Interpretation

Popular music cannot be owned by the “experts” and the critics in the way that classical music is. It resists that elitist tendency (but not always—see Sue Wise, “Sexing Elvis” in On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, 390-98, ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin [London: Routledge, 1990] and other writings that attack the cock-rock canon of popular music). Critics at Rolling Stone or other magazines and journals may make pronouncements concerning the value and worth of certain songs and artists, but we all know that if it does not match our view, we can seek out a sympathetic source or we can declare the critic absurd, out of touch, or “not one of us.” And then we can “vote” by buying the song or album, by attending a concert, or by repeatedly listening to the artist or song, thereby defying (in our little microcosm) the supposed expert. If it weren’t for these two aspects—freedom of choice and repeatability—there would not be the multitudes of popular music genres, styles, and artists. The volume alone testifies to the marginality of the expert.

Because of the lack of an authoritative voice, we can each listen to a song and form our unique interpretation, reinforcing Abbate’s concern over the “promiscuity” of interpretation that exists (Carolyn Abbate, Unsung Voices: Opera and the Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991]). The accumulation of one’s life’s experiences affect the interpretation, as do many other factors such as current events. Listening to a song twice in a row can yield multiple interpretations because various musical elements and textual items move forward and backward in our consciousness. 

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6 Responses to “Interpretation”

  1. musicahumana Says:

    Hi, Paula! I’m liking your posts. I need to go look at the Abbate article–I haven’t seen it yet. (Haven’t done much with the 19th century…)

    I don’t know if I completely agree with you on the “democracy” of the popular music scene. Sure, we can “vote out” certain acts and bolster others, but the gods of pop (the producers and record companies) have so much sway on what actually gets out there and promoted that we have much less say that we’d like.

    I was looking at iTunes this week, at the “Top 10 Songs” list, and I was APPALLED by what I saw. Most of the music on that list is so canned (so pre-planned and over-marketed) by the producers that it loses the “authenticity” (I know it’s a buzz word; I took it from Frith and haven’t yet come up with another term) that popular music originally had. As a culture, we’ve begun to give up our own votes to an authoritative voice, even though we don’t have to.

    (Perhaps this is just what people want. I’m sure a lot of people would rather have an expert tell them what groups/genres are good than to have to figure it out for themselves.)

    Just some thoughts. 🙂 jess

  2. musicalmutterings Says:

    I’m not suggesting that popular music is democratic. Well maybe I am, but only in the sense that as consumers, we have the freedom to choose what we will. While the big companies have a “say” in what is recorded and distributed, they are not nearly as in control of public taste as it might appear. There was an article in the New York Times Magazine about that a few months ago. I’ll try to find it.

    As for things like the iTunes list, remember that it represents their customer base. It is a bellwether of a certain fragment of popular culture but not a representative of all popular culture. I suspect a good bit of their sales come from the non-top 10 stuff, and probably from the oldies (it’s the long-tail effect, see Chris Anderson’s Wired magazine article or his book on this).

    I could mutter on about this, but I need to organize my thoughts better.

    Keep it coming!

  3. musicahumana Says:

    Okay, I’ll agree with you that we *do* have choice in what we listen to. But, a large portion of the population (younguns especially) are taking what the media hands them without question.

    iTunes, though really a vehicle of the big-name media, *is* especially cool because it allows us to get most of the music we want, even if it isn’t extremely popular. It means that lesser-known, niche groups can get their music out there to everyone. The internet, I think has made choice more available (in many different products), if we’re willing to take the time figure out what we really want.

    I’m going to go look up Chris Anderson. Let me know if/when you find the NYTimes article. 🙂 Jess

  4. musicalmutterings Says:

    The youngest of the younguns have always taken what has been handed to them. They are a group that can easily be manipulated but ultimately have not spending power when compared to the 20-somethings and beyond. But they grow up and make different choices. And that is the most exasperating part to the record companies; Today’s Montana Hannah lover may go overboard for Madonna when she gets to 21.

    Did you see the recent exchange on AMS-L where someone said that the Chopin is better than Mendelssohn? I was left thinking, “but what if I like M better? does that mean i’m not as good?”

  5. musicahumana Says:

    Oooh. Someone said that? Man, that must have gotten a discussion going.

    I think I’d rather someone love Madonna than Hannah Montana. You’re right about using the youngers because of their manipulatability. I think that part of the problem is that society is *teaching* these young younguns to take what the media gives them. Some will obviously (and thankfully) rebell when they realize they don’t need it. But when Coldplay becomes a top 10 band (I saw them on Jon Stewart and was VERY disappointed), that makes me think that a good number of musical patrons just sticks with what the radio (and whatever other group) gives them.

    Blah blah blah. 🙂

  6. musicalmutterings Says:

    There was a point in time when many wrote off Madonna. She was SO pop and clearly appealing to the baser instincts of the gullible young public that she couldn’t be for real. Now she is a venerated object of scholarly study.

    My point is that we may choose to dismiss Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus, but she means something to somebody and may well end up as an icon of a generation. As musicologists, we have to learn to adopt an objective viewpoint even for artists that we find to be of little value. In other words, separate your critic from your musicologist. Become Janus.

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