IASPM Pop Theory Discussion, January 2007

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| 07-01-25 | 07-01-24 | 07-01-23 | 07-01-22 | 07-01-17 | 07-01-15 | 07-01-13 | 07-01-12 | 07-01-10 |

Philip Tagg 07-01-25

This debate is turning out to be really productive. Important points and underlying issues are being considered. That's really encouraging. Three issues in correspondence over the last few days strike me as particularly constructive: (1) crystallising, as Joe Bennett suggests, essential elements of skill and knowledge in practical music education into teachable subjects which don't need updating at every turn of the road ("future-proofing"); (2) unflinchingly dealing with the objective character of subjectivity: intersubjectivity and social ontology (thanks to Jason Toynbee and Murray Dineen); (3) the unavoidably interdisciplinary character of popular music studies (Murray's notion that this is where academics can [and must] come together). You could hold numerous and never-ending conferences about any of those three topics and I will add no more here. What I will do, however, is to put the discussion so far on line so list subscribers can start to unclutter their email inboxes! You'll find it at www.tagg.org/others/IASPMtheorycorr.htm from about now GMT 2007-01-25 2100 hrs. Thanks of course to Nathan Wiseman-Trowse for having sparked the whole thing off!

Thanks to you all!


Murray Dineen 07-01-25

This is very reassuring, Jason. I like in particular the following:

>> Fortunately for those who like theory, social ontology is quite complicated because you have to consider the question of how subjectivity can be simultaneously subjective and objective, of how music can be in your head but also about the world.

I admire Philip's heartfelt appeal to return to the music. My concern is how to capture such a return in a way that lends itself to a professional discourse. As a professor among professional colleagues I realize fully the problem of subjectivity and the necessity for me to find some common ground upon which I can have fair and equitable exchange with my counterparts: in order for me to engage with my colleagues (in a manner in keeping with my profession), then, we ought to have some common ground. I've heard often the phrase, "Because I hear it that way." That's not common ground to me. Discourse after that becomes like consulting the Sphinx. There has to be some common space--intersubjective, if you like. Just listening, just playing, even just teaching doesn't normally fulfill that requirement,...I think. I can't see fulfilling it without a p'tit morceau of theory, chez Jason p't etre.

Then there's this question of fandom....


Jason Toynbee 07-01-25

It's surely crucial that anyone can tell a professor, or even more important, a group of professors where to get off. The system of academic seniority, which has the characteristics of an aristocracy as much as a profession, certainly can produce censorship or the closing down of debates. It's been documented, and people may well have experienced it directly as Murray suggests. But I don't think this is what has been happening here recently. I don't at all get the sense of a professorial ganging up, or on the other side, the cowing of junior scholars. It's also unlikely because it assumes professorial consensus on these issues, and that doesn't exist. Quite simply, there are several profs in popular music studies who are into poststructuralism. Perhaps they're not on this list.

On the issues themselves, I'd strongly defend big theory, if one means by this, relatively abstract reflection on the terms and conditions of possibility of popular music. Why, how and to what effect popular music exists are fundamental questions which we have only begun to tap. The problem is that the now quite well digested French theory which has fed cultural studies (see Steve Waksman's discussion of the digestion process) is actually not excessive at all, but rather banal in many respects. As a result it has ceased to be much use in addressing the big questions. Perhaps the biggest problem is cultural studies' banal premise that the music itself and the social world in which it is located are constructions which are built (variously) in the minds of audiences/music makers; in musical texts and performances; or in the heads of academics. This version of deconstruction deconstructs, while never getting to the problem of what exists. Indeed it repudiates the problem of what exists.

So, I'd suggest that we badly need a theoretical approach which addresses the question of the objective existence of popular music (and of course the world beyond). That is, we need to supplement the epistemological focus of our theory (how we know things) with an ontological concern (what exists and in what form). We could call this approach realism. Ethically realism is to be preferred to constructionism because it suggests the world exists and therefore ought to be transformed, rather than subjectively reconfigured through a new reading. One last point. Fortunately for those who like theory, social ontology is quite complicated because you have to consider the question of how subjectivity can be simultaneously subjective and objective, of how music can be in your head but also about the world.


Murray Dineen 07-01-25

Joe Bennett's message brought out some troubling thoughts stirring since Philip's. I'll restrict my comments to a university setting (a Canadian setting in particular), since I know it best. The essence of a university resides in its professionals--the professoriate--and the health of the professoriate is determined by professional exchanges, by a discourse in which everyone participates on an equal footing.

(Students are not mere appendages in this regard, but nascent participants in the discourse.) To build a professorial community scholars come together from time to time, deciding that some issue or some approach is worth collaborating on. I think la theorie Francaise is one such instance; in music, 50 years ago it was watermarks, Hempel, and empirical historical time (with comparable excess--klein kleinmeisterin). Excess seems to be a part of the North American professorial community (peut etre d'une autre lieu aussi). Is it possible that a professorial scholarly community is coming together over popular music, one that will be immune to collective excess and still fulfill the need for a community of equal scholarly participants. I'm wondering which of Philip's trio of approaches would meet that requirement.


Joe Bennett 07-01-24

This is my first proper post to the list, despite being a member for 4 years, so be gentle with me! One reason I haven't engaged with the IASPM list to any great extent thus far is that I'm involved in exactly the kind of 'vocational' Popular Music teaching that Philip describes.

>... nothing is certain and that "things change" constantly. For>example, training students on state-of-the-art equipment (short-term practicality) almost certainly means skills on obsolete equipment in a few years (who honestly NEEDS a synclavier or a 64-track Neve console in 2007?).

>Another example: I don't know how many students have followed relatively recent music business courses whose "practicalities" were based on observing >industry structures from the phonogram era (c.1900-c.2000): fantastic if your wanted to join the industry in the eighties! It reminds me of all those classical performers we still produce as if we were all living in fin-de-sicle Vienna. [edit] ...fine if you're educating for yesterday or, at the best, today; but they have no guaranteed value for the future which, trite though it may sound, is what students are supposed to prepare for. Just give them a list of all those "state-of-the-art" and subsequently obsolete "practicalities" which were once part of "cutting-edge" courses in "enhanced" "centres of excellence". Management may not see the light but I've yet to meet a single student who didn't at least partially understand that a viable conceptual toolkit is essential if you want to get INTO a media/music production or administration job, let alone survive IN it.

These are justifiable criticisms of a lot of the apparently 'vocational' programmes in HE (certainly during the mid 1990s, and still to some extent today), and they are very real problems in curriculum design and teaching strategy, both of which need to be solved - or at least acknowledged - if students are to be as future-proofed (technologically but also intellectually) as we and they would wish.

To condense Philip's points here into their manifestation (in my view) as vocational curriculum challenges... 1. Industrial relevance; studying the established economic models of the phonographic era is increasingly irrelevant to industry-focused undergraduates. 2. Hardware & software; technological kit-training in music has a natural built-in obsolescence. 3. Curriculum balance; A more conceptual 'liberal arts' education may perhaps prepare students for the future more effectively than any ostensibly 'practical' programme.

4. Future-proofing; popular music scholars are no better at predicting the future than anyone else - so an intellectually adept undergraduate, grounded in 'theory' (broadly defined) may be a more adaptable and rounded graduate and, perhaps, practitioner.

I don't pretend to have the answers to these, but have certainly tried to address them...

1. The phonographic model is unquestionably in decline (even though it is still - just - the primary form of retail - Wal-mart still sells more songs than iTunes!). Means of electronic distribution are changing the consumer's perceived value of music - which in some cases now stands at $0.00. Myspace is a fascinating phenomenon, bringing together as it does the signed and the unsigned, and blurring the line between them. So to deal with this continually evolving global cyber-network we can't simply teach HTML, CSS and audio streaming protocols (we do all of this already but it is simply 'teaching for today' as Philip describes it), we concentrate on the start and end of the musical process. The 'start' is, I suggest, the creative object itself - the song, performance and digital recording. The 'end' is the means of dissemination - viral online social networks being an ever-changing but unlikely-to-disappear example.

2. I agree absolutely that training people in specific equipment is not the ideal, but there is a middle ground here. Pro Tools has been the industry standard recording computer platform for more than ten years now and shows no sign of disappearing. However, Philip's broad point is difficult to disagree with. To prepare music production-type students practically for an ever- changing technological world, one solution is to teach only the broad-based concepts (e.g. EQ, harmonic series, dynamic processing, reverb decay, mastering aesthetics etc) and then as far as specific kit goes, simply give them the manuals! HE<>RTFM ;-)

3. Depending on the type of learner, a 'liberal arts' experience can be more beneficial - certainly for those that perceive themselves as 'creatives'. But ironically I've always tried to balance the broad definition of theory (Philip's definition #3) with the specific one (#1) i.e. 'music theory' - chords 'n stuff. Graduate practitioners in industry often have musical difficulties because they (and implicitly some of the curricula they have studied) have avoided the Western Tonal music theory around which (I guess we pretty much agree?) most of popular music is centred. I agree that there is a great deal of 'theory definition #3' that has relevance in practical and vocational context - and this can be a great catalyst for cross-discipline study e.g. colliding global economic 'theory' with all the tech-dissemination of popular music we're currently experiencing. (I also applaud Philip's willingness to criticise 'theory definition #2' as practised by some scholars - not just because it is so difficult to get many learners to engage with it, but also because of some of its rather suspect connection to any form of actual popular music practice. He phrases it much better than I ; "the majority of English-speaking popular-music scholars have, if anything, tended to do the opposite, concentrating on metacontextual discourse, i.e. on EVERYTHING EXCEPT THE MUSIC." ( http://tagg.org/bookxtrax/titles/Ch2.pdf )

4. Future-proofing graduates for a practical career? - I believe it *can* be done, but only by developing non time-sensitive skills and knowledge. These range from human skills (e.g. negotiating a gig date with a venue) to 'hard' theory skills (e.g. identifying a chord change by ear - to 'soft' theory knowledge) to 'soft' theoretical knowledge in its broadest sense.

Can we find a way to differentiate between 'broad theory' and 'metacontextual discourse' as applied to Popular Music? Hope so!


Philip Tagg 07-01-23

Thanks, everyone, for chipping in about "Theory". Thanks specifically to Reebee Garofalo for asking people to respond and thanks for such good and often supportive points.

I was delighted to read Steve Waksman's comments about the usefulness of ethnomusicological models (I couldn't agree more, see pp. 36-39 in "Ten Little Title Tunes" at http://tagg.org/bookxtrax/titles/Ch2.pdf) and about the fact that younger scholars don't find "La French Theory" as so "laden with importance". (Please note that "La French Theory", to be read with a French accent with the definite article "La", indicates reference to some FRENCH philosophers' ideas about Anglophone ideas about French theory (the latter in English without the "La")). In fact, I agree with virtually everything that has been added to the debate. I apologise for doing what must seem like a Don Quixote-versus-the-windmills of once trendy "postist" (-modern, -structural) metatheorising but I felt obliged to react when faced with the imprecise notion of "Pop Theory", as if everyone knew what it was and agreed that it was all equally important. I don't think I'll ever know what "Pop Theory" is; and this is one reason why I run an M.A. seminar here on approaches to studying popular music ("Tendances dans l'étude de la musique populaire") in which we try to cover as much theoretical ground as possible (theory in all 3 senses) as a prerequisite for understanding where, in the grand epistemic scheme of things, musicology might play a useful part (I am, after all, employed as a musicologist).

I'm sure other IASPM list subscribers old enough to have lived under the regime of "postist" metatheorising (Theory #2) will appreciate, if they're not already familiar with it, The Postmodernism Generator at http://www.elsewhere.org/cgi-bin/postmodern/: it has me in stitches. It automatically generates scholarly articles, complete with footnotes and bibliographies, on subjects with titles like "Deconstructing Sartre: Surrealism in the works of Glass", "Burroughs and Lacanist obscurity", "Reassessing Modernism: The pretextual paradigm of consensus and libertarianism", "Modernist neodialectic theory and predeconstructivist narrative", "Madonna and the postcapitalist paradigm of discourse in Baudrillardist simulacra". They're all nonsense, of course, but they do contain passages that I feel sure I've had to read...

Thanks finally to Bruce Johnson and Simon Frith for their supportive comments. Message to Simon F or Mike J: can you give us the reference to Mike Jones's piece about pseudo-vocational music business courses?

REPLY FROM SIMON FRITH

Mike Jones piece on vocational music education is in The Business of Music (edited by Michael Talbot, University of Liverpool Press)


Siimon Frith 07-01-23

I agree with Steve re the declining significance of type 2 theory (and resurgence of empirical work) in popular music studies (see my critique of Larry Grossberg in Popular Music a couple of years ago) but I think what Philip said about type 3 theory was the most important part of his posting. In the UK, at least, there are disturbing moves (through the government sponsored training agency Creative and Cultural Skills, to develop music industry-driven curricula for FE and HE music/music industry courses which, as Philip says, both devalue the kind of critical type 3 theory that should inform all kinds of education and enshrine a completely outdated account of the music industry at the heart of supposedly 'vocation' oriented courses. (Mike Jones has written interestingly about this.)


Fabian Holt 07-01-23

i'd like to say that "the culture(s) of theory" and its disciplinary frameworks have changed. the structure of disciplines has changed a great deal since the 1970s, and theories are approached and mixed in multiple ways.

at the exams in the humanities core module this past semester i was surprised how many u-grad students started by doing an extensive outline of some "grand theory," and most were unable to make it work in the empirical analysis. to one student i proposed the idea of replacing his account of anthony giddens with a similarly faithfull account of the world view of a homeless person (or a similarly underprivileged person who are usually not ascribed the same authority)


Bruce Johnson 07-01-23

Phil's post reached me, and I agree with Reebee about the puzzling lack of riposte. I broadly with agree with Phil - in fact I have archived his comments as a useful discussion paper for students. I am happy to continue the discussion on the list, but unless someone takes up the debate, at the moment what I would say would pretty much be 'Hear hear' to Phil.


Steve Waksman 07-01-23

I think one of the reasons Philip's post didn't elicit as much response as some might expect (beyond the apparent fact that it didn't reach everyone) is that, especially for a younger generation of scholars, type 2 theory isn't as controversial, or as laden with importance, as it used to be. There are several reasons why. Probably the main one is that, through the broader dispersion of cultural studies into the academy, a lot of ideas that once seemed to hold within them the potential to undermine traditional disciplinary knowledge have been normalized.

disciplinary knowledge have been normalized. Which isn't to say we're all post-structuralists now. I think what's more the case is that many have taken what they found useful from this body of theory without necessarily following it to its farthest conclusions. Once upon a time that might have seemed like heresy for some, but it's become the norm in a lot of culturally-based scholarship.

Another major development, which IASPM has experienced quite strongly, is the resurgence of empirically based scholarship in which theory is far less determinative than it was with some earlier paradigms of cultural studies/popular music scholarship. IASPM-US in particular has seen a dramatic rise in its ranks of ethnomusicologists who are using methods and theoretical models that aren't even really covered in the schema outlined by Philip, wherein key debates have to do with subject/object relations in fieldwork situations, the material basis of various musical/cultural practices, etc. I often think this kind of work could use more of what Philip refers to as "French theory," but to a significant extent it comes out of a different scholarly tradition.

To take issue with one aspect of Philip's post, I have trouble with the suggestion that critical theory equals French theory. Where does that leave the Frankfurt School, for one thing, who have arguably had more direct influence on popular music studies than any of the most canonized French thinkers? Their ideas, too, have seen something of a resurgence in recent years, which I'm sure is regrettable to some, but I think has also helped to open lines of inquiry that had been closed by some tendencies of the last few decades. And what of British cultural studies, which did much to import certain strains of French theory but gave them a distinctive cast through combination with ethnographic sociological methods and Marxist materialism?

I teach this sort of theory to students regularly and still enjoy it. But I admit that I find myself using it a lot less in my scholarship than I used to. The reasons why are probably not of general interest, but those reasons are part of why I come back to my point that theory doesn't have the weight it used to in the current shape of cultural studies scholarship, for better or worse. It's one scholarly tool among many.


Tim Wall 07-01-23

As one of the original contributors to the earlier 'pop theory debate' I thought I should take up Reebee's invitation to comment on Philip's email.

I suppose I didn't respond because I broadly agree with Philip. I don't have an education in type 1 theory, but I am well prepared for type 2 theory with an MA and PhD in cultural studies. I don't think I'd quite put it in the terms that Philip uses, but I'd agree that too many cultural studies of popular music have been led by the theory and not what it originally sought to explain.

I'd actually see type 3 theory as empirical, practical, and vocational, because as Philip says you actually need to think to get on in the world.

Perhaps we need to actually be talking about scholarship. In my own department (a vocationally-orientated media and communication one) we tend to talk about theory and production modules, mainly because the production modules are taught by staff with strong professional backgrounds and are focused on producing communication in simulated professional contexts; while theory modules are taught by staff with strong scholarly backgrounds. Many staff (me included) teach both types of modules. In the theory modules we ask the students to learn to be scholars. We say it is a valuable way of thinking, a transferable skill, and a way of getting past the certainties of the present, so one can be prepared for the possibilities of the future.

Just before Christmas, in the last class of one of my theory modules, I asked the students if there had been the option to take another production module instead how many of them would have done so. All said at that point they would have done so. At the end, though, they all agreed it had been very important and they couldn't imagine working in the industry without the knowledge and skills they had developed. They also said that thinking and learning about the world was quite interesting.

Personally, I love high theory. Even the French kind. We have to make it work for our students.

Music industry students do find study, scholarship and thinking useful. By and large they just never imagine they will until they learn how to do it well.


Reebee Garofalo 07-01-22

I have been waiting to see a response to Philip's theory posts. Given the amount of his type 2 theory that I have to peruse to select readings for my courses, I can't imagine that silence equals agreement. Philip has made an important and controversial intervention in the whole way our field is organized intellectually. So why no responses?

I am surprised because the previous discussion about race, which is usually one of the most highly charged discussions one can have, surfaced serious, genuine disagreements and did so in the spirit of thoughtful, respectful debate. More of the same would be interesting and useful to the field here as well.

REPL FROM FRANCO FABBRI

Probably, it's because Philip's posts didn't ever reach the list. I knew he was going to send his comments, and I've been waiting to read them, but I haven't seen them yet. Did anybody else have the same problem?


Philip Tagg 07-01-17

If "La 'French Theory'", as used by many cultural studies scholars when it was trendy to be "postmodernist" or "poststructuralist", is left wing then I'm Mrs Thatcher or George Bush or Jean-Marie Lepen or Silvio Berlusconi or whoever you like of that ilk (no, thank you) or a duck's uncle (preferable). If you'd like to know why "La 'French Theory'" is NOT left wing, read on. Otherwise, just delete this...

The French-language article I referred to in my contribution is called "Cultural Studies Stories : la domestication d'une pensée sauvage" (= The Taming of Wild Ideas" at http://www.enssib.fr/autres-sites/reseaux-cnet/80/01-matte.pdf). For those who don't (or won't) read French, the article first explains the democratic and progressive origins of Cultural Studies in the UK (Williams, Hogarth [should be Hoggart, what a Freudian slip], Hall, etc.). Later it documents the difficulties caused by the institutional success of the subject and by the wide range of disciplines, topics and approaches in search of common coneptual ground which Cultural Studies seemed, at least from an anglocentric perspective, alone in providing. One of the resulting problems was the gradual inflation of the meta-theoretical verbiage scholars thought it necessary to generate in order to belong to the relatively recent academic community of those investigating any aspect of popular or mass-mediated culture. How, some colleagues seemed to be implying (my remark), could any academic interested in that sort of topic carve out a niche in the institutional hierarchy without paying lip service to Kristeva, Baudrillard, Lyotard & Cie? How to bring up a family or pay the mortgage without belonging to that intellectual canon club?

Another important problem raised by the authors of "Cultural Studies Stories" is an obsession with notions of the audience's "freedom" to determine the meaning of mass-disseminated messages and a consequent blindness about the relation of audiences to the social and economic order which imposes considerable restrictions on the range of readings realistically open to any sort of negotiation. This kind of blindness (my remark) fits snugly into the ideology of the "free market": you can "shop around" and you are "free to choose" meanings, so to speak. Mrs Thatcher (right wing) would've liked that and so would Bush, Lepen, Berlusconi and so on: Mattelart & Neveu (authors of the article) don't. Nor do I.

It is also worth noting that Armand Mattelart, one of the authors of the article about "La 'French Theory'", started his academic career "as a lecturer-researcher in the Sociology of Population and the Sociology of the Media at the University of Chile in Santiago... [H]e lived in Chile from 1962 to 1973. During the three years of Salvador Allende's presidency (1970-73) he actively participated in plans to reform the media. Expelled during General Pinochet's dictatorship, he and Chris Marker made a full-length documentary (The Spiral, 1976), about the Chilean Popular Unity period" (http://www.mediamente.rai.it/mmold/english/bibliote/biografi/m/mattelart.ht m). Mattelart also wrote the highly popular and influential "How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic" (2nd edition; ISBN 0884770230). In short, if Mattelart's work is left wing and if he criticises pomo use of "La 'French Theory'", either the latter is NOT left wing or Mattelart is Pinochet or Thatcher or Bush or Lepen or Berlusconi, etc!

Of course, there are other pretty darn undialectical problems with "La 'French Theory'". As a musician/musicologist I personally find musical text denial one of the most irritating: all those textless contexts seem to have replaced those equally unhelpful contextless texts. It's popular music studies with plenty of "popular" and "studies" but zero "music"... Still, that's another story (see pp. 78-89 in "Ten Little Title Tunes", online at http://tagg.org/bookxtrax/titles/Ch2.pdf: "Music as a troublesome appendage to cultural studies").

If you'd like to know more but don't read French, try "Culture/Metaculture" by Francis Mulhearn (Routledge, 2000) "which has a really illuminating anti-cult. studs. line and drubs the Kulturkritik of Adorno et al. partly for the same reason: an overestimation of the redemptive power of culture at the expense of politics proper." Thanks to Jason Toynbee for this info. Hi, Jason!

So now I'm off to indulge in some "right wing" (NOT!) musical analysis and audiovisual production. I'm might even "stoop" to doing some pragmatic and empirical work...


Nathan Wiseman-Trowse 07-01-15

Many thanks to all of you how replied to my question. I'll be writing a piece about my experiences in getting my particular course running in the next IASPM UK and Ireland newsletter, so I'll reserve my comments for now, other than to say that there is obviously a significant difference between writing a degree course that has an indentifiable syncretic relationship between theory and practice (however those terms are defined), and what my school wants as a degree. As is probably the case in most institutions pedagogical concerns don't count for a hill of beans if the course costs money to set up, and as such a 'theoretical' approach to PMS is clearly seen as a cheap option. I'm the kind of tutor who works cheaply (give me a space and some chairs and I can do it) but while students already on the course might find what I do useful, it doesn't recruit in the first place.

Thanks Martin for the reference to your article, its put my mind at rest in many ways. Check out the newsletter for a more sustained rant on this. I'm off to indulge in left-wing 'French' theory!


Philip Tagg 07-01-13

"Theory": it all depends, I think, on which sort we're talking about and how we put it across. I'd like to try and sort this out a bit. First: WHICH "theory"?

There's [1] conventional "music theory" which basically entails recognising and labelling musical structuration in terms like "modulation depth" (on vocal tracks in countless recordings), "pentatonicism" (almost anywhere), "diminished seventh" (very common in early film music) and so on ad infinitum. This type of "theory" is widespread: literally millions of music teachers, students and practitioners think of "theory" in such terms. OK, the correspondence is clearly not about this type of "theory" but this caveat ought to be mentioned in the interests of interdisciplinarity (one of IASPM's goals). For millions of people this IS "theory", right or wrong!

There's [2] what Mattelart & Neveu call (in French, using English words) "La 'French Theory'" (see http://www.enssib.fr/autres-sites/reseaux-cnet/80/01-matte.pdf), by which is meant what, from at least one French philosophical viewpoint, comes across as the rather bizarre mish-mash of ideas "made in France" and embraced by no mean number of British and US-American cultural studies scholars in the eighties and early nineties. It was an often anti-empirical, ethnocentric, unethical and non-dialectical hotch-potch of intellectual posturing characterised by authoritarian anti-authoritarianism and frequently labelled "postmodernist", "poststructuralist" or the like. This is what passed as "theory" for a considerable amount of time for a significant number of popular music scholars. You may or may not like it (I obviously don't!) but it was important to a lot of people.

Then there's [3] "theory" in the vaguer and more general sense of knowledge understood as "non-empirical", "not practical", "not directly vocational", etc. but nevertheless of relevance and importance to empircal, practical and vocational aspects of eductaion. It is in this sense that correspondents in this "pop theory" thread mainly seem to be using the "TH" word. If that is so, and if it is relevant and important, why is it difficult to "sell"?

Before trying to answer that, I should add that there's much more to "pop theory" than I can handle here. I tried to deal with some of that in Chapter 2 of "Ten Little Title Tunes" (pp. 57-89), particularly under the headings "The institutionalisation of rock", "Pomo-rockology..." and "Music - a troublesome appendage to cultural studies. This is all online at http://tagg.org/bookxtrax/titles/Ch2.pdf (bibliographical details, if referring: P Tagg & R Clarida (2003) "Ten Little Title Tunes"; New York & Montréal: Mass Media Music Scholars' Press; temporarily out of print).

Theory (in sense #3) is hard to "sell" because of topsy-turvy notions of usefulness. Successful professionals (in film music, games music, recording, etc.) who come to lecture my students, when asked what is most useful in their job, often reply "being able to think on your feet" (they also often mention being able to write convincingly in their mother tongue, all of which suprises many and even shocks some students). The only thing ex-students lucky enough to find a job in some type of music production can be 100% certain of is that virtually nothing is certain and that "things change" constantly. For example, training students on state-of-the-art equipment (short-term practicality) almost certainly means skills on obsolete equipment in a few years (who honestly NEEDS a synclavier or a 64-track Neve console in 2007?).

Another example: I don't know how many students have followed relatively recent music business courses whose "practicalities" were based on observing industry structures from the phonogram era (c.1900-c.2000): fantastic if you wanted to join the industry in the eighties! It reminds me of all those classical performers we still produce as if we were all living in fin-de-siècle Vienna.

In short, one obvious selling point for "theory" (vague sense #3) is that it is in many ways more useful, practical and vocational than the usually vaunted "useful", "practical" and "vocational" aspects of education. OK, the latter are fine if you're educating for yesterday or, at the best, today; but they have no guaranteed value for the future which, trite though it may sound, is what students are supposed to prepare for. Just give them a list of all those "state-of-the-art" and subsequently obsolete "practicalities" which were once part of "cutting-edge" courses in "enhanced" "centres of excellence". Management may not see the light but I've yet to meet a single student who didn't at least partially understand that a viable conceptual toolkit is essential if you want to get INTO a media/music production or administration job, let alone survive IN it.

One final thought. Japanese industry used to pay for top students to go to the UK to get what used to be known as a "liberal education". That practice has dwindled since the eighties when many UK university programmes started to go pseudo-vocational. The idea was to strengthen Japan's (then) relatively week tradition of innovative research and development for their highly successful manufacturing sector. Yes, the Japanese knew that 2+2=4: if lateral thinking, abstraction, conceptual openness, a critical and independent spirit, etc. aren't part of education, invention and innovation will inevitably suffer. Making short-termist utilitarian automata out of middle-class youth is not in the intrests of middle-class youth, nor of the national economy, nor even of individual businesses. So who does win from notions of "theory's" "uselessness"? Maybe we could ask our students that question.


Tim Wall 07-01-13

We run a Music Industries degree that combines media and music business production work with theory modules in popular music in a 60%;40% ratio. The production work covers promotions, music video, music radio, music online, record company management and music PR; the theory popular music history, the music business and popular music culture. There are placements in the professional studies strand.

I don't think it is the theory work that attracts the students, and we have to work hard initially to convince the students that it is as valuable as the doing modules, but most begin to see the value as the programme develops.

Details at www.mediacourses.com


Simon Warner 07-01-12

Point taken, Stuart, mine was a music dept perspective. But how far would you theorise popular music if you were teaching radio or journalism skills, club or gig promotion? Surely you'd be dealing with practicalities and applicable skills - the nature of broadcasting, the ethics of reporting (and I speak as a one-time journalist), the techniques of marketing, etc - rather than delving into Barthes, Frith, Jameson or, to re-quote Nathan, "Deleuzian readings of the Kitchens of Distinction".

I think you're absolutely right about the transferable skills issue - an Australian academic proposed at a conf a year or two ago that music degrees can equip the individual for something like 600 jobs and I can see no reason why media, communications and other creative arts BAs shouldn't fulfil similar expectations - but a purely theoretical, undergraduate popular music qualification would not attract sufficient numbers. I may like to teach such a programme, maybe many of us would, but I don't think our accountants would allow it to happen.

That said, one way to bring such theoretical ideas into play, assuming you have sufficient numbers cross-campus, is to offer popular music courses to non-musicians as electives or options. The Popular Music and the Press elective I run is over-subscribed even though we have a hundred places each year for geographers, physicists and linguists. But then you need a university structure with possibly tens of thousands of students to make that work effectively.


Stuart Borthwick 07-01-12

I disagree with Simon.

In the UK, there are lots of school leavers without formal musical skills who want careers in music journalism, radio (lots of jobs currently available), music management, PR, venue management, club or gig promotion, and so on. These are your potential applicants. Providing that your proposed degree course provides students with transferable skills and ensures that they are employable in different areas of the music industry (and beyond), you do not necessarily need a performance or composition element.

Whereas Simon states that HEIs are not likely to take the risks on theoretical popular music programmes, they are even less likely to take risks on programmes that focus on composition/production. In the UK, both types of programmes are likely to receive similar levels of income from the funding council, but programmes that have composition/production at their centre are likely to be considerably more expensive to run.


Sean Albiez 07-01-10

To add to this - I'm currently putting together a BA Popular Music Studies degree (with distinct sociological and cultural studies elements) within the Undergraduate Popular Music Scheme at Southampton Solent University. The only way this is really viable is due to the fact it shares many units with 4 other popular music courses in the scheme ... 2 of which are strong recruiters ...


Simon Warner 07-01-10

Relaying experience from the UK only, there seems to be little market for a stand-alone academic-based popular music BA because the potential participants are, broadly speaking, late teenage boys (though increasingly girls, too) who want to play, compose and work the technology. Nearly all the ones I’ve encountered, and it must be several hundreds now, have an interest, to a greater or lesser degree, in the history, culture and social theory of the music but the performing, writing and recording side features very highly in the students’ aspirations for the course they take.

Which is not to say, of course, that you cannot theorise all the practical pursuits – there is a steadily growing literature underpinning approaches to work on stage, the processes of composition and the possibilities and, indeed, challenges of the studio – and we, or at least my colleagues, do that.

That said, there is usually some kind of resistance among late adolescents to the notion that you should theorise, for instance, stage-craft and the notes – this removes the magic or the essence, we are told. Yet they are quite happy, in the main, to consider scenes or subcultures, the industry and gender, for example, as ways of understanding what popular music does and, perhaps, what they do.

Liverpool’s original and ground-breaking MA in Popular Music Studies was (is?) very much oriented to the academic and attracted a different, older crowd with a very clear interest in the theoretical over the practical. But I think a BA programme of this kind would click with too few individuals to create a critical mass and there are barely any (maybe no) British universities now interested in risking such an initiative without the guarantee of sizeable cohorts into the forseeable future.

Hope that helps.


Nathan Wiseman-Trowse 07-01-10

Just a quick request of people's experiences really. I'm currently writing a popular music BA at Northampton in conjunction with our music department. The question has been raised as to whether students would be attracted to a Popular Music degree that was primarily theoretical. My immediate response was that while I might want to do it, potential students would expect a strong composition and performance element to such a degree. I was wondering if anyone had any experiences with primarily theoretical pop music courses (from a sociological and cultural studies perspective) and how they went down with students.

Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.