High Culture and Popular Music

The high-culture tradition is essentially a conservative one. It encompasses a defence of a narrowly defined high or elite ‘culture’, in the classic sense of Arnold’s ‘the best that has been thought and said’ (Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 1869). This is an artistic conception of culture: the only real and authentic culture is art, against which everything else is set. It offers a mass society thesis, in which the valued civilised culture of an elite minority is constantly under attack from a majority or mass culture which is unauthentic and a denial of (the good?) life. Its main task in analysis is evaluation and discrimination – a search for the true values of civilisation, commonly to be found in Renaissance art, the great nineteenth-century novels, and so on.

A version of this view is ably expressed by Peter Abbs, most fully in his book Reclamations (1975). The very title of this study indicates its author’s concern to return to an educational emphasis on the practice of discrimination, selection, and evaluation. Abbs uses the term ‘mass-culture’, which he regards as more satisfactory than ‘popular culture’, since ‘unlike traditional folk-culture (which it often seeks to simulate) mass-culture is not made by the populace, nor does it generally express the authentic experience of a particular people’ (53). Mass culture refers to the manufacture of culture as a commodity on a massive scale to mass markets for massive profits (78), and, as such, clearly includes much popular music. Mass/popular culture, for Abbs, represents a form of cultural debasement, epitomised by its trivialising of the emotions:

In true culture we invariably find a high degree of specificity, a strong sense of context, of time and of location, a sense of unique relationships, of binding existential meanings; in false culture we tend to find the reverse, we find a high degree of generality in which all things prickly, problematic and diverse have been conveniently dissolved. (Abbs 1975: 53)

This passage epitomises the conservative critique of popular culture: its perceived lack of authenticity and its triviality, attributable to its mass commodification for the lowest common denominator, and its debasement of the emotions and human relationships.

Such high cultural critiques of popular culture have frequently reserved their most vehement efforts for popular music. Writing in 1839, Sir John Herschel claimed:

Music and dancing (the more’s the pity) have become so closely associated with ideas of riot and debauchery among the less cultivated classes, that a taste for them, for their own sakes, can hardly be said to exist, and before they can be recommended as innocent or safe amusements, a very great change of ideas must take place. (cited Frith 1983: 39)

imageThrough the 1950s and 1960s, there were a succession of commentators who regarded much popular music as mindless fodder, cynically manufactured for mindless youthful consumers. In his best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom argued that rock music presents life as ‘a nonstop commercial prepackaged masturbational fantasy’, which he charges as responsible for the atrophy of the minds and bodies of youth (Bloom 1987).

Underpinning such views are assumptions about the potentially disruptive nature of ‘the popular’, and the need for social control and the regulation of popular pleasures. The high culture view of popular culture has been criticised for failing to recognise the active nature of popular culture consumption; failing to treat the cultural forms seriously on their own terms; biased by aesthetic prejudices, which are rarely explicated; and resting on outmoded class-based notions of a high–low culture split. The traditionally claimed distinctions between high and low culture have become blurred. High art has being increasingly commodified and commercialised, while some forms of popular culture have become more ‘respectable’, receiving State funding and broader critical acceptance.

The high culture perspective remains evident in the application of aesthetics to popular music, and the tendency of musicology to ignore or dismiss popular music genres. It also underpins some State attitudes towards the funding and regulation of cultural forms. At an everyday level, it is implicit in the manner in which musicians, fans and critics make distinctions of value both between and within particular genres.

Popular Music and the Mass Society

Though politically on the left, the influential Frankfurt School of social theory has a good deal in common with the high culture conservative commentators. The Frankfurt theorists criticised mass culture in general, arguing that under a capitalist system of production, culture had become simply another object, the ‘culture industry’, devoid of critical thought and any oppositional possibilities. This general view was applied more specifically to popular music by Adorno, especially in his attacks on Tin Pan Alley and jazz. When Adorno published his initial critique On Popular Music in 1941, the music of the big bands filled the airwaves and charts, operating within the Tin Pan Alley system of songwriting that had been dominant since the early 1900s, characterised by simple rhyming formulas and harmonies.

At the heart of Adorno’s critique was the standardisation associated with the capitalist system of commodity production:

A clear judgement concerning the relation of serious to popular music can be arrived at only by strict attention to the fundamental characteristic of popular music: standardization. The whole structure of popular music is standardized even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization. (Adorno 1941: 17)

In this essay and his subsequent writings on popular music, Adorno continued to equate the form with Tin Pan Alley and jazz-oriented variations of it, ignoring the rise of rock ’n’ roll in the early 1950s (Adorno 1976). This undermined his critique and resulted in his views generally being strongly rejected by more contemporary analysts of popular music (see, Frith 1983: 43–8).

Gendron forcefully recapitulates ‘the failings’ of Adorno’s theory, particularly his exaggeration of the presence of industrial standardisation in popular music, but also suggests that ‘Adorno’s analysis of popular music is not altogether implausible’, and merits reconsideration (Gendron 1986). To support this argument, Gendron examines the standardisation of the vocal group style doo-wop, rooted in the black gospel quartet tradition, which had a major chart impact between 1955 and 1959. So far, so good, but he then asserts: ‘What is true for doo-wop also holds true for other rock ’n’ roll genres: rockabilly, heavy metal, funk etc.’ This claim is not teased out, and runs counter to the clear differentiation that is evident within genres such as heavy metal and techno/dance music.


Culturalism and Popular Music

Culturalist perspectives on popular culture have examined the question of how the media actually undertake the production of ‘consent’ for social, economic and political structures which favour the maintenance of dominant interests (see, for example, the early work of Stuart Hall). Those working in this area have been markedly influenced by the ideas of the Italian Marxist theoretician, Antonio Gramsci, particularly the concept of ideological hegemony, advanced by Gramsci to explain how a ruling class maintains its dominance through achieving a popular consensus mediated through the various institutions of society, including the schools, mass media, the law, religion and popular culture. Ideological hegemony thus represents the organisation of consent, a process underpinned by the threat of actual physical coercion by the State. An important aspect of hegemony is that it mystifies and conceals existing power relations and social arrangements. Particular ideas and rules are constructed as natural and universal ‘common sense’ and the popular media play a leading role in this process. However, hegemony is never absolute, but is instead constantly being challenged and redefined.

Those who stress the consumption of popular music as an active, rather than a passive process, who identify the many instances of oppositional politics in popular music, and who emphasise the tensions and contradictions at work within the music industry can be broadly described as ‘culturalist’. In the writing on popular music, culturalism is best represented by the work on music and youth subcultures associated with the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (BCCCS) during the 1970s (Willis 1978; Hebdige 1979; Hall and Jefferson 1976). This broad body of work emphasised the place of the individual in the determination of cultural meaning. For example, Chamber’s theme is the constant interplay between commercial factors and lived experience:

For after the commercial power of the record companies has been recognised, after the persuasive sirens of the radio acknowledged, after the recommendations of the music press noted, it is finally those who buy the records, dance to the rhythm and live to the beat who demonstrate, despite the determined conditions of its production, the wider potential of pop. (Chambers 1985: Introduction)

In similar fashion, Middleton (1990) places popular music in the space of contradiction and contestation lying between the ‘imposed’ and the ‘authentic’, and also emphasises the relative autonomy of cultural practices.

Source: Shuker, Roy. Understanding Popular Music. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2016.
Abrams, N. (1995) ‘Antonio’s B-Boys: Rap, Rappers, and Gramsci’s Intellectuals’, Popular
Music and Society, 19, 4: 1–20.
Adorno, T. with the assistance of Simpson, G. (1941) ‘On Popular Music’, in Frith, S. and
Goodwin, A. (eds), On Record: Rock, Pop, and The Written Word, New York: Pantheon
Agger, B. (1992) Cultural Studies as Critical Theory, London: Falmer Press.
Arnold, M. (1869) Culture and Anarchy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Bennett, A. (2000) Popular Music and Youth Culture: Music, Identity and Place, London:
Bloom, A. (1987) The Closing of the American Mind, New York: Simon & Schuster
Brackett, D. (1995) Interpreting Popular Music, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Frith, S. (1983) Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure and the Politics of Rock ’n’ Roll, London: Constable
Gilroy, P. (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press
Hardy, P. and Laing, D. (eds) (1991) The Faber Companion to Twentieth Century Popular Music, London: Faber & Faber
Longhurst, B. (1995) Popular Music and Society, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Middleton, R. (1990) Studying Popular Music, Milton Keynes: Open University Press
Redhead, S.  (1997) Subculture to Clubcultures: An Introduction to Popular Cultural Studies, Oxford: Blackwell.
Shuker, R. (1994) Understanding Popular Music, London and New York: Routledge.
—— (1998) Key Concepts in Popular Music, London and New York: Routledge.
Turner, K. (1984) Mass Media and Popular Culture, Chicago, IL: Science Research Association

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