Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture

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There's nothing more embarrassing than watching an overly educated scholar try to sound hip.

Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss, editors

Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch

Wednesday, May 10 2000, 8:39 PM


Books like this scare a lot of people off. There aren't any pictures. The cover looks like something a tenth-grader would describe as "dorky." And many of the sentences are long and difficult. The same could be said for many academic books. Yet when the topic is something as immediate and intensely felt as popular music, the problem is exacerbated. Bruce Horner's article on "Discourse" confronts it head on, explaining the apparent incompatibility of popular music and academic study. "The assumption producing this nervousness about studying popular music seems to be that we must keep each discourse separate, that only one must rule, and that we ourselves must adhere in our identities to the beliefs and ways of talking of only one of these: one must be either a fan or a scholar, an archivist or a musician, and the interests of one not only cannot change, they must not 'spill over' to contaminate the other." It's a good point. But even as he critiques the policing of discursive borders, his language is reinforcing the wall he wishes to tear down. So is mine.

I'm not sure that's such a bad thing. After all, there's nothing more embarrassing than watching an overly educated scholar try to sound hip. Maybe the best solution isn't tearing down the wall, but putting in a window. And the way to do that is to make the abstractions of scholarly prose concrete by rooting them in something specific. The best essays in Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture periodically descend from the clouds to inform us of the author's personal experience, like this passage from Robin Balliger's article on "Politics:" "Recently, at the college radio station where I work, a young politically minded DJ was pulling CDs out of the current rotation file and mentioned that he wasn't playing anything with a barcode!"

The real challenge, once the window is in place, is to make it double as a mirror. It's hard to convince your average music lover to interrupt his pleasure in order to interrogate it. Reading band interviews is one thing. Reading a lengthy discussion of the role interviews play within the music industry is quite another. As anybody who has read an unfavorable review of a fave artist will attest, it's not particularly comfortable to have your taste called into question. To have to think about that taste analytically -- how it categorizes you, what helped to produce it, where it may lead you -- can be truly exhausting, at least at first. Even when you're used to the process of self-reflection, it's rarely easy.

So why bother? I'm sure a lot of you would be asking that question after struggling through ten pages of Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture. The only answers that make sense are variants on the ancient Greek injunction to "know thyself." You're passionate about music. It makes your heart race, gives you goosebumps, compels you to bounce around on the furniture. In short, it promotes a lot of activities -- and let's not forget about fucking -- that short-circuit your consciousness. And because you're bound up in the heat of passion, it's hard to get a critical distance on your feelings. If you want to know why you love some songs and hate others or are curious how your taste preferences translate -- of don't -- into politics, then you have to find a way of confronting your feelings about music as if they were somebody else's.

This is where Horner and Swiss's anthology comes in. Once you find your depth in the book's prose -- skipping over parts that don't interest you, using your expertise to get a foothold in passages that you really want to understand -- you'll find yourself thinking "That's not me!" a lot. And it's at precisely those moments that you're most likely to learn something about yourself. Reflect on that defensive reaction and you'll discover the key to your own ideology. In the article devoted to this topic, Lucy Green makes a point likely to piss off a lot of Punk Planet readers, writing that the argument that "certain 'popular' music can be autonomous" is ideological. "It is not the style of the music itself, or even its economic position, but the content of the claims being made for its superiority that make the position ideological." In other words, independence comes at a price. Then again, so does Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture. But at least the editors have been nice enough to provide a website you can visit free of charge . Have a look before you buy the book.

Key Terms is available from Blackwell Publishers 

Copyright © 2000 by Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.
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