Week 1 – Popular Music Histories

Hi, my name is Jack and I’m addicted to music. I’m as likely to preach to you the reasons why DragonForce are more than just a cultural signifier for Guitar Hero players as I am likely to argue over what constitutes real country music. My understanding of popular music culture, at its purest and simplest form, is the knowledge, behaviours, practices and values that inform our choices in the way we make, disseminate, and consume music. Dissecting the role the word ‘popular’ plays in this is perhaps a blog for another day, but in this context I would argue that it is the music the practitioner prefers. For example, heavy metal legends Iron Maiden have scored five UK number ones but rarely appear on daytime radio – the music is popular to many, but isn’t neccasarily popular in sense of a trend. Let’s be honest, the X-Factor took a post-hardcore/arena-rock band’s anti-ballad and turned it into a pop-filled number one (Biffy Clyro’s Many Of Horror). My particular area of academic interest is the behaviours, practices, and representations of the heavy metal subculture, particularly within the UK, which despite its metal heritage has a lack of academic coverage with scholars who prefer to focus on the subculture within America, often in a negative light (Weinstein, 1990; Gross, 1990). I believe that many aspects of this module will prove beneficial in furthering my expertise and knowledge and inform my research as it develops, including Popular Music as Heritage, Popular Music and Meaning, Music and Materiality, Identity, and DIY Music Cultures and Cultural Activism among others.

It is clear from the outset that all of the ten subject areas of this module fit in with and traverse multiple aspects of production, distribution and consumption culture. Popular Music as Heritage is clearly rooted within the culture of production, in the sense that a city or a town holds a certain musical heritage depending on the music or scenes it spawned. For example, Liverpool is associated with The Beatles whilst Birmingham is known as the birthplace of heavy metal. However, it also fits into the culture of consumption, in the sense that the people who consume the music produced in a particular setting may consume it in different ways – people consume what they know, and they know what they consume. It acts as a positive catch-22, the production affects the consumption as much as the consumption informs the production. Popular Music and Archives ideally splits itself between all three cultures in the sense that archives, whether physical or online, offer us an insight into the ways music was produced, distributed, and consumed in particular ways during particular times. Popular Music and Meaning, similar to Heritage, is mostly concerned with Production and Consumption for similar reasons, however Distribution plays a role in the sense that the artist is distributing their music via their performance and the meaning they evoke with it. Music and the Moving Image again cooperates between the three cultures, as it can offer us insights into each culture, in the sense that it can be used fictionally or non-fictionally to highlight aspects of each culture. Music and Materiality is rooted in consumption, in the sense that a patch-riddled denim jacket becomes a cultural artefact for a member of the heavy metal subculture, as it shows the music they consume, as well as the lifestyle they obtain through it, but it also highlights the idea of production – vinyl record collecting has spawned a new found love for vinyl. Identity and DIY Music Cultures is of course all three cultures. For example, I consume heavy metal music and indie music and I’m just as likely to wear a patch-riddled denim jacket as I am a flannel shirt, the two music’s coming together as one identity. Our identities affect the music we produce, and if we follow a DIY culture, then the way we distribute to. Digital Music Consumption and Data fits into all three, although consumption is of course key to it, the production and distribution cultures are both equally effected by it as much as they effect consumption. The more people buy vinyl again, the more bands begin to produce and distribute music for vinyl. Song-writing and Recording Industry is all three, as is Music Radio, as they both inform and build each culture through their processes and practices.

Throughout my music-riddled life, I have been involved in various ways in the production, distribution, and consumption cultures. As an amateur guitarist, competent lyricist, and beginners DJ, I have been involved in the production side of music. Whilst I’m not quite at the level of confidence to write my own songs on guitar, I have explored its chords and attempted to reimagine songs I like, whilst when DJing, I often blend and blur tracks, and create mixes, therefore producing a weave of music. As a radio presenter, music journalist, and fan, I’ve distributed music via the airwaves, via interviews and reviews within national magazines, and through the simple share of a Soundcloud or YouTube link on my personal social media. Consumption-wise, I am involved all day every day. I subscribe to Apple Music, and there hasn’t been a day I haven’t used it since I first got it three months ago. I am often found rummaging through boxes of vinyl, and listen to my iPod and the radio often.

Wall argues that Thornton’s (1990) four factors in historical importance – sales figures, biographical interest, critical acclaim, and media coverage – is the basis for a totalised history. In this sense, There Is No Authority But Yourself challenges the traditional make-up of a totalised history, whilst still utilising the bands sales figures and biographical interest. Whilst Thornton’s initial idea is that they totalise a history by the bands with the largest sales figure, the idea of money and sales figures is mentioned by all three of the interviewees who act as narrators driving the documentary – Steve Ignorant, Penny Rimbaud, and Gee Vaucher – however, it is mentioned in the context of lacking the figures, and uses the idea of star-power to emphasise their point, when they reference David Beckham wearing a Crass T-shirt (not designed or authorised by the band themselves). The documentary touches upon all of the totalising factors, but not because Crass scored the highest in each one. Centring on a narrative focused more on the operation of Dial House, than Crass itself, there is a high level of biographical interest within the documentary itself highlighted by the constant visuals of Penny working around Dial House and the level of information you discover about it – such as Penny’s “Pay for your bed and breakfast with a story” ethos – and the way they use the house and the house’s important and progression to narrate the story of Crass, interwoven with the story of the house. They lacked media coverage, and therefore lacked critical acclaim, yet the documentary highlights that they were widely applauded among the anarcho-punk scene. Therefore, in a brief sense, I would argue that it doesn’t challenge totalised histories as much as it repurposes the concept to a format far more suitable to itself. Through this repurposing, and in particular the non-linear narration focused on Dial House, the documentary challenges the way a moment in punk history is constructed and documented, and even remembered, as there are scenes where Steve and Penny remember and analyse moments of Crass history differently.

As a Netflix account-holder and avid music nerd, I have watched my fair share of music documentaries, particularly recently, and I do believe that music documentaries are far more impactful and influential on our own perceived histories of popular music, particularly the histories of single artists or bands, then we may initially think. As an avid Nirvana nerd, I’ve watched and read my fair share of documentaries and biographies about the band, and in particular, Kurt Cobain. I’ve noticed through the many documentaries I’ve watched that those featuring Courtney Love are both the ones with the most coverage – 2015’s Montage of Heck and 1998’s Kurt and Courtney being two of the most popular – and the ones people use as the true history of Kurt, whereas in the under-the-radar Soaked In Bleach (2015) looks deeper into Kurt’s final days, and doesn’t feature Courtney Love. In this sense, I’m arguing that music documentaries can be influenced by the players involved to impact on people what they want them to know rather than what they should know. This is further highlighted in the omission of Dr Dre’s court cases and abuse charges in Straight Outta Compton, which happens to be executively produced by Dr Dre himself.



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