One More Time: Our Ongoing Dialogue with Popular Music
by Ian Baird

Thesis: This article examines the history of popular music and suggests that popular music contributes to social change and democracy in important ways.

1) Music historians believe that the form of music known as the "blues" developed out of a combination of "work hollers" sung in the cotton fields and hymns sung in Protestant churches.
  • Work hollers consisted of one group of slaves in a field calling out a musical phrase that was then answered by another group in an adjacent field.
  • Named "call and response," this musical form connected the different groups of workers in the fields in a kind of conversation.
  • The author believes that popular music has done the same thing over the years: engaged in an ongoing, resonant dialogue with other forms of music, other musicians and audiences, and many other facets of human experience.
2) In the early 20th-century America, the blues was both intensely spiritual and also a vehicle to dialogue about religion.
  • As does religion, the blues deals with things that have a moral dimension: sin, danger, hunger, fear, oppression, and disaster.
  • In the early 20th-century America, black people could not really protect themselves from all these bad things – except by going to church and going to a "juke joint" on Saturday night and listen to the blues portray their problems in a different light.
3) Preachers called the blues "devil music" because it encouraged people to participate in drinking and sexual behaviour.
  • The topics of blues songs were also objectionable: fighting, guns, murder, crime, drunkenness, gambling, and hoodoo (magic).
  • However, there is a strong link between blues and gospel music.
4) Black people in the early 20th century America had a lot of choices to make.
  • Not many things could be done to alleviate the injustice and suffering they experienced.
  • African-Americans could not vote, hold political office, go to college, or own a business.
  • They could however pray and sing songs that portrayed their suffering.
"Blue Suede Shoes": Popular Music and Its Dialogue with Class
5) The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu uses the term "distinction" to characterize an important difference between the upper classes and the working classes: detachment from cultural experience.
  • "The detachment of the pure gaze," he argues, is an 'active distance" attained from not having to provide for the necessities of life, from living a 'life of ease."
6) The distinction Bourdieu is talking about is one of 'taste."
  • Refinement and sophistication are the trademarks of distinction.
  • It can be learned, but is usually acquired through enculturation.
7) A cultured person remains 'distinct" from the art he/she encounters.
  • The eye of the “pure gaze” is refined but cool and unemotional, aloof, and even indifferent to the experience of art and culture.
  • A cultured person does not "touch" the art he/she is receiving.
8) "Low culture" people engage extensively and intimately with the art or music they experience.
  • Working classes generally prefer art forms like music where they can use their whole body and get "down and dirty" and experience the art as direct and intense involvement.
9) In listening to and experiencing popular music, "low culture" people actually become the music, taking it into their bodies.
  • The author suggests that opera glasses are the symbol of upper-class distinction whereas the "mosh pit" is the symbol of the working-class musical immediacy of the body.
10) The Who’s song "My Generation" was a hit in the 1960s because lead vocalist Roger Daltry not only sang about generational alienation but also about youth seeking to find a voice in a very literal sense.
  • He represented this in a physical way through his violent stutter on the word 'my" of the lyric "talkin’ about my generation" which reflected the frustration of his powerlessness, of being silenced and having nothing to represent who he was.
  • But when he finally sang "my," it was as though youth suddenly had a clear, strong voice and an identity and a means of expression.
11) The Who were famous for trashing their hotel rooms and for wrecking their expensive guitars on stage.
  • This was related to the same kind of intense physical involvement with music as well as a rejection of people's obsession with material possession.
  • You would expect lower-class kids to respond to these messages, but so did middle-class kids.
12) Hip-hop and "gangsta" rap take materialism in the another direction and this may be why it is so threatening to middle-class white America today.
  • Hip-hop videos, with all their gold, cognac, and expensive cars, constitute an impolite flaunting of "taste."
  • Flashing arms and hand signs and extreme close-ups of petulant, defiant black faces create a very physical kind of music and language.
  • Tattoos, belly rings, and tongue piercings are very physical engagements with culture.
13) Popular bands in the 60s (the Who, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones) were made up of British boys from working-class neighbourhoods.
  • Rock stardom was all about escaping work and the chains of the working class.
  • The idea of striking it rich through rock was not so much about breaking the bonds of class difference as it was in acquiring enough money to be freed from the bonds.
14) A different brand of blue-collar rock appeared in North American with the appearance of singers such as Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellancamp, Joe Walsh, and Neil Young.
  • The sang anthems of the working man, the small-town man, the farming man.
  • Popular music has always had its ties to the working man and working woman.
  • Even in much earlier times when royalty would hire musicians to play, these same musicians would play at taverns and in the streets of the needs and urges of the emotional and physical self.
  • Popular music has a long history of songs about rebellion and dissatisfaction.
15) Just as the blues emerged a hundred years before from the struggle of life on the plantations, hip-hop and rap emerged from the struggles of inner-city life.
  • Rap musicians like Public Enemy, Ice-T, and Ice Cube inspired young African-Americans who were "used, abused without clues' to become politically active and stressed that “brothers of the same mind” were "here' and ready to "mess with you" in order to have their voices heard.
  • Rap musicians like Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, and Biggy Smallz continue to express to new generations of black and white listeners the effort it took to survive and rise above the hardships of life in inner-city ghettos.
16) The early political activism of rap’s origins has given away to an infatuation with the trappings of materialism.
  • Today’s rap musicians are concerned less with resistance and more with marketing “street cred” to white audiences.
  • This change – this move into "da club," as 50 Cent puts it – is perhaps not entirely a sell-out.
  • Abundance for the disadvantaged has been a long-time transcultural symbol of achievement.
"Thunder Road": Popular Music and Its Dialogue with Time and Space
17) Music is about time.
  • Its very identity is time: tracks, beats, measures, rhythms, whole notes, quarter notes, sixteenth notes.
  • Time is also central to when music is experienced: Sunday morning hymns, the Friday Sabbath cantor, the morning call to prayer from the Minaret, Saturday night in the juke joint.
18) Music is played at ceremonial events, is also related to periods in one's life, and also has its own historical timeline.
19) Music is also about space.
  • Space concerns the design of instruments, speakers, and electronic formats of recordings.
20) Music is heard in different places (campfire, temple, pub) and is as crucial as any other element in the development of music.
21) Musical language is linked with its time, space, or place.
  • However, while music is contained within it own time and space, it also responds to other times and spaces at the same time.
  • Music changes, but it is always in conversation with the music and musicians who have come before.
22) The blues began in the Deep South but moved to Chicago as workers left plantations and found work in the industrial north.
  • Blues musicians started using electric guitars and sped up the music in response to the larger crowds and change in social tempo.
  • They still used the same 12-bar pattern derived from Christian hymns and the AAB pattern derived from the work hollers, but now they added drums and bass.
23) The "speeded up blues" spread out and was eventually performed in white musicians and transformed into rock and roll by musicians such as Bill Hailey and the Comets, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley.
24) Radio and television also had an impact.
  • Transistor radios bought music to the beach and television brought Beatlemania and Jim Morrison into living rooms.
  • Just as important was the connection between popular music and cars.
25) The blues continued to evolve and was imported to England where it influenced musicians such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Eric Burden.
26) Blues also influence hard rock or acid rock represented by musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, the Cream, and Led Zeppelin.
  • Heavy metal was also influence by the blues.
27) Stadium rock bands and hair bands of the 80s simply added eyeliner and hairspray to rock and roll and the blues.
  • Instead of songs about injustice and misfortune and poverty, the themes became trite, narrow, and flattened out.
  • The music was repetitive, unimaginative, overproduced and focused on music about lust and infidelity.
  • The same thing happened to the blues in the 50s and Hollywood in the 90s.
28) Other new sounds emerged when rock and roll musicians used the recording studio to introduce music that was different from their live shows.
  • George Martin re-engineered the post-Sgt. Pepper Beatles as the purveyors of multi-track electronic and orchestral studio wizardry while Ravi Shanker influenced canned musical mysticism.
  • DJs also contributed to the dialogue by mixing and remixing past, present, and future.
29) Dialogue (and occasionally arguments) also occurred between North and South or East and West.
  • Before the hip-hop battle between Biggy Smallz and Tupac Shakur ended in the deaths of both, there was Woodstock (where children of the Age of Aquarius celebrated free love, rock and roll, and hallucinogenic wonderment) versus Altamont (where the crowd erupted in violence while the Rolling Stones performed).
30) The introduction of MTV, with it concentration on music videos) changed the musical landscape again.
  • Video changed how music was not only heard but also written and produced.
  • Today the virtual spaces of the Internet and digital downloads are re-writing the face of music yet again and may drive out of business the old-fashioned record store.
31) Regardless of its style, popular music is something people literally touch and feel in their bones as it travels around them in the very air they breathe.
"Where the Streets Have No Name": Popular Music and Its Dialogue with Freedom
32) Clive Cockerton points out in his article, “Serious Pleasure,” that the Greek philosopher Plato thought that art was corrupting.
  • The ancient Greeks believed that music, being mathematical, was a culturally accepted form of art, but when became too sensual and irrational, thinkers like Plato despised it too.
  • However, popular music had its value as it pleasurable aspects functioned as a way of keeping everyone under the thumb of tyranny.
33) Did rock and roll liberate youth in the 50s, challenge the conformity of suburbia, and confront the atomic juggernaut of the cold war or did it just increase conformity?
34) The youth of the 60s seemed more rebellious than the previous generation.
  • Rock and roll was the vehicle by which youth expressed their idealism and political activism and laid the foundation for what was though to be a new age.
  • The establishment seemed ready to collapse but did rock and roll just sell out?
  • The author portrays the complexity of the times by contrasting the celebration at Woodstock and the war in Viet Nam and the "war on drugs" in the 80s.
35) The author asks again whether rock and roll was a new vision or whether the musicians were just dupes of the recording companies.
  • The same question is asked of rap musicians.
36) Regardless of the answer to these questions, one of popular music's main roles is cross boundaries, test limits.
  • Musicians often take on the task of pushing to the margins of acceptability a particular society’s standards.
37) In many cultures, musicians have traditionally played the role of the trickster – a figure who disguises his true meaning behind a false pose.
  • The bluesman was equal parts saint and sinner.
  • Music has a special kind of power: the freedom to change things, most of all the self.
38) Without the ambiguity of tricksters such as Robert Johnson or John Lennon or Kurt Cobain or Madonna or Tupac Shakur, it would be difficult to see beyond the dry indifference of official "taste."
  • The ambiguity of their meaning is part of the reason people continue to question their work and continue to be engaged with it.
  • The ambiguity keeps the dialogue with music open and somewhat democratic.
39) Transgressing norms, conventions, and social propriety is necessary in any culture that strives to entertain freedom and resist domination.
  • Transgression helps to redefine boundaries, to understand difference and recognize multiple levels of meaning.
  • Transgression helps us to understand ourselves and deepens our collective experience.
40) Transgression can destroy meaning and value for no purpose and thus result in a state where everything is permissible thereby negating the reason for transgression in the first place.
  • In the worse scenario, transgression could work to bolster the status quo by becoming merely another capitalistic venture that distracts people from the real political issues of the day.
41) The price of popular music is its populism because populism is a tool tyrants have used since ancient times.
  • Populism may be a necessary price to pay if popular music contributes to keeping society open.
  • The unofficial, ever-changing status of popular music is also its main means of disturbing the status quo, of offering alternatives to the conventional and at times unjust activities of the state.
  • True innovation in popular music has always emerged from the unpredictable margins and never from the overproduced, controlled and controlling centre.
  • The "trickster" rock star does not always mean self-absorbed rogue with no interest in the rest of the world.
  • The disengaged elitist art collector is just as likely to be self-absorbed as by any rapper.
42) Popular music contains both the "good" and the "bad.'
  • Inherent in popular music is the basic democratic principle of dialogue.
  • Popular music's openness to a variety of responses means that no one can never entirely predict or control the responses might be elicited over time and space.
  • Popular music gives voice to the marginalized, validates the emotion and the body, raises the spirits of all, and encourages dialogue between the past and the present, between black and white, north, south, east, and west.
  • Popular music also lowers the bar, encourages mediocrity, validates appearances in place of substance, incites gratuitous violence, promotes ignorance, and inhibits tolerance.
43) It is too much to ask popular music always to provide the same experience.
  • Popular music responds to society's changing calls.
  • Its value lies in its ability to express diverse, uncertain lives.

 

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