Winter 2004 - Volume 7 Number 1
If there is a single topic that is likely to engage the interest of college students, it is popular culture. Within that ubiquitous yet unstable domain, the most likely focus of attention is popular music. Few students are exempt from the attractions and enthusiasms of pop, in whatever form happens to dominate the music scene at any particular time.
The evanescent stars that shoot up the charts to provide entertainment and identity to young enthusiasts of what may (or may not) be called rock ‘n roll, its offshoots and tangents, can be almost guaranteed to grant teachers at least a momentary entrée into the cultural milieu of their students. Less certain are the strategies for maintaining that connection and, even more chancy, the methods for turning that moment of engagement into something intellectually useful. Self-reflection, coherent social criticism and cultural analysis do not seem to come easily to the brand loyal progeny of the early boomers. It is therefore with trepidation that I acknowledge and affirm the value of this anthology that has recently come off the presses at Temple University in Philadelphia, home of Dick Clark, American Bandstand and what was quaintly called “payola.” The text is apt to be hard slogging for all but the most enthusiastic students, whether of law enforcement or cultural studies. Those who take up the challenge will, however, be amply rewarded.
I have much less trouble recommending the book to teachers, for it delivers splendidly upon its promise to explore the manners and methods of those who would like to identify popular music as a threat to social stability and morality and, like Plato with poetry, put expression under strict regulation.
Young people whose tastes and temperaments lean toward what is habitually called the counterculture will almost viscerally respond to talk of censorship and that, broadly speaking, is the primary problem under discussion. What the putative cultural rebel will find challenging is the recognition that, in Europe and North America, the principal threats to free expression are not addled adults who grooved on Jimi Hendrix but are rendered apoplectic by rap, nor are they Tipper Gore clones, fundamentalist preachers or vice squads. In nominal democracies, formal governmental censorship whether by prior restraint, restriction or suppression is rare and moral majoritarians have been relatively ineffective. The most significant instigators of censorship, it seems, are the manufacturers and distributors of the “product” themselves. Understood as commercial commodities, musical recordings are shaped and shipped out with all the artistic and cultural concern of any other package on a Wal-mart shelf. Post 9/11, John Lennons “Imagine” was taken off play lists. After indictment on dubious accusations of child molestation, Michael Jacksons records were removed from radio broadcasts. When these steps were taken, the sense of offence was articulated not by teenagers who may be deprived of their tribal art but by old poops like Elton John who had previously raged against the machine that the music “industry” has become. The banner of free expression, after all, had long been carried by the likes of Frank Zappa; few contemporary consumers have carried his protests on.
The corporate dimension is a major theme in this truly serious book that presents definitional questions (what, in essence, is censorship?), legal questions (what is the relationship among copyright, artistic protection and corporate cupidity?), issues of constitutional government and principles of due process (the absurdbut unfunnytrial of the Canadian band Dayglo Abortions being iconic), and a thoughtful treatment of the relationship between recording and broadcast technology as it affects the content and control of the pop music scene (copyright and the MP3).
Pop fans who can handle it will learn to their embarrassment how fully manipulated they are as a consequence of their submission to consumerism and their abject willingness to allow themselves to be detached from the people (not parents nor schools nor police officers) but marketing consultants who restrict their choices and construct their sensibilities.
Were that not enough, Policing Pop also moves from an analysis of the insular shopping malls of suburbia to the global context in all its raw complexity. Pop music, after all, may have originated in the cultural crucibles of blues, jazz and rock in New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago and Detroit, but it has definitely gone planetary. There are chapters in this anthology on provocation and policing in countries as diverse as China and South Africa, Slovenia and Brazil. Ideological attachments from British Marxists to German Nazi bands receive full treatment. The work ends with a recapitulation of the state of disunion in the United States where the Parents Music Resource Center is still around and the sanctimonious Senator Joseph Lieberman still worries about pop music “hiding behind the First Amendment” while insisting he is “not talking censorship here, but citizenship.”
Policing Pop takes the reader on quite a ride. Its contributing authors include, musicologists, sociologists and law professors who offer intellectually rewarding insights and eloquent arguments for the political and cultural importance of popular music, something with which young people would agree, if they could be enticed to read about it.
Howard A. Doughty, B.A.(York), M.A.(Hawaii), M.A.(York), M.Ed.(Toronto), teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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