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Musicological Quagmires in Popular Music

Seeds of Detailed Conflict

Stan Hawkins

Editor-in-Chief, Popular Musicology Online

We all know that to experience a song as fascinating, banal, sexy, vulgar or downright parodic is an ideological matter that sheds light on the difficulties of musical interpretation. In a number of recent studies of commercial artists by several musicologists,[1] attempts have been made to demonstrate how music analytic traditions can be applied to understanding how pop music functions. Connected to all these studies are questions relating to the application of musical analysis in popular musicology. To this end, the title of this article aptly coins the term, 'quagmire',[2] as employed and rigorously problematised by David Brackett in the introduction section to his book Interpreting Popular Music.[3]

To start with I want to consider why readings of pop music might be perceived as investments in a truth-bearing function where the motivation to expose the detail not only affords currency to the craft of description, but also legitimation. Brackett, along with other popular musicologists,[4] has begged the question: what is it that guarantees the 'fit' between music and analytic discourse.[5] Of course when asserting the detail's claim to aesthetic elevation, the musicologist's intention is indeed double-sided. As a guarantor of meaning, the musical structural detail is constantly threatened by misprision and is anything but assured. What I mean is that there is always a sense of legitimacy in one's own brand of hermeneutics that seeks to validate the means of one's craft. Obviously though, any handling of the musical text as an autonomous entity is a complex operation that runs through popular musicology as much as any other area of music research. This is because the unpacking of aesthetic values involves the transmutation of structural detail into quality. But if we accept that an inner urgency in music demands a description of the text and its wealth of details, the question that then arises is how does music - in its full assembly of details - succeed in transferring particularities into the field of representation? Let us turn to the implication of the details of the commercial pop text.

As the banal, like the profane, invades the sphere of cultural representation, so its form gradually becomes sacralised. When seen and heard close up, the codesof the pop text[6] can appear insignificant until they become meaningful during the interplay of the text's prosaic detail. As I have implied in earlier studies, banality in musical expression might be better understood as a pathology of the detail; either in the form of hypertrophy or metastasis or both. What I want to suggest here is that the equation between the musical code and banality can serve as a diagnostic tool for distinguishing the contexts of production and reception, and, moreover, making inroads into understanding the aesthetics of taste. Popular musicologists know that the demarcation between the cultivated and the crass can be effortlessly crossed in pop, for the difference between 'great' and 'crap' sound is first and foremost a qualitative difference. As if gone rotten, the banal detail in pop, at least for anti-pop scholars, detaches itself from any support by becoming a detail for detail's sake alone.

Let us stop for a moment to consider some of the above assertions. Appearing in the midst of theoretical writings on commercial music are the unavoidable entrapments of interpretation which are situated within traditions of musical criticism. Curiously enough, when the aesthetic status of the musical text is debated enough, the very act of validating it often goes unanswered. But, truth never resides in the immediacy of the realistic details of the given text; for the issue of detail is as much a social as an aesthetic dilemma.

In Jean Baudrillard's work the purpose of detail in pop culture is largely negative-based.[7] Deceiving the consumer, the mass produced object, in all its commercial-driven glory, is a mechanically inscribed sum of details that spells out its detotalisation. This notion is reflected strongly in Baudrillard's aesthetic position - a position predicated upon the domination of a linguistic model.[8] Clearly, Baudrillard's linguistic pronouncement of the industrially produced object is tinged with an elitist ideological position that opposes mass culture. Almost diametrically, the position assumed by Baudrillard opposes Barthes' own unique attraction to the theorisation of the detail.[9] Rather than lowering the commercial product's currency, Barthes argues that its details confer onto the consumer a fresh form of dignity that enables them to access the realm of an ideal. But, only when masked, can the detail advance. Barthes insists that by luring us through the elegance of fashion, the commercial product reconciles the aesthetic dictates of taste. Consider two passages, first Baudrillard, then Barthes. As this juxtaposition suggests, the conflictual state of the detail offers an opening into investigating the arbitrariness of the object:

There is a cancer of the object: this proliferation of astructural elements which makes for triumphalism of the object is a sort of cancer. Now, it is on these astructural elements (automatism, accessories, and inessential differences) that the entire social circuit of fashion and of directed consumption is organised (Baudrillard 1968: 175-76).

...Fashion must elaborate meanings whose fabrication does not appear costly; this is the case of the detail: one detail is enough to transform what is outside meaning, what is unfashionable into Fashion, and yet a detail is not expensive;... but at the same time, sublimated under the name find, this same low-priced detail participates in the dignity of the ideal (Barthes 1983: 243).

On first impression, these two critiques might appear quite disparate. Baudrillard articulates the masking nature of the ornamental detail as dysfunctional and astructural. Barthes enthusiastically applauds the importance of the functional form of the detail. Yet, whatever these distinctions might hold, the detail in both instances offers a way forward for distinguishing the state of mass-produced objects. In a way, both embrace the antecedent taste for the detail. In other words, the hermeneutic project of Barthes and Baudrillard might be described as one of extracting details out of the text as the focus falls on categories of details that interact in the intertextual movements of imagery. For myself, the question that arises from this has to do with the problematics of interpreting the musical detail and discovering its identity.

By demystifying the modernist notion of a universal realism, by arguing that it is subject to the responsibility of choice,[10] both Baudrillard and Barthes promote a new linguistic entity that calls into line the old aesthetics of representation. The highly structuralist conception of reality raised by these two critical theorists places the emphasis on language in literature. Moreover, their argument contends that content within context always succumbs to the pressures of the real.

But with Barthes' conceptualisations, the detail is decentred, marginal, and elusive; moreover, it can be well disguised by the fluency of a banality that can be overlooked. Obtuse meaning in the text is indeed something quite different from concrete meaning, and lacks pathos through its affective neutrality. Usefully, Barthes ideas are applicable to musical texts,[11] especially if we accept that signifying systems do and do not pertain to linguistics. It is the exchange of details between one text and the next that Barthes invariably promulgates. In this sense, the cycle of the object's detail can be threaded into a loop mode. Detail after detail, detail into detail, detail upon detail, the ornamental detail is at the service of the narrative and the reading of the text.

Now musical structures notwithstanding, the quest for a valorisation of the detail cannot be perceived as simply rhetorical - it entails a search that remains open-ended. There can be little doubt that in the quagmire of musicological excavation there exists a category that constitutes the very materiality of sonic substance. This is something that needs to be unearthed. Yet the detail that so often interests popular music scholars is that which is not intentional (on the part of the musician, producer, studio engineer). By this I am referring to a type of detail that does not necessarily attest to the artist's indefatigable expression, but rather says that the artist was there. What I am calling into line here is the very synonymy of the musical detail with the theorist's own sense of imagination. In terms of being imaginative in one's search then, the act of musical narratology[12] thus becomes a creative act as much as a critical activity in interpretation.

This is one of the main tenets of musicological excavation underpinning the study undertaken by John Richardson in his book, Singing Archaeology. Richardson labours the point that musicology has gradually moved from the structural to the post-structural whereby the question of meaning concerns the "elucidation of relations."[13] What Richardson picks up on is howthe process of musical narratology brings relations to the fore. His theorisation of stability in minimalist aesthetics duly lends itself to the structuring of musical events in Western music, a feature Richardson sets out to disentangle from the cultural baggage of the organic metaphors of the canon. Exploring through closed readings the music of Philip Glass's third opera, Akhnaten, Richardson frames his debate on a sliding scale between postmodernism and its modernist antecedents. The path he charts emphasises the usefulness of the dialogical principle of reading music in a space that absorbs the events of structure within the concept of relation. Quite significantly, the details inherent in Akhnaten draw Richardson to the conclusion that Glass's music, like other postmodernists, signifies a very unique process of deconstruction. This involves, as Richardson claims, "a readiness to step off at any juncture and enter the negative space surrounding the aesthetic object." The musical space of banal, Glassian minimalism consists of its own "pulsional pleasures that can adequately sustain the listening subject," a zone that might be described as new or 'countersublime' - "...a sublime that goes beyond the sublime."[14] After all, it is the (in)stabilities of musical detail that most engender change and a sense of desublimation in Glass's music. Consequently, the process of decentring in minimalism, as in much pop-based composition, symbolises a rhetorical programme of deconstruction that is framed by repetitious crusades. In a sense, the relentlessness of bland repetition in musical structuration always weighs heavily on the fate of the musical detail through one's fascination with the trivial and banal. Notably, Richardson demonstrates the merits of this position by applying a range of technical terms and analytic methods that are derived directly from the Western art music tradition, but modified and reconfigured to 'fit' the text.

What seems relevant here is that the paradigms developed to examine European traditional music are adaptable to view a brand of music that does not quite fit the remit that analytic methods were originally intended for. On the one hand, by undoing the romantic sublimation of western tonality, Glass, like other minimalist composers and pop artists, articulates the sheer fallibility of Western classical tonal practice. Yet, on the other hand, this composer inscribes himself in the traditions of classical music by appropriation.[15] In his own way, he accredits the system of values our western music traditions convey. In the guise of cyclical form and additive rhythmic structures, Glass's minimalist trademark asserts itself as a meeting point where the details of extensional and intensional development are cunningly reconciled. An intense preoccupation with banal repetition becomes both a rejection and reinterpretation of compositional principles linked to Western European music traditions.

It seems clear from Richardson's study of Glass that whatever the musical style or genre foregrounded, the stake of the Einzelheiten(varied detail) remains the same - whether one moves outward from the musical atoms or inward towards the whole it is always a question of considering the balance between the autonomy of the detail and the discourse that describes the whole. Discourse, metalanguage, narratology, music theory, dialogics, and so on, all testify to the complicity of the aesthetic and the historical.

One problem with narratology concerns that of reestablishment through an identification of the effect of contextual details on analytic language. Multiform in its style, the commercial pop text is a phenomenon with heterogeneous unities located on different levels. Implicitly, its referent is as much the human body as its system of formal signs and codes. Thus, mapped to this idea, it is possible to understand why the pop text can be interpreted as a parodic form of individual and cultural detail.

In addition to addressing the questions surrounding music theory, popular musicologists have recognised that questions of musical detail run deeply into the social positionings that bring history and cultural experience into play. One of the most widespread forms of representation in pop music certainly occurs through the details that define pleasure. Of course, pleasure occurs in many guises: satire, empathy, sarcasm, irony, eroticism, sexual explicitness, parody. One only needs to look at the songs of Björk from her album Homogenic, released by Polygram in 1997.

If we are to acknowledge parody in her songs, we first need to recognise the structure of the song, its style, Björk's nature of delivery, her attitude, and her manner of social and cultural commentary. Often parody in musical expression represents as well as ridicules the distinct details of the pop song and the artist. Take as an example the song "Bachelorette," where Björk melodramatises her identity in a stream of musical details that are heavily laden with references to all sorts of styles. She borrows from film music, classical and popular styles, and most of all the musical, as she yells and belts out the passion of her lyrics:

I'm a fountain of blood (my love)
in the shape of a girl
you're the bird on the brim (my love)
hypnotized by the whirl

Opening the song, these four lines catapult us into a sensation of bewitching trance amidst a torrent of string glissandi and military-like snares that prepare us for a lot of things. Parodying the directness of her musical gestures by exploring their limits, Björk creates a musical consciousness that is positioned peculiarly with regard to the use of language. Effortlessly, her choice of words flourishes under the constraints of a very controlled Ravel-like rhythmic groove. From start to finish Björk sets out to articulate a defiant declaration of self-adoration that borders on the knife-edge of insincerity and banality. Reminiscent of Kurt Weill, her style wallows in the vexations of identity searching (read: authenticity), while the forcefulness of her vocal expression flaunts a superficiality that is witty without becoming cynical. It must not be forgotten that parody is in effect relative. After all, one's own idiolect is never a single one: in it there are always congealed traces of a base stock of intonations. Undoubtedly, the whole game of regression in Björk's texts expresses this element; a regression that is traceable back to the parodia sacra.

I read the laughing, parodic gesturing of Björk's delivery as exaggeratedly rich in detail. One of the most interesting stylistic indicators of this MTV artist's output is that of compositional pastiche. The nature of direct, half-concealed, or even totally disguised references to text and context is endemic in pop production. As double entendre frequently ushers in parodic representation, the pop artist shamelessly quotes and steals. And so, parody, especially in the form of musical pastiche, becomes the prime source of Björk's motivation.

In pop texts the boundaries between the artist's own speech and someone else's can be ambiguous to the point of confusion. And, lest we forget, the great parodic pop texts of the late 20th are manifested in a carnivalesque atmosphere of partying, festivity, and simply letting go. Yet this is hardly anything new. Parodic intent has come down to us through the Latin parodia sacra where word and style in the Middle Ages were commonly attached to ridicule. Mikhail Bakhtin elucidates:

The Latin «parodia sacra» is projected against the background of the vulgar national language. The accentuating system of the vulgar language penetrates to the very heart of the Latin text. In essence Latin parody is a bilingual phenomenon. Although there is only one language, this language is structured and perceived in the light of another language, and in some instances not only the accents but also the syntactical forms of the vulgar language are clearly sensed in the Latin parody.[16]

As Bakhtin points out, Latin parody can be seen as an international bilingual hybrid. In Björk's case, it seems that it is in the nature of every musical detail to transpose the values of musical style, to emphasise specific details while leaving others out. Structures, inflections, accents, tempi, rhythms, and syntactic devices are what channel musical parody. Thus, in «Bachelorette» it becomes possible to sense in the parody of kitsch string gestures, set against dramatic piano bass octaves (a cliché if ever in film music), Björk's deeply personal expression. Her parody, to follow on from Bakhtin's strain, is dialogised as an intentional stylistic hybrid. For myself, every musical detail employed in the mix of this song forms part of a language that allows the singer to insulate herself from the stratification of any concrete style. In fact, what we have here is an intra-musical syntactical form of expression that is nourished by a backdrop of referential details that play out the drama of a pop song as if it were a farce. For instance, Björk's lyrical dramaturgy effortlessly merges into the details of drum programming, over-compressed Bollywood string gestures, and a staggering wealth of reverb effects that turn into a dialogue between an all too serious artistic expression and a festivity of trivial merrymaking.

But most curiously, it is the synapse between a clichéd encoding of film music and the prodigious scope of electronic dance-style production that ultimately dialogises Björk's agency. Stretching from the album Homogenicto the wonderful songs found in the musical, Dancing in the Dark, her recordings testify to the intense struggle among music traditions, a struggle epitomised by the state of the hegemonic Anglo-American music industry at the dawn of the 21st century. There is hardly any need to expand on the ironic nature of post-1980s pop music than to state that this period in pop history has signified an era of vivid representation, panning across a wealth of genres. Indeed, it has been the tendency of MTV towards a visualisation of music and the artist that has insured the victory of pastiche. This is perhaps best exemplified in the doubling effect of Björk's dramaturgy, which is discernible through the taunting of the male gaze in the half-joking role of the child-girl[17] and the serious modelling of herself as artist. Traces of parodia sacra are found in the travesty of every utterance Björk articulates. Broadly speaking, her parody is a hybrid compound of language-use and musical detail. Always, she manages to highlight the direction of musical features that denote the comic display of wild masquerading within a post-industrial sonic landscape.

Like all the parodic forms of the Middle Ages, Björk's texts bear the traces of carnival, which are retained in the rites of stylisation alone. Moreover, her vocal style ridicules the sacred domain of the trained classical utterance; a style deliberately vulgarised through a pomposity that is branded by more than a hint of Nordic vocal-cracking joika. It is in this manner that her vocal utterance, her style, the details of her harmonic and melodic contours, her production techniques, all become the objects of representation that are tainted by intentional parody.

Multi-levels of parodic representation in pop are determinable as much by their temporal detail as their spatial dimension. We know that fun in musical enjoyment is a vital factor in laying down the prerequisite of playfulness on the part of the pop artist. And this is how parody is enticed into the discourse of pop - through its remarkable power it brings musical performance into close range by making the performer appear 'authentic'. We might then consider the familiarisation of the pop identity through parody and fun as an indispensable step in actualising the creativity of genre.

Of course, explicating the implication of one's responses to musical parody is part and parcel of the musicological quagmire. In commercially produced music, the relationship between musical structure and social context is very different from music grounded in other settings. Brackett, in addressing this problematic, critiques Alan Lomax's ethnomusicological studies[18] of the interrelationships of music and culture in Western Europe. A central problem with Lomax's method is one of essentialism. Compressed into a position of domination versus subordination, his critique skirts a range of factors that effect listening competence and attitudes. Most problematic here is Lomax's absolutist notion of what constitutes Western European culture - a position which exposes the most restrictive subject position. Confronting Lomax's universalistic approach, Brackett suggests how multiple listening might indeed be available to the single listener. He reasons that listening positions are "not locked into place by financial status or genetic code," but are rather informed by an array of identity-based criteria. Moreover, there are profound complexities that render the popular music context problematic to the "insider's approach" with respect to "subject positions and competencies" that allow the listener to identify with the music.[19] As a "cultural insider," the analyst needs to carefully seek sets of characteristics and details that make the logic of statements possible. Yet, despite the arguable expertise of such acquired competence, the rendering of results through music analysis can never guarantee the 'fit'.

At this point I want to approach the conflictual state of the musical detail from another angle. If there is one thing that underlies the problem of definition here, it is the lack of consensus as to what kind of details are pertinent for identification. What distinguishes the detail in music is of course the context of mediation. Our reception of music is always without clear boundaries; musical texts are rhetorical and expressive structures that not only refer to the constituents of sound-patterns but also the subjectivity of effect. Clearly musicological studies consist of very different histories -- histories of exclusion and inclusion. Furthermore, there is always the question of prioritising the significance of specific musical parameters above the cultural and social arrangement of music. And, at the expense of revealing the coherent syntactic structural detail, the predicament of analytic purpose can be threatened by abstraction. The demand for, what Middleton has termed, "disinterested listening" in much musicology explains the exclusion of the pop song as an art form.[20] Derek Scott offers up an explanation of this through a theory of cultural relativism - a perspective borrowed from modern anthropology - that sets out to challenge the critiques against mass culture.[21] The idea that artistic value can arise from acts of consumption, as Scott argues, raises questions relating directly to the divisions of music by means of aesthetic and ethical distinction. By exposing the flaws of modernism as an artistic movement, Scott calls for a sociomusicological approach where "all values are relative" and void of independent standards of truth.[22]

For sociomusicologists then a problematisation of the textual in popular music could be perceived in terms of the range of methods and constitutive theoretical dialogues that have arisen within a field of general tension. The important point here concerns us deciding what the basis for musical interpretation is. Like Scott, Middleton dismisses any one single organising paradigm. Yet, methodological difficulties certainly arise out of this approach as processes of deconstitution and dismantlement upset the conceptual contradictions of the traditional musicological paradigm. Derrida has stated that it takes centuries to reveal the "dissimulation of the woven texture."[23] In a sense, dissimulation, as I see it, could refer to the concealment of the text's composition and paradigms. The point here is not that the musicological legacy has no significance, but rather that it needs to be supplemented in order to yield a more useful method. In scrutinising the musical text, a detail is only a detail minimally, which means that it can always be read differently especially in relation to how it might wish to be read. The ethics of textual analysis, not least through processes of narratology, appear to reside in the negotiation of the gap opened by the act of analysing text versus context. From this it would seem that the central concern of popular musicology is one that seeks not musical truth but rather musical justice. Indeed, textual readings are spoken by multiple voices in multiple settings through multiple listening; they are repeated over time, yet never appear quite the same. Thus, every detail that is interpretative by nature is readable as another detail. This would suggest that if we proceed cautiously while remaining with the text, we can dislodge an interpretation from its reinterpretation and attach it to another reading attached to other details of the text. So, textual analysis, at least when addressed deconstructively, becomes a process of reinterpretation that presses up against the historical narratives that have imprisoned it. Yet, as Julia Kristeva has written, "the reading of a text is doubtlessly the first stage of theoretical elaboration," and, in this sense, must be grounded in the reader's own unique desires and attentiveness.[24]

Perhaps the most striking aspects of the title track of Madonna's album Music,released in 2000 by Maverick/Warner Bros., is located in the sheer pretentiousness of the chorus hook, 'Music! Makes the people come together! Music! Makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel' (01:04). Fifteen years following her first album and first UK number one, 'Into the Groove', this song revels in disco hedonism with Madonna now poised as Rhinestone cowgirl. Produced by Madonna and Mirwais Ahmadzï, 'Music' is supercharged with electronic virtuosity and first class production tricks. From the second that the thumping groove enters, the continuity of this performance feels assured through its sheer physical ignition. Gradually gathering up all the details to form a grid of rhythmic ideas, the regularity of the beat induces pleasure while at the same time organising the sounds around us. As mediator, Madonna is linked by the groove to a range of musical idiolects that pronounce her cultural and historical context. While the disco riffs transport with them something of a standard gesture, Madonna activates them in such a way as to reinscribe the rich origins of African American dance music. When Madonna first enters the audio image, she orders the DJ to 'put a record on because she want to dance with her baby, and once it starts she never wants to stop.' Throughout, the groove is regulated by a constitutive metrical figure of a two-quaver first beat and an accented third beat (referred to from now onwards as 1+3rd), which filter out the weight of physical energy though a matrix of layered beats and motifs. Obedient to the artist's demands, the constituents of this metrical detail and its sonic symmetry shrewdly shapes a camp sensibility. Let me explain.

Significantly, the production work in "Music" absorbs a great deal of details into an audio signal that lasts no longer than three minutes and forty-five seconds. How we experience the track in its entirety and what we receive in terms of the recorded information is a tricky business to explain. If we consider the sensibility of the groove, its details consist of a lot more than just the regular heavy beat. In true disco fashion, the groove is modelled from a relationship set up between the tension of the strong down beat and the backbeat - all the way through the pull of the strong bass drum dotted figure is complemented by a compressed snare backbeat. But this is not the only backbeat. The groove's riff is styled by what Middleton calls a 'variety of gestural spans'[25] which are found in all the rhythmic ideas, from the shortest semiquaver figuration in the hissing, electrified hi-hats to the sustained, synth-tom on the third beat. How the bass doubles the 1+3rd to energise and heighten excitement when the vocal part enters, and how the strings, synths and vocoded strands all widen the audio field of the track, are characteristics that determine the sonic texture of the groove's narrative. Close scrutiny of the rhythmic material soon reveals that in the quadruple meter of the groove, the very drive of the groove is brought alive by the countless discrepancies that exist within and between all the instrumental parts.

Now at this point in my analysis of the track, the reader will note that my interpretation is mainly supported by technical descriptions that fall well within the discipline of music theory. Yet, for the purpose of this article, I have decided not to transcribe or notate these details - an appropriate place, no doubt, to dwell on this issue.

In an illuminating essay on the poetics and politics of transcription, Peter Winkler has problematised the measuring of details through a variety of transcription techniques. Now what might seem an adequate way of investigating the nature of the groove on the part of the music analyst would be a full transcription of all the minute distortions and asynchronicities that constitute the text. Yet, while transcription might be a useful tool for involving oneself with musical processes, its goal "must be recognised as an intensely subjective act." In other words, the process of transcription really only assists the transcriber in accessing the musical text in some kind of ordered and intensive way. Winkler concludes: "For me, the act of transcription is a form of mediation. When I transcribe, I am interacting with the music. ... I am not always able to verbalise or notate what I learn in this process, but I feel that the music is shaping me, changing me, as I go along. I am being transformed by the music; I am living inside it."[26] Music dictation can occur in countless ways though, as Winkler and others have set out to demonstrate. Yet the process of writing music down, with all its pitfalls and merits, is about an aural phenomenon, and in Western culture this is synonymous with notions of being musically well-trained and literate - an ethnocentric problematic rooted in our notational system. But perhaps the prime value of considering the question of documentation rests more in the uncovering of that we might miss hearing or that we might just take for granted, more than in the physical activity of transcribing. In terms of listening to the recording then, there is an obvious need for the analyst to throw light on the details of our responses to this form of sonic mediation. Along with Winkler, I believe that attention to the extremely subtle nuances of musical details is vital in working out musical meaning through physical or mental transcription.

What I mean is that a high capacity of aural alertness lies at the core of interpreting pop. Returning to Madonna's 'Music', the success of the groove is clearly the result of advances in production technology, pop trends, and commercial distribution patterns. Moreover, I would argue that it is the detailed nuts and bolts of the music's materiality and their effect on the body that becomes a most critical point in terms of the musicological debate. I will return to this point in my conclusion. Meanwhile, there seems to be an inner necessity in detecting the style indicators that call for the indulgence of detailed description.

Variable configurations of beat placement, the articulation of bass drum, hi-hat, snare, and pitched percussion parts, all contribute to our experience of the groove. Effectively modelled in gestural forms according to the phrase-shapes, macro- and micro, the interactivity of beat-types are what distinguish the rhythmic pull. Examples of this are located in the kinetic energy of the gestural structuring in 'Music'. What strikes one most is the porous material of the track. An airy surface characterises the groove's texture, shaped by the employment of specific studio effects. Against a wide breadth of contrasting timbres in the mix, the clarity of gesture is sharp throughout with a high degree of compression. In this sense, the bass, percussion and the 1+3rd motif are separated from Madonna's vocal parts, which avoids any mashing up of gestural layers. At the same time, a textural thickening out of the groove is characterised by new ideas and variants of existing material, although the main riff is marked by an oscillation-effect between the smacked snares on the second and fourth beats, with the bass pounding the heavy, first and third beats. Gesturally, the effect of alternation in beat-types sets up a call and response dialogue. It is as if all the phrases and patterns in the song are aligned to this pattern. Of course, the pent-up emotions of the kinetic gestures establish a physical immediacy that seems tactile. Over the span of the track, there is more than a hint of discipline in the control of the groove as the explicit stylistic signifiers intensify the desire to dance. This observation is borne out by an irresistible urge to move the body in time to the beat, an impulsive reaction that highlights the structurings of music vividly. Indeed, the 'pulsional pleasures,' that Richardson refers to are what sustain the greatest interest in 'Music', as one cycle follows the next, never quite yielding to rhythmic or tonal resolution. To this extent, the kinetic effect of looping cycle after cycle into groove materiality has to do with the relationship of the body in time and space. Such musical movement is of course visualised through dancing, as bodies are positioned in relation to another on the dancefloor.

But to revel in the sublimities of disco bliss is not to dismiss its stylistic detail, whose distinctive features, from the perspective of the sublime, are not only the microstructures or profuse ornamentation, but also the connotations of perfect proportion and unity. Naturally, this all points to the performative nature of Madonna's sonic trademark, which belies an excess of gloss that coats her productions. A troping of the detail politicises her aesthetic as the excessive detail, a quality of all Romantic art forms, embraces decadence at work.

Alone, the name Madonna in the year 2001 stands for an all-encompassing signifier around which astonishing trends of speculation have rapidly gathered. In fact, what makes this icon so important is its pivotal position in the Western speculation on pop culture. In all Madonna's productions (sound and visual), the censure of the detail is not only driven by a concern with the elegance of an idea, but also with that of the physical. The question that then arises is how can the physical be made manifest in music without the intervention of the aesthetic detail: for the beauty in music exists only from the moment the idea is afforded a sensuous form. Most of all, there seems an inner necessity in the structural gestures of music that begs the supplement of details. Defining musical beauty, if we backtrack to Hegel, returns us to the isolated traits of detail that occur one after another. In effect, the drive to unity is about the conflicts in disjunction and particularisation.[27] Music is certainly a locus in the emergence of tensions.

Mindful of such tensions, let us now examine more closely the question of discourse that surrounds musical value, and the claims made for what is important in textual analysis. Brackett has argued how the discourses that surround a style or genre hold the clue to "what codes are activated by the song." Because discourses are inevitably constituted by their own texts, it would seem relevant to observe who is singing and to whom they are singing. Above all, one needs to ask what is the aim of the song.[28] A dynamic analysis of the inherency of the musical text can result in a redistribution of other texts that leads to the development of discourses. Put together as an exploration of the effect of musical sound, an analytical discourse needs to exteriorise the detailed representations of the moment. And, as an interpretative feature, dialogism situates musicological problems within language as a reading-writing poetic activity that falls in with syntagmatic logic. For instance, the dialogism of the words employed in discursive forms could be seen as practical musicology. Yet the act of producing meaning through words is produced through dialogue on many planes. At the same time a dialogic analyses of the musical text can inhabit the details of the structure through the multi-layers of mediation that ensure their circulation. This is why within popular music, the relationship of production to commercial mediation belongs to the conceptual practice of discursive analysis.[29] Let me explain.

Discursively constituted, pop texts encode the tensions that exist dialogically between the external world and ourselves.[30] Every type of musical code in the pop songs I listen to seems to transpose the values of expressive style, highlighting specific features while leaving others out. With specific conditions attached, every detail becomes enclosed in its own quotation marks. For example, it is often in the nature of pop to disgrace and satirise the old authorities and traditions of respectability. In pop videos, it is as if the image representations in videos have come down to us through devices of reinvention, travesty and imitation. Of course, all these processes of renewal through pastiche are reflected in the technologies of the recordings themselves. Lest we forget, pop music is as inseparable from processes of technology as it is from ideology.

All the parodic-travestying videos of the 1980s and 1990s bear the trademarks of the metanarratives of romance, love, comedy, and tragedy. At the same time, the pop artists who populate the music videos of today bear the distinctive marks of time. Whether it is Prince, Björk, Britney Spears, Madonna, or Robbie Williams, one thing is for sure; the historical potential of these pop identities is realised through the separate stories of their songs. In this sense, their musical expression is about the re-establishment of a public representation of the human character. Pop music thus creates that distinctive means for externalising identity via performance.

And it is precisely here that the transforming influence of pop artists and their texts branch out in numerous directions. Indeed, the positioning of the pop text by the artist is a major point for reflection. For the issue of authorship is, in principal, an issue of formal and generic concern: the pop artist possesses a most varied form for transmitting messages within new living contexts and creative spaces. Crucially, the conditions of musical expression are dependent on every form of mediation that links the performer to the audience in performance situations. To be sure, communicative possibilities have distinct aesthetic implications as the musician reaches out to the audience. In theorising this point, Jason Toynbee uses a model of four positions (expressionist, direct, transformative, reflexive) to consider performance as a Derridean notion of interrupted communication. These positions, which can be adopted and combined by musicians, deny or accommodate the impossibility of performance. Toynbee argues that performance sets up an element of ambivalence and incongruity that makes creative agency difficult to comprehend as an element of rational choice.[31]

On this same note, we should be reminded that the musicological validity of situating the pop text within its context is about recognising the heterogeneous contexts that relate to performance. It would therefore seem fair to say that the metalanguage of music analysis requires continual revision in order to establish a discourse that takes on board the important qualities of musical process that correspond to the performance context. Brackett's approach is to emphasise the context of recording, especially in relation to production and reception, as a way into identifying and establishing the pertinence of musical codes. Endemic in this exploration is the influence of reception and audience in terms of the music's social context. Thus, the quagmire of interpreting musical details is one that is located in a blend of rhetorical and formalistic problematics. In the end, the task of describing and representing sound demonstrates the virtual impossibility of our field of discipline. And, as I have already emphasised, the methods of representation we might turn to are never ends in themselves - a method always calls for an evaluation of the limitations it might engender within a given analytic framework.

Popular musicology is undoubtedly a phenomenon of traditional Western musicology that brings to the fore an interdisciplinary focus on the musical text.[32] The direction taken by scholars in this new discipline has been to situate the analysis of musical detail in a context that addresses the conditions of the music's effect. In his studies into multimedia texts, Nicholas Cook has made a clear distinction between the notion of effect and the concept of meaning in music analysis. Predicated upon its communicative context, musical meaning is linked to the role music plays. Cook insists that "analysis can proceed from communicative function - from meaning - to the part played by music in the realization of that meaning".[33] But within this process what is it that constitutes the effect of the musical materiality? One might respond to this by questioning: do not the effects of production and reception project meaning? There is clearly a larger conclusion to be extracted from this: debating the distinction between meaning and effect is surely about deciding what analysing music is about.

To read a pop text is to conjecture about the discursive moments that are produced by conglomerations of sound-patterns. Here there is a speculative lineage that is granted by music's effect and its constitutive role within a dizzy network of rhetorical and creative correspondences that provide the potential for dialogue. To return to an earlier point, we might consider the meanings found in pop songs as constructed through dialogues on many levels. As Middleton's analytic paradigm of dialogics posits, meaning possesses its own material effects while implicitly recognising "the positivity of difference".[34] This would suggest that the approach to pop musicology is about creating new narratives of linearity and discovering what assumptions lie behind the unchallenged habits of practice, and, moreover, the authorial voice. In any event, the music analytic function in pop is complicated by the fact that the sphere of musical creativity is about understanding authorship. The pop artist, who is often the author, projects voices that are attached to sites of identity. Crucially, what counts here is the axis of communication that links the artist's biography to the audience through the channels of musical expression. How then does the artist's identity become a central building block in musical comprehension?

Once again the musicological direction one chooses is left wide open. Having said that, the idea that artists are mediators in the process of popular music seems central in initiating any study in this field. At this stage, I want to emphasise a need to respond to the general questions of identity in popular culture, especially in musical expression. Given the significant struggles to find one's voice and to shape political values in pop and rock texts, this point seems imperative for musicological studies. I feel that there are important reasons for not taking on an anti-authorist position.[35] In an important sense, the concept of identity provides a rationale for this assertion.

What I want to consider here is the extent to which the concept of identity is important for investigating meaning within pop songs. What distinguishes artists most in pop music is their choice of strategies in performance. Now if we map the musical codes of style on to the performance strategy, what is interesting is how the construction of the artist becomes a valid heuristic process for understanding the relationship between musical production and reception. Like others in the field of popular musicology, I see the formalistic analysis of any parameter of pop as being a lot more than just a beginning for perceiving the effect of musical expression. Of course any degree of formalism always balances precariously between reductionism and essentialism. Yet, one way out of the quagmire might be to concentrate on the diversity of structure and rhetoric where meaning is circumscribed through the emotional impact of the artist. Identity in pop music, we might say, has become a site of cultural struggle, exposing a double intention that separates method from truth.[36] If one accepts this position, where then does identity emanate from, and how is this definable within the framework of musical expression?

I want to suggest that the reading of a pop song consists of the undoing of interpretation through processes of narratology. How musical structures, lyrics, and visual components (in the case of videos) are mapped against one another could be seen as a way to (re)interpret the role of the artist. Perhaps the main problem of conceptualising identity is one of identifying the oppositions of sameness and difference. As a concept, at least since Derrida, identity has come to imply difference rather than sameness. Identity is ascertained by differentiation: by distinguishing one person from another. Only by identifying what someone is, can we say what they are not. The key point here is that identity politics insists on a structure of sameness between more than one individual. For example, a person of ethnic minority will assert herself as part of a group, at the same time the group will identify itself as different from a dominant group. Asserting one's difference is therefore about stating an identity with a group that perceives itself differentially.[37] In this way, identity politics becomes directed against the power structures that are implicit in the same-other hierarchies of dominant groups. In a sense, the 'other' refers to a unitary grouping of any group characterised only in so much as they are others. As with ethnicity, 'other' traits are often defined wrongly in relation to the dominant male group. For instance, Steven Morrissey is sometimes considered feminine because he is affected in his performance mannerisms, or Lauryn Hill different because she is black and female, or George Michael camp just because he is gay.[38] At the core of this is patriarchal identity, a construction which is acquired through submission as an entity in itself in order to be itself. Importantly, the dominant identity cannot exist in isolation. In order to define itself the dominant group must set itself apart from what it is not in order to seek that which it wishes to be. Let us take a specific music example: think of the way in which hard rock has pursued the ideal of white hetero masculinity to the extent that it has excluded, at least to a large extent, female participation, gay representations, and black stylistic influences. Although I am well aware of the generalisation of this assertion, it is impossible today to disassociate rock music's history from its relationship to pop, although gradually the qualities that define rock representation have shifted. My point is that the same becomes part of the different when difference is opened up as a choice. Understood in this way, identity can be swiftly decentred in a way that suggests it can never be self-contained.

For the purpose of this argument, the significance of all this is that identity forms part of a musical process. As with Derrida's account of identity, difference "always involves the violence of a hierarchy, a forced inequality."[39] What Derrida shows in his work is that dominant identity is a dialectical concept partly constructed from its opposite. In its structural form, it is never attained. Positing difference in identity politics therefore has important social and cultural implications for pop expression. This is because it permits individuals and groups to claim their own contradictions. In Derrida's now famous neologism of difference with an 'a' - differance - a sameness is perceived as never identical. The consequence of this for feminism, for example, has been the ability to address and identify the political nature of political groups. Most significant here is the deconstructive positioning of 'difference', something that has allowed minority groups to claim that they are first the same and second that that they are different. Now the strategic spin on this can form new cooperations between individual and group, enabling solidarity between various social groups. Ultimately, the most effective way of perceiving something being different from itself is by challenging essentialisations of difference.[40]

All this returns us to the point from which I started: if pop songs are narratives that are used to define identity, how do we devote scholarly attention to the lines of sonic detail. Simon Frith's point is that the sound of the artist's voice is used by us to assess not only their identities but also their levels of truthfulness. This is a compelling concept.[41] But what this means is that the context in which the voice performs out its identity is in need of some form of music-theoretical method. If the multiplicity of voices and identities in any one pop song can draw us into their texts, we need to examine this through a range of theoretical approaches that also involve theories of musical structuration. When we accept that the conditions of vocal expression are intertextual through the interaction of a range of dialogues with other texts, it is how we account for the musical entity that becomes a prime source of interpretative concern. So far, scholars of popular music have paid great attention to the inappropriateness of analytic approaches that are rooted in the Western European art tradition. Yet, as John Covach, has claimed, it is as if certain writers have even been against the idea of theorists examining popular music "as a matter of principle."[42] Indeed, the quagmire in popular music studies certainly arises from a history of non-musicological scholars rejecting the applicability of traditional analytic methods on the basis that these are bound to distort the interpretation, or, moreover, that they might be alien to the ideological and aesthetic dictates of the music's origins.[43]

Now while commercial music objects might be perceived as disruptions of many of the preconceptions of art music (classical and modern), they do provide a rich analytical terrain for interpreting music within a social and cultural context. Given this, we need to consider the effect of musical structure very carefully. To dismiss a pop song on the basis of being musically simplistic, and by emphasising its rhetoric through, say, discourses on banality, is to threaten the structures of materiality that disclose its musical strengths. Thus, if we accept that musical structures are culturally specific, and that they form part of a symbolic system,[44] the question still remains how do we approach their analysis within the disciplinary context of musicology. Today most pop music scholarship takes for granted that traditional theoretical approaches need to be modified and adapted to produce an effective method to explore musical representations. But the most important thing is not to sidestep the text in favour of the context. In working out what is of musical value in the text, musicology has to accommodate the practice of music analysis that seeks out the relations between musical structures of detail and the elements that intersect the dialogic field of musical experience.

Madonna and Björk, as we have seen, cannot be separated from the musical details that characterise their performance styles. It is worth noting that the artists' relationship to how they depict themselves is the most constitutive dimension of the music and cannot be reduced to the extraction of a few chords, melodic transcriptions, or sonogram displays. To be moved by music means to assume an attitude toward it. The concept that musical rhetoric permits us to consider the link between structures and codes involves a competence that stretches far beyond music analytic competence (in the traditional sense). This is certainly the mode of thinking that marks the direction of Critical or New musicology, where the engagement with what lies outside is as important as the 'purely' structural detail.

This brings me back to the musicological quagmire and how we employ the metalanguange of music theory to musical texts attached to the music industry. While Brackett identifies the problematics of music analysis to interpret popular music, he nevertheless advocates its application in a way that turns around questions of authorship, musical codes, audience reception, and the relationship of context to text. In all the examples of Brackett's analysis, the basic parameters of musical construction are addressed: proportional structural form, harmony, pitch, rhythmic construction, instrumental textures, melodic shapes and gestures, and timbre. Paradoxically, perhaps, in the process of turning to established analytic methods, we can learn as much about the context as the text. It seems to me that the fascination with working out the details of how pop music functions has to do with the functions of verbal interpretation within a discursive framework - a framework where words constitute the transference of sound structures. Such is the process of reading and (re)interpretation. For popular musicologists then the following is important: whatever the musical meaning turns out to be, in order to enter the experience (which is a complex communicative experience) the vocabulary we use and the methods we employ should aim to shape the further development of a critical faculty within our discipline.


[1] In particular I am referring to a number of recent musicological studies into commercial pop music. See, for example, Eric F. Clarke and Nicola Dibben (2000) 'Sex, Pulp and critique' in Popular Music, Vol.19/2, pp.231-241; Susan McClary (2000) Chapter 5, 'Reveling in the Rubble: The Postmodern Condition' in Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form(University of California Press), pp.139-169; Sheila Whiteley (2000) Chapter 13, 'Artifice and the imperatives of commercial success: From Brit Pop to the Spice Girls' (London: Routledge), pp.214-229; Nicholas Cook (1998) Chapter 4, 'Credit Where It's Due: Madonna's 'Material Girl' in Analysing Musical Multimedia (Oxford), pp.147-173.

[2] Quagmire relates to a soft, marshy, wet area of land that gives way under the feet, and is used as a metaphor for an awkward, difficult and even embarrassing situation.

[3] David Brackett (2000) Interpreting Popular Music (University of Californian Press).

[4] For example, John Covach's numerous studies have argued for ways in which music theorists can approach the analysis of rock music within their own disciplinary contexts. See, for instance, his 'We Won't Get Fooled Again: Rock Music and Musical Analysis' in Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture, eds. D.Schwarz, A.Kassabian, & L.Siegel (University Press of Virginia, 1997), pp. 75-89. Also see the musicological approach to analysis in rock music advocated by Allan Moore (1993), Rock: The Primary text (Buckingham: Open University Press).

[5] Brackett (2000), pp.19-21.

[6] Here I am referring to the total constituents of the musical experience in pop music which include the intertextual levels of visual and sound coding, packaging, and the layers of connotation that inform our responses. For a full elaboration on these views, see Hawkins (2001) Settling the Pop Score: Pop texts and identity politics (Ashgate).

[7] See Jean Baudrillard (1968) Le système des objets (Paris: Gallimard).

[8] But, as Richard Middleton reminds us, if music is to be awarded its own discursive moment then the correspondences, equivalencies, and parallels that its sound-patterns suggest lie often not in the sphere of language but in that of (the details) of gesture, somatic process, and tactile sensation See Richard Middleton (2000) Reading Pop: Approaches to textual Analysis in Popular Music (Oxford) p. 11.

[9] See Roland Barthes (1983) The Fashion System trans. M. Ward and R. Howard (New York: Hill and Wang).

[10] Roland Barthes (1972) Critical Essays trans. R. Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press), p. 159.

[11] For a well argued debate on an application of Barthes's phenomenology of photography (in his last book Camera Lucida) to the issue of music's referentiality, see Barbara Engh (1993) 'Loving It: Music and Criticism in Roland Barthes' in Musicology and Difference, ed. R.Solie (University of California Press), pp. 66-79.

[12] In the work of feminist critical musicology, the concept of structural narratology in literary theory has been applied musicologically to develop a critique on the gender assumptions that lurk behind the rhetorical systems of Absolute music. See, for example, Susan McClary (1993) 'Narrative Agendas in "Absolute" Music: Identity and Difference in Brahms's Third Symphony' in Musicology and Difference, ed. R.Solie (University of California Press), pp. 326-344.

[13] John Richardson (1999) Singing Archaeology: Philip Glass's Akhnaten (Weslyan University Press), p. 26.

[14] Richardson (1999), p. 201.

[15] As Susan McClary points out, Glass references the work of Schumann and Brahms in one of his early works, Glassworks (1982). See Susan McClary (2000) Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form (California), pp. 142-145.

[16] M.M. Bakhtin (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. M. Holquist, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press), p. 75.

[17] In an earlier article I discuss this dimension of Björk alongside the question of her postmodern identity. See Hawkins (1999) 'Musical Excess and Postmodern Identity - in Björk's Video "It's Oh So Quiet"' in Musikin Suunta 2/1999 (Finnish Society for Ethnomusicology), pp. 43-54.

[18] See Alan Lomax (1962) "Song Structure and Social Structure," Ethnology 1: 4, pp. 425-51.

[19] Brackett (2000), pp. 22-23.

[20] Middleton (2000), p.5.

[21] See Derek Scott (1990) 'Music and Sociology for the 1990s' in Musical Quarterly, 74:3.

[22] Derek Scott (2000) 'Introduction' in Music, Culture, and Society: A Reader, ed. D.Scott (Oxford University Press), p. 17.

[23] Jacques Derrida (1981) 'Plato's Pharmacy' in dissemination, trans. and intro. B. Johnson (London: Athlone Press), p. 63.

[24] Julia Kristeva (1980) Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. L. S. Roudiez and trans. T. Gora, A. Jardine, and L. S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press), p.119.

[25] On a theorisation of the groove in one of Madonna's earlier songs, 'Where's the Party', see Middleton (2000), pp. 104-121.

[26] Peter Winkler (1997) 'Writing Ghost Notes: The Poetics and Politics of Transcription' in Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture, eds. D.Schwarz, A.Kassabian, & L.Siegel, p.200.

[27] See G.W.F. Hegel (1975) Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T.M. Knox. 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

[28] Brackett (2000), p.18.

[29] Clearly, the ramifications of Adorno's economic deterministic approach have been vast. For a recent discussion of this see Middleton (2000) who attempts to emphasise the relevance of Adorno's work. Middleton argues the point that Adorno was the first to offer a perspective on music sociology, although his position on popular music was quickly packed away.

[30] John Shepherd (1993) 'Difference and Power in Music' in Musicology and Difference, ed. Ruth A. Solie (University of Californian Press), p.58-59.

[31] Jason Toynbee (2000) Making popular Music: Musicians, Creativity and Institutions (London: Arnold).

[32] I am loath to use the term 'pop musicology' generically as this I feel restricts the area of popular music too severely. Furthermore the ongoing problematics of defining 'pop' and 'rock', as demonstrated by all the main textbook publications on popular music, indicates the more practical application of 'popular'. For a detailed discussion of what constitutes 'popular music', see Richard Middleton (1990) Studying Popular Music (Milton Keynes).

[33] Cook (1998), p.4.

[34] Cook (1998), p.13.

[35] Here I am referring to the attack on authorship waged by Barthes that has had a profound influence on Cultural Studies. In particular, this has led to a prioritisation of the textual in postmodern theory where fragmentation and the loss of the authorial position has rejected any notion of authorial agency. These complex issues have been taken up by numerous cultural theorists (for example, Paul Willis, John Fiske, Kobena Mercer, and Jason Toynbee) who have responded to the social state of popular musicianship.

[36] In my book, Settling the Pop Score: pop texts and identity politics (Ashgate, 2001), I have centred my critique around a detailed conceptualisation of identity as an apparatus for understanding pop music.

[37] In the writings of Lacan, Lévinas and Hegel such divisions have been theorised as the Same and the Other. In the former, the Same, identity is assumed as normative.

[38] For a deconstructive approach to reading the musical identity of Freddie Mercury, see Steve Sweeney- Turner (1995) 'Dictated by tradition? Queen's innuendo and the mercurial case of Farookh Bulsara' in Popular Musicology, 2, pp. 39-54.

[39] Jacques Derrida (1981) Positions (1972), trans. A. Bass (University of Chicago Press), p. 41.

[40] On the problems of essentialising race and ethnicity in African American popular music, see Philip Tagg (1989) 'Open letter: "black music," "Afro-American music," and "European music,"' Popular Music, 8/3.

[41] For an illuminating discussion of the relationship between the voice and artist in popular music, and hearing the body in the voice, see Simon Frith (1996) Chapter 9 in Performing Rites: On the value of popular music (Oxford), pp. 183-202.

[42] Covach (1997), p.83.

[43] See Peter Wicke (1990) Rock Music: Culture, Aesthetics, and Sociology, trans. R.Fogg (Cambridge University Press).

[44] For one of the most important discussion of the relations between musical structures and social associations within the framework of music semiotics, see Phillip Tagg (1987) 'Musicology and the Semiotics of Popular Music', Semiotica, 66-1/3: pp. 279-298.