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volume 3
november 2000

Popular music studies

Index of the journal Tracking  

  The issue of musical value
by Motti Regev Spring, 1992
  The Hebrew University, Jerusalem
  Jimi Hendrix

Why are some works of rock music higher valued than others? For an answer to that question, Motti Regev argues, we should look at the way the producers and the interpreters succeeded in gaining legitimacy and recognition. The authenticity of rock and its musical value are meanings produced for the music by its producers and by its interpreters as part of the strategy of the struggle for recognition. The "classic" status of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix is the successful result of this struggle over recognition, and not the loss of some authentic meaning.

1 I would like to open with the basic assessment that, whether we like it or not, it is a social and a cultural fact that in the field of popular music there exists an artistic hierarchy. There are masterpieces, there are classic works, there are great musicians. It is commonly accepted, for example, that some records made in the sixties are the masterpieces of rock music and that their creators are the great musicians of rock — and suffice to mention the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix to make this point clear. What gives these musicians their status? What makes their records into masterpieces? Can popular music studies confront such questions? Should they?
2 The theoretical position and the research strategy of popular music studies towards this issue of musical value has been characterized, so I believe, by the dilemma between the will to avoid evaluations and judgements and the will to stress and emphasize the uniqueness of popular music. Thus we have on the one hand the kind of research which avoids this crucial issue altogether and, on the other hand, the kind of research that attempts to deal with it somehow.
3 The avoidance of the musical value issue is understandable. Popular music studies emerged to a large extent as a response to and as a critique of traditional musicology and its apparatus of analysis. The argument was that underneath the scientific pretension of objective analysis of musical texts, musicology in fact activates sophisticated instruments of evaluation and judgement. As such, traditional musicology was conceived by the emerging popular music studies as basically an ideological apparatus.
4 As a result, fearing from falling back to the practices of traditional musicology, the position which carefully avoids any construction of tools of analysis which assess the "greatness" of musical texts has emerged in popular music studies. The researches which focus on the music itself tended instead to develop a semiotic terminology, which deals with signs, codes, units of meaning — without being carried away to implicit or explicit value judgements about the music. In addition, this position produced research which concentrated on the institutional aspects of the music, on the organizational context in which it is produced, distributed and consumed. These two types of research have enriched us a lot with knowledge about the way popular music communicates different meanings, about the music industry, communication organizations and the professional life of musicians and other music related occupations. However, the research strategy which avoids dealing with the issue of musical value leaves a crucial component of the field of popular music unexplained.
5 Critique of traditional musicology and of its treatment of popular music led to the emergence of another type of research in popular music studies — research motivated by the interest of showing that popular music is culturally significant for the groups who listen to it just as any other music. The research which emerged from this position has been examining the way popular music is decoded and received by its audiences, and the ways popular music has been used to construct group identities. The argument has been that the thrills and the relevance of popular music for its audiences are as powerful as those of classical music for its audience, and that popular music is just based on a different kind of musical language — and therefore it is impossible to determine whether popular mus is better or worse than other types of music, in any sense. It is simply different.
6 The works which attempted to examine and explain the meaning of rock music are salient examples here. The emphasis was on the assessment that rock music has been an "authentic" expression of pleasure, fun, negation, refusal and subversiveness — in relation to the "straight" world of structured, routine and expected activities — especially for those social and generational groups which have crystallized around these meanings and through them. Sixties classic rock is, from this perspective, the supreme manifestation of these meanings and of this function. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix are the most important rock musicians, and their records are the masterpieces of the genre, because the lyrics they write, the sonic texture they create, their sophisticated studio work, the grain of their voices, their ability as players of musical instruments and the general drive of their music, are all the best expression of those meanings.
7 It seems to me that, probably without intending it, this approach of analyzing the meanings of rock for the groups that uses them, is carried away to practices of evaluation and judgements. It becomes even more salient when attempts are being made to distinguish between "authentic" rock and "incorporated" music.
8 In addition, even if the analysis does not slide into evaluations of the music, and we remain with the functional explanation about the ways the music and its meanings are used, we still don't have an explanation to the institutionalization of the hierarchy. We do not have an answer to the question why do the meanings that a certain group finds in the music become its accepted meanings ( and not the other, different meanings that other groups find in that same music)? And we do not have an explanation to the question why does the music that a specific group appreciates and identifies with, becomes the music highly evaluated as "authentic", and not the music which other groups appreciate and identify with.
9 The approach to the issue of musical value oscillates, then, between two points, each reflecting a conceptual trap. On the one hand, discussion of substance, of content and of meanings might lead to practices of evaluation and judgement, which we want to refrain from. On the other hand, neutral discussion of production processes and of consumption patterns, leads to total avoidance of dealing with this central issue. With Bourdieu's field-theory as a basic perspective, it seems to me that the right way to confront the issue of musical value and of artistic hierarchy is by treating them as cultural products. The research questions should not focus on the substance or the essence of musical value, but rather on the question who produces it and how. The value of works of art is not an immanent feature of the cultural text. It is rather a meaning produced for the text by the believers in this meaning. The consecration of cultural texts as masterpieces and the crowning of their producers as great artists are cultural practices which express the aesthetic world view and the interpretation of specific groups to those text. These practices reflect in particular the success of those groups to construct a reality according to their world view.
10 It follows that the artistic hierarchy in popular music should be also examined as a cultural product of the groups which constructed it. In other words, it is not enough to understand what are the meanings that rock music has or had for certain generational or other groups. The issue of musical value makes it necessary to examine the ways and the strategies by which these groups succeeded in constructing the field of popular music according to their aesthetic world-view, making thereby the rock aesthetic a dominant force in the field. More concretely, the question is not what is there in the music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix that makes it great, but how did those who believe in the greatness of this music succeed in turning their belief into an objective reality, into an accepted truth.
11 It seems to me that the essential strategy here has been to "prove" that rock music is a form of art. The cultural field is dominated, at least in the context of contemporary Western culture, by a world-view which distinguishes between cultural practices and cultural forms defined as "art" and between practices and forms which are "non-art". As an arena of struggles and conflicts, the cultural field is therefore characterized by the struggle over recognition and legitimization of cultural forms and of specific works as "art". The main qualifications by which artistic recognition is generally granted are:
  1. presence of a creative entity, usually an individual, whose inner truth is expressed by the text;
  2. existence in the text of some kind of complexity or uniqueness of aesthetic form and of social, philosophical or psychological meanings;
  3. a commitment of the creative entity to the truth of the work, without foreign considerations of practicality, profitability, etc.
12 Popular music was not recognized initially as form of art because traditionally it was conceived as lacking the parameters of artistry. Rock music is in this respect the manifestation of the claim for recognition of popular music or parts of it as a form of art. Rock music has been used as a focus of interpretations and of analysis which came to demonstrate and to prove that it is a type of popular music which has artistic value. This was carried out mainly by an autonomous production of meaning apparatus that emerged in the late sixties. The work of this apparatus have concentrated around three themes, in light of the art parameters: (1) It has pointed to the existance of creative entities in rock — the self contained group as a creative unit, the musician who writes, composes, performs and produces his own music, and the autonomous musical producer. (2) It has analyzed the meanings of rock as authentic expressions and it has pointed to the unique sonic qualities of rock — thereby implicitly constructing an aesthetic ideology and criteria for evaluation and judgement. (3) It has advocated the argument that despite the framework of profit-seeking organizations, great rock musicians have in fact artistic autonomy in their work, just like film directors have it in the film industry.
13 The emergence of an artistic hierarchy, the consecration of masterpieces and the crowning of great musicians are, in this respect, necessary and essential by-products of the contest over the recognition of rock as an art form. The interest of demonstrating that certain works of popular music have artistic value, together with the construction of an aesthetic ideology and evaluation criteria, made it necessary to point to those works of popular music which have no artistic value.
14 Instead of talking about the way dominant culture has incorporated rock music, we should talk, from this perspective, about the way the producers and the interpreters of rock succeeded in conquering a higher position for rock in this culture and gain legitimacy and recognition. The authenticity of rock and its musical value are meanings produced for the music by its producers and by its interpreters as part of the strategy of the struggle for recognition. The "classic" status of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix is the successful result of this struggle over recognition, and not the loss of some authentic meaning.
15 I would like to say, in conclusion, that the things I have just presented are not exactly new. In one way or another they have been said in much of the writing about rock and popular music. It seemed to me, however, at least from the personal point of clarifying this issue and mapping the approaches towards it, that it should be phrased more clearly — which I hope I did. I thought it important mostly because the emotional inclination is to hang on to the conception that musical value is an imminent characteristic of the music, and that the institutionalization of rock is some kind of failure.
  A version of this paper was presented at the Sixth International Conference on Popular Music Studies, Berlin, 1991. This essay was published in:
Tracking: Popular Music Studies, vol. 4, no. 2 (Spring, 1992)
  1997 © IASPM / USA