Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music summary
In the article, “Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music”, Simon Frith tries to show the aesthetic value of poplar music in the sociological field, while most of the academic musicologists think popular music, submitted to social forces, is aesthetically worthless.
There are two different sociological approaches to judge the value of music. First is technique and technology, as Frith states, “people produce and consume the music they are capable of producing and consuming.” (Firth 498) But he also admits that these similarities between sounds and social group remain unclear. Secondly, popular music has different functions, and the most important function is commercial, but Frith argues against this notion for “even if pop tastes are the effects of social conditioning and commercial manipulation, people still explain them to themselves in terms of value judgment.”(Frith 499)
The rock aesthetic relies on authenticity, which guarantees rock music’s independence from commercial logic. But those standards are misleading, and the author thinks we should better study how music creates this impression of truth.
Frith suggests a different approach to defining popular music and popular culture. As he said in the article, “The question we should be asking is not what does popular music reveal about ‘the people’ but how does it construct them.”(Frith 500)
To support his argument, Frith explains four social functions of pop music. First, the music we listen to can represent our collective or various identities and society. Second, music can help us manage our relationships through public forms of private expression. We also get to know ourselves through the music. Third, music allows the listener to live within a moment. It can be a strong instrument to our remembrance of things past. Such power of music defines whole generations. Fourth, the fact is that music can be possessed. What Frith realizes is that people feel they own the music and build it into their sense of themselves.
After explaining the sociological functions of music, the author digs into the question of popular music aesthetics. He questions what makes popular music able to satisfy these social functions. To answer this question, Frith gives four points of his answer and tries to give suggestion for future critical work.
His first point is brief. Pop music is complex “intentionally”, defined by Andrew Chester, while as European art music is “extensionally”. Frith thinks that in the 20th century, popular music has absorbed from Afro-American music. In his second point, he states that popular music has a strong vocal strength, and we react to the singer’s voice whether we understand the lyrics or not. It directly communicates to us through narrative structures. According to Frith’s third point, there are two different ways to analyze and classify musical genres in which music uses narrative structures to produce patterns of self-identification and to express different emotions. He suggests classifying popular songs according to their ideological effects. The author’s last point is even serious music cannot escape from being associated to our lives and being under social forces.
In the end, Frith concludes that music has “some sort of collective, disruptive cultural effect”. Understand that popular music has an individualizing effect is key to finding its aesthetic values.
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