Monday Musings: The Myth Of Popular Music

Posted on July 4, 2011

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The critic drinks your health.

Myths are everywhere, wrapped around common currency ideas, giving shape to our cultural narratives, and putting filters on the lenses of our minds. There’s a ‘myth’ about myths: it says that a myth is wrong. The term ‘urban myth’ perpetuates this usage, but that kind of a myth, the erroneous legend, is just a part of a broader class of ideological structure.

King Arthur is a myth: a powerful narrative and conceptual complex, structured around the locus of a figure that may or may not have existed (the best you can say for the evidence for Arthur is that if you squint hard and look at it sideways, it might not completely rule out such a person’s existence). The Kennedys are another myth: there’s not much doubt about their existence (although obviously a lot of dubious claims have been made, especially in relation to JFK’s death), but the real people that bear and bore that name are almost irrelevant to the complex of shared, collaboratively developed ideas and beliefs that have attached to them.

So when I say I want to look at the myth of popular music, I don’t mean I’m setting out to dispel fallacies. That may be a part of it, but mainly I just want to have a wee think about some of the beliefs that people profess in relation to it. I should also mention that ‘myth’ in this sense is a technical academic term, but I’m no scholar: I’m just using the idea because it’s a powerful intellectual tool, and I don’t intend that this article should be taken as a contribution to scholarship or academic debate.

I don’t have any great over-arching thesis, so let’s just break this myth down into separate points, and say a few words about each:

  • Popular music is popular. Clearly the word ‘popular’ is involved for a reason: the word has been used historically to refer to music that is widely disseminated, to the musics that came into being to take advantage of mechanical reproduction, of sheet music or recordings. However, there is now a huge amount of music, in styles that are axiomatically a subset of popular music, which has few listeners, and may have been made without the goal of attracting a large audience. There are in fact entire genres of popular music that have never had more than a tiny number of adherents.
  • Popular music lacks merit. This is a myth that was more readily defensible when there were widely held, unexamined assumptions (i.e. prejudices) about musical merit. While it’s undeniable that much popular music is made with no intention of doing anything more than making money, or having a laugh, to subscribe to this belief is to hold a subjective opinion. There’s no sensible argument that can be made for or against it, but it should be noted that a huge number of people find merit in popular music.
  • Popular music is ephemeral. Much popular music has been forgotten. Singles are released, do nothing, and sink without trace. Sometimes they sell really well, and then are forgotten about a month later. Popular music is often made for a specific time and place, to address a particular moment in a continually changing popular taste. On the other hand, everything gets revived, nostalgically, or by producers trawling for samples, or whatever: nothing stays buried any more. Also, a great deal of popular music has turned out to have a lasting appeal, has never gone away, and was clearly never intended to be disposable.
  • Popular music is not art. This seems axiomatic, at first glance: art music and popular music are mutually defined by their difference from the other. However, the boundaries have become extremely blurred, and a great deal of music in ‘popular’ styles has been made as an end in itself, for no other purpose than to give vent to its author’s creativity.
  • Popular music is not folk music. R’n’b is definitely not for Morris dancing. Folk music is made in communities that define themselves through the sharing of certain cultural practices, orally transmitted. However, this also describes the way that various subcultures are perpetuated, subcultures whose musical practices are in styles popularly described as popular.
  • Popular music is working class music. A long time ago, the upper classes listened to orchestral music and the like, the aspirational classes to light opera, and the working classes to mass produced fare designed to feed and form their tastes. Except, this was never the case: there was always overlap, and it’s clear that, although particular styles enjoy greater popularity among certain social groupings, members of any class can be found among the audience for any music.
  • Popular music is mass produced. There have always been a great number of recordings made in popular genres where professional production teams attempt to maximise revenue from a streamlined production process. Then there’s The Beatles, for example, a band who brought a fully formed musical product to the negotiating table, and staked a claim on many or most aspects of the production process. Much popular music is bespoke, or is made by individual artisans using unstandardised, unrepeatable methods.
  • Popular music is spontaneous and immediate. I don’t imagine anyone thought for a very long time about some of The Clash’s first recordings. On the other hand, I should imagine it took Pink Floyd a bit of pre-planning to write and record Dark Side Of The Moon. Take your pick.

So for all that I may not have set out to engage in a ‘myth-busting’ exercise, I seem to have called almost all of the myths associated with popular music into question. I guess it’s in the nature of a myth to be made up of unexamined assumptions, and it’s in the nature of unexamined assumptions to be wrong. After all, firing a gun without aiming doesn’t usually hit the target.

If this draws me toward any conclusion (and in general, I have far more questions than answers), it is that the term ‘popular music’ is something of a historical peculiarity. It’s a legacy of a time when many or all of the above myths might have been unquestioned: in other words, it’s a term defined by usage. A band like Slovenian experimental industrial outfit Laibach works in a style(s) that falls under the broad umbrella of popular music, but any attempt to classify them by the specific characteristics of their working practices, or creative intentions, would put them unequivocally in the box marked ‘art music’. They’re certainly not in it for the money! There are a lot of styles that are called ‘popular’ by common convention: any attempt to make that term mean anything specific (‘sells lots of records’; ‘appeals to the lowest common denominator’) tends to exclude most of them.

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