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volume 3
november 2000

Asking questions

Index of the journal Tracking  

  Toward the identification of key theoretical issues in popular music and communication research
by Stan W. Denski and David J. Sholle Winter, 1989
  Indiana University / Duquesne University
  Talking Heads (1978)

Focusing attention upon a series of core concepts — including the audience; textual methods; resistance; and postmodernism — Stan W. Denski and David J. Sholle here present a series of fundamental theoretical questions on the topic of popular music studies for the 1990s.

  "Heaven is a place where nothing ... nothing ever happens."
— The Talking Heads
1 Introduction. The area of contemporary popular music and communication research, as an emergent field within the greater literature of mass communication, continues to exhibit a healthy rate of growth, both in terms of an ever accelerating number of individual research projects, journal publications, etc., and a corresponding growth in the number of younger scholars attempting to stake out territory within this literature for their own ongoing research agendas.
  The questions we are faced with as writers and researchers interested in the continued investigation of contemporary popular music and culture are quite formidable. The initial complexity of the essential experience of music, the affective connections that made the very idea of music scholarship seem so correct, are, at the same time, so confounding.
  What are the specific issues which need to be addressed? What method or combination of methods are most appropriate for each given area of interest? It is our goal in this paper to present a series of fundamental theoretical questions which face the community of contemporary popular music scholars in the decade ahead. These questions themselves focus attention upon a series of core concepts which include: the audience; textual methods; resistance; and postmodernism.
  How might the audience be best constructed in the specific context(s) of popular music research? Martin Allor (1988) has recently suggested an irreducible multiplicity of constructions of the audience. Which constructions seem most appropriate in the individual methodological contexts of popular music research? Lawrence Grossberg (1986a) has identified a variety of theoretical difficulties with the application of textual critical approaches in the context of rock music criticism. How are the problematics of textual analysis best understood in the specific sites of popular music research?
  Resistance, the potential of areas within contemporary popular culture to function as the site of oppositional cultural forms, has been a theme in contemporary music literature which has seen considerable activity and considerable theoretical confusion. How is resistance best conceptualized? What specific questions as regards resistance have the greatest heuristic potential for popular music scholarship? Various writers have suggested that the climate of postmodernism is the most appropriate historical context within which to consider questions regarding the nature of, impact of, uses of, etc., contemporary popular music. What is the nature of the theoretical demands postmodernism places upon the contemporary music scholar?
  The goal of this paper is in the construction of focused and meaningful questions offered to an active community of scholars. This paper seeks to construct a forum for the discussion of these theoretical issues. In the general context of adding these questions to the active discourse surrounding the ongoing investigation of contemporary popular music, this paper hopes to play an important heuristic role.
2 Tensions. This seemingly contradictory and nihilistic statement by the Talking Heads — the band's name, itself, a slipping signifier referring to the term that most characterizes television's boredom, and, at the same time an early technological experiment to embody the television image [1] — points to the ambiguous condition of popular culture in contemporary society — a condition dubbed: the postmodern. It is a condition in which the contours of everyday life are simultaneously inflected as boredom and panic, opposition and silence, a rampant imagism and a referentless intersection of signs.
  What is this postmodern condition? Is it, in fact, a useful point of entry for the examination of the place of popular culture in the contemporary scene? Lawrence Grossberg, for one, suggests that, in order to analyze a popular genre of media such as rock and roll, one must look at its effectivity in everyday life, and this everyday life, in part, must take into consideration a theoritization of the postmodern.
  Within this context of everyday life, what do people do with rock and roll? Is this even a meaningful question? The question, thus phrased, becomes immediately bound up with the idea of audience (fans, dupes, resistors, circuits, sponges, interpreters, bandits?). How far have we come in conceptualizing the relationship between rock and roll as text, rock and roll as commodity, rock and roll as use value for audiences, rock and roll as effect / effectivity (effecting people)? Where is our entry point into this discussion? One possible point of entry is offered by Grossberg:
  "Understanding rock and roll requires asking what it gives its fans, how it empowers them and how they empower it. What possibilities does it enable them to appropriate in their everyday lives? Treating functions / effects in terms of empowerment avoids the textual and social-psychological reductionism of communication theory" (Grossberg, 1986b).
  Here, the issues we wish to discuss are laid out in outline: rock and roll and the audience: rock and roll as a potential for empowerment, for opposition; rock and roll's relationship to the everyday lives of its fans.
3 Audience, text affect. Let us come down from heaven for a moment and examine rock and roll in more concrete terms. It has often been suggested that rock and roll as a genre (or metagenre) of popular culture has an ability to stand in opposition to the dominant commodity form of mass culture. Despite the fact that it is commercially (industrially) produced, it retains an element of challenge, of struggle; it is actively invested in and fought against by both its fans and detractors — thus, it seems to overturn the pessimistic conclusion of the mass culture critics.
  Rock and roll has been characterized as revolutionary, dangerous, rebellious — not straight. It's function is variously located in its stature as a producer of communal solidarity, its countercultural stance, its status as "authentic" art. Thus, rock and roll can be looked at as a series of texts that produce, reproduce or reflect "meanings," meanings that are taken up by the audience and turned into behavioral acts.
  Again, Grossberg has questioned the basis of this interpretive strategy, in part, by locating (or relocating) the site of the discussion in the temporal climate of postmodernism. He argues that the importance of rock and roll as a cultural force "lies not in what it says or means but in what it does within its culture" (Grossberg, 1983-1984). Rock and roll's effectivity then, does not lie so much in its production of meanings. Its connotations of danger lie in the ways of behaving associated with it. Rock and roll is always attacked, struggled over as a material action — gyrating body, a dirty cluttered space, a rejection of authority, a drug induced and drug inducing wildness.
  Grossberg has argued that the function and use of rock and roll cannot be explained directly by the effects of the music as an organization of sounds and words. In developing this argument however, he has located the site of the analysis within a central tension, a tension arising from the specific problematics of interpretive strategies in the analysis of rock and roll as a cultural form:
  "Here one is treading on dangerous ground: without claiming that the actual construction and sound of the songs (a product of musical, linguistic, and technological devices) are unimportant, one needs to argue that they cannot be directly interpreted to explain the effects of the music" (Grossberg, 1986a: 181).
  It seems then that the approach to rock and roll's effects / effectivity is divided over that which is discursive or non discursive in it. Contemporary debate then turns to the audience for a way out of this dilemma. But this, in and of itself, raises yet another series of questions and dilemmas. The question now directs attention to the response of the fans to the music. What do they do with it? Do they work, interpret, act, remain silent, resist, etc.? Or, is the response a response to some historically located nexus of elements and structures far more complex than the individual song / record / text?
4 Two approaches: ethnography, critical studies. One approach, taken by James Lull, is to turn (return) to the audience, but within a model that retains the relation to the music. Lull claims that the most fruitful approach to discerning how audiences use rock and roll lies in a coupling of rigorous empirical ethnography and rule-based communication theory:
  "Ethnography is one powerful means for producing what is really needed in media and communication studies, inside information ... We can get inside the processes of reception, interpretation, and use of media by conducting in-depth studies of media audiences in natural contexts. The project, cast from this perspective, is an attempt to find out how audiences process meanings. Thus, the rock and roll / audience relation is, like it or not, rooted in a communicative notion of media. It seems then, that one cannot ignore the music, for part of the context is an interpretive stance toward loosely defined genres — heavy metal, punk, rap, etc." (Lull, 1988).
A second approach to the project is offered by Grossberg. One must begin with a thorough questioning of the audience. This questioning of the audience must begin however, with a meta-questioning of a more fundamental issue of conceptualization of the very notion of audience as something more rigorous than its casual colloquial usage. The term is tied to the connotations of early mass communication theory and its conceptualizing of the audience as a collective mass of individuals whose identity is pinned down in terms of a vague autonomous subjectivity. Both Lull and Grossberg want to overturn this notion by conceptualizing rock and roll listeners in their difference. [2] For Grossberg (1986a: 182) the questioning of the audience "... is not, however, a matter of asking how individuals consciously use the music. It is rather a matter of asking what possibilities are opened up by and for the rock-and-roll apparatus." Grossberg outlines a group of initial problems in this examination related to the ways in which fans of rock and roll respond to the music:
  "(1) rock-and-roll fans interpret and use the same music in different ways; (2) they relate to and use rock-and-roll songs through larger "assemblages" of musical and cultural events; and (3) they relate to and use the music at levels other than the signifying and representational" (Grossberg, 1986a: 180).
  Whereas Lull mounts a frontal attack to the problem by engaging the audience directly through the rigorous employment of ethnographic methods, Grossberg prefers to approach the audience within a larger complex of relations working to foreground the theoretical difficulties involved with the employment of textual strategies:
  "The meaning of a text is to be found in the concrete context in which it is momentarily located and rearticulated. But how does one interpret a text when its significance is the complex product of all its relationships? The problem is further complicated because every element of the context is similarly overdetermined; no element has an identity that can be isolated and taken for granted. [The] problem was to describe the contexts within which rock and roll emerged (and reemerges) and to elaborate its local effects" (Grossberg, 1986a: 180).
5 What the audience does: opposition and resistance. Given these two approaches, what is it that we want to know about the audience? Within critical studies of the media we have seen a shift away from texts and / or political economy toward the audience. However, this reorientation retains an essential problematic of critical studies. The problem of the audience is still, in some sense, defined within a conception of hegemonic culture and in terms of a decoding / interpretation of texts. Predominant in this turn toward the audience is a concern with the evaluation of the power of the audience in relation to the text and to its context. For critical studies, the examination of the audience is placed within a concern for how it plays with, resists, and struggles with texts within the hegemonic system.
  In regard to rock and roll, then, we are interested in the audience's activities in constructing and reconstructing interpretive and affective strategies out of the rock and roll context. These strategies may operate at various levels: (1) stances toward rock and roll genres, i.e., the taking up of "we / they" positions, and the identification with anonymous and dispersed communities surrounding these genres; (2) orientations toward pleasure and desire that oppose or reproduce dominant controls of affective activities and investments; (3) resistances to the text's ideological functions, through overturning and reinterpreting "meanings" in terms of individual contexts in everyday life, and / or through an emptying out of "meaning"; (4) physical, bodily activities that resist the hegemonic orders' attempts to regulate desire; (5) contradictory affirmations of rock's ties to dominant ideologies (the star system, authenticity, sexual bias, etc.) and its generational difference and dangerous bodily liberation.
  In plain terms, the project of both Grossberg and Lull is an emancipatory one. It is a rejection of the notion of audience as cultural dupe; a rejection of a theory of casual determination of the consumer rooted in economic structure; a rejection of a conceptualization of the audience as the site for the reception of given meanings to which it passively reacts to. It is resistance versus reaction.
  The task then, is to define and differentiate the forms and strategies of opposition and resistance. All too often, the collection of terms — opposition, resistance, revolution, struggle, liberation, etc. — are not defined or are vaguely referenced within an overall emancipatory utopian notion. Critical inadequacies in this discourse of resistance and opposition fundamentally impact upon the theoretical considerations of rock and roll as liberation. If rock and roll is, in some sense, an activity, and an activity that produces or allows its fans to struggle with hegemonic definitions of what everyday life should be, it is of obvious and pressing necessity to, with an enhanced precision and clarity, both define and locate where and how this occurs. This brings us back to the context that Grossberg has worked to explicate — the temporal climate of postmodernism as the dominate context of rock and roll.
6 Postmodernism: heaven or nothing? Postmodernity, while not encapsulating all things that happen in society, must, nevertheless, be dealt with. One does not have to buy into Baudrillard's bleak fatalism to recognize that the fracturing of tradition, and discourse's lack of reference, ground, and origin has implications for everyday life. Particularly, we need to consider whether resistance is no longer possible; i.e., as a rational or communicative function. Within this context, rock and roll is not so much an expression of meanings that are weighed, evaluated as good or bad (aesthetically), as it is a choice of style and affect. As Foucault has noted, perhaps, the ethical task in the postmodern situation is the transformation of one's life into an art (para-art).
  What then does the audience do in this context, what does rock and roll do? We have now arrived where we began, but we are now better prepared to focus more closely upon the issues raised in the preceding pages. To this purpose, we will present a series of questions constructed as theoretical signposts pointing at some basic assumptions regarding the audience, the text and the cultural context of consumption.
  The following sections will be presented in pairing of broad questions designed to summarize and locate the general area of the discussion, with series of shorter, more succinct questions designed to generate a more specific and manageable discussion.
7 - Rock and roll / text and meaning (Area 1):
  A: How does one define rock and roll? In order to look at (or inside) what rock and roll does for its audience, is it necessary to take the apparently logical first step, i.e., to first define what rock and roll is? Or, is it only ever possible to define rock and roll in the terms of its audience, or its broader socio-cultural / historical context?
  B: How do we best consider differentiations drawn between "rock and roll," "rock," and "pop" or "popular" music? Grossberg claims that:
  "Even the briefest study of the rock and roll culture points to the existence of a boundary between popular music and rock and roll, but again, this distinction cannot be made in solely musical terms. Not all popular music is rock and roll, and not all the fans of popular music are rock and roll fans" (Grossberg, 1986b).
  Lull has argued that the meaningful distinction between "pop" and "rock" musics are drawn by the community of listeners, often along racial and ethnic lines. Fans of predominantly black dance music express a dislike for "heavier" and less danceable "rock". Dance clubs in the Southern California area advertise that no "rock" music will be played. The distinction which some argue is meaningless in the context of postmodern culture, has, for Lull, apparent meaning and validity in the lived experience of the audience.
  Simon Frith (1981) argued for a meaningful distinction drawn along lines of "authenticity." This argument is recast with more contemporary content, while re-presenting the "art versus commodity" position of the mass culture critics essentially unchanged. More recently however, Frith has abandoned his earlier position, seemingly in favor of the postmodern argument:
  "The pop versus rock debate that has organized British musical taste since Sgt. Pepper's is now played out. There is no longer any point in attacking pop silliness in the name of rock and truth or denouncing rock stodginess in the name of rock truth of pop flair. Rock is no longer a significant referent because there is no distinctive way left to take it seriously ... There is no musical taste which guarantees distinction" (Frith, 1988).
  C: What is the status of rock and roll as text? Rock and roll exists materially as songs and records (and now as visual texts, soundtracks, etc.). Does the audience "interpret" these texts? Does the audience produce something out of these texts? Do these texts foreground in some manner the bare traces of their context? Do they form a supertext? Is the audience's empowerment in relation to these texts interpretive in any sense, or is interpretation only a contextual element in a more primary affective relation?
  1. What is rock and roll? Is it meaningful to attempt a definition based on its material limits? Is it only meaningful to locate any given definition within a specific discursive context?
  2. Is it possible to draw a theoretically meaningful distinction between "popular" or "pop" music, and "rock and roll" or "rock"? If not, are there contexts within which such distinctions are necessary evils?
  3. What are the essential theoretical difficulties inherent in approaching rock and roll as a collection of texts? What are the theoretical limitations and dangers of employing textual strategies in the analysis of rock and roll as a cultural form?
  4. Is the application of notions of genre meaningful in relation to pop / rock music(s)?
8 - Constructing the audience (Area 2):
  A: How does one define the audience for rock and roll? Is the category of youth essential to this definition as Frith (1981) has argued? As rock and roll has emerged and reemerged, does the history of its fans' relation to it define or limit the contemporary audiences' use of it?
  B: How does rock and roll work for its fans? Are there different audiences, or is it a relational stance that defines the audience in the first place?
  C: What categories of audience use, function, etc. need to be considered in examining what rock and roll does and what rock audiences do with rock and roll — the processing of meaning, physical response, perceptual stance, definitions of group belonging, cultural background, etc.
  1. Who, or what, is the audience? Is this a meaningful question?
  2. In the specific case of the analysis of the use(s) of music, how is the audience best conceptualized? As consumer? As co-author? Is there ever a single "best" way to conceptualize the audience in relation to use?
  3. Are there theoretical contexts in which the audience is best abandoned? Is it ever defensible to dismiss the audience entirely?
  4. What does it mean when the products of scholarship and criticism seem to have no grounding in the lived experience of pop music by its fans?
9 - Opposition, resistance (Area 3):
  A: In what sense or manner is the audience active? Is the dichotomy passive / active even meaningful in this context? Is activity conscious and / or experienced as such?
  B: What is resistance / opposition? Does rock and roll have a utility for audiences in producing resistance? Is there really a political inflection in this opposition, struggle? Do audiences know / feel that they are resisting? How does the postmodern situation alter the nature of resistance?
  C: What is the place of pleasure and desire in the rock and roll context? Is there a single theoretical location, or an irreducible multiplicity? Can one differentiate audiences on the basis of differing pleasures? Is the relationship of rock-to-audience a question of its general affective relation to pleasure and desire as socially defined?
  1. In what contexts may rock and roll be considered as oppositional? What are the material, historical, socio-cultural operations of this resistance?
  2. What is the affective dimension in the oppositional potential of rock and roll?
  3. Are questions of resistance meaningful if audiences locate themselves as consumers rather than resistors?
  4. How does the temporal context of postmodernity effect discussions of resistance / opposition?
10 - Audience: struggle and contradiction in everyday postmodernity (Area 4):
  A: How does the audience deal with / not deal with the contradictions or rock and roll (co-optation, postmodern pleasure as reversal of the oppressive, the female fan's experience of "cock-rock" as pleasure in the face of its suppression of female desire, etc.)?
  B: Does the audience work within the context of a hierarchy of good and bad (authentic / inauthentic, art / commodity) in rock and roll? If so, how does this hierarchy condition the audience's affective stance and its alliance with those who are fans of genres of rock and roll lower on the hierarchy? Do the seemingly overwhelming theoretical difficulties inherent in this hierarchicalization inform in any meaningful sense whatsoever the fans' lived experience of rock and roll? Is there a relation to rock and roll as pleasure that transcends these differences?
  1. Is the location of discussions / analyses of rock and roll within the postmodern climate always necessary?
  2. If not, when is it not necessary?
  3. What are the problematics of the practice of criticism in the climate of postmodernism?
  4. What is the impact of postmodern concerns upon questions of authenticity?
11 - History — politics / us — them (Area 5):
  A: Where does the oppositional element in rock (if it exists) lead to for the audience? Does rock and roll provide the materials for an affective alliance? At what level is this opposition / resistance functioning — everyday life, political alliance, etc.?
  B: Is there a history to this oppositional function? Can differing resistances be located in rock and roll's history? If resistance does not necessarily translate into a functioning alliance against hegemonic culture (i.e., if resistance remains unorganized and dispersed or remains at the level of vague opposition to "adult" definitions of everyday life), then what are the factors that push this resistance into a functioning alliance? Does the fracturing of rock and roll audiences preclude any overall alliance?
  1. What role does rock and roll play in the political conservatism of contemporary youth culture?
  2. If resistance is present only in the form of unrecognized potential, what factors / activities work to repress this oppositional potential?
  3. Conversely, what factors / activities further the workings of rock and roll as resistance? As affective alliance?
  4. Does the fracturing of the rock audience in the climate of postmodernity preclude any overall alliance?
12 - Scholars, critics, fans (Area 6):
  A: What is / are the role(s) of rock and roll scholarship in the context of academe? In the broader context of culture and society? Elvis Costello has suggested that: "Writing about rock and roll is like dancing about architecture." Why is this not true? In what context / manner might it be true? Should we, as scholars, explore musical-form-as-criticism? Might the texts of popular music be best deconstructed / reconstructed through the affective / creative engagement with musical forms directly? Should we seek the acquisition of proficiencies with a more complete range of instruments (critical theory, lead guitar, semiotics, keyboards)?
  B: In the overall context of scholarship, performance, and resistance; what alternative avenues should we explore in the more widespread dissemination of our efforts? What are our products? How do we locate the site of our audience? What do existing and emergent technologies offer us in these areas? How might we best use popular media (radio, cable access, video tape, desk top publishing, etc.) to gain access to a wider forum for our work, to forge, in some real sense, a meaningful synthesis between the critical and the popular?
  1. Who do we write for?
  2. What is the relationship between the scholarly and the popular?
  3. How might this relationship be altered?
  4. How do these questions fit into the greater and more immediate contexts of professional development, advancement, promotion, tenure?
13 Conclusions, implications, speculations. Technology both contains and conceals the dangers of an inevitable fall into the abyss of an intellectual nihilism. One might better suggest that these questions are not offered for solution in a mathematical sense (i.e., one arrives at the answer, one moves on to the next problem), but rather, for consideration within a context in which it is the discourse itself which is of value. The value of the questions presented for consideration is, if it exists at all, in their abilities to draw focus toward areas which, the avoidance or neglect of at this particular point in the historical evolution of a body of contemporary popular music and communication literature, could result in an indeterminate period of theoretical confusion.
  Those of us drawn to this body of music, this set of cultural forms, in this specific historical context, are so drawn, as is the audience we seek to locate (and locate ourselves within), by similar flames of pleasure and desire. Grossberg (1986a) writes that: "More, perhaps, than other cultural domains, the popular demands pleasure before understanding." The theoretical consideration of the questions presented in this paper, the authors believe, are tied to these greater concerns with pleasure and desire. The undeniably physical pleasure accompanying the intellectual development of a more coherent theoretical foundation for our work, individual and collective, in the decades ahead, remains at the center of our efforts.
1. Stewart Brand (1987: 92-93) describes a scene in which researchers and technicians interested in the "transmission of presence: developed "talking heads" which were, in effect, video monitors in the shape of the heads of governmental leaders allowing for an illusion of intrapersonal communication in the context of an impersonal communicative setting:
  "We came up with the idea of projecting onto video screens sculpted like people's faces and also having screens swivel a bit — so they could nod, shake their head, turn to each other. At each site the order of sitting of the five people would be the same. At my site I'm real and you're plastic and on my right, and at your site you're real and I'm plastic and on your left ... (The exercise was dubbed "Talking Heads"). Lo and behold, six months later out came an album of the rock group "Talking Heads" with a cover that students in our lab had produced. They had people from the band here on the weekends." Return to text
2. James Lull also rejects this uses and gratifications approach and simple empirical survey analysis techniques in favor of a rigorous ethnography. Return to text
  • Allor, Martin (1988), "Relocating the site of the audience." In: Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 1988, 5, 3, 217-233.
  • Brand, Stewart (1987), The media lab. New York: Viking-Penguin, Inc. Frith, Simon (1981), Sound effects. Youth, leisure and the politics of rock 'n' roll. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.
  • Frith, Simon (1988), "Brit Beat." Column in: Village Voice, May 19th, 1988, 69.
  • Grossberg, Lawrence (1983-1984), "The politics of youth culture. Some observations on rock and roll in American culture." In: Social Text, 1983-1984, 8, 104-126.
  • Grossberg, Lawrence (1986a), "Teaching the popular." In: C. Nelson (ed.), Theory in the classroom. Urbana and Chicago, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1986, 177-200.
  • Grossberg, Lawrence (1986b), "Is there rock after punk?" In: Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 1986, 3, 1, 50-74.
  • Lull, James (1988), "Critical response. The audience as nuisance." In: Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 1988, 5, 3, 239-243.
  This essay was published in: Tracking: Popular Music Studies,
vol. 2, no. 1 (Winter, 1989)
  1997 © IASPM / USA