Same as It Ever Was? Musicology Continues to Wrestle with Rock
Fast, Susan, Canadian University Music Review
In short, the study of popular music should also include the study of popular music.1
Last year (1999), a collection of essays entitled Reading Rock and Roll appeared from Columbia University Press. In the introduction, the editors, both of whom teach in departments of English, state that the essays in this collection take a "textually oriented approach," that is, they deal with specific artists and specific works, which the editors rightly claim is a relatively new idea given the tendency of popular music studies to have been "dominated by the sociological bent of the Birmingham School of cultural studies," with its general suspicion of close readings. "[W]e believe," the editors argue, "that poststructuralist and postmodern theories of textuality enable readings that pay close attention to the minutest details of individual compositions while still situating these texts within their social, historical, political, and cultural contexts."2 This is an admirable objective to be sure. What makes the editors' statement remarkable-to me, a musicologist, at least-is that none of the thirteen essays in the collection addresses the sound of the music in anything but a superficial way, neither do the authors draw on recent musicological work on popular music that does address sound and that does situate that sound socially, historically, politically, and culturally: one thinks here of the groundbreaking studies by Robert Walser, John Shepherd, David Brackett, Steve Waksman, Sheila Whiteley, Richard Middleton, Paul Théberge, Timothy Taylor, Adam Krims, and Susan McClary, to name a few.3 After a decade that witnessed the historic movement of musicology and music theory towards popular music (ponderous and filled with resistance though that movement has been and continues to be), it is distressing that such a collection of essays could still appear. It is not the only study recently published that virtually ignores the sounds of popular music, and I want to stress that many of the essays are interesting and make a valuable contribution to popular music scholarship; I single it out because the editors seem to think that they are, indeed, dealing with all the parameters of "popular music," without examining "popular music" at all-a criticism that was levelled at scholars of popular music some six years ago by McClary, to say nothing of Shepherd's Music as Social Text, or Middleton's Studying Popular Music, which appeared earlier in the 1990s and which argue not only for the importance of taking musical sounds into account, but which offer analytical paradigms for how such work might be undertaken.
With musicologists and theorists finally turning their attention to popular music, the place of musical analysis in popular music studies has become quite contentious, with criticism coming both from those who think it matters and those who do not. On the one hand, there are those trained outside musicology and music theory who continue to ignore the sound, often without comment, as the Reading Rock and Roll authors have done, or those who argue against the importance of analysis largely, as Adam Krims puts it, because of the widespread notion that "analysing popular music in the 'musicological' sense distances one from the real engagements of both artists and audiences, both of whom presumably do not relate to any significant extent to the music as modelled."4 Despite his latest book, Performing Rites, I think Simon Frith still falls into the latter camp, for while he has finally addressed sound in this book, and has tried to work his way through some arguments about how sound might produce meaning, he seems in the end to argue that these meanings are only relevant to the musicologist or theorist and that the interpretations made by them are important only for producers and not consumers of music. He seems also to suggest that the interpretations being made by musicologists are to be taken by them as the only possible way to hear the music, an idea that I am quite certain is anathema to all the scholars I have mentioned above. …