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The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock

Simon Frith, Will Straw and John Street eds.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
£15.95 / $23.00, 312 pages, ISBN 0-521-55660-0 (paperback).
£45.00 / $65.00, 312 pages, ISBN 0-521-55369-5 (hardback).

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

It is always pleasant when a highly respectable academic firm like Cambridge University Press puts out a book to do with contemporary popular culture, along with a medieval literature piece and a physics study. Simon Frith, Will Straw and John Street have joined efforts to produce The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock. Frith, of course, is well-known by every Cultural Studies specialist, having published landmarks such as Music for Pleasure: Essays in the Sociology of Pop (1988) and more recently Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (1996). He is Professor of Film and Media at Sterling University.

My principal objection is that Part I contains a section entitled "Star Profiles I" (about Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, James Brown and Marvin Gaye), and Part II has a section entitled "Star Profiles II (about Bob Marley, David Bowie, Abba, Madonna, Nirvana, Public Enemy, Derrick May and the Spice Girls), which are anonymous—if my eyes serve me right. Considering that the authorship of the rest of the material is clear—Simon Frith, Will Straw, John Street, Paul Théberge, Keir Keightley, Russell A. Potter, Jocelyne Guilbault, Richard Middleton, Sara Cohen, Barry Shank, or Jan Fairley—I find this editorial decision very strange. Seeing that those star profiles are the most debatable essays in the book, I wonder if it is the result of some form of intellectual spinelessness.

I might as well begin with those short texts, now that I have broached the subject. Their presence, needless to say, is highly welcome in such a "companion", which would have been slightly arid without it. Indeed, an anonymous introduction to the star profiles states: "The history of popular music is a history of pop stars. The music industry is organized around star-making: stars are the best guarantors of sales to a fickle public." (74) Fair enough. The first portrait, that of Elvis Presley (see the two Presley books reviewed in Cercles), offers indisputable insights, such as: "Presley may not have been the first pop idol, but he was the first singer to embody the appeal of youthfulness for its own sake (at the same time as James Dean was doing the same thing as a film star)." (75) It goes on to mention that Elvis was first a phenomenon and then a myth, and I couldn't agree more. But when it claims that "Presley's career is better understood in terms of country music than rock" (77), I'm not sure I can follow, no matter how white-trash and Southern Elvis was, no matter how self-parodying and grotesque he eventually became. I do realize that the sentence deals with his career, and not his art, which would have made it much more open to attack, but still...

The Rolling Stones piece mentions "Jagger's rather camp sexuality" (83), which perplexes me immensely. I would readily speak of his camp theatrics, his camp lyrics sometimes, his camp clothing occasionally, but his camp sexuality? What is camp sexuality, I wonder? Does the anonymous author mean the sexual politics conveyed by Jagger's camp art, or demeanor? Moreover, I find very excessive indeed pronouncements like "since 1972 the Stones have made little music that has had either commercial or emotional impact" (85); what about Black & Blue, to name but one album (1976)? It is true, though, that there is something faintly ridiculous today in those "ageing millionaires, long part of the showbiz establishment—playing out an unconvincing stage version of rebellion" (85). I braced myself for the David Bowie piece, but was soon reassured: his career and art are suitably and subtly appraised. The concluding lines are: "David Bowie remains one of the few ageing rock stars who could still do something surprising." (198). Unlike the Rolling Stones. Indeed, since the publication of the book, Bowie has done something surprising: Heathen (2002).

The Madonna portrait has its moments, although it could have been somewhat longer. The predetermined short format meant that whoever wrote it had to toss adjectives like "postfeminist" without getting into the least detail, which is always a pity when such capital and highly debatable notions are concerned (201). And what are the rococo semiotics of her videos, I wonder (202, italics mine)? Those videos are qualified as "the most academically over-analyzed example of pop culture ever" (202). Well, as an academic who has made a career out of Madonna-watching, I'd say you can never analyze the diva too much; but then, I would say that, wouldn’t I? "Madonna sang the chorus lines of big city single girl hedonism (the narrative was left to the videos)", writes the portraitist, and I'm not certain s/he has realized that more often than not, the video narratives contradict the lyrics of the songs, piling up layers of meaning, as is vulgarly said.

Aside from these minor flaws, the book is destined to become a classic for students of pop and rock. It is complete and very convincingly researched. Paul Théberge's essay on technology and popular music, for instance, is definitive. Too many people underrate the role of technology in the matter. From microphones to digital recording and MP3, taking in tube amplifiers, loudspeakers, magnetic recording, multitrack tape recorders, and electric instruments, Théberge forgets nothing. Simon Frith's essay on the popular music industry unquestionably rounds off the vital aspects of popular music as something that can / must be sold. "Musical storage", "The supply side", "Demand", "Music media", "The record industry", no stone is left unturned. The essay concludes as it should with forays into the future of the music business. Will Straw looks at consumption, consumer behavior, subcultures and youth markets. He asks a very good question: "Having been shaped by rock music, what became of people's tastes as they grew older? Were there other styles or genres to which listeners 'graduated' with age? […] As people age, do their criteria as to what is important or pleasurable in music shift as well?" (62) I'm sure those of our readers who are old enough to have outgrown the hardline purism of youth will know the answer.

In the chapter entitled "Pop Music", Simon Frith rightly states that "pop is defined as much by what it isn’t as by what it is" (95), and goes on to enlighten the reader, but how can he possibly write the following?

It is not surprising that Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, and Dusty Springfield, for example, have had a certain camp appeal, a gay following precisely interested in the performance of emotional excess, nor that there's an element of kitsch in the sexual appeal of the biggest women pop stars—Dion, Houston, Maria Carey and, of course, Madonna. (101)

I would say that Garland, Bassey, and Springfield only ever existed because of their camp appeal and gay following, but it is the second part of the sentence that peeves me. I'm prepared to admit, if I must, the kitsch sides of Dion and Carey (though tacky might be more appropriate); I thoroughly concede that Carey and Houston are sexually appealing (especially the latter), and of course Madonna is the queen of postmodern camp / kitsch / sex-appeal. But Celine Dion!? No matter how many records she sells, I have yet to meet anyone who likes her for her sex-appeal. She might want to start with a change of hairdresser and a heart to heart talk with a fashion designer—Mugler, for instance… The preceding objection may sound trivial, but to understand pop you need to understand stardom (see quotation above), and to understand stardom (especially female stardom) you need to examine sexual politics and sexual power.

In his chapter, Keir Keightley reconsiders rock, making many useful points, notably about American fifties music and the British invasion. "The distinctions made by rock culture effectively stratify the mainstream of popular music into 'serious' (rock) and 'trivial' (pop) components" (111). The chapters about soul, hip-hop, dance music, world music, are equally informative.

Part III is devoted to the various debates that surround pop and rock, notably as far as race and politics are concerned. One chapter in particular struck me as very interesting: "Popular Music, Gender and Sexuality". Its author is Sara Cohen, who teaches at Liverpool University's Institute of Popular Music. Her research into popular music is always firmly and interestingly grounded in her sociology / anthropology / ethnography background, as her book Rock Culture in Liverpool: Popular Music in the Making (1991) exemplifies. The title of her chapter should really read "Popular Music, Gender and Sexuality: The Case of Kyzer Sozer". As she rightly says: "Rock and pop music are closely associated with gender—with patterns or conventions of male and female behavior and with ideas about how men and women should or shouldn't behave." [226] Of course, you can replace "rock and pop music" in the sentence by just about any other human endeavor and the sentence works. What she then does is examine what the specific case of the Liverpool band Kyzer Sozer says about gender and sexuality. Cohen is no Queer Theorist; her piece is mostly constructionist, and she does mention Judith Butler, but she sometimes seems to have a teeny bit of trouble with the vocabulary and the categories:

Rock performers like David Bowie and Marc Bolan have, for example, used theatrical Camp and androgynous imagery in their performance styles, images and lyrics, and female performers such as Annie Lennox, Madonna and k. d. lang have generated much discussion and debate by incorporating a variety of masculine and androgynous images into their performances (and occasionally lesbian and homosexual ones as well). (233)

But even though Cohen shows that she is somewhat unsure of herself ("the illustrative case material presented in this chapter has been rather brief and sketchy but […]"), she does make several good points—notably about the masculinity of Liverpool rock culture—as she follows the lives and careers of the members of Kyzer Sozer, particularly Darren the gay-friendly straight singer and Chris the lesbian bass guitar player. The book fittingly ends with the issue of global v. local in popular music. It is a book that will presumably be reprinted many times in years to come.

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