Wednesday, March 19, 2008

frith street

Simon Frith is a renowned academic in the field of pop music--there aren't many academics who get an entry in Wikipedia, a prolific author (count the fifty titles of his listed on Amazon) and probably best known in non-academic circles as the chairman of the jury for the annual Mercury Music Prize. Royal Holloway College recently hired him to give a series of free lectures at the British Library on "Rock and British Musical Culture 1955-2005".

Interesting stuff. This is my feeble attempt to summarise pretty randomly some of the ideas and themes which came to light:

- Conventional accounts of the history of pop music should be challenged: they're often based on newspaper stories which are likely to recount single events rather give an accurate overview. For example, accepted wisdom is that the punk era was the first to inspire large numbers of British youth to get involved in music-making. In fact, of far more significance in this respect were the late 1950s, when a revival in trad jazz and the advent of rock and roll (under the influence of Elvis, Bill Haley et al) and skiffle (Lonnie Donegan) combined to much greater effect.

- In the 1950s, musical criticism in the popular press was concerned only with classical music; pop was seen as unimportant, ephemeral, and part of the light entertainment industry. It was the advent of the rock/pop album which effected a change in this respect. Frank Sinatra's 1950s Capitol recordings ("In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning", "Come Fly With Me") were the first "themed" albums, but until the early sixties, most long-playing records were little more than a collection of two- or three-minute singles. Here, as in many areas, the Beatles were hugely influential: albums like Sgt Pepper were produced as entities in themselves, with a carefully sequenced tracklists and cleverly designed cover packaging. The pop album became a work of art in itself. Ironically, just as pop had done earlier, classical music in recent years, particularly in the popular media, has embraced a "star system" of its own (Nigel Kennedy, Katherine Jenkins, classical "boy bands" Il Divo and G4).

- The musician's role has changed significantly in the pop era. In the 1950s being a musician--whether in an orchestra or a dance band--would have meant taking lessons, spending long hours practising on one's chosen instrument, learning to read music and to play on sight, possibly taking exams. The pop musician's route to success is likely to have been much shorter and less arduous: perhaps learning his craft by listening to records and observing other players, though developing no smaller area of expertise. Further developments in more recent years--both in the recording studio and in the composition and performance of the music (scratching, sampling, DJing)--have blurred the lines between musician and engineer.

- Notions of authenticity and artistic integrity are often important concerns of followers of established pop and rock artists: the need to be true to their style and their fanbase and not pandering to commerciality ("selling out"). At the same time, everywhere in pop music there are examples of stylistic pastiche. Artists draw on the styles of previous eras but bring something of themselves to the music. For example, in Teenage Fanclub's version of "Hey Mr Tambourine Man" a Scottish indie guitar band acknowledges its debt to the guitar style and close harmony vocals of the Byrds; Primal Scream's "Movin' On Up" pays tribute to the Rolling Stones, "Brimful of Asha" by Cornershop combines elements of British and Pakistani pop music. By this token, even artists on TV talent shows like the "X-Factor" can be said to have some merit.

- Finally, an interesting insight into the work of the Mercury jury. The panel is presented with a shortlist of twelve albums, but in deciding on a winner of this annual award for the best in British music, the judges consider at some length the degree to which the albums can be said to represent Britishness and produce a "British sound", for example in terms of...
  • content: music should be "about" Britain in some way, possibly drawing on some shared idea of the British past, as with the Kinks, Sgt Pepper, Blur, the Smiths and Madness. Recent winners the Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal are good examples of "something which Americans wouldn't get",
  • form (given that musical styles are likely to have their origins in African/American music to greater or lesser extent),
  • representativeness and
  • sensibility (sense of their audience, context).

Further up Frith Street:

Interviews from...

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