Popular Music & Society


Popular Music & Society
By Brian Longhurst & Danijela Bogdanovic
Polity – £18.99

As the title of this rather encyclopedic and exceedingly well researched book might suggest, popular music does indeed have a colossal effect on society – just as society has an equally enormous effect on popular music. Be it the manifestation of the blues by way of extreme poverty in America’s deep-south during the 1920s and 30s, the questionably wayward, raucous nihilism of the Sex Pistols much needed musical mayhem around the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, or the acute pertinence of hopelessness and unemployment as depicted in The Specials’ 1981 hit, ‘Ghost Town.’

To be sure, society has never ceased to influence the arts. One could in fact, go as far as to say that one invariably needs the other – even if for its mere continuance.

Either way, Popular Music & Society is an altogether monumental dissertation on the subject, especially in relation to the ever increasing importance of current day media; not to mention the sonorous trajectory if its all encompassing influence. It is as Helen Thomas of the University of the Arts, London, states on the back cover: ”This third edition […] offers a comprehensive updated sociological analysis of the field of popular music which incorporates media and cultural studies into its frame. It reflects backward and telegraphs forward the key theories, approaches, analysis and criticisms that abound in the field.”

Covering nigh every area within the parameters of popular music and society, authors Brian Longhurst and Danijela Bogdanovic write with an unquestionably, understated enthusiasm. A quality, not only apparent from the very outset of the book, but one which thankfully remains in place right to the very end.

I use the word thankfully, because given the occasional scientific design of their investigation, said enthusiasm is a fundamental quality which bequeaths these 276 pages (excluding Figures, Tables, Boxes, Further Reading, References and Index) with a most profound, if not plausible readability: ”In broad terms, there are two main ways in which popular music has been written about academically, journalistically and by enthusiasts: in a critical mode and in a celebratory mode. Each of these modes has a ‘political’ and an ‘aesthetic’ dimension, which are sometimes linked together or conflated. The critical mode is against popular music (or indeed popular culture) in two main ways, therefore. For example, it can be seem as a form of commercial activity that is about selling forms of music for profit, or it is seen as having regressive ideas about ‘race’ or ‘gender’ in it. Moreover, in the ‘aesthetic’ mode, the music can be seen as ‘rubbish,’ poor art, trite, and so on. This sort of critique has been developed in very sophisticated ways by authors such as Adorno, and this is considered at some length […], but it is also familiar in other forms of writing.”

Indeed, as a member of the Frankfurt School of theorists and writers – founded at the University of Frankfurt in 1923 (where said writers developed a critical theory as an attempt to further social change from the standpoint of Marxist ideology within the structure of society) – it should go without saying that the sections of Popular Music & Society that oft refer to Adorno alone, make for more than provocative and stimulating reading. An essence, which in this day and age of celebrity obsessed folly, is resoundingly refreshing to say the least.

After all, ”the celebratory mode is, in effect, the mirror image of the critical.”

David Marx


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