Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Just for the Record: A Brief History of Rough Trade Records and Their Idealistic Approach to Running a Record Label

“It is no longer so unusual to argue the continued relevance of a concept of habitus in the epoch of globalisation.” [i]
Alan O’ Connor, in his essay Local Scenes and Dangerous Crossroads: Punk and Theories of Cultural Hybridity.

“It's not the size of the dog in the fight; it's the size of the fight in the dog.”
Mark Twain.

What do The Smiths, Stiff Little Fingers, The Libertines, The Strokes, Scritti Politti and Duffy all have in common? What do Pulp have to do with any of this rabble? Where in the world do Public Image Ltd. fit in here? This essay will set out to show how the lineage of all these acts is tied by Rough Trade Records in some way or other. The essay will also set out to discuss the idealistic approach the people in charge of the label took to running a record label and will also provide a chronological frame of the company’s life to date. From a small record shop in Notting Hill, West London in the 1970s to international record sales success in the 1980s. From bankruptcy in the 1990s to revival and, finally, a number one single in the 2000s, this is the story of Rough Trade Records. This is not a critique; this is a report on one of Great Britain’s most successful independent record labels.

Modest Beginnings: How it All Began
In 1976, a Cambridge University graduate called Geoff Travis opened up a record shop on Kensington Park Road in West London. Having spent some time travelling across North America with his then girlfriend, Travis had been amassing a rather large record collection on his travels, buying them wherever he could at low-cost. He took some advice from a friend and had the records shipped over to the U.K. to begin his dream of opening a record shop with a diverse array of vinyl for customers to choose from. This decision would map his life’s work.

Upon opening, the Rough Trade shop became synonymous with punk. Having got its name partly from a little-known Canadian pop group and partly from a trashy novel, Rough Trade seemed to fit in with punk from the word go. The punk aesthetic of ‘do it yourself’ was evident in Travis’ surmising of why he started the shop (which can be found on BBC Four’s documentary Do it Yourself: The Story of Rough Trade, incidentally this essay’s main source of information) in which he said “having been in the States for quite a long time, I came back to England and there was nowhere I wanted to go to particularly, so I thought if there’s nowhere to go I’ll have to start somewhere”.(1)

By 1978, Rough Trade, now a successful record shop, had started a distribution arm, distributing records for small independent labels, keeping in line with their strictly leftist, punk rock ethos.     This maverick approach is rumoured to have taken inspiration from Manchester punk band Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP, which was self-recorded, self-pressed and self-released. Ultimately, one may conclude that Rough Trade and its gang of leftist radicals wanted music releases to be of the self, but not selfish. Released by the artist, not for the labels. Their next step, then, was an obvious one: to create an ethical, independent record label. A label which split profits 50/50 between artist and label and sought to hold a diverse roster of artists. In 1978 Rough Trade Records began.

A New Dawn: Rough Trade Records’ First Incarnation (1978 – 1991)
Rough Trade records set out to be an anti-globalist, anti-corporate record label. Everybody at the label, from top to bottom, was paid the same amount. Rough Trade also employed an equal gender opportunities philosophy, whereby women and men were treated and paid equally, which, in the late 1970s in Britain, was quite a renegade’s approach. Rough Trade had set its stall out as a Marxist-type organisation, looking to show the world where the multinational major labels were going wrong ethically.

In 1978 they signed a Belfast punk band by the name of Stiff Little Fingers, whose debut album, Rough 1, became the first independently released album in Britain to sell 100,000 copies. Their sales success made Rough Trade enough capital to invest in other less commercial artists such as all-girl punks The Raincoats. Of The Raincoats, Caroline O’ Meara (Assistant Professor of Musicology at University of Texas) says “The  Raincoats  took advantage of  punk's  unskilled  performances in order  to  shatter  traditional  (read: masculine)  subjectivity in  rock music”. [ii] Such an approach to recording popular music fitted in extremely well with Rough Trade’s ideology.

Another group who fitted in with the political ideals of Rough Trade were Scritti Politti. Signed to the label in 1979, the band went on to release a string of albums and singles which spouted off leftist, radical sentiments. By 1982 Rough Trade had a large roster of artists, but would end up losing Scritti Politti to Warner Bros. Records (so nailed on to their sleeves were their anti-corporate principles) and had already lost Stiff Little Fingers to Chrysalis Records in 1979. The next band to join their roster, however, would be the label’s (in its first incarnation) most famous.

The Smiths were a Manchester band who showcased front men and songwriters Morrissey and Johnny Marr’s electrifying talents. As broadcast journalist Stuart Maconie puts it “1986. I remember this year… the lingering aftermath of recession, YTS schemes. And in the middle of it all, the odd glimmer of defiance, like The Smiths and The Queen is Dead [a Smiths album from that year].”[iii] Maconie’s sentiments were clearly felt by much of the record buying public as The Smiths’ sales success was such that it led to Rough Trade’s turnover being significantly improved, which meant new headquarters (King’s Cross, London), international distribution deals with majors in Japan, New Zealand and elsewhere and arguably led to Rough Trade’s downfall.

During the mid-1980s Rough Trade brought in “middle-management types” (2), to quote Travis in the aforementioned BBC 4 documentary about Rough Trade. The company’s structure subsequently changed and, thus, Rough Trade, to cut a long story short, had to abandon its ethical pay plan (due to members of the board and the ‘middle management’ men not wanting to work for the same as certain ‘lower’ members of the company) and, alas, in 1991 Rough Trade went bankrupt and folded as a company. Through going back on the original idea of an ethically run record label, it may be argued that Rough Trade shot itself in the foot.

The Second Coming: Rough Trade Records’ Second Incarnation (2000 – Present)
During the 1990s Geoff Travis partnered up with Jeanette Lee (formerly of Public Image Ltd.) and went on to manage a Sheffield band called Pulp. Having learned the rigours of dealing with major label distribution arms (due to those heady days in the 1980s) the pair (it is worth mentioning here that Jeanette Lee joined Rough Trade in 1987 as a partner with Travis) guided Pulp to success in the rather lucrative Britpop era, helping the band secure a deal with Island Records which led to a run of five top-ten singles in the mid-1990s. By 2003 Pulp had sold 10 million records worldwide and with the money earned on the back of Pulp’s success, Lee and Travis bought back the Rough Trade name and decided to resurrect the company in 2000.

In its new format Rough Trade has had a serious degree of success, having signed indie rock giants such as The Strokes and The Libertines as well as more cult-followed, but nevertheless lucrative indie bands such as Belle and Sebastian and British Sea Power. Throughout the early to mid-2000s the label had huge (independent-wise) sales successes and now has two record shops which are regularly frequented by London’s hipsters, with Notting Hill now joined by Brick Lane in London’s newly-fashionable East End as a Rough Trade base.

In recent years Rough Trade has also signed Duffy, who gave the label their first UK Singles Chart Number 1 with Mercy. Duffy was signed on a development deal and given time to work out what she wanted to do musically before having to commit to writing her first album Rockferry, which is a practice almost unheard of in the modern Popular Music Industry. It could well be argued that by doing so, Rough Trade in its new manifestation was trying not to forget its old values.

Mercy: A Conclusion
Rough Trade as a record company could be seen as the enterprise embodiment of punk rock. From its origins on the left side of politics in the late 1970s to ‘sell-out’ in the 1980s; bankruptcy in the early 1990s to a change in fortune when Britpop comes along in the mid-1990s to revival and nostalgic uphold in the 2000s, leading to widespread adoration in countless music press articles etc. It could well be argued that the tale does bear a close resemblance to the path taken by John Lydon, Joe Strummer and countless other punk rock stars over the last 30 or so years.

Rough Trade, as a record label, went on a unique journey which may ultimately result in further exultations or maybe tribulations. Rough Trade has been handed mercy, by a song of the same name, for its former sins, maybe due to its former glories. The sociological concept of habitus (a structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste[iv]) won out in this case. The popular music populace’s disposition and preference for a romantic ideal helped them overlook what happened in the 1980s with Rough Trade. Or maybe they just liked Mercy.

[i] O’ Connor, Alan, 2002; Local Scenes and Dangerous Crossroads, Popular Music 21 (2); Available through JSTOR [Accessed 29th March 2011].
[ii] O’ Meara, Caroline, 2003; The Raincoats: Breaking down Punk Rock's Masculinities - Popular Music 22(3); Available through JSTOR [Accessed 29th March 2011]
[iii] Cummins, Kevin cited Maconie, Stuart, 2009; Manchester: Looking for the Light Through the Pouring Rain; Faber and Faber ltd., London, United Kingdom.
[iv] Scott, John & Marshall, Gordon (eds) A Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford University Press, 1998

Audio Visual Sources Used
Do it Yourself: The Story of Rough Trade; BBC 4, United Kingdom; 2009. This is the main source for this essay’s factual information. Quotes from this source are marked in order of appearance by a bracketed number e.g. (1).

Buzzcocks – Spiral Scratch EP; 1977.
Stiff Little Fingers – Rough 1; Rough Trade; 1978.
Smiths, The – The Queen is Dead; Rough Trade; 1986.
Duffy – Mercy [single]; Rough Trade; 2009.
Duffy – Rockferry; Rough Trade; 2009.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Cultural Transformation Essay

“A Change is Gonna’ come”: The Attempts of the Populace and the Popular to Transform Politics and Culture through Popular Music
This essay will be a brief foray into the ways in which popular music artists and audiences have pushed for political and cultural change. The essay will discuss certain happenings and people within popular music which and who (respectively) have pushed for a different world. This essay is not set out to argue that any of these concepts and/or ideals have done anything to change Western politics or culture or, in fact, that they ever fully could (such juvenile arguments are best left in Sixth Form common rooms), but it will be a commentary and a description of certain significant elements, song lyrics and audience reactions which tried to push for transformation.
This essay will give a brief overview of three significant elements within the medium of popular music which have attempted to push a transformation agenda (c.2500 words is nowhere near enough of a limit to properly comment on any more than three, still the essay will provide brief rather than in-depth analysis of said elements), they are, namely, the importance of the political consciousness in the lyric to Sam Cooke’s 1964 hit A Change is Gonna’ Come; the political aspirations of Joe Strummer, frontman of The Clash and later Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros and subsequently the response of his audience; and the dichotomy of Eminem: part base humour spouting misogynist and homophobe, part serious social and political lyrical activist and the response from the media and fans alike to his preaching and actions.
Sam Cooke: The Changing Man
Once upon a time the soul artist Sam Cooke gave the world a statement to mull over which can be seen as a pre-cursor to many a later pop star’s efforts to change the world. That message, given during the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement in the USA, was “It’s been a long, long time coming, but I know a change is gonna’[sic] come”.[i] By spouting this idealist message to the world Cooke was, in part, pleading for a change to the racial disharmony in the USA and, in part, giving a defiant statement of intent on behalf of African Americans across the USA. Cooke’s statement actually said much more than this, but we shall work with the two aforementioned ideas as a template for now. Whether he knew it  at the time or not, Cooke was acting as an influence to many who preceded him, giving them an idea that the popular music lyric could be used as more than just a tool for demonstrating one’s love for a spouse or desired lover. By using his voice to address the socio-political state of his nation, Cooke was telling other artists that they too could do more than rhyme ‘maybe’ and ‘baby’ to fit within three and a half minutes of pop Though this may not have been his intent, it was certainly a consequence of his actions. Sam Cooke was not the first or only person to do this. Woody Guthrie had done it in numerous songs before him, Bob Dylan did it at around the same time as he did and Morrissey did it after him. Cooke’s actions, however, must be seen as vital to popular music lyricism. One such man who would have taken inspiration from Cooke was a young man born John Graham Mellor, who became better known to the World as Joe Strummer.
Joe Strummer: Social Commentator
Joe Strummer often talked about the effect the radicalisms of the 1960s had on his world-view, speaking of his “coming-of-age” in 1968.[ii] In 1976 Joe Strummer was playing in a pub rock band named The 101ers[iii] when he “saw the future”[iv] [paraphrase] in the form of punk rockers The Sex Pistols. Strummer was then approached by Bernie Rhodes (eventual manager of The Clash)[v] to join a new outfit he was managing called, rather ill-advisedly, London SS. To cut a rather long and heavily mythologised story short, Strummer joined and so became The Clash, originally consisting of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Terry Chimes and Keith Levene (who would soon leave and end up in the post-punk outfit Public Image Limited with John Lydon). Bernie Rhodes, having been heavily influenced by the 1968 student riots in Paris, told Strummer that he must write about what is around him and comment on the world, telling him to “write about what’s important”.[vi] The upshot of this inspirational pep-talk (as with many stories around The Clash, one must take it all with a pinch of salt due to the revolutionary fervour the band’s members have built around themselves) was that Strummer decided to write a bunch of song lyrics centring around such stream-of-consciousness issues as political landscapes (see 1977 from the album The Clash), the problems facing young, working and lower-middle class men and women in Britain in the mid-1970s (see Career Opportunities from the album The Clash) and insurgency riots on the streets of Britain (see White Riot from The Clash) which would make up the backbone of the band’s eponymous first album. This collection of initial ‘punk rock with social conscience’ lyrics would lay the template for all of Strummer’s future lyrics where he would go on to challenge the vacuous, right-wing world of advertising (see Koka Kola from the band’s third LP London Calling); Armageddon through the horror of nuclear warfare (see London Calling’s title track); and racial resentment throughout Britain (see Something About England from the fourth Clash album Sandinista) amongst other things.
One reason Joe Strummer was so equipped to communicate with the populace and push for social and political revolution was because he was, primarily, the lyricist within the framework of The Clash. Strummer was one half of a song-writing partnership with Mick Jones - whose main duties within the pairing were arranging song structures and overseeing melodic and rhythmic needs within the songs. When communicating a political, social, romantic or generally emotional or abstract message, bands often look to their lyricist. Though it is fair to say that one can denote emotion through sonic tools such as melody, harmony or even rhythm (think minor chords denoting sadder, more melancholic emotions), the written word is arguably what does it explicitly. Where Strummer played slashed, stab-like guitar chords to bring a timbral fire and presence to the band’s catalogue, it could feasibly be argued that the way in which he used his words for social attack always held more weight with the general music-buying public. One can see that argument justified in a moniker ascribed to the band, where their fans labelled their heroes as “The Only Band That Matters”.[vii] Such direct sloganeering, it could be reasoned, came about as a direct result of Strummer’s sloganistic language in his lyrics acting as influence on his admirers. If one thinks about lyrics such as “In 1977, there’s knives in West 11”, a nod to the criminalisation of the Notting Hill area where Strummer resided (see 1977 from The Clash); and “London calling to the faraway towns” a play on the BBC World Service transmission statement to occupied countries during World War 2 of “this is London calling, this is London calling” (see London Calling from the album of the same name) to call out a statement of defiance in the face of nuclear war, one can see why the fans  were so interested in allegorical sloganeering to convey their message. If it was good enough for Joe Strummer, their ‘demi-God-like hero’, it was good enough for them, the fans.
Eminem: “Let’s Get Down to Business”
Sloganistic language has been a vital part of the development of the popular music lyric. When pushing for that all important goal of political and cultural transformation many a lyricist has used different ‘puns’, ‘catchy buzz-lines’ and ‘shock tactics’ to lure in the populace. These three examples of sloganeering tactics may well lead one to think of a certain blonde-haired, foul mouthed, but ultimately talented young man. If the image one is led to is that of Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), then one may well be showing one’s age. Nostalgia has settled in on punk rock and all of the connotations now shown through the fish-eye lens of modern media streams are of youth rebellion and exciting, pulsing, heart-racing exhilaration. No longer is Johnny Rotten labelled as vile. One such man whom one may also look to in this regard is Marshall Mathers III of Detroit, Michigan, USA, better known as Eminem. Eminem, much like Rotten, is now starting to enjoy a freer time of it all due to the initial furore over the vulgarity in his lyrics now having subsided and the current press streams just admiring him for his talent and his overall message.
Eminem burst on to the popular music scene in 1999 with his debut hit My Name Is. Heavy MTV and radio coverage of the track in ’99[viii] subsequently led to a star being born. The song had lyrical content which energised the youth in the West and disgusted their parents. So it was, then, that Eminem was the new divisive figure between the youth and the mature. He proclaimed in My Name Is that “God sent me to piss the World off”[ix], which prompted music writer Garry Mulholland to write in his book This is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco that “it had been 25 years since he sent the last one”[x] in reference to the aforementioned Rotten. With the LP released on the back of the single (The Slim Shady LP) Eminem set his lyrical stall out. The album contains lyrics which detail misogyny, homophobia, a hatred of his parents, lewdness, drug-taking and much, much more to get the backs of the right wing press up. The album caused much outrage amongst middle- America and, alas, a ‘Mommy protest’ to the lyrical content of this album and its successor The Marshall Mathers LP. Eminem notes, in a rather sarcastic tone, in his 2002 song Cleaning Out My Closet from the album The Eminem Show “Picket signs for my wicked rhymes”[xi] in a nod to this particular incident. This very protest took place outside the Staples Centre in Los Angeles on February 21st, 2001. Eminem was performing his hit song Stan that evening with Elton John (the openly gay singer-songwriter). The National Organisation for Women (NOW) were picketing against the sexism and violence in the lyrics in Eminem’s songs. NOW’s members were clearly aggrieved, but had debatably missed a point. Art sometimes has to be provocative so as to keep pushing boundaries. If people like Eminem did not exist then the “standardisation”[xii] theories which Theodor Adorno ascribed to popular music in his 1941 essay On Popular Music could only withstand to be true of today’s pop. This audience push for political and cultural change was arguably hindering the progress of future liberalism. Song lyrics only exist as language and if anybody decides to take that language and turn it into action then it becomes their actualisation rather than the words of the provocateur that commit the crime.
“The Nostalgia Factory of Popular Music”: A Conclusion
All of this tumult gave Eminem a pedestal. His fame grew to a perhaps unprecedented level for a rapper. He was the name on everybody’s lips. In his second album Eminem had started to move toward more socio-political comment in songs such as Stan – where he details the psychosis and mental instability of a deranged and obsessed fan - and Amityville – where he details the socio-economic problems in his home city of Detroit – and began to move away from being base for the sake of being base. By his third album he was tackling such subjects as the U.S. Army (see Square Dance) and the 911 atrocities (see My Dad’s Gone Crazy) and by his fourth album Encore he was tackling George Bush’s reign as the US President (see Mosh). At the time of releasing his third album Eminem was being lauded as some kind of lyrical genius by ‘baby-boomer’ journalists who had once vilified him [paraphrase].[xiii] Suddenly middle-America had accepted him.
All of this brings this essay to a point: once the artist (in this case Eminem) has been around long enough to let the dust settle on his/her controversy, the wider audience and press (in this case middle-America and the right wing press) let nostalgia kick in and embrace this new-found (to them) maverick. This is this essay’s and, in fact, this writer’s fundamental response to being asked to explain the ways in which popular music artists and audiences push for political and cultural transformation. This process is something which I will call “the nostalgia factory of popular music.”
As renegades have come and gone in the popular music industry, much of the mainstream, big-selling pop has stayed the same. Whether it is Sam Cooke pleading for a change in ideals in a country where he is singled out by his race or it is Joe Strummer commenting on the political agendas of Western governments or it is Eminem discussing the true indignation of young males across America, lots of the big selling popular music has come out of Tin Pan Alley-esque ‘factories of art’ where ‘boy-meets-girl’ archetypes are pushed through into the lyric itself. While Cooke was asking for that change his peers over at Motown were still churning out hits such as Baby Love and Sweetest Feeling. A few years after the break-up of The Clash came Stock, Aitken and Waterman and their brand of sickly-sweet romance-tinged sequencer pop. Alongside Eminem and his boundary pushing lyrics were stars such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera feeding the masses the bubble-gum pop they so clearly craved. All of this leads the essay to a closing note: pop lyricists have pushed boundaries in attempts to transform the political and cultural landscape, but all in all racism still unfortunately exists, Western governments still fight needless wars and the right-wing press can still control the masses and make them believe that a pop star is vile just for being provocative. Though they may have tried for transformation in the political and cultural spheres, the fact is that they haven’t even changed the music industry really. One can only try.

[i] Cooke, Sam; A Change Gonna Come; RCA Victor; 1964.
[ii] Temple, Julien cited Strummer Joe; The Future is Unwritten (Documentary Film); Vertigo Films; 2007.
[iii] Salewiecz, Chris; Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer (p. 153); Harper Collins UK; 2007.
[iv] Gilbert, Pat cited Strummer, Joe (paraphrase); Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of The Clash; Aurum Publishers; 2004.
[v] Salewiecz, Chris; Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer (p. 155); Harper Collins UK; 2007.
[vi] Salewiecz, Chris; Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer (p. 167); Harper Collins UK; 2007.
[vii] Gilbert, Pat cited Strummer, Joe (paraphrase); Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of The Clash; Aurum Publishers; 2004.
[viii] Bouazza, Anthony; Whatever You Say I Am: The Life and Times of Eminem (P.38); Corgi Publishers UK; 2004.
[ix] Eminem; My Name Is (Single); Interscope Records; 1999.
[x] Mulholland, Garry; This is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco; Cassell Illustrated; 2004.
[xi] Eminem; Cleaning Out My Closet (Single); Interscope Records; 2002.
[xii] Adorno, Theodor; On Popular Music; Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Institute of Social Research; 1941.
[xiii] Bouazza, Anthony (paraphrase); Whatever You Say I Am: The Life and Times of Eminem (P.132 - 134); Corgi Publishers UK; 2004.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Essay on the Popular Music Canon

The Greatest of All Time… Ever: Are the Music Press Setting Up a Pop Music Canon Through Opinion Polls?

 “What are the origins of the English canon? The answer to this question is deceptively simple: Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton achieved decisive status in the mid-eighteenth century, the moment when the terms of their reception were set for years to come.”[i]
Jonathon Brody Kramnick (assistant professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick); The Making of the English Canon.
“All men by nature desire knowledge.”
The thesis questions for the following essay are: Why do the music press play God with the idea of the best popular music available to us via opinion polls? Has a canon been set up by the music industry’s gate keepers for us to adhere to in a fashion akin to that in literature? The point of the following essay is to try and provide coherent and balanced answers to these questions. The essay will look at evidence from polls and balance that with sociological reasoning and commentary to provide a commentary on music press opinion polls.
This essay will discuss music press “Greatest of All Time” polls and whether their existence is creating a canon in popular music akin to that which is in literature. Examples of these polls will be analysed and problematized as will the very notion of a pop music canon itself. This essay will be an exploration into a fad in music journalism, which comes directly from our basic human need to organise the world around us so as to make better sense of it. Is our interest in what is ‘the greatest’ derived from our need to know what has happened and what that caused (the very definition of history?)? Does a canon only come about because, as Aristotle said, “all men by nature desire knowledge”? By listing what the best music is, are the music press feeding their own egos and underlining their status as “gatekeepers of music” (or musical knowledge) by creating these polls?
This essay will ask whether the music press ‘play God’ with the idea of the best popular music available to us via these opinion polls? Are the men and women in the know giving the populace a view into which they feel they (respectively) must subscribe? Or are they simply protecting the worth of music which needs protecting so that future generations can enjoy it? Are the press, in fact, merely providing the populace with a historical document? As with all discourses there are many answers to these questions and the point of this essay is to bring these together and, through research, provide some sort of balanced commentary on music polls and the concept of a popular music canon themselves rather than a value judgement.
The Literary Canon
The canon has been a much debated (oft maligned in recent times) concept in literature over the years, but its fundamental point is surely to give people an organised list of books which have received acclaim and are considered by most to be ‘great’, is it not? Can anything this mass mediated be this pure? At the point of verging on Marxism, the answer is probably no. However, the canon does have its uses. Where does one look when deciding they want to enlighten themselves and read some great literature? Surely the canon is a very good place to start for the beginner and, obviously, for scholarly curriculums. When deciding what the youth should read, something so general and, let’s face it, genial as the canon does help one see what is considered by the likes of Harvard University academics (Harvard has a canonical list called The Harvard Classics) to be classic, timeless and, most importantly, essential. Is this, in itself, essentialist though?
Canonical Essentialism
Essentialism, in philosophy, is seen as the need by any one entity to possess certain characteristics for which any entity of that kind must possess[ii]. If one looks through examples of these music press polls, one can clearly define characteristics for albums or songs which grant them what I will call ‘canonical essentialism’: classic rock or power pop timbral qualities fused with hook-laden sections and clear influence from higher-brow (than is usual in, say, the bubblegum pop of Britney Spears) lyrical sources such as literature, politics and/or science to name a few. Think of the space race lyrical aspirations of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (a constant performer in these polls) or the ‘nostalgic, cockney dance-hall timbral sound of The Kinks’ Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (another staple of these polls) and one can see the need for ‘classic rock with quirks’ characteristics in these polls’, and subsequently their creators’, judgements on ‘greatness’.
So, with this in mind, if we look at which albums appear in the top ten the most in three different polls, which are namely The Observer Music Monthly’s Top 100 British Albums; Rolling Stone magazine 500 Greatest Albums of All Time; and Channel 4’s The 100 Greatest Albums of All Time, we can see the aforementioned argument of ‘classic rock with quirks’ sensibility is necessary as a major criterion to be considered truly timeless. Two albums appear across the board in the top tens of these three polls, they are The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Revolver albums. Here we see the ‘canonical essentialism’ of ‘classic rock with quirks’ in its purest form. We are looking at two mid-1960s, psychedelic albums which connote nostalgic whimsy and a feeling of a time so heavily romanticised in modern media streams. Above all though, we are looking at albums which sonically denote a quirky, sometimes Asian, sometimes English, sometimes American timbral feel which have achieved ‘classic’ status due to the length of time that passed between their release (1960s) and the release of the polls (2000s) in which they are credited with ‘greatness’. The other albums of note in these polls are The Clash’s London Calling, The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street and, quelle surprise, The Beatles’ eponymous record better known as The White Album, all of which appear twice in the top tens of the three polls looked at. One can see the criteria once again: must be classic rock, must have intellectual musical and lyrical influence and will preferably have culturally divisive characters fronting the operation.[iii] [iv] [v]
The ‘pop music canon’ then, it could be argued, is a concept which operates on bias towards 1960s/70s classic rock. The chance for elements of gangsta’ rap, bubblegum pop and modern R&B to enter the fray is, clearly by result, limited. In fact, if we look at certain highly regarded and influential genres such as Jazz, Blues and Gospel we see that, in the results of the three polls just discussed, they are not regarded as being as great as 1960s/70s classic rock or guitar-led music from the 1980s and ‘90s. However, if we look at a bigger compendium of albums or songs which is listed in chronological order rather than by ‘importance’ or ‘order of greatness’ we can see otherwise. The books 1001 Albums You Must Hear before You Die and its sister book 1001 Songs You Must Hear before You Die give us a far more eclectic list to extrapolate music from to form a popular music canon. Entries in the 1001 Albums… list include such works as New York rapper Nas’ Illmatic, jazz supremo Count Basie’s The Atomic Mr. Basie and former Mickey Mouse Clubber Britney Spears’ …Baby, One More Time. Entries in the 1001 Songs… book include Edith Piaf’s 1946 hit La Vie en Rose, rap duo Eric B and Rakim’s 1988 hit  Follow the Leader and self-proclaimed thug 2Pac’s 1995 ode to his mother Dear Mama. It could be reasoned that, with a higher number of places to fill with albums or songs, Robert Dimery, general editor of these books, had more room to accept some slightly more leftfield artists to shine through (in this sense the term leftfield is used canonically so rather than musically – Britney Spears and 2Pac, for instance, are particularly mainstream artists with songs generally in 4/4 time, with melodic simplicity a focal point rather than odd scale manipulation and irregular meters). Maybe, as is the case with these two books, if one doesn’t have to list from, say, 100th best to best it is easier to include more material considered to be lower-brow or some less populous material. Maybe all of this bring this essay to a point: if one does not make it explicit that the album that wins a poll or is consistently placed highly in polls is treated with God-like adoration, popular music can continue to thrive as it should: as music for the populace. Rather than drawing up the petty divisions that Theodor Adorno thought so necessary during popular music’s formative years as an art form, labelling certain styles as low-brow and poor and labelling others as high-brow and serious[vi], the way we can credit works of note is to simply give them credit without some kind of valuation on where they be placed in a ‘greatness’ chart.[vii] [viii]
What the 1001 Songs… and 1001 Albums… books give is a canonical notion more analogous to that of the Harvard Classics and Great Books lists in literature than the press listings of numbers 1 to 100 or 500. By listing a series of classics without putting listed value on their worth, these books give just that and help develop something that may be argued as more beneficial to curriculums and people who may be unaware of which music exactly is considered by many to have achieved ‘classic’ or ‘great’ status.
Does the Pop Music Canon Exist?
The notion of a popular music canon is not an explicitly good or bad thing. The concept itself does exist and, to answer one of the thesis questions for this essay, it has in some part been set up by the music press, but consumers of popular music have also been involved. The populace has, by subscribing to these views, also helped arrange a consensus of good and great albums, songs and artists. The music press has arguably played a bigger part and, in fact, the popular music industry as a whole. Just take a look at institutions such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an institution in which members are inducted due to services to ‘great rock and roll’. Look at magazines such as Classic Rock or Mojo, publications which, on the face of it, appear to market nostalgia as ‘greatness’. In fact, take a look at the term ‘classic rock’ itself. The classification of classic has derived from the historical placing of the music, sure, but not all rock from the 1960s, for instance, is grouped under the classic rock umbrella. Artists such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Cream, The Kinks and The Who are now labelled under this moniker, but artists which sold less in their heyday such as The Stooges or The Velvet Underground or certain more novelty acts such as The Monkees are labelled as garage rock or, simply, pop respectively. Why? That word nostalgia rears its head once more. Modern media streams such as television, radio and internet blogs and so on provide the populace with an image of the mid-1960s as a revolutionary time and a point in which pop-culture and subsequently the art produced in conjunction with this became ‘serious’(a) to echo Adorno. No longer were lyricists talking of love for their cutie-pie, they were now commenting on the Vietnam War. Andy Warhol was giving us a damning indictment on consumerism through pop-art images of consumer products and ‘art-as-marketing’ rather than Eucharistic paintings or river views. The problem with this, of course, is that it is far too easy to believe all of this. Though the 1960s was a particularly revolutionary time both culturally and musically, it is unfair to suggest, as is often the case in modern media, that it was the most significant. The 1960s was a time of change for music, fashion, art and general liberalism yes, but strides were still made thereafter, in the decades that followed and before, in those that preceded, to improve upon this. As Jonathon Brody Kramnick said of the English canon in the abovementioned quote, so too has the moment come for the terms of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones etc.’s reception been set for years to come.

Gatekeepers Playing God?
The simple answer to the other thesis question is to call it a justification of a job. The fundamental reason behind the music press “gatekeepers of music” ‘playing God’ with the idea of what the best available popular music to us is so as to both justify and retain their position in the world as the gatekeepers. If the press were not able to come up with lists of the ‘classics’ or the ‘greats’, one might question what it is they are critiquing exactly. As it is these polls and the subsequent canon they form are useful to the populace for points of reference and useful to the press to keep their all-seeing, all-knowing position defensible. They are also useful to the artists listed as they help cement their name in the history of an art form and surely do no harm to their record sales and tour grossing.
Markets reflect people’s thoughts apparently. If we then correlate sales to ‘greatness’ in that case, The people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain believe that The Beatles are the greatest, most revered and most classic band of all time. Looking at music press opinion polls’ results, this would seem to be a fair comment. The popular music canon undoubtedly exists, if only as a concept, but there are concrete canonical lists held in high esteem, such as Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, which are analogous to the Great Books lists in literature to cement the idea of a popular music canon. The popular music canon shows that an art form once labelled by an elitist German Marxist as “non-serious music”(b) has developed its own in-house elitism and now has propelled The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and The Clash to the dizzy heights of seriousness while scowling down at Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, The Backstreet Boys, Take That and Justin Bieber: “You are not to be taken seriously!” Are the gatekeepers of music now comparable to the Frankfurt School men who so undermined the popular music model.

One must remember that to call a popular music canon a good or bad thing would be naïve. To call it gospel, however, would be equally so. As fashions change certain albums or songs will appear in future lists as they have in the past, but the world seems to have made its mind up on the truly classic works of popular music and, somewhere in the top 20 of those future lists, will probably be Sgt. Peppers…, Exile on Main Street and Highway 61 Revisited.


[i] Kramnick, Jonathon Brody; The Making of the English Canon; PMLA, Vol. 112, No. 5 (p. 1087); Oct., 1997. Any subsequent reference to this material shall be marked next to the quote in number form in brackets e.g. (1).
[ii] Benjamins, John; Motivation in Language: Studies in Honor of Günter Radden (p. 275); University of Leuven / University of Hamburg / University of Duisburg-Essen; 2003.
[iii] Evidence taken from the results of: The Observer Music Monthly’s Top 100 British Albums; The Observer Newpaper UK; 2004.
[iv] Evidence taken from the results of: Rolling Stone Magazine 500 Greatest Albums of All Time; Rolling Stone Magazine, USA; 2003.
[v] Evidence taken from the results of: Channel 4’s The 100 Greatest Albums of All Time; Channel 4 Television,UK; 2004.
[vi] Adorno, Theodor; On Popular Music; Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Institute of Social Research; 1941. Any subsequent reference to this material shall be marked next to the quote in letter form in brackets e.g. (a).
[vii] Evidence taken from: Dimery, Robert; 1001 Songs You Must Hear before You Die; Cassell Illustrated, UK; 2010.
[viii] Evidence taken from: Dimery, Robert; 1001 Albums You Must Hear before You Die; Cassell Illustrated, UK; 2010.