Text Messages

By Beard, David | Musical Times, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview
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Text Messages


Beard, David, Musical Times


Reading pop: approaches to textual analysis in popular music Edited by Richard Middleton Oxford UP (Oxford, 2000); xi, 388pp; L40 / 14.99 pbk. ISBN 0 19 816612 5 / 0 19 816611 7.

Richard Middleton's multi-authored compendium brings together sixteen diverse articles from the journal Popular Music, spanning the years 1982-94. The book's subtitle suggests a resistance to abandoning the idea of a 'text', or `multiple text' as the object of study, but raises the question of what that might be, and where it is located. Although Middleton's introduction points to the sound of popular music as the central text, the ways in which this is explored vary widely. This makes the task of summarising the collection problematic, even though the articles are corralled into three broad categories: `analysing the music', `words and music', and `modes of representation'. Topics range from semiotic analyses of melodies and musical gestures, to issues of performer identity and gender construction, and analysis of lyrics and visual modes of representation, through video, performance and bodily movement. The book illustrates ways of pushing at the boundaries of a text, surrounding it with discourses drawn from a number of disciplines, including music analysis, sociological, cultural, ethnic, media and discourse studies.

Regrettably, the details of the original publications are not provided, leaving readers no sense of how the selected articles relate in time. Although, as the book progresses, there is a movement away from a concentration on musical detail, the music-centred analyses do show an awareness of the relation between `sound patterns' and other contex tual, contingent factors, reflecting Richard Middleton's introductory remarks that: the best `new musicology' of pop has grasped the need to hear harmony in new ways, to develop new models for rhythmic analysis, to pay attention to nuances of timbre and pitch inflection, to grasp textures and forms in ways that relate to generic and social function, to escape from `notational centricity'.

One of the chapters which locates the text in musical detail is David Brackett's analysis of James Brown's 'Superbad'. Brackett's intention is to show `how a cultural/linguistic practice' is brought to bear on lyrics, melody and harmony. He examines what Middleton refers to as musicology's `poor relation': gesture, or, more specifically in this case, rhetorical strategies and the mode of their delivery. Brackett defines `Superbad as a `celebration of black difference - a refusal to be defined by white culture'. He begins by noting features of 'Superbad' which previous writers, such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., have described as characteristic of black linguistic practice. These include: `an almost complete lack of emphasis on narrative and on syntagmatic or chain-- like continuity', a virtual absence of melody, an emphasis on words that bear a certain phonetic similarity, and a use of `Formulaic phrases' which have a signifying role (for example, the use of slang phrases such as 'I got soul', `brothers and sisters', 'I need some soul power'). Such a list may potentially raise charges of essentialism, of reinforcing ideas of racial difference in ways which Philip Tagg and Paul Gilroy, for example, have criticised. When Brackett later included this article in his book Interpreting popular music (1995/2000) he addressed this issue more fully (a fact which Middleton's volume does not point out).

Brackett unpacks the idea of a stable racial essence by analysing Brown's music in terms of a black discursive world set in a particular historical context. For instance, he examines ways in which Brown's music explores more than one identity. Here, as in other chapters, Bakhtin's dialogics is invoked, in particular his concept of `double-voice& utterance, whereby a word `can partake simultaneously of both black and white discursive worlds'. This is used to interpret Brown's adaptation of standard blues progressions, in which undue emphasis is placed on the subdominant.

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