Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Culture

Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Culture

by Roger Beebe

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A collection of interdisciplinary essays examining the ever-changing communities and discussions connected to American popular music.See more details below


A collection of interdisciplinary essays examining the ever-changing communities and discussions connected to American popular music.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Smart, provocative, contradictory, suggestive, irritating, inspiring, exhaustive, exhausting and over the top—Rock Over the Edge takes the imperative of its title seriously, though often with a welcome sense of humor. Anyone who cares about popular music will find much in here to react to—either by shouting out in affirmation, or hurling the damn thing against the wall.”—Anthony DeCurtis, author of Rocking My Life Away: Writing About Music and Other Matters

“Well written and engaging, these essays combine high levels of scholarship with a much more intimate familiarity with popular musical culture than is common within popular music studies. The range of styles makes for a lively and even endearing collection.”—Will Straw, McGill University

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Duke University Press
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Rock over the edge

Transformations in popular music culture
By Roger Beebe

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2915-8

Chapter One


Every once in a while, people invested in a particular body of scholarly work should take stock. They should stop and ask themselves what they have accomplished and what they have failed to accomplish. And they may even need to ask whether the questions that they have been asking, the questions that propelled their (collective) research project, need to be reevaluated. There are a number of different reasons why the questions might need to be reconsidered: perhaps what we have already learned has redefined and reconstituted the relevant domain; or perhaps theoretical arguments have raised different issues; or perhaps the field of practices and relations have themselves changed as a result of other forces. Of course, different individuals will end up with different conclusions, not least because they understand the project of their (collective) work differently, or care more about one aspect of the project than another, or because they have different approaches to intellectual work in general.

I think it is time to take stock of the work of the past decades in what has come to be called "popular music studies"; more particularly, that subset of the field that addresses what I have always called, using the term in the broadest possiblesense, rock culture. In this brief essay I only want to offer some preliminary judgments, and I do not intend to try to cover the full range of work of which account should be taken. I intend to point to three interrelated problems or, even stronger, "failures" within the discourses of popular music studies. In taking up these three problems, I do not intend to dismiss the writing that has been done both inside and outside of the academy. I don't want to deny that this work is often full of insights or that it is often valuable, fun, and so forth.

In fact, I think it is important to accept that different kinds and sites of writing about popular music-considered as an everyday cultural practice within specific and multiple contexts, in definite relations with other practices and relations-can and should serve lots of different functions. It would be interesting to know something about these differences, differences concerning the questions they attempt to answer and their relationships to or places within the cultures of popular music. Consequently, I am not demanding that all writing about popular music be defined by a single definition or project, least of all by my own. In fact, I think that my view of the project and responsibilities of popular music studies is probably a minority view at best. But I do think that there are specific-empirically, theoretically, and politically inflected-questions that have yet to be significantly addressed in anything like a sustained or collective way. This is not only a matter of one's theoretical paradigm or empirical research practice; it is not only a matter of knowing more but of understanding better. And I do think that the project that I had in mind when I entered the field has been shared over the years by many others who have attempted to take up the challenges of popular music studies.

My own interest in the study of popular music, and therefore the shape of my current misgivings about it, derives from my commitment to and my understanding of cultural studies. In another context I twice tried to define it in the following terms:

If there is no fixed definition of cultural studies, perhaps the terrain on which it operates can at least be identified: cultural studies is concerned with describing and intervening in the ways "texts" and "discourses" (i.e., cultural practices) are produced within, inserted into, and operate in the everyday life of human beings and social formations, so as to reproduce, struggle against and perhaps transform the existing structures of power.

And again,

Cultural studies is about mapping the deployment and effects of discursive practices and alliances within the context of specific social spaces and milieus. It is about the relations or articulations between (1) discursive alliances as the configurations of practices that define where and how people live specific practices and relations; (2) the practices and configurations of daily life (as the sites of specific forms of determinations, controls, structures of power, struggles, pleasures, etc.); (3) the apparatuses of power that mobilize different practices and effects to organize the spaces of human life and the possibilities of alliances.

My own researches have attempted to theorize and analyze the relations among popular music, popular culture more broadly understood, popular politics, and the systemic structures and forces of inequality and domination (or the balance in the field of forces as it were). Consequently, I have argued for over twenty years (and I have certainly not been alone in this) that rock music cannot be studied in isolation, either from other forms and practices of popular culture or from the structures and practices of everyday life. Studying rock for me was never about further carving up the field of popular culture into media and genres, or the field of cultural studies into increasingly narrow and less-relevant disciplines. But I did think that it was important to legitimate the study of popular music, not only because of its obvious social and economic power, but also because I believed it was an especially exciting and unique entrance into the world of the popular and the quotidian, that it offered (to echo Richard Hoggart) unique insights into and perspectives on the question of how people live their lives in a particular time and place. I thought it was important to recognize the specificity of musical expression and culture, especially in relation to its role in youth cultures in the second half of the twentieth century. I was convinced that popular music studies could force the most radical demands of interdisciplinarity onto the agenda because I was sure it would be impossible to study it in any serious way without a serious critique of the limits and constraints of disciplinarity. And finally-and why I went back to it again in the 1970s after my initial frustrated attempts in the late 1960s-I was certain that it was the most powerful pedagogical tool we had to try to teach new generations of students to take a critical and self-reflective look at the culture they live in and consume. I must admit that I do not think I would give the vast majority of popular music studies very high grades on any of the dimensions I cared (and still care) about. (There are probably lots of scholars who would reject these dimensions entirely, and others who, while accepting one or more of them, might come up with an entirely different set of judgments.)

Obviously, I am disappointed in popular music studies. I wonder whether the academic disciplinization (through organizations, journals, etc.) of popular music studies-by which I mean the identification of popular music as an object of study and specialization equivalent to literature, film, television, and so forth-has taken on such a force of its own that it has now become a serious stumbling block to the kind of work I wanted (and want) to do. I am no longer confident that the academic study of popular music is a particularly useful place from which to begin the sort of project-the project of cultural studies-that has always driven my work. Too often it has fulfilled Raymond Williams's worst fears, tracing out the line that distances the project from the actual work:

There remains the problem of forgetting the real project. As you separate these disciplines out, and say "Well, it's a vague and baggy monster, Cultural Studies, but we can define it more closely-as media studies, community sociology, popular fiction or popular music," so you create defensible disciplines, and there are people in other departments who can see that these are defensible disciplines, that here is properly referenced and presented work. But the question of what is then happening to the project remains.

So what are the failures or lacunae that concern me now? First, at the level of theory, I do not think that we have gained a significantly better understanding of how popular music works. In fact, one would be hard pressed to even describe the major theoretical paradigms (or the major debates) that have defined the academic study of pop music. This is not to say that there have not been some important and interesting contributions to a possible discourse, but they are not taken up and discussed, they are not commonly integrated into empirical work, and there is no sense of the desirability of reaching common understandings (which is not the same as consensus) of the strengths and/or weaknesses of particular positions, even to the point of asking whether some positions (in fact, positions that are often assumed within various empirical and interpretive studies) are not fatally flawed. At this level, I do not think that writing about popular music has significantly changed (to say nothing of "progressed") in forty years. I realize that "progress" is a suspect concept in the contemporary world, but I think that one can at least expect that over the course of decades there would be some sense that the debates and discussions have moved, even if not in one direction.

The second issue, closely related to the first, is that I do not think we have developed (or even attempted to develop) a common vocabulary in which to argue about the differences between musics or musical cultures, and between critical interpretations and analyses. What is the difference between rock in the 1950s and 1980s? What is the difference between heavy metal in Detroit and heavy metal in rural Illinois? What is the difference between listening to the Beatles in the 1960s and in the 1990s? What is the difference between dance music in the 1960s and the 1990s? What is the difference between 70s British/N.Y. punk, 80s California punk, 90s (straightedge) punk, and 90s alternative? What is the difference between "Born in the USA" for a thirteen and a thirty year old, an American or a Taiwanese? What is the difference between Springsteen and Mellencamp? How do we begin to answer these questions? How do we understand and make some evaluations of the different interpretations that have been offered of punk or disco, of hip hop or new country? I do not think these questions can be approached in entirely musical or sonic terms. They are complicated, multidimensional questions that involve us in considerations of the social significance, relations, and effects of music. But if we have no theory of the effectivity of popular music, or of its contextuality, how can we possibly distinguish between the different organizations of effects that specific musical practices, in specific contexts and for specific audiences, may produce? Too much of the unarticulated, taken-for-granted theory of popular music is really the generalization of specific formations of popular music culture, one that marks both the biography of many of the writers and the specific and intense forms of investment that many of us who write about popular music have had and continue to have in the music. The question is whether such experiences, relations, and investments can be unproblematically universalized or assumed to be somehow intrinsic to the nature of the music itself. Personally, I do not think that the normative terms of most rock writing, which depend on those relationships that were dominant in the 1960s and 1970s, are up to the task of describing what is happening to popular music cultures in the 1990s. To take only one small but crucial change, there is growing evidence that people make the sorts of investments that were reserved for postwar popular music in a wider range of media products and practices.

The third issue is that too often (but fortunately not universally) I am disappointed by how infrequently our engagement with popular music as a set of fragmented and changing "discursive apparatuses" (to use Foucault's term) has forced us to take up the new and urgent political struggles of recent decades. I am not saying that scholars of popular music are apolitical; on the contrary, they are probably as politicized as any discipline-defined body of researchers. But their politics are rarely shaped by the knowledge they gain about what is happening in the world through their ongoing research into popular music cultures. The terms and urgency of their political engagement are usually defined by their own general experience of the music, by the theoretical and political discourses that they bring to the research, and by their own generational experience, rather than what they take from the research. Consequently, the objects of their political energy are usually either relatively independent of the music or are defined entirely within the sphere of the music. Now I am sure that much of my own earlier faith that popular music offered a particularly powerful place to enter into the fields of culture and power (both as a political agent and as a scholar) was the product of a naive (and certainly generational) belief that the music had the potential to serve as an organizing site if not force of resistance and alternative possibilities. But the terms on which youth (in the United States and the world) have to live their lives and engage with their music have changed so significantly that I doubt that it is now possible to be so naive, or even as optimistic. In fact, youth has become the most devastated battleground in the war being waged against the postwar status quo (and the baby boom rearticulation of that formation) by a tense alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. The "state" of youth and children has to be obvious to anyone studying popular music culture, and my question is simple: Where are the outraged and articulate voices that attempt to make sense of, give voice to, and intervene into these struggles? I cannot help but feel that popular music scholars should be the leading edge of such a politics, but the truth is, sadly, otherwise.

These problems, however, have not diminished my commitment to the need for academically defined, cultural-studies-aligned work around popular music. Such work would not attempt to offer and defend a particular set of judgments about musical texts and tastes; and it especially would not begin with such judgments. The question is not whether or how one defends popular music (or some part of it), but what popular music practices are doing and what is being done with them and to them, and such questions cannot be entirely answered in terms of individuals, whether texts or audiences. Nor are they questions about intentions, experiences, and uses, although these might be relevant dimensions of the empirical puzzle. This is, it seems to me, one of the absolute distinctions between scholars and critics. I do not believe it is the function of the scholar of popular culture to attempt to substitute his or her judgment (or more often taste) for that of his or her students. I do not believe that the academic study of popular music is about making judgments, especially not in the first instance. As Proust put it: "That bad music is played, is sung more often and more passionately than good, is why it has also gradually become more infused with men's dreams and tears. Treat it therefore with respect. Its place, insignificant in the history of art, is immense in the sentimental history of social groups." That doesn't mean that individuals cannot enrich or change their experiences by being made to understand the complexity of how such experiences and judgments are produced and how the music functions not only in their own lives but in the larger contexts of social relations of power. Obviously, there are important questions at stake here about an individual's relationship to everyday popular culture, and about the value of different voices or positions from which to speak-for example, the immersed participant, the ethnographer (externalized visitor), or the fascinated describer. But perhaps, at least for the moment, we can circumvent the question by accepting that, in the words of John Frow, "our attention must be turned away from that mythical popular subject immediate to observation, and focused instead on the relation between two different kinds of practice: a first order practice of everyday culture and the second order practice of analysis conducted by a reader endowed with significant cultural capital." It is this reference to "significant cultural capital" that I want to elaborate, although I doubt that the market for such capital is booming these days. Given the fact that the second absence described here depends on the first, and that the third depends on the second, I will devote the greatest part of this paper to fleshing out the first of these lacunae, devoting less time to the second and, unfortunately (to say nothing of ironically), even less to the last.


Excerpted from Rock over the edge by Roger Beebe Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

Will Straw
Well written and engaging, these essays combine high levels of scholarship with a much more intimate familiarity with popular musical culture than is common within popular music studies. The range of styles makes for a lively and even endearing collection.
Anthony DeCurtis
Smart, provocative, contradictory, suggestive, irritating, inspiring, exhaustive, exhausting and over the top-Rock Over the Edge takes the imperative of its title seriously, though often with a welcome sense of humor. Anyone who cares about popular music will find much in here to react to-either by shouting out in affirmation, or hurling the damn thing against the wall.
— Anthony DeCurtis, author of Rocking My Life Away: Writing About Music and Other Matters
Bernard L. Gendron
A collection of highly spirited and innovative essays by a new generation of popular music scholars.

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