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).
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
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 anonymousif my eyes serve
me right. Considering that the authorship of the rest of the material
is clearSimon Frith, Will Straw, John Street, Paul Théberge,
Keir Keightley, Russell A. Potter, Jocelyne Guilbault, Richard Middleton,
Sara Cohen, Barry Shank, or Jan FairleyI 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 establishmentplaying
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, wouldnt 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 isnt 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 starsDion, Houston, Maria Carey and, of course, Madonna.
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 designerMugler,
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 genderwith
patterns or conventions of male and female behavior and with ideas
about how men and women should or shouldn't behave."  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).
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 pointsnotably about the masculinity of Liverpool rock cultureas
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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