Justify My Love

Popular Culture and the Academy

How to Cite

Railton, D. (1999). Justify My Love: Popular Culture and the Academy. M/C Journal, 2(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1762
Vol. 2 No. 4 (1999): Pop
Published 1999-06-01

In the past two decades a number of new disciplines (cultural studies, media studies, gender studies, women's studies, etc.) have established themselves within the academy. They have often been developed from an overtly radical political stance and set out to challenge entrenched ways of thinking about the world and the society we live in. They transgress academic norms by bringing under academic scrutiny things (film, popular music, computer games, etc.) that, in the past, would have been seen as unimportant and unworthy of critical attention. Basically, these new disciplines have provided a space in which to take popular culture seriously in a way that was difficult, if not impossible, within more traditional academic disciplines. By doing so they have also opened up the more traditional disciplines so that musicologists, for example, can now write about Led Zeppelin (Headlam) and professors of philosophy and of English can write learned works about Madonna (Bordo, Kaplan). They have breached academic defences, let popular culture in, made it both acceptable and respectable as a subject of study. As these new disciplines mature, however, it is time for those of us working and studying within them to ask ourselves just what 'taking popular culture seriously' really means. We must be careful not to simply rest on our laurels and presume that work within these disciplines is somehow inherently transgressive. Sometimes our work is not as challenging as we might like to think, but rather it serves to reinforce some boundaries as it undermines others. I want to address this idea here by using as an example the study of pop music, as this is where my research interests lie, but I am sure that what I have to say applies to other areas of popular culture and its critique too.

In the bad old days before these new disciplines came along culture was thought of in terms of a simple binary division between 'high art' and 'mass culture'. 'High art' was work produced by an artist who, by dictionary definition, is 'someone who displays in his [sic] work qualities such as sensibility and imagination' (Collins). Its appeal was to an educated elite who could appreciate the depth and complexity of the work, and who could actively engage with the music they were listening to. Mass music, commonly called 'pop', was work produced commercially for profit, performed by artistes rather than artists, entertainers rather than creators. Its appeal was thought to be restricted to those who could be duped into buying it; who, by implication at least, lacked the knowledge and the intelligence to do anything more than passively consume the products of the culture industry (see, for example, Adorno, Gans). High art was about quality, and was differentiated in terms of quality; mass culture referred only to quantity, how many units people could be persuaded to buy. 1960s TV programmes such as Britain's Juke Box Jury, which asked of each record 'will it be a hit or a miss?' rather than 'is it good or bad?', epitomised this. 'Hit or miss?' was a question that had no relevance to high art but was all that could be asked about 'pop'. High art was seen to have meaning, mass culture merely had effects; high art appealed to a distinguished elite of cultured individuals, mass culture to the masses, the people, undistinguished and indistinguishable.

One of the earliest tasks for cultural studies and the other new disciplines was to criticise this simple binary opposition that depicted ordinary people as mindless dupes and their tastes as no taste at all. Writers such as Dick Hebdige, and others working at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s (e.g. Hall and Jefferson), showed that certain groups of young people actively produced meaning from the products of popular culture. They were not simply a passively duped audience. Others discussed the influence of art on popular music and the way in which "pop musicians apply 'high art' skills and identities to a mass cultural form" (Frith and Horne 2). This work blends well with post-modern theories of the breakdown of distinctions between the high and the mass. Here we have 'mass' audiences behaving as if they were listening to high art, 'mass' musicians behaving as if they were making high art. This work is given further credibility by writers such as Peterson and Bryson who argue that society's 'elite' no longer enjoys art music to the exclusion of everything else. Those high status, high income individuals who in the past would have looked down on mass produced work now enjoy 'lowbrow' music like rock or hip hop as well as opera and classical symphonies. Not only are 'mass' audiences behaving as if they were enjoying art but elites are starting to behave as if they were part of the mass.

All the work that I have mentioned is very important and played a necessary part in the development of the study of popular music. It clearly demonstrates that the high art/mass culture divide is nowhere near as clear-cut as was often presumed. The main problem with it, however, is that it all challenges the high/mass binary on an empirical level. It says that popular music isn't simply the opposite of art music because some pop musicians bring high art values to their work. It argues that the audience for commercially produced music does not simply consist of cultural dupes because some actively create meanings from commercial products, or that some are part of the cultural elite, 'highbrow' audience. Nowhere does it challenge the value system on which the high/mass divide depends; a value system whereby imaginative, demanding, intelligent music is thought to be somehow better, more worthy, more valuable than music that simply has a catchy tune and is fun to sing along to. A value system that also implies that those who listen to imaginative, demanding, intelligent music are somehow better, more worthy, more valuable people than those who do not. When we say that some music, some parts of the audience are not 'mass' we are saying that the rest are. We are drawing the same lines just in a different place; we are constructing a high popular music/mass popular music divide that is essentially the same as the high art/mass culture divide.

This worries me for a number of reasons, far too many to go into in the space allowed. I want to concentrate, therefore, on two, related problems. Firstly it mirrors the same sort of distinctions that are made in music journalism and music subcultures where, for example, Chuck D complains that most hip-hop nowadays is simply hip-pop (Touch magazine) and journalist Burhan Wazir argues that drum and bass is too intelligent for the general public to appreciate (The Observer). Surely we, as radical academics, should be critiquing this sort of attitude,not implicitly supporting it! And we do support it every time we write an article that talks about the artistic and/or political importance of a genre of pop music, or a pop music video, everytime we write about some of the audience in a way that implies they are better than the rest because of the musical choices they have made.

Secondly it limits the sort of music that academics are concerned with. What seems to have happened is that when academics get their hands on popular culture they have to treat it as if it were 'high art'. They/we make judgements based on the artistic integrity of the performer, on the 'sensibility and imagination' that they bring to their product. And the popular culture that gets discussed is only that which can be discussed as if it were high art. Work that doesn't make any claims to artistic integrity is ignored. Try looking through cultural studies, media studies, gender studies journals and books for articles about 'boy band' pop or the Spice Girls, or for that matter serious academic work on Phil Collins or Céline Dion; work that is highly popular but has no artistic pretensions. You'll find almost nothing. You will, however, find loads about 'intelligent', 'artistic' music; Madonna's transgressive play with sex and gender imagery (e.g. Schwichtenberg), dance culture's artistic and political importance (e.g. Hemment, Hesmondhalgh), hip-hop's post-modern Blackness (e.g. Potter, Rose) etc.,etc.

Many of these articles will draw explicit distinctions between the people they are talking about, the music they are talking about, and commercial 'mass' music. Drew Hemment, for example, is critical of the "growth of corporate clubs, corporate magazines and corporate house dance labels" (Hemment 38), and Russell Potter talks about hip-hop that has been "commodified by the music industry, 'made safe' ... for the masses" (Potter 108). Both set up distinctions between commercial music and 'art' music that would do credit to the strictest mass culture theorist. In the past two or three decades the challenge to academic orthodoxy by disciplines such as cultural studies, media studies, gender studies and women's studies has had an effect. The world, and the academy, are now very different places to what they once were. Treating commercial music as if it were art is no longer enough. If these new disciplines are to maintain a radical edge we must continue to push at the limits of the acceptable and bring into question how the boundaries of the acceptable are defined and justified. We need to be exploring ways of undermining the whole concept of cultural elites. It isn't radical to simply replace one elite with another.

Author Biography

Diane Railton