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Studying Popular Music

By Grenier, Line | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1991 | Go to article overview

Studying Popular Music


Grenier, Line, Canadian University Music Review


RICHARD MIDDLETON. Studying Popular Music: Millon Kcynes: The Open Univcrsiiy Press. 1990. 328pp. ISBN (1-335-15276-7

Studying Popular Music is a comprehensive synthesis of the key theoretical and analytical frameworks in popular music studies. With this carefully structured volume, British musicologist Richard Middleton provides a much needed critical overview of a relatively young but rapidly expanding area of research. The book reads as a dense but sharp discussion which, far from dodging issues, addresses even the most ticklish ones. In this, the author's writing stance is especially noteworthy: while Middleton clearly argues his point of view on an issue, he is not attempting to impose a particular orthodoxy on the reader but is rather encouraging readers to assess critically their own views in light of his own.

In addition to an extensive bibliography which both experienced and new researchers will find useful, this rather lengthy volume provides one of the best, most detailed, and well-informed surveys of the principal concepts and methods used by sociologists, ethnomusicologists, and folklore and communication specialists for the analysis of popular music. The reader should not be misled by this description, however, for Studying Popular Music does not provide an encyclopedic description of the field, nor does it make an objective assessment of the issues it considers. It does offer a kind of "guided tour" of popular music studies, but an unambiguously partial one whose underlying rationale is the author's argument in favour of a cultural study of music "which focuses on music but refuses to isolate it" (p. 4). Middleion adopts this position as a means to "remap the terrain"- that is. to set the grounds of a new musicology that would fully take into account musics that have been too often overlooked and, more importantly, to rcorganize accordingly "the whole of Western musical history" (p. 122).

The first part of the book deals with theoretical issues. This extremely rigorous analysis begins with the repudiation of absolutist definitions of popular music. As opposed to those who aim to establish this music's true nature once and for all, the author leans towards relativity for his own definition. Middleton argues that in order to grasp popular music's complexity as a full-fledged social phcnomenon.while at the same time acknowledging its relative autonomy as a specific cultural form, this music cannot he addressed hy itself, but only in relation to the other forms of music that prevail in a given socio-historical context. More precisely. Middlelon claims that popular music can he properly viewed only as one of the active tendencies within the "whole musical field." an organized space that is always in movement and that is composed of dominant and subordinate musical formations. This original solution to une of the most debated issues in popular music studies proves to be the cornerstone of Middleton's theoretical agenda, which is centred on his "theory of articulation." Designed to account for the relationship between the musical field and social power structures, it focuses on the processes which concurrently organize music formations as cultural force fields of relations shaped by contradictions and which link them to social formations As the terminology already suggests, the influence of British cultural studies upon Middleton's work is obvious throughout this first and decisive chapter. The author's position is indeed largely anchored in what has come to be known as the "'turn to Gramsci" which was the trademark of the work of prominent scholars such as Tony Bennett and Stuart Hall about ten years ago. The repudiation of class essentialist conceptions that has accompanied this theoretical shift forms a backdrop to Middleton's critique of the views that equate popular music with "mass culture" or "dominant ideology." as well as those who see it as the "authentic" cultural voice of subordinate classes.

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