Book Review: Popular Music Matters: Essays in Honour of Simon Frith

Given his role chairing the judges of the Mercury Prize and his transatlantic music criticism (published in magazines such as Rolling StoneMelody MakerCREEM, and the Village Voice, to name only a few) together with his seminal academic publications that began in the late 1970s and continue to this day, Simon Frith is arguably the defining popular musicologist of our era. Drawing together over twenty contributors from sociology and politics to film and television studies, this Festschrift is richly deserved.

Frith is, moreover, one of those rare thinkers in the academy whose writing transcends its disciplinary basis, harbouring the capacity to permeate and affect everyday life. Personally speaking, one sentence from his 1987 essay ‘Towards an Aesthetics of Popular Music’ has continued to resonate with me since I stumbled on it as an undergraduate: ‘youth is experienced…as an intense presence, through an impatience for time to pass and a regret that it is doing so, in a series of speeding, physically insistent moments that have nostalgia coded into them’. The prose, typically, is casual and yet ferociously incisive, more literary than academic. As Robert Christagu stresses in the Preface to Popular Music Matters, Frith ‘sticks to an obdurately English plainstyle’ (p. xiv) rooted in unobtrusive first-person reflection that sustains a unique rapprochement of journalistic panache and scholarly expertise: ‘his writing is quiet and unshowy, attracting attention with dry wit and the subtle crackle of ideas that come faster than his tone and syntax prepare you for’ (p. xv).

From Lee Marshall and Dave Laing’s Introduction we learn that Frith attended Oxford to read PPE between 1964 and 1967 – a period, coincidentally, bounded by the release of the Rolling Stones’ self-titled debut album and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. After earning a doctorate in Sociology at UC Berkeley, Frith subsequently pursued a career in which he held posts in Sociology, Literature, Media, and Music, finally retiring from the Tovey Chair at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. Laing’s own chapter ‘A Double Life with Low Theory’ elaborates on Frith’s career as both scholar and critic. Particularly revealing in this regard is Peter Martin’s chapter ‘Rock and Role Playing’ (a phrase he declares to be a typo from Performing Rites, but is surely one of Frith’s most elegant puns, given his interest in theatricality). Martin traces the dual influence of Marxism and ‘symbolic interactionism’ on Frith, uncovering a confluence that underpins his output: first, the notion that changes in technology dialectically affect society and market forces; and second, ‘the idea that cultural objects – like all objects – are not inherently meaningful but, instead, acquire meanings through the dense network of social relationships in which they are inevitably nested’ (p. 117). A salient outcome of this orientation is Frith’s longstanding assertion that processes of aesthetic discrimination occur in the vernacular domain just as they do amongst other milieux.

Instrumental in the early days of both the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and the journal Popular Music, Frith is nevertheless adamant that popular music studies has never been a discipline in its own right, but rather an interdisciplinary conversation involving a necessary and illuminating intellectual promiscuity. Indeed, as Marshall and Laing note, Frith’s career (coterminous with the expansion of the field itself) demonstrates that ‘while “popular music studies” has certainly consolidated over the last decade or so, it remains a fairly fragmented area of study’ – a meeting ground underpinned by its ‘magpie nature’ (p. 2).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, such fragmentation is manifest in the book itself. Divided into sections respectively entitled ‘Sociology and Industry’, ‘Frith and His Career’, and ‘Aesthetics and Values’, contributions – elicited from scholars with a personal or professional connection to Frith – range from chapters on class, economics, rights, collecting, public policy, notation (by Philip Tagg), mediation (by Antoine Hennion), taste, songwriting, and Frith’s rock criticism, to shorter pieces on his editorship of the journal Screen, his involvement in the Mercury Prize, and his role as a PhD supervisor. In what must have been one of his last writings before his untimely death in 2013, Andrew Goodwin provides an especially affectionate Afterword.

The volume’s disciplinary fragmentation, however, testifies to a quiet crisis occurring in the field. More often than not, the individual chapters talk at cross-purposes or are simply divorced from one another in terms of outlook and methodology: what might seem on first reading to be wholesome multi-disciplinary breadth appears on closer inspection to represent disciplines struggling over contested territory, drawn together by the umbrella rubric ‘popular music’. This is less the fault of the editors than it is of something more troubling about how we, as scholars, interact and negotiate space when unreconciled epistemologies and disciplinary loyalties clash. Popular music studies is no longer a young field, yet there is still little sign of common ground or consensus. As different disciplines offer incongruent tools and literatures frequently alien to those without the requisite training, there appears to be a fundamental reluctance or inability to make connections between facets of that elusive thing ‘popular music’: text and sound (hermeneutics, aesthetics, poiesis), reception (signification, consumption, identity), and the culture industry (economics, rights, mediation).

The cover blurb’s claim that Popular Music Matters is an ‘essential resource for those working in popular music studies, as well as in musicology, sociology and cultural and media studies’ is somewhat overstated. Despite several chapters presenting rather outmoded or lackluster treatments of their subject, the book contains a handful of thoughtful and timely essays, such as Marshall’s ‘W(h)ither Now? Music Collecting in the Age of the Cloud’. This chapter provides a valuable reflection on record collecting grounded in Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Unpacking my Library’ set in counterpoint with his more famous meditations on ‘aura’. We soon realize that a paradox lurks at the heart of Benjamin’s project: as a collector, he finds aura in his own mass produced copies of books. This realization leads Marshall into a discussion of ordering, accumulation, desire, scarcity, anticipation, materiality, and how such values are transformed or negated when we no longer have access to physical copies of music but rather to online services such as Spotify with an inconceivably vast array of tracks. The discussion would nevertheless have benefited from consideration of the politics of material acquisition more broadly (book ownership being one of those seductive pleasures of consumer capitalism that goes tacitly unchecked in academic life) and the recent rise in vinyl sales – indicating that we are, in fact, witnessing a renaissance in record collecting.

Another useful and timely chapter is ‘More than a Performance: Song Lyrics and the Practices of Songwriting’ by Pete Astor and Keith Negus, which broaches significant and as yet unresolved issues in the poetics of popular music. Rightly motivated by a longstanding musicological neglect of the lyric, their chapter seeks to point out the limitations of Frith’s contention that songs should be seen essentially as performances, suggesting that we must not allow this view to sanction a wholesale dismissal of textuality. Astor and Negus argue that more notice should hence be paid to the craft of songwriting, the ‘architectural’ structure of songs, issues surrounding personification, and the vexed question of biography. While laudable, such ideas could have been usefully enriched and extended with reference to recent work outside musicology by Joseph Roach, Jonathan Culler, and Timothy Hampton.

Notwithstanding these limitations, Popular Music Matters reads as a warm and fitting tribute to Frith. Ultimately, the volume begs an important question: what will the field look like when Frith is no longer an academic ringleader? Following the retirement of Richard Middleton, the study of popular music in Britain will surely head in new directions. We would do well to remember, as Martin Cloonan stresses in his chapter, that taking popular music seriously has always been a profoundly political gesture. It is high time, too, for musicology as a discipline to take popular music studies itself seriously. Frith’s congenial approach holds a key for the future of this endeavour: our task should not be that of disenchanting popular culture with historicism, empiricism, or ideology critique, but rather of comprehending it on its own peculiar terms.