Rock Music: Dimensions of a Mass Medium - Meaning Production through Popular Music

By Wicke, Peter | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1990 | Go to article overview

Rock Music: Dimensions of a Mass Medium - Meaning Production through Popular Music


Wicke, Peter, Canadian University Music Review


THE ROCK SONG AS ART?

What meaning, significance and value can reside in the musical, gestural and visual materials of a rock song? This question quickly leads into uncharted areas and produces another one: does the high degree of stereotyping to be found in this music allow any kind of differentiated meaning? To be sure, it is always possible to cite examples from the wide variety of this kind of music which apparently testify to the existence of differentiated musical structures and of an aesthetic resulting from contact with other forms of contemporary music (for example, jazz and so-called serious music). But to adopt this strategy bypasses the problem because standardisation of musical structures is endemic in mass-mediated popular musics, not least as a result of new technological processes such as sampUng and sequencing. The mere listing of the constituent materials of popular songs reveals that their social, cultural, emotional, affective and ideological references are not solely realised through musical materials, but through a great variety of other materials which, on closer inspection, turn out not to be meaningfully related to one another in such a way as to form a coherent yet complex unity. Not even a reasonably adequate word-sound relationship (to select the dimensions of music and lyrics) can be truly and convincingly demonstrated, because the degree of stereotyping within the stylistic frame of reference of a band or a musician does not allow for the kind of text-related musical differentiations that one would find, for example, in a Schubert song [see, for example, Mellers' (1973) analysis of Beatles' songs]. In addition, there is empirical evidence which throws doubt on the relevance for audiences of the semantictextual relationship in rock and pop songs. As Hirsch has observed:

Teenagers . . . tend to be unaware of many song's lyrics and messages; most teenagers are attracted to popular records more by their overall sound and beat - or the performing group - than by their verbal content . . . Systematic social research has yet to demonstrate any effects of popular song lyrics upon their listeners. (Hirsch 1971: 80)

Key later came to similar conclusions. In a 1975 study he found that not one of the teenage subjects had "any conscious idea what the lyric was about, even though all had heard the song dozens - if not many dozens - of times" (Key 1976: 120).

Rather than being related to the individual songs themselves, the songs' gestural and visual dimensions seem to be connected to modes of performance, to stage-audience relationships, and to the technological requirements and conventions of media such as television, video and film. Evidently, the constituent materials of a song form part of different networks of communication, each with its own codes and conventions. This principle extends even to musical structures themselves. The rhythmic patterns on which musical structures are based follow conventions of movement which flow from the physical activity of dancing. The visualisation of songs in music videos superimposes a further and quite autonomous network of communication invoking pre-existing conventions from cognate forms of audiovisual media such as film which have been synthesized into a distinct code by American Music Television (MTV).

The question must be raised as to whether a mode of creativity based on semantic intentionaUty forms an appropriate point of departure for the analysis of popular musics which come into being as the result of industrial processes involving a complex division of artistic labour. Quite apart from these processes, songs are inserted into cultural discourses themselves shaped by the images of a musician or band. These images are given expression through print media, interviews, reviews, posters, photographs and radio and television presentations. And behind all this lie sales strategies which attempt to place songs in a context relevant to the personality of a star or, rather, the media construct which is supposed to pass for this personality. …

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