From the Archives: Simon Frith (2002)

Online Exchange with Simon Frith (September 2002)

Simon Frith is perhaps best known to fans of rock criticism as the author of Sound Effects (titled The Sociology of Rock in an earlier incarnation) and Performing Rites, the book that asks–in much further-out detail than the question was ever asked before–“what do we talk about when we talk about music?” (PR is also the only known book of pop scholarship that can boast acclaim from both Pete Townshend and The Financial Times.)

In between his professorial gig at the University of Stirling in Scotland and chairing the judges panel of the UK’s Mercury Music Prize (see below), Frith took time out to answer a number of questions from our readers.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions, and to Simon Frith for his time and answers.

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> >From: Scott Woods
> >Date: Friday, September 06, 2002 8:18 PM

In your recent Perfect Sound Forever interview, you said that Internet technology has changed “compositional possibilities,” but not “compositional principals,” and that you “haven’t seen anything that’s really going to shift on the whole the way that music gets made and listened to.” I’m wondering if you’ve heard any of the recent MP3 bootlegs or “mash-ups” (i.e., the Strokes vs. Aguilera, Destiny’s Child vs. Nirvana, et al.), and if so, if this has altered your thoughts on this at all? Are these computer mixes merely an extension of DJ culture, or is there any significant difference because of the fact that they’re literally made in the bedroom? Also, is mixing two records together in this way to create a new song employing compositional “principals”?

From what I’ve heard and, more particularly, read of these they still seem examples of technology making it easier/cheaper for people to do things that were being done anyway. Unexpected juxtaposition, quotation, overlapping pieces, etc., have always been an aspect of avant-garde performance and composition, since long before DJ culture or even rock’n’roll. So this is composition and some of it is as clever, creative, thought provoking, moving, etc., as any other kind of music. But I’m not sure it’s new in principal. If the key compositional effects of previous technology concerned volume (loud and soft–use of electrical amplification), repetition and layering (use of tape), I’m not sure what digital has really done, for all the rhetoric of interactivity, etc.

I’m curious to know your thoughts on any of the following critics (i.e., how or if they influenced your thinking):

  • Pauline Kael
    Yes, liked her! She was particularly important in articulating an account of the value of popular art in terms of craft, professionalism, the simple pleasure of seeing something–anything–done well, and as being entirely uninfluenced by any sense of conflict between art and commerce (while being perfectly cogent on how commercial pressures could ruin things).
  • Marshall McLuhan
    One of the earliest of the soundbite cultural studies people whose arguments were actually extremely hard to follow and based in dubious evidence. So not much influence (consciously at any rate) but I did read everything he wrote at an impressionable age and he certainly inspired me to think that the media were a suitable topic for high academicism.
  • Camille Paglia
    I went to some trouble to get her book when it first came out (probably because of a Greil Marcus review) but never read more than a few pages–didn’t seem to be about anything I cared about. I’ve been entertained by her various rows but I can’t take her seriously as a music critic–too much time spent in self-justification.
  • Richard Meltzer
    I found the Aesthetics of Rock book unreadable when it came out and ever since. But I liked him the one time I met him, liked Gulcher quite a lot, and he’s written some of the funniest one liners ever. I’m not sure he really is a music writer, though. An essayist and short story writer for whom music is just a trigger. He hasn’t influenced me but he is, I guess, a significant other–the person against whose measure anything I’ve ever done is obviously dull.
  • Nik Cohn (in particular, early Nik Cohn, the pop critic).
    Probably the person who inspired me to write about pop in the first place. He was the first person I read who wrote about British pop from the inside, as it were, and who made no attempt to redeem it. I also bought all his early novels the day they came out. On the other hand, he had little influence on how I wrote or what I wrote about.

    Do you think there are significant differences between how American and British rock critics approach their subject? And is there any sort of parallel to be drawn here between American and British pop music?
    This question would need breaking down some–that is, there are critics and critics. And the differences between say Marcus/Christgau/Bangs/Marsh are just as great as between the average US and UK hack, just as in Britain there is no similarity whatsoever between the ’70s/’80s NME and today’s paper. That said there are some generalizations… US critics are more professional, UK critics are more cynical; US critics are more egalitarian, UK critics are more self-conscious; US critics are more pompous, UK critics are more utilitarian. By and large (as a Brit) I think UK critics have better musical tastes. All these things could be said about US/UK musicians too.

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    > >From: Frank Kogan
    > >Date: Sunday, September 08, 2002 3:08 PM

    Simon, what do you think of Shakira? My idea is that Ray Charles knocked down the barrier between gospel and Garland, Celine Dion (and many others) knocked down the barrier between Charles and Streisand, and Shakira now knocks down the barrier between Celine and Dylan. But I don’t know if Shakira’s success will change the game, or have little effect.

    I don’t think much about her at all, I fear. Like Pink she sells records here, so I must have heard her on the radio, but she’s not a pop phenomenon and has left no traces in my imagination.
    I would answer your question with two tangential answers, though.
    First, the British pop industry seems more peculiarly British presently than at any time since the 1950s. The acts who get all the attention may be consumed by very young record buyers (the promotional norm for new groups now is free tours of elementary schools) but their fame depends on an unholy combination of tabloid press gossip (preferably of a sexual nature) and tabloid television shows (which want troupers who can sing their hearts out on stage one minute and cry their hearts out off stage the next). Music is not exactly irrelevant here, but works as a more or less serviceably background sound to other dramas, even on record. But then you’ve got your Pop Star now too.
    Second, I don’t really hear Ray Charles or Celine Dion like you do. Or, rather, you’ve made me think about a different point. In their different ways, Charles and Dion provide ways of emoting (male/female) that aren’t camp (like Garland/Streisand) because they’re not excessive. Celine Dion is probably the most loathed superstar I can remember, at least by everyone I know, not just critics but even my mother-in-law who usually shares my ‘bad’ musical taste. I doubt if she will ever be redeemed, Abba-style, and what seems to concern everyone is that she is just naff.

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    > >From: Jay Schwartz
    > >Date: Tue, 10 Sep 2002 08:57:36 -0400 (EDT)

    What is your all-time favourite Pet Shop Boys song, and why?

    I’d answer this differently on different days, but at the moment “West End Girls” because it still sounds like the perfect pop song, owing as much to Noel Coward (bitter sweet and all that) as to disco, and feeling (at least today) more timeless than their later, subtler tracks.

    Why do you think the Pet Shop Boys outlasted most of their synthesizer contemporaries from the ’80s?

    More intelligent–they had things to sing about; better musical taste–no hang-ups about prog rock; much better writing for the voice–Neil’s vocals are far more characterful than the voices in most duos, even Erasure, not because he’s a better singer but because the songs are written around his slightly plaintive, conversational, reluctant to be too emotional style.

    How did you feel about being mentioned several times in Literally, Chris Heath’s Pet Shop Boys biography?

    Dead chuffed!

    Is there any modern band (from the last 10 years) who have intrigued you as much as PSB?

    There are bands whose music I like a lot (The Coral and The Streets and Mull Historical Society presently) but nobody whose sensibility has been so fascinating–Pulp probably come closest.

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    > >From: Mark Sinker
    > >Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002 10:49 PM

    How did you get to where you are and what you are?

    With hard work and by never saying no–I’m not sure that here is where I want to be.

    It’s nearly 25 years since Sound Effects was first published, as The Sociology of Rock. In that time, what’s most surprised and pleased you about its reception, and what’s disappointed you most?

    Surprised: that nobody else did it. Pleased: that it’s still treated as a definitive text. Disappointed: that it’s still treated as a definitive text

    Do you consider Sound Effects and Performing Rites as correctives to some extant way of thinking (or not thinking) about music? If so, what–and did they work?

    Sound Effects: as a corrective to the neglect of music in media studies and the sociology of culture, no it didn’t. It is still neglected (I believe that society is best studied through music rather than vice versa but there are only a handful of academic sociologists globally who believe this). As a corrective to rock ideology (‘authenticity,’ etc.) then it definitely did effect thinking–or rather argument. Performing Rites: as a corrective to assumption that high/low music described quite different things, I think it has had some effect (or, at least, fed into other ways of arguing this)–though more so in Britain than the US.

    What questions did Sound Effects and Performing Rites ask–if not answer–that hadn’t been asked before?

    Sound Effects: How successful/powerful was the music industry actually? Why did rock seem such an important (self-important?) form of pop? Performing Rites: What’s going on when people evaluate music? Why should pop fans evaluations be any different in philosophical terms than classical fans’ judgements?

    As a sociologist you have to talk and think about class: what is the single most maddening cliché in rock & class/pop & class that you have to bully yr students out of?

    I’m not sure class clichés come up here. The most maddening assumptions are a) that girl groups/pop bands are by definition worthless and b) that pretentious rock bands (e.g., Radiohead) are fighting the forces of commerce. I can’t remember class ever being raised–not much by me. I suspect this is a subject for further investigation–is rock now an essentially middle class music?

    Ambushed by the Unexpected: what insights from yr students, if any, changed how you think/work? (If none, does that suggest there’s a problem?)

    Sounds before insights–hearing Thai pop quite shifted my understanding of world music (which tends to exclude/dismiss ‘commercialized’ forms of local music while ‘commercializing’ the authentic sounds for global consumption). It was students talking about their own musical maps who made me realize that Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, etc. marked the integration of indie and dancehall sensibilities that had previously been opposed. Discussions of students’ everyday musical tastes/practices led to me thinking anew about the role of music in everyday life–e.g., I’m more interested in friendship than identity, which definitely goes against the grain of cultural studies academia presently. Not sure students have changed the way I work, though having to justify what I do to people who have little interest in it is endlessly frustrating/inspiring.

    Here are two well-known radical cult crit positions rendered as cartoons. 1. Frankfurt-Leavisite: “Oh you fools, you are being gulled by the unsleeping evil corrupting manipulative barbarian Culture Industry, as are the Passive Masses. Example of corrupting trivial mesmerizing evil: DISCO.” 2. Birmingham School Cult-Stud: “Oh you fools, you are being gulled by your own unsleeping evil corrupting manipulative sense of Snobby Cultural Superiority, unlike the Masses who know Where It’s At, and actively subvert social norms by virtue of what they appear merely passively to consume. Example of Active Subversion: DISCO.” Pre-’68, the customer is always wrong. Post-’68, the customer is always right. Is that fair? Take it to pieces even if you think it is.

    This is turning into an exam paper which I’ll resist, just make the point that neither Frankfurt nor Birmingham schools actually did much work on how the music industry actually works (which means both, from different ends, underplay the complexity of the production/consumption process), and that both Frankfurt and Birmingham assume that any psychological issues here can be referred to Freud.

    What was rock’s attitude to sociology in 1978?

    In as far as it (who?) had one it was that sociology either stated the obvious or missed the point.

    What was the industry’s attitude to sociology in 1978?

    The industry is only interested in market research.

    What is rock’s attitude to sociology now?

    It  hasn’t changed.

    What is the industry’s attitude to sociology now?

    It hasn’t changed.

    How much truth is there in Ben Watson’s “Popsicle Academy” claim that Sociology, Cultural Studies, etc., by covering pop music at all, are primarily concerned with rebranding themselves as branches of market research (i.e., offering themselves as a more useful future, career-wise, to students).

    I don’t understand why selling new kinds of courses on the grounds they’ll get students jobs is market research, as against just marketing, so I don’t altogether follow this question. And you’d need to distinguish between the rise of cultural studies (which certainly has its own material causes) from sociology, which has always–rightly–claimed to study all aspects of social life. Speaking personally, the question isn’t relevant as teaching anything about popular music has and is a minor part of my teaching life, and isn’t offered to students as any sort of vocationalism. If true, is this a problem? An opportunity? No answer.

    Which is the bigger evil: market research as a whole, or poor market research? Same question re: focus groups?

    Market research as a whole. To my mind the hustler, the salesman, is as significant to popular culture as the performer–and uses much the same persuasive skills (the great salesman of the last 30 years was Rupert Murdoch). The model here is that someone is inspired by a song or group or act to go out and get a market for it. Market research is a way of persuading producers that you have a scientific understanding of what is actually irrational–public taste–and that they should produce/mould acts accordingly. Focus groups are one of the scientific trappings. This approach–giving people what they want and getting market researchers to determine what that might be–is always going to be worse for culture than giving people what they should want and persuading them that indeed they do (which is not just an issue for public service broadcasting but the working practice of all good marketing). The reason why you think people should want something is another matter.

    What would Punk Market Research consist of?

    I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.

    What’s the fact about rock culture that you’d most like to be true/false, that–reluctantly and after much resistance and soul-searching–you have concluded AIN’T?

    That it would open people’s ears rather than close them.

    Commodification: is it a good or a bad thing?

    Shopping–is it a good or bad thing? We have to do it, that’s how we live.

    Rock’s mythologies of liberation/resistance/freedom are endlessly complicit in the selling process of the music/the lifestyle: is this a good or a bad thing?

    A good thing as a matter of sensibility, a bad thing as a matter of thought.

    Name three great overlooked writers.

    Writers about music: Richard Williams; Chris Heath; Ben Thompson.

    Name five great overlooked records.

    Delgados, The Great Eastern; Pulp, This is Hardcore; Fred Frith, Eye to Ear; Michael Marre, Posted Sober; Aztec Camera, Dreamland.

    Talk us through the Popstars and Pop Idol phenomena.


    Does Reality TV demystify the gatekeeper and/or process? Would the industry be improved if Ahmet Ertegun and/or Alan McGee had to demonstrate the courage of his public convictions the way Nigel Lythgoe does?

    Yes and yes.

    A year in, the Reserve Army of Wannabes have seen exactly what’s on offer–so who’s Radical Artist enough to step up and USE this forum, and how could it be used?

    You want a name? It would need somebody who could polarize the views of the public and the professionals (we’ve seen signs of this) but given that the professionals are partly chosen for their ability to respond to the public, and that the public is anyway represented by the tabloids, it’s difficult to see this going all the way. But we’ll see. I believe strongly that things do go wrong…

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    > >From: Frank Kogan
    > >Date: Tuesday, September 12, 2002 8:12 PM

    What do you think that politics has learned from rock’n’roll (and related pop musics)?

    Politics or politicians? Nothing much–maybe something about crowd control.

    What would you like politics to learn from rock’n’roll (and related pop musics)?

    That people are as instinctively social as individual, sociable as competitive, and that curiosity is a more important human motivator than fear.

    What do you think that academics and intellectuals have learned from rock’n’roll (and related pop musics)?

    Academics nothing at all (I suppose musicologists have learned something about musical principles they hadn’t previously thought about)–from a sociological/anthropological point of view rock’n’roll is just one more example of life’s rich tapestry…Intellectuals is a more interesting question. I still get the sense that while rock/pop now features on the soundtrack of most novels, movies, TV series, art works, etc., it is in just the same way as any other songs. This may now be changing, but I’m not sure whether public speech–newspaper writing, essayists, politicians, etc.–could be said to have changed the rhythms or what I’d call the compactness or even the elusiveness with which they make words mean. Maybe it’s an effect of aging but I’m more often surprised these days by how little things change not how much.

    What would you like academics and intellectuals to learn from rock’n’roll (and related pop musics)?

    I’ve no idea. Until I became an academic I thought people were necessarily changed–made better people–by reading books and listening to music (let alone by writing them). Now I don’t. Never be too certain, I guess.

    “Intellectual” can include you or Frank Kogan, or Lester Bangs or Iggy or Jagger or Clinton or Kraftwerk or Ornette or Chuck D. But can it include Timbaland or Missy Elliott or Beyoncé Knowles? Can it include Chuck Berry? Can it include Little Richard? Can it include Louis Armstrong? Can it–the real big deep question–include Elvis?

    Yes, of course. As Gramsci long ago argued, being an “intellectual” is not a question of social status, but social role. Timbaland, Elvis, et al. all have an effect on our perceptions of the world. Even George W. Bush is an intellectual, even if his mouth is worked by other people.

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    > >From: Myles Barker
    > >Date: Thursday, September 12, 2002 4:20 pm

    What is presently your favourite type of record shopping experience? Chain stores (i.e., HMV), small indie operated stores, online purchasing, etc?

    I loathe chain stores–particularly Virgin–and don’t shop in them, except for the classical/world music sections of Tower in London, just because they’re huge. I’ve always shopped in small, indie specialist shops but they’re all now gone in Glasgow (one little classical shop left). There is an indie vinyl-inflected chain, Fopp, which is good value but not particularly pleasurable as a hang out. Second hand shops have taken over the small shop role, but mostly with lousy stock, though a Scottish outpost of Rough Trade is due to open shortly, for which I’ve got high hopes. I can’t resist the vinyl racks in charity shops, though rarely find much these days. I online purchase things I know I want. I can no longer go record shopping as a weekly therapy but I still fantasize about finding the perfect shop.

    Can you describe your relationship with Lester Bangs and Creem magazine during the days of your “Letter From Britain” column? Was Bangs a good editor to work for? Did you have much contact with your American colleagues at the time?

    These were pre-email, pre-fax, even pre-computer days. I mailed columns in; they got published, usually without any editing at all. Day-to-day editorial matters (all done by post)–deadlines, cheques, etc.–were, as I remember it, handled by Susan Whitall. Every month a critical analysis of the latest issue was circulated (produced I guess by the editorial team, sometimes just Lester), so I got to find out what they thought of what I’d written. I got fairly regular long letters from Lester (whom at that stage I’d never met) which could be about anything, but were never about my column. I was never ever given any instruction as to what to cover, and all my suggestions for features were approved. Otherwise I had regular correspondence with Greil Marcus (who’d become a friend while I was at Berkeley) and Dave Marsh (who commissioned the Creem column). But I didn’t have very much sense of the US rock crit scene.

    Any theories as to why Britain hasn’t produced many great rappers?

    By coincidence, this year’s Mercury Music Prize shortlist includes three rappers: Roots Manuva, Ms Dynamite, The Streets. Roots Manuva has been round awhile, but Run Come Save Me seems to me the first really effective British rap album–it clearly is a Black British record in terms of voice, concern, rhythm. etc., while retaining the essential energy and jittery drive of US rap. Ms Dynamite has a different approach, using US producers to underpin her super sharp words (a fine album, I think). The Streets may not be rap exactly–to my ears he (Mike Skinner) is reflecting on growing up (white) in Birmingham more in the tradition of punk poets like John Cooper Clarke and Patrick Fitzgerald, using club sounds and a very funny mix of voices. These records, which all work very well, may give clues to the answer to your question: on the one hand, city music here has been dance music, jungle etc., in which rap is just one of many cut-in styles; on the other hand, it’s been quite difficult for British acts to develop a rap voice (given they’re using the same language) that doesn’t sound imitation-American (a long standing problem for British rock). Somewhere in here there’s probably an argument about different rhythmic sensibilities, and another about why the British music industry has been unable to sustain a major British r&b star.

    Are you still pleased with your Stranded selection of Beggars Banquet, and the accompanying essay?

    Yes! I still love/play the record and find what I said interesting!

    Robert Christgau mentioned in his Online Exchange that [the Stones] power as a band has diminished over time. Do you agree?

    Yes, and I haven’t found them interesting on record for a very long time. On the other hand, Keith Richard is some kind of genius and I tend to think that the sheer stage power of the Stones/Who hasn’t really been matched as a matter of musical arrangement (rather than amplification) by any band since.

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    > >From: Scott Woods
    > >Date: Friday, September 13, 2002 1:37 AM

    In your answer (above) about Celine Dion, you said, “I doubt if she will ever be redeemed, Abba-style…” As someone who grew up with pop music in the ’70s, I’ve been obsessed with Abba-style “redemptions” ever since the mid-or-late-80s, when not just Abba, but Led Zeppelin, the Carpenters, Black Sabbath, and numerous early ’70s K-Tel one-shots and oddities (from “Hitchin’ a Ride” to “Little Green Bag”) underwent something of a critical re-evaluation. Except that it wasn’t really the critics leading the brigade–it was the artists: Quentin Tarantino, the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, the Replacements, and hip-hoppers too numerous to mention. You strike me as someone who’s always been sympathetic to discredited artists and genres, and I’m wondering, does it please you to see the likes of Abba come up for a critical re-evaluation years after their last actual hit? (Ditto for ’70s disco.) And why do you think critics often miss the boat with radio pop or loathed genres (like soft-rock and metal) the first time around?

    There are two different issues here, one about canon formation (and musical memory), one about critics. I think the creation of musical history, musical memories, and the relationship between them is an interesting and complicated process. How does the canon of great pop and rock works get built? There are a number of ways, which don’t necessarily coincide.

  • Straight commercial: radio is probably the key here. Golden/oldie/classic stations playlist primarily according to chart success; radio hits remain radio hits, though with some subtle shifts. There are certainly some ‘classic’ tracks that are more successful in this guise than they were originally. The Eagles’ hits were much more commercially successful thus packaged (as Their Greatest Hits 1971-75) than originally. Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Legendlikewise. This is not so much redemption as a kind of repositioning in the soundscape (and the use of particular old tracks on commercials or in films can accelerate this process). The other side of this process is that some very successful acts for their time barely register again after their demise–I don’t think I’ve heard a Peter Frampton track on air (or anywhere else) for at least twenty years. Record companies have some influence here too, of course, in terms of what they choose to release, how much they invest in marketing, etc.–Abba and the Bee Gees have an ongoing radio life in a way that, say, the Kinks or the Cars don’t (at least in Britain). What’s going on here is less to do with nostalgia as to what fits into radio stations’ format and basic sound.
  • Musical influence: Bands/tracks live on because of their effects on other bands/tracks and as these in turn become successful so this success is reflected in a new interest in/respect for the original. Velvet Underground are probably still the most famous example of this, or, more locally, Big Star and the La’s. (And there is, of course, ceaseless activity going on among collectors, fanzine writers, etc., to uncover lost classics and explain why some obscure track is the most important ever made. Some of these people form bands themselves, just as deejays doing similar quarrying moved from issuing streams of records called Buried Treasures, to making music out of such treasures sampled.
  • Personal commitment: There are undoubtedly some artists (Bob Dylan, the Smiths, PJ Harvey) who inspire in their fans a kind of commitment which isn’t necessarily translated into immediate commercial success but means they’ll go on being listened to–intently–for ever! (And will shape the tastes of the fans’ children and their children’s children.)
  • The academy: As popular music courses grow, so will a canon of those works thought fit to teach. This is primarily determined by pedagogic needs. So, musicology departments feature progressive rock in their canon more prominently than anywhere else because it lends itself to technical musical analysis, while cultural studies departments elevate Talking Heads, Madonna, and rap because they can be discussed in terms of postmodernism.
    How do critics fit into this? They play a part in all these processes, of course, although a much smaller one than critics in other fields, and it’s probably unfair to talk in terms of missing the boat and then hastily jumping aboard when it comes round again–as acts get revived so their meaning changes. So I’m pleased that I wrote in praise of Abba in Creem, and was amused by the sudden critical interest in them in the 1990s, but I think the point of your question here is different. My critical principle has always been that a great record can come from anywhere and anyone at any time. It is still possible that the Rolling Stones will make the greatest track of their career, that a Pop Star will put out a single that I’ll want to live with daily. The great pleasure of the radio (though increasingly denied by its formats) is that one can hear something without any trappings and be immediately hooked by it. What you call my sympathy to discredited artists really just means that I’ve trusted my ears first–run out to buy Robbie Williams’ “Angel” or the Blue album before realizing how naff it is. And I still love ’70s disco more than anything else.
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> >From: Alex P.
> >Date: Friday, September 13, 2002 1:04 PM

I was wondering what your thoughts are on any of the following:

  • The Strokes
    I loved Is This It from the first time I heard it (I’ve never seen the band live). Good example of the mystery of rock aesthetics. How is it that a band that does much the same sort of thing–sounds/beats/riffs–as ten thousand other bands in the last 25 years, seems so fresh. Something to do with the subtlety of their repetitions.
  • Bootleg MP3s
    I approve of all bootlegs and think that copyright is and always has been about corporate rather than artist (or consumer) interest.
  • Eminem
    Most interesting critical problem of recent years. His/his crew’s music is just astonishing, an effect that is most obvious when it’s playlisted on Radio 1. It’s qualitatively in a different league than anything else, for wit, invention, force, challenge. But most of what he says (and how he’s sold) is silly and/or obnoxious and there’s no point pretending otherwise. I can’t think of any other popular artist who’s been so contradictory (makes me wonder what I’d’ve done if the Stranglers had ever made a good record). It’s not supposed to work like this.
  • High Fidelity/Nick Hornby
    Like High Fidelity the book, haven’t seen the film; the football book made me laugh, haven’t read his other novels. He always comes across as a good bloke but on the whole his success had a bad effect on the way the music’s written about, encouraging some pretty tedious solipsists, an ultimately deadening celebration of good blokeishness.
  • Bob Dylan’s recent work.
    Most recent Dylan presents me with my Elvis Costello problem: I find the musical ideas and intentions fascinating and honourable but the voice so unmusical as to make it hard to listen for long.
  • Q and Mojo magazine
    I tend to skip read these in the shop rather than go through them properly at home. Q‘s present formula is pretty dispiriting–lad mag trivia and gossip, Hello treatment of the stars, market driven consumer guide. Mojo is better written and more informative but I’ve rarely been surprised by it or felt urged to go down to the record shop.
  • Live concerts
    If you include clubs and DeeJays here then I still think music is best experienced live, though I don’t go out now like I used to. My body clock no longer chimes with tour schedules or licensing hours.
  • Current state of Brit-pop.
    No such thing…but, it does seem like the most interesting young British musicians presently are more interested in playing in guitar bands than programming computers, which may mark some kind of decisive generational shift. On the other hand, it’s been a long time since pop stardom depended so little on people buying records and so much on feeding stories and picture opportunities to the tabloids.

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    > >From: Dan
    > >Date: Friday, September 13, 2002 3:19 PM

    I have been reading and enjoying your articles and books for more than 25 years. I think you are one of the most insightful and erudite music writers around. My first question for you is about Abba. You have seen the group live at Royal Albert Hall–I read your brief review of that concert in Creem magazine back in the ’70s, and you also wrote a pretty insightful feature about the group, also in Creem, in 1977. Plus there is a chapter on Abba in a new book from the “Cambridge Companion to Music” series edited by you. I wouldn’t call myself a true fan of the group, but I still follow their career, and with them being now as popular as ever and even just being nominated into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I wonder what you think of them. Are they a truly remarkable act? You’ve seen them live–could they sing and perform live? Did the girls really possess very special and strong voices unlike other pop singers (as many people say), or are their records just a result of a studio trickery and endless overdubs? Would you vote for their induction into Hall of Fame if you were on the voting panel? And if yes or no, why?

    I’m not sure they were a truly remarkable act but they did make a remarkably large number of excellent pop records. Like any good pop group this was not so much that they had individually special voices or even melodic gifts but that they slotted together so well–it was the sound of the voices together that made the difference, and the way the choruses were written. I’ve always thought of them of working like the Bee Gees. Relatively speaking (compared with contemporary productions) I don’t think their records did rely on much studio trickery, but they did depend on a sound–very clean, with a sense of depth but no resonance–which was quite tricky to reproduce live. My memory of their live show was that the stage was kind of layered–Abba themselves at the front, two further Abbas (backing singers, keyboards) behind. But they all had long essentially folky performing histories so this wasn’t to cover up their inadequacies but to try to get the right sound quality in such different acoustic conditions. I don’t believe in Halls of Fame but they might just as well be there as anyone else.

    Second question. You wrote that most pop and rock critics don’t have music education and thus cannot decipher certain intricacies of music. Do you think that music critics must have a music education in order to judge artistic and musical merits? Is it that this lack of music training makes their assessments less credible and more dilettante-like?

    No. Most people enjoy music and have opinions on what works and what doesn’t without having any music education (just as people can enjoy novels and poetry without having studied literature). It may be useful to have some understanding of how things work technically but so far there’s no evidence that music education makes for better rock criticism–the reverse, if anything.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Steven Rubio
    > >Date: Saturday, September 14, 2002 5:07 PM

    In a recent interview you said, “With digital CDs, records can now live forever and there is far more back catalogue available and less incentive to buy records that just came out.” Are there any studies that support the notion that a bigger back catalogue leads to fewer new records being sold? Is the market the same for the Rolling Stones remasterings and the new Sleater-Kinney?

    I don’t know of any academic studies of this. There is evidence in industry figures of the increasing significance of back catalogue as a percentage of overall sales (and there is obviously just more and more back catalogue available as time goes by). And chain store pricing policies here tend to encourage people to buy either the top 20 of current releases or back catalogue items. The market for Rolling Stones remasterings and the new Sleater-Kinney probably isn’t the same, but the market for the Stones remasterings and the new Coldplay might be. Certainly my childrens’ buying habits and my students’ account of their record collections suggests that they’re as likely to buy from the back catalogue as new releases. Generational differences in musical tastes seem miniscule compared to when I was young. Those that do exist reflect the fact that old people don’t buy youth genres (like nu-metal or the latest pre-teen idol), not that young people don’t buy old stuff. On the whole (witness the current Rolling Stones tour) the rock superstars of the early ’70s remain the superstars of the early 2000s (and the new greatest hits Stones remastered package, being marketed to be the best seller of this year’s Christmas market, is likely to far outsell their last ‘new’ album which I can remember nothing about at all, and most other people’s new albums too).

    Perhaps your most famous quote refers to the lack of formal musical training for rock musicians and commentators. Like yourself, I am both a fan of (and occasional commentator on) music and an academic, as well as someone who lacks formal musical training. I resist teaching song lyrics separated from their musical context, which generally prevents me from treating lyrics as poetry in the classroom. Absent lyrical close reading and formal musical training, about the only thing I feel I can offer is cultural context, so as a teacher/commentator, I might love Pink, but I can’t think of any way to present her to my students/audience except as someone who “represents.” In your own work, as critic, scholar, or both, how do you deal with your lack of formal musical training?

    To lack formal musical training isn’t to lack musicality or the ability to listen closely, just as one can decide whether a poem or novel is good or bad, and explain why, without needing to be a linguist or literary theorist. Such formal/technical analysis seems to me more relevant to someone trying to write/compose than to someone reading/listening. If I was in your class I would want to know why you loved Pink and whether this was just a matter of what she stood for and not what she sounded like. The real problem here is language. On the one hand, it’s easy to get daunted by the confidence with which a musicologist can describe music technically, and then claim to be saying something important about the music that you can’t, even if, as I realized after reading a lot of classical criticism, this claim is actually rather spurious. To describe a musical event in such technical terms is to do nothing of any interest if that description isn’t then used to illuminate the music in a quite different way, not using the technical terms (and there are certainly great critics in the classical tradition). On the other hand, to be a good critic you have to be a good writer, whatever descriptive style used, you have to be able to bring a piece of music to life, to make it interesting, to enhance or demean it, or whatever, in ways that just, for that moment, depend on the words on the page. As a challenge I’ve always found this more interesting and enjoyable as a writer than as a teacher–and certainly one can become more authoritative as a writer, in one’s own mind, than as a teacher, faced with a real rather than imaginary audience. The Pink problem, to put this another way, is that to explain why you love Pink means to explain your responses to the music and, in turn, what it is in the music that causes those responses, which might mean exposing more of yourself to your students than you would care to. Formal musical analysis in the classroom context is a kind of armour of objectivity. This is probably the reason I’ve very rarely done musical analysis (rather than the sociology of music) in the classroom, and then only with a small group of grad students I knew well. And why when I’ve watched academics enthusing about a record to students or a conference audience I’ve felt rather embarrassed for them.

    I’m looking at the 1978 edition of Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums. Your ten greatest albums of all time, when the book was published, were, in order, Highway 61 RevisitedBeggars BanquetSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club BandMy GenerationThe Rise and Fall of Ziggy StardustRock ‘n’ Roll AnimalHot Rats, Horses, Whatevershebringswesing, and 12 Songs. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this list, 24 years down the road.

    It seems very rockist but I suppose that was the point. I changed it a bit for the next edition though I can’t remember much about how except that the Clash’s Sandinista! went on and, almost certainly, Low replaced Ziggy Stardust. I rarely listen to any of these now except Beggars Banquet and Horses, which would probably remain on an equivalent list now. But none of the choices seems odd–these are all records I played intensely for long while. The Kevin Ayers (Whatevershebrings) is the most unusual choice and it may be that I’d find him too fey now, I must dig it out. I couldn’t make such a list nowadays that’s for sure (see answers to other questions).

    In an e-mail discussion here on about the latest Sight and Sound movie poll, Phil Dellio writes, “I don’t keep up with current film criticism–my frame of reference is still the Kael, Kauffmann, and Simon books on my shelf … The only names that even register now are the people who’ve been around forever.” “Keeping up” would seem even more difficult for pop music critics than for film critics. Do you find your “frame of reference” for popular music lies more with critics from earlier periods? Are there any more recent critics we might not know much about, especially in the States, that you’d like to suggest for your readers?

    I don’t “keep up” in this sense either. I read what I read and sometimes it makes me buy/relisten to something and mostly it doesn’t (and this hasn’t changed). I’ll read some critics wherever I find them (Marcus, Christgau, Simon Reynolds, Jon Savage, Ben Thompson), otherwise I read the reviews in the Guardian and Sunday Herald, the newspapers I read anyway, and don’t usually register who wrote them. I don’t get the sense that there’s anyone out here, in the UK, struggling to establish a new sensibility–young critics (in NME, say) seem to have exactly the same frame of reference (if more crudely and more self-consciously) as their elders. It may be different in the USA. One reason I enjoyed the EMP Conference in Seattle earlier this year was to get a sense of younger US critics whom I’d never read. Not that this meant I’ve done anything to keep up with them since I got home!

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Robert Dupea
    > >Date: Monday, September 16, 2002 8:49 PM

    What are some of your favourite pop-music films? Not necessarily concert or biographical movies, just anything with a soundtrack. In particular, what about the way pop music is used in Guy Ritchie’s films, or in something like Gangster No. 1?

    My  favourite pop music film is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. My favourite film score is Once Upon A Time in the West. My favourite rock film is Jailhouse Rock. I haven’t seen Guy Ritchie’s films or Gangster No 1. Over the years films have made me listen to new things. I only started listening to Hank Williams after seeing Five Easy Pieces and Dean Martin after seeing that New York Cher film, and there’s no doubt that there are some smart sound track compilers in unexpected films–not just Trainspotting but also Shrek. But I have very routine tastes here. The worst pop film I’ve ever seen is Spice World (but then I deliberately avoided the Pet Shop Boys’ film).

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Phil Dellio
    > >Date: Tuesday, September 17, 2002 2:09 PM

    A few years back, you were nice enough to contribute a list of your favourite records to Radio On–or, more precisely, a list of 50 “records I feel the need to have by me to play to people.” You may not remember much of what you put on there, but I’ll dredge it up to give Scott an excuse to reprint the list. I’m sure most people would be intrigued by your designation of the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes” as “the most perfect pop single ever made.” Anything to add to that, or can such attachments really be explained?

    I don’t think I’ve changed my mind about anything on it (see other answers). I was in the process of sorting my record collection to sell. I did get rid of all my reggae and African music which I sometimes regret but not as often as I thought I would. I was quite unable to find a buyer at the right place for the rock and soul records, so I never did get to do the second half of the list. I will, I will!
    There are obvious things to say about “Lyin’ Eyes”–nice tune, poignant harmonies, subtle upping to the emotional charge as the voices intensify. But I think I like it so much because it’s a story song in which the story teller seems oddly unengaged such that the rest of the group seem to be chiding him when they do come in. It combines, that is to say, expressive norms from folk, country and rock. And, above all, the sounds of the words exactly fit the shape of the melody. I still have to stop everything and listen all through if it unexpectedly turns up on the radio.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Michael Kramer
    > >Date: Tue, 17 Sep 2002 13:36:37 -0400

    How did your time in Berkeley, CA (working on an academic degree, do I have that right?) shape your sense of popular culture, especially rock and popular music?

    It  had some paradoxical effects, I think. It made me understand that popular culture was politically important and that popular music could–in the best rock–produce something in which political and aesthetic arguments were the same thing. But California made me feel very British–I found American individualism scary and the need for authenticity just seemed strange. I certainly got the confidence to take rock seriously (though as I remember it now few of my fellow Ph.D students were much interested in it). When I returned to Britain I eventually joined a Marxist rock critics group, which was hardly imaginable at Berkeley and that probably had the most significant influence on my academic approach to rock.

    How did you wind up writing a column in the ’70s for Creem and did that shape your views of rock music and rock culture as you were beginning to work on what became Sound Effects (if I have that chronology right too?!)?

    I think Greil Marcus (for whom I’d written a couple of record reviews from Britain) recommended me to Dave Marsh. The column gave me a chance to think about the ways on which music was consumed and mediated, and how different Britain would seem to the US to US readers. So having to think about British music for non-British readers had a major effect on the way I rewrote the Sociology of Rock as Sound Effects. I’m not sure that Creemitself shaped my views except that it taught me that the most acute social and critical judgements can be made in an entirely vernacular prose and that all critics should cultivate a sense of the ridiculous.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Ari
    > >Date: Tue, 17 Sep 2002 16:24:49 +0200

    In your book Music for pleasure–in a very similar way to Lawrence Grossberg’s essay, “Is there rock after Punk?”–you expressed a gloomy vision concerning the end of rock (“rock is dead,” etc.), as opposed to your positive conclusion in Sound Effects, where you wrote that the industry can not control its full meaning. What do you think about Rock and roll in this decade, concerning the last boom of garage bands and nu-metal?

    I always thought my comment here was misunderstood–which means I wasn’t being very clear. I wasn’t being gloomy, partly because I didn’t think that “rock was dead” but, rather, that the “age of rock” was dead, i.e., that the music industry would no longer be organized around rock and the ideology of it as defining all its activities, even if it continued to market new (and old) rock bands successfully. I think the argument stands up with regard to both the commercialization of rock as a media sound track and the burgeoning of other forms of commercial pop, like rap and dance music. I don’t find nu-metal very interesting (it’s probably the most age-specific rock genre for a while). I expect interesting new garage bands to go on appearing for the rest of my life.

    You mentioned once that Nik Cohn’s Pop From the Beginning was the best book that was ever written about Rock and roll. I agree, but I would like to know why do (did?) you think so.

    Because he had found a way of writing about the music that made sense of it rhythmically and emotionally; because (in Britain, at least) it meant that in the future rock had to be written about from the inside out rather than the outside in.

    Do you feel that the power of the establishment of rock critics (Marcus, Christgau, etc.) has diminished, or that they, as in the ’70s, still influence the rock canon and rock’s aesthetics?

    Well, they still influence my aesthetics… I think there are differences between the US/UK here and I don’t read enough contemporary US criticism to know whether there are quite different younger generations. In Britain the rock critical line established by, first, the ’60s/’70s underground press (obviously influenced by Marcus, Christgau, etc) and then the NME of the ’70s/’80s is still dominant–in QMojo, and NME, and, more indirectly on the newspaper critics. This certainly means a continuity in the canon. I’m less sure of its aesthetic effect. I’d case critics are less influential here than deejays, and a figure like John Peel, who has been around since the ’60s, has undoubtedly been more influential (and more populist) than any critic.

    Critics, in general, are opposed to progressive rock, hard rock, heavy metal and FM “easy listening” (e.g., Led Zeppelin, Queen, Genesis, The Eagles, even Radiohead–see Christgau’s CG). I have the feeling that the opposition emerged from a few artistic and aesthetic norms concerning rock that were founded at the end of the ’60s, and the critics were using them against the progressive and metal bands and contemporary groups like Radiohead (who were influenced by King Crimson, etc.). What do you think about the way rock’s canon was built? Wasn’t it too narrow?

    There are three issues here. Is what you say true? Prog rock and Radiohead were/are critically celebrated here, and I suspect there’s rather less of a critical consensus on the other forms (even easy listening) than you suggest. Second (and I can only speak for myself) there are ways in which being “a rock critic” means having to cover such a range of music that specific genres/genre criticism doesn’t seem like a priority. Meanwhile, though, there are just as good genre critics who become highly significant in establishing its critical values (this is very obvious in heavy metal). Third, I suspect most critics more or less consciously strive to establish an independent voice which leads one (me) to spend more time celebrating the unpopular than the popular. On the whole, I think the rock critical canon has been surprisingly broad, and the problem has come in the narrowing of magazines’ target markets. I’m certainly struck by how many UK critics these days seem reluctant to listen to music they know nothing about. When rock criticism was being established in the 1960s/’70s curiosity was a driving force because there was so much music we (I) knew nothing about. I’m not sure it still is.

    What are your 10 Treasure Island albums?

    Like most of its listeners, I guess, I’ve often fantasized about my record choices if I were ever asked to appear on the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs” (on which celebrities choose the 8 records they’d take if stranded). So far I’ve never been able to pick less than 20 and resort instead to choosing 8 records from each genre–pop, folk, country, disco etc. What’s at stake here isn’t the best records, but the records one couldn’t live without. Some castaways choose the records that mark out their lives; others just choose the records they most like for musical reasons. What interests me here is that I can make a list that makes sense of my life, but only up to a certain point. It would be:

  • Little Richard: “Long Tall Sally”/”Tutti Frutti”
  • Jerry Lee Lewis’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1
  • Ray Charles: The Genius Sings the Blues
  • Dusty Springfield’s Greatest Hits Vol 1
  • The Kinks: “Waterloo Sunset”
  • Otis Redding: Otis Blue
  • The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival: Green River
  • Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes: “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”
  • Kraftwerk: The Man Machine
  • Patti Smith: Horses
  • Kool & the Gang: “Get Down On It”
  • Sharon Redd: “Never Give You Up”
  • Tavares: Greatest Hits
  • New Order: “Blue Monday”
  • Portishead: Dummy     And then my life changed and I haven’t yet sorted out my record collection!
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Scott Woods
    > >Date: Wed, 18 Sep 2002 10:55:59 -0400 (EDT)

    Can you tell our more uninformed (i.e., non-British, i.e., me) readers a little bit about the Mercury Prize? What exactly is it? I understand it’s an awards shows based less on sales than on “artistic merit.” Is that true, and if so, what does it mean? (Who decides?) And what is your involvement in it?

    The  Mercury Music Prize was established in 1991. The original idea came from the then head of marketing at Virgin Records who’d been discussing with retailers the problems of getting out-of -the-habit record buyers (i.e., those over 25 or so) to listen to new artists. The model they looked to was the Booker Prize, the best known literary prize in Britain, which gets prime bookstore display space for the shortlisted six (hardback) novels of the year and thus gets people reading new authors/books which they would not know about otherwise. So what was needed was a prize which at a dead time of the year (July/August/September) would promote new British albums. To work it would need credibility (unlike all other music biz awards) which meant independence of the music industry. At this stage a small production company was approached to get non-music biz sponsorship and develop the logistics of the prize. Mercury (part of Cable and Wireless, not the record company) came on board as sponsors. I was approached to devise the judging system (I was recommended by the BPI–British music industry trade body–as someone who had nothing to do with the music industry but understood how it worked). I’ve been on board ever since as the chair of the judges and general consultant. It’s now sponsored by Panasonic but has kept the Mercury name as this is now a significant brand.
    There are 10 judges including me, some of whom are replaced each year (most people serve 2-4 years). The usual line up is 2-3 critics (press/magazine), a radio person, a TV person (BBC/MTV/other commercial), assorted musicians (most often film music writers as they’re the only musicians unlikely to have no interest in a year’s releases), sometimes a deejay. Records are entered by their record companies at the beginning of June (170-200 entries–the period covered is July-June). The judges produce a short list of 12 in mid July. These are promoted until a presentation/show in early September, at which the judges meet again and choose the winner. The real peculiarity of the prize is that it has no genre limits. All new albums can be entered–jazz, classical and folk as well as rock/pop. The only criterion is what the judges think is best, although we do pay some attention to the overall feel of the shortlist. Over the years it has developed a certain prestige and news value, and musicians like it (though not those rock critics who haven’t served as judges, so it’s slagged off a lot too). Some of our shortlists have been odd in retrospect, but I think the winners do give a pretty good account of the history of British music over the last 10 years.
    1992 Primal Scream
    1993 Suede
    1994 M People
    1995 Portishead
    1996 Pulp
    1997 Roni Size
    1998 Gomez
    1999 Talvin Singh
    2000 Badly Drawn Boy
    2001 PJ Harvey
    2002 Ms Dynamite

    The Prize reporting that most irritates me is the dismissal of anything that isn’t obviously rock/dance as “token” (which translates as, “so I won’t bother to listen to it”). I’m not so sure of the jazz and folk stuff (I suspect we don’t get as wide a range of entries as we might) but I’m proud of the classical stuff we’ve drawn attention to–check out Joanna McGregor’s Play!

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Stanley Whyte
    > >Date: Thursday, September 19, 2002 6:51 AM

    When people talk about “rock criticism” they tend to generalize about the topic, but I’ve always thought the British tradition (yourself, Dave Laing, Nick Kent, Nik Cohn, Burchill and Parsons, Simon Reynolds, etc.) quite different from the American (Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Chuck Eddy, etc). I know you’ve written in the past about the differences between the British and American pop processes, and that in your introduction to Sound Effects you make it clear your sociological examination of rock is from a British perspective, but if it’s not too broad a question, I’d like to know your thoughts on the differences or similarities between rock criticism from the US and from Britain. For that matter, how have rock critics from other countries contributed to the history and development of what we call “rock criticism”.

    I’ve touched on this in answer to another question, and the recently published Pop and the Press (edited by Steve Jones for Temple University Press), has some relevant articles. The straightforward US/UK comparison is complicated by generational differences. Broadly, I’d say that the very first generation of rock critics in Britain (Nik Cohn, Chris Welch, Richard Williams) came out of a specifically British newspaper/magazine setting (though Williams obviously read US jazz critics). The next generation (Charles Shaar Murray, Mick Farren and the NME people, myself, Dave Laing, etc.) emerged from the underground press which was strongly Americanized. The fanzine/punk lot (Jon Savage, Burchill/Parsons, then Paul Morley on to Simon Reynolds) were much more British again. And then everything got Q -ified. But there were significant critical differences within generations too, and effects of broader journalistic contrasts (US writers are much more carefully edited and, on the whole, have more opportunities for writing at length). Other ways of approaching this would be to look at the transatlantic traffic. Some writers (Cohn, Farren, Reynolds) moved to the States, some (myself, Jon Savage, Chris Heath) wrote regularly for US outlets, others didn’t. Bangs and Marcus were/are regularly published here too; Marsh and Christgau much less so; I doubt if many current UK rock writers know who Chuck Eddy is. There has been a significant strand of UK expertise in US music (Charlie Gillett, Pete Frame, Barney Hoskyns, David Toop). And there are fanzine type networks (like this one) which clearly cross national boundaries. A magazine like Wire, a writer like Mark Sinker, can’t easily be defined as British. Whether generalizations about different critical approaches would hold up amidst all this confusion I don’t know. I’m tempted to say that British criticism tends to be more political/sociological, US criticism more personal/moralizing; US criticism better on texts, UK criticism on contexts. But I don’t think this is really true.
    I can’t really answer your second question I regret to say. There are obviously strong traditions of rock criticism in other countries, and over the years I’ve met and become friends with critics writing in other languages. But I have very little sense of what they write and how, say, French or Swedish or even Australian or Canadian criticism is different. I guess for just this reason it hasn’t much influenced US or UK approaches but these may not be the most interesting anyway.

    People are always asking rock critics for their top ten singles, albums, songs, etc. Given your association with the academic side of things, I’ll alter the question to ask you for your top ten books about rock and pop: a mini-canon, if you will.

    Well, given I could see this taking the next three months, I’ll confine my list to academic books:

  • Ruth Finnegan: The Hidden Musicians (ethnographic study of music making in Milton keynes)
  • Henry Kingsbury: Music, Talent and Performance (ditto of an American conservatory)
  • Mark Slobin ed: Retuning Culture (essays on popular music and the break up of Yugoslavia and the USSR)
  • Karel Marling: Graceland (art historian looks at Graceland and its furnishings)
  • Susan Crafts, Daniel Cavicchi and Charles Keil: My Music (interviews with people about their music)
  • Jocelynne Guilbault: Zouk (music in the West Indies)
  • Robert Cantwell: Bluegrass Breakdown (about bluegrass)
  • Michel Chion: Audio-Vision (about sound/music in films)
  • Jason Toynbee: Making Popular Music (on creativity and capitalism from a theoretical perspective)
  • Bruce A Macleod: Club Date Musicians (on creativity and capitalism from a practical perspective)
    This list is, of course, as random as any other (and I suspect that I have at least 10 books on my never properly read shelves that should be here instead).I’d like to ask for your thoughts on the differences between the development of the academic side of the study of music (that which is represented by the IASPM) and the way that pop history is documented in the popular music press ( the NMEUncutMojoOptionRolling StoneThe WireVibe, etc.). Is the latter fodder for the former, or do ideas on music and its meaning ever flow the other way, from the more highbrow studies represented by conferences and journals into the way mass-market rock criticism considers and reports on its subject (I hope that’s clear).There are some (very few) critics (Robert Christgau, most obviously) who do read the academic books and when they’re worth respecting respect them. Good critics will certainly use academic books just for their historical or sociological details. Academic theoretical approaches do filter down too, though the famous rock critic users of high theory (Paul Morley, Simon Reynolds) aren’t usually very interested in popular music studies. Academics likewise get their facts from the popular music press and are often interested in its discourses. But mutual suspicion or contempt is more obvious than any sense of being involved in a collaborative process. I am curious to see whether the burgeoning of popular music courses in universities will lead to more rock critics having “studied” popular music (and popular music writing) and whether this will make them more or less contemptuous of the academy. I’m still most amazed by critics’ lack of interest in the workings of the music business (though I also know how hard it is to publish anything on this).

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    > >From: Chuck McCain
    > >Date: Thu, 19 Sep 2002 12:27:14 -0700 (PDT

    Of all of your work, do you have any pieces that you are especially proud of?

    I still like Art into Pop, the book I did with Howard Horne. Otherwise, I agree with whoever said that he didn’t read his old articles, not because he was worried about how bad they were but because they might be better than anything he could write now.

    What do you do when you feel you’ve written yourself into a corner while drafting a piece?

    Depends how tight the deadline is. If I’ve still got time: throw the draft away, do something else completely different for a day or two, and start again; if I’ve got no time at all just write myself out of it! (In the days when I still had to dictate copy down the line I quite often couldn’t think of a last paragraph and would just hope it would come to me as I spoke–it almost always did.)

    If this site, in conjunction with Harvard, Oxford, The Sorbonne, and The University of Texas, decided to sponsor a televised “Rock Critic Intellectual-Off” to be televised on M2, who would win: Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, or you, Simon Frith? 

    Depends how the winner was decided but it certainly wouldn’t be me–I’d be tongue-tied. On the night I’d expect Christgau to win–he talks fastest. But the after-match analysis would probably favour Marcus.


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