Before this title becomes too distracting, allow me answer first and then explain: Popular music scholarship is neither of these options. Rather than defend the quality of work that is popular music scholarship, I would rather ask, why is there still a prevailing legitimization of the field that floats between the lines of many scholarly contributions?
Lawrence Grossberg asserts, “It is time to take stock of the work of the past decades,” in his “Reflections of a Disappointed Popular Music Scholar.” As a “disappointed” scholar, it seems that Grossberg is more intent on remedying “failures” in previous popular music scholarship than acknowledging the accomplishments in the field. While Grossberg undeniably has a greater literary experience in popular studies than I do, I am nonetheless troubled by his frustration for a couple reasons.
First, Grossberg identifies three “failures” in popular music scholarship: a lack of desire for a common understanding (28); the lack of development of a common vocabulary for critical interpretation and analysis (29); lastly, how infrequently popular music scholarship engages in new and urgent political struggles of recent decades (30). I don’t think that Grossberg’s critique of the topic is unfounded, but I do feel as though Grossberg’s criticism is indicative of an academic objective quite different from my own. As a rock enthusiast and fledgling scholar, I prefer that scholarship avoid analytical generalizations. It seems that some scholars develop labels and categories to enhance what would otherwise be bland comparisons. Furthermore, my experience, albeit limited, in reading ethnomusicological investigations in popular music and otherwise, certainly exposes political and social struggles and influences.
Somewhat contradictory to his last “failure,” Grossberg critiques scholarship in which “Some circumscribed experience of the music and its social context are taken to signify its proper meaning or social effects,” and that he has “heard [such interpretive work] before” (33). I admire and agree with Grossberg’s desire to develop theoretical approaches. His theory of popular music apparatuses is convincing specifically in reference to apparatuses that “rely on collective judgments quality and taste.” Nevertheless, I think Grossberg overlooks that “collective judgments” are based on experiences necessarily within a social context. In a social environment, a group agrees whether an experience is important enough to become part of their collective. Herein lies the problem of the ‘collective’ for empirical or theoretical studies. Who is included in one collective group or another? Who decides the answer to that question?
My greatest frustration with Grossberg’s state of the field is that although he admits he is a rock enthusiast, he approaches the roles of performers and audiences as an ‘Other.’ I understand that credible scholarship relies on a certain level of objectivity; nonetheless, I am reminded of the problematic approaches in comparative musicology that compartmentalize music that is unfamiliar in an attempt to make it more like their (our) own. I wondered about the description of performance in Grossberg’s rebellious apparatus: “The performative side of rock seems to be simply another occasion, another activity, with no privilege beyond that of a night out on the town, a potentially good time” (49). I have never been to a concert, let alone a rock concert, that was simply “another occasion.” To study popular music or in particular, to study rock, I think that it is necessary for a scholar to have some personal enthusiasm for the topic and then conduct investigations as a participant-observer, so as to avoid a misinterpreting the subjects’ behavior. Popular music and ‘rock culture’ specifically, are a blend of performer and audience participation. If we attempt to find something worthy of study in this subject, we first have to admit and believe it ourselves.
In his “Reconsidering Rock,” Keir Keightley reminds us that more than image and even rebellion, the foundation of rock is built on authenticity and exclusion. In other words, we can’t know what is good authentic rock until we exclude what is not rock. Keightley tactfully presents discourses of authenticity through the second half of the twentieth century. What I appreciate most in Keightley’s work is that the fan/audience is not subservient to the artist/performer, but rather just as significant a player in shaping the discourse. I will presume that Keightley finds himself in some segment of the popular music phenomenon. He is a participant in the field and then an observer.
In his “How to Be a Rock Critic,” Lester Bangs, whether sarcastically or seriously, proposes that anyone can be a rock critic. Whether Bangs is frustrated with the level of criticism in his field or really thinks that the field itself deserves criticism, his article reflects a kind of fervor for the subject that he, more than likely, shares with many other critics.
Robert Christgau’s “Working the Crowd: Bruce Springsteen / Michael Jackson,” is a case of analytical work disguised in fan-based criticism. For example, Christgau makes comments like, “All he [Jackson] wants is the change to entertain every single human being in the world” (247). Although it is not a proclamation made by Jackson, Christgau makes the exaggerated comment after providing reasonable supporting information; the exaggeration emphasizes a fan’s respect and sympathy for Jackson. Christgau’s perspective does not forget the importance of the fans in both Springsteen’s and Jackson’s respective success because he is a fan. Christgau reminds us that one way to understand part of the rock/popular music phenomenon is to participate in it.
Popular Music Scholars: Failed Critics or Failed Scholars? I ask this question because I wonder why investigations in popular music scholarship are only legitimate from an outside/objective perspective. While criticism is limited in analytically based conclusions, the overall thrust and perspective yields significant and relevant information on a topic. Is it too much to ask that scholars shed their fear of vocalizing an unfounded opinion, and then participate in the experience they are objectifying before they objectify it? To me, popular music studies can further develop once scholars (myself included) appreciate that subjective reactions are imperative to the success of popular music, and are therefore inextricable from the success of popular music scholarship.