to travel from one city to another. The exciting and unexpected were to be found in the delete bins of record stores, rattier than in the conference presentations of intellectuals speaking about popular culture. It occurred to me that this had not always been the case, especially with regard to the academic study of popular music. In 1975 and 1985, for example, the things being thought and said about popular music in the academic world were, in a variety of ways, more interesting than the popular music being made at the time. The last two years, in contrast, have been a period of relative calm in popular music studies, coincident with the emergence of what might be considered highly interesting tendencies within the production and consumption of music itself (such as the regionalized dance music cultures of Great Britain and North America).

The texts reviewed here represent an enterprise of consolidation and summary in popular music research, with book-length collections and studies signalling the conclusion of a decade and a half of intense activity. Simon Frith and Peter Wicke have both been involved in popular music in a variety of extra-academic capacities - the former as a working critic and journalist, the latter as an influential organizer of rock music concerts in the German Democratic Republic during the 1970s. Each, as well, is now the director of a research centre devoted wholly or partially to the analysis of popular music. (Simon Frith at The John Logie Baird Centre at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde; Peter Wicke at the Centre for Popular Music Research at the Humboldt University in Berlin.)

The principal tension running through academic and semi-academic writing on rock and related forms of popular music is not, as is commonly perceived, one between the pleasures offered by those musics and an academic discourse which feels compelled to diminish or demystify those pleasures. If, over the past two decades, the academic study of rock music has been a problematic enterprise, this is not because an affective relationship between those writing and their objects of study has been lacking. What has been striking, on the contrary, is the committed and justificatory tone of even the most avowedly distanced of academic treatments of popular music. In that body of writings which has celebrated the liberating force of the pop music of the past decade (such as Iain Chambers's Urban Rhythms), this affective link has been most evident. It may be discerned as well, however, in the sense of betrayal with which many writers, in the decade which saw the winding down of punk music, have turned away from this celebratory stance towards an insistence that popular music scholars become attentive, once again, to the links between popular music and the structures of monopoly capitalism. In both cases, arguably, developments within rock music and the culture which surrounds it have been the principal forces shaping the tone and substance of popular music studies. …

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