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 Are the press, in fact, merely providing the populace with a historical document?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.

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