Monday, 16 November 1998

Simon Frith: Performing Rites: On The Value of Popular Music (1996)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1996
Review number: 167

Performing Rites is an academic analysis of the meaning and role of music from the standpoint of a cultural studies expert who has also been a well-known rock-music critic (he was the chairman of the judges for the Mercury Music prize for some years, for example). Though ostensibly about popular music, much of what Frith has to say is based on classical musicology (for the obvious reason that there is far more material available in this field).

As a cultural theorist, Frith is fascinated by non-musical aspects of popular music culture - performance conventions, the role of intermediaries from producers to record shops, and so on. That he manages to pull such disparate material as that which covers these areas together with that of musicology is something in a triumph in itself.

Considering his background, Frith's eventual conclusion is not a huge surprise: popular music, like other aspects of popular culture, is important to people because it confers identity, membership in a particular community. This may seem a little strange if it is a new idea, but you will probably find (as I did) that thinking back on when you first started liking particular kinds of popular music will confirm it to at least some extent. Certainly, to be a fan of top forty bands when I was at school would not have been a good way to become popular.

The idea is really that if we regard different genres of popular music as equal in merit, musicality and power - and comparing the things people write about them, this seems almost inevitable to Frith - the major difference between reggae, heavy metal and disco (for example) is in the community of the genre's fans. Frith identifies companionship in such a community - conversations and arguments about the merits of different artists in a pub, fanzines, ideas of authenticity (the subject of arguments even in such artificial genres as eurodisco), and so on - as one of the main pleasures of popular culture. In a sense, this reverses an idea of C.S. Lewis (in The Four Loves), that the particular pleasure of friendship is in shared interests. To Lewis, the interests bring the friendship; to Frith, the desire for friendship determines the interests.

The book is thought provoking throughout; worth reading for anyone interested in popular music culture who feels they can keep up with the dense academic style.

No comments: