I have a romantic and perhaps nostalgic idea in my head about what popular music can do for people. Ideas that come from the notion that pop music, in it’s many forms, has the potential to represent the deeper hopes and fears held by each of us, whatever our age, and from whatever background or strata of social life we come from. Pop music draws its strength from the fleeting, the superficial and the narrowly temporal. All of which mean that pop music is a vibrant and potent force in our lives.
Pop music is constantly being reinvented, re-referenced and performed anew. Pop music is a privileged form of social communication and organisation, especially in the way that it functions as a component building-block of our self and our group identities. Music is one of the social-glues that binds us together, and provides us with moments of reflexive action that are often otherwise eschewed in our hectic and stressed lives. Pop music is the contemporary engagement point for contemplation, absorption-in-the-moment, and existential reflection. As a minimum we are able to acknowledge that popular music has the power to encapsulate and express our deeper longings, as well as illuminate the different mindsets through which our being can be nurtured, articulated and shared. Pop music serves its social function by allowing us to move from the ‘potential’ to the ‘actual’ in our lives, and from the ‘individual’ to the ‘social’ in the way that we express those longings.
Pop music, for the most part then, is a unifying experience, and as our exposure to pop sensibilities have become almost entirely dominant and commonplace, then our cultural expressions are given equal voice through songs and performances selected from an embedded and expanding repertoire of pop songs, styles of address and forms of performance. Pop music, and it’s variations of rock or dance music, are now the standard and defining mode of communal expression when we celebrate events in our lives, when we compete against each other, and when we measure and mark the passing of time, both inter-generationally and ideologically.
Through pop music we make sense of our collective ‘moments’ and the shared experiences that are represented by them. By replaying and expressing these moments in short bursts of song, rhythm and melody, we access the collective cultural storehouse of meanings that pop holds in place for us. It’s easy to call to mind the Vietnam War by playing Jimi Hendrix, or swinging 1960’s London by playing The Kinks or The Who. Pop music’s unique and powerful function in our lives is its capacity to embody history, passing moments and our deeper, intangible longings. Pop music does this in a way that is unrivalled by any other form of cultural expression. ‘I Hope I Die Before I Get Old’ is an anthem, not only to nihilistic youthfulness, but more importantly, to the expressive moment itself.
As the capability to absorb, store and re-articulate these collective moments becomes more pronounced, our cultural focus is splitting two ways. First, there has been an extenuation of the internal differences between music forms and styles of performance This differentiation, between sub-genres, performances modes, aesthetic stylings and inter-personal stances, provides a rich set of playful cultural signifiers for us to adopt and try on. Now when young bands grow quiffs, not only are they signifying that they are working within a particular mode of pop sensibility, i.e. the ‘rock star’, but they are also demonstrating that they are conscious of these sensibilities, and more importantly, that they know what to do with them.
Identity as a mask of ironic performance is a well-worn issue in pop music, in that the general expectation of consumers of pop music is the extent to which each performer is able to adopt and play-out a persona. As this adoption of a defined stance has become the norm, then the focus has become, not one of authenticity or originality, for there is nothing new in pop these days, but instead, it has become about how we assess the capability and the expertise of the performer as they seek to function as a ‘performer’ of themselves. In doing so, we therefore seek to differentiate pop and pop performance within the general aesthetic frame of pop and rock styling, rather than as a genuinely authentic or socially defined articulation. Pop music is about signification that is free from social embedding. Pop music is the dance of floating signifiers.
Rather than seeing pop music as an attachment to anything authentic, or palpably honest, we only really make sense of pop music when we consider pop as a symbolic field. When we look instead at how well the costume and the performance are carried. Rather than seeking a defined point of origin for the expression that is being played-out, we evaluate the performer as they learn to perform like they really ‘mean it’. ‘Meaning it’ is one of the pre-requisites of successful pop articulations. There are very few who care about the personal and individual ego of the performer, with their psychological inconsistencies and fault lines that might otherwise be said to drive the performance, as long as the performance itself offers enough emotional and aesthetic resonance to convince the listener, however fleetingly and temporarily. In this way the slightest perceived variations in style and gesture become magnified and a rallying point for sub-cultural engagement.
The second division in our phenomenological understanding of pop music, is the extent to which we are able to make sense of the general mode of pop music’s production, and how we resolve what it means to ‘live-within’ the economic-industrial culture machine. The way that pop music is now being ritually formalised through an economic and industrial infrastructure, supported by government and commercial investment, clearly demonstrates the need to define and develop a political economy of the contemporary pop music phenomenon. Going to Liverpool for the Sound City Festival 2013, gave me the chance to observe and think about how the music industry is constituted by increasingly strong business interests that are as likely to view culture, and the engagement in cultural production by individuals and communities, in the same way that buying and selling other mass-market consumer products is organised. Shifting units, providing support services for business, developing rights management profiles, media assets and infrastructure development, copyright and legal services, social media production management techniques, and all the other paraphernalia of a successful corporate business operation.
There are two sides to this coin. On the one hand there is the business models based around capturing value from transactions, which is tied with the growth of social media purchases, such as iTunes. In which consumers purchase songs as downloads and products with a proportion of the micro-payment going to each associated contributor or distributor of the product. Then there is the formalisation and structuring of rights and asset management, and the collection of copyright and intellectual property changes from sound and image based broadcast and online media use. As pop songs are packaged into commodities they realise a value as an asset within a legal system focussed on intellectual ownership. This notion of original ownership and the moral assertion of rights comes with a need to be managed. So an industrial management system grows around the pop song and the pro-generator of the pop ideal, the songwriter. Groups need to be groomed in the pose and the stance of pop idea. Pop performers are encouraged to assert their ownership of their images, their ancillary rights are traded, and the associated rights are packaged for wider consumption.
As John Lennon said, “We are selling it like soap”.