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College Quarterly
Summer 2014 - Volume 17 Number 3
Understanding Popular Music Culture (4th edition)
Roy Shuker
New York: Routledge, 2013
Reviewed by Michael Kearns

There are no substantial differences between the 3rd (2008) and 4th (2013) edition of Understanding Popular Music Culture. Reviewing the table of contents, one can see that the 12th and 14th chapters have been swapped in the 4th edition. The new edition makes it clear that the major record labels are losing their strangle grip on the music industry, and this an important amendment. “Big” money is now made in live performances and touring, with Live Nation Entertainment being front and center. In the 4th edition, a case study has been added about Lady Gaga (bravo) but, unfortunately, two case studies have been removed about Pete Townshend (and the Who) and Frank Zappa. The newer edition addresses the “digital realm,” but allotting two pages to the topic is insufficient. As I proceed to review each chapter in this 4th edition, you will see that Shuker addresses online and digital offshoots for each topic, but these sections tend to be short and perfunctory. I do miss the 3rd edition's slightly darker and larger print. You cannot put a price on an easily read book.

Understanding Popular Music Culture starts with a chapter entitled ‘Every 1’s a Winner’: The music industry and the record companies (each chapter title is split into two parts: the first part is the name of a song that relates to the chapter and the second part is the chapter’s description). I like the fact that the first chapter unveils the relationship between major and independent record labels (yes, there is a relationship) and that it discusses the strengths and weaknesses of both parties. Additional readings and websites (new to this addition) are included at the end of each chapter for further exploration.

The second chapter is entitled ‘Pump Up the Volume’: Music and technology. The strength of this chapter lies in its description of the production and reproduction of music in the late 19th to mid 20th century. I especially like how Shuker explains the purpose of a single's “A” side and “B” side. This chapter also touches on the artistic merit of sound recording and uses Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album (2004) as an example of a mash-up. Any track from The Grey Album is sure to elicit strong opinions from students in a popular music class. However, I would propose that Collision Course by Jay-Z and Linkin Park (2004) is a far better example of a mash-up. Where the chapter really falls short is its limited discussion of cloud music services.

Bravo for the 3rd chapter, entitled ‘I’m Just a Singer’: Making music, the rock musician and the success continuum. It is rare when a book approaches popular music both from the “outside” (a listener’s perspective) and from the “inside” (a musician’s perspective). This chapter discusses various musical roles (amateur musician, cover band, singer/songwriter, session musician, pop star, etc.). In this way, it allows a multilayered picture of music to form. It also challenges traditional views of a musician by including such professions as DJs and producers.

Chapter 4 is entitled ‘So You Want To Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’: Auteurs and stars. Shuker outlines the similarities and differences between these two terms and the artists that fall under the categories. The case studies in the 4th edition are: Robert Johnson, Phil Spector, The Spice Girls, Shania Twain, and Lady Gaga. My only issue is that Shuker does not provide an opinion on whether the Spice Girls are auteurs or stars. It seems to me that they are obviously music stars, as they had little control over their music or image, but this raises the question, “Why are they presented along with such clear examples of auteurs?”

Chapter 5 is entitled ‘Message Understood?’: Textual analysis and popular musicology. Shuker discusses the marketing of Bob Marley, which in the 3rd edition is discussed earlier in the text. An interpretation of the lyrics to the Who’s “My Generation” is also present, whereas in the 3rd edition, this is found in Pete Townshend’s case study. Shuker discusses both correct and incorrect interpretations of the lyrics to Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” It is surprising how many people believe that “Born in the USA” is a patriotic, flag-waving anthem. Regardless, Shuker notes that our personal interpretation of the lyrics trumps all others.

Chapter 6 is entitled ‘It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me’: Genre, authenticity and the canon. Trying to fit all popular music genres into one chapter is a fool’s errand. Shuker made the correct decision in focusing on two genres, heavy metal and rap (hip-hop), but even then, he gives them short shrift, 3½ pages and 1½ pages respectively (and this is a 6¼ by 9¼ inch book). I like how Shuker begins the tale of heavy metal, but the story becomes thin when he starts discussing the music’s subgenres, for example, grindcore and doom metal. With so little space, it is better to have a firm grasp of the tree’s trunk then to jump back and forth between the branches. And what can be said about the page-and-a-half summary of “hip-hop” – not much. Additionally, Shuker makes the tragic mistake of interchangeably using hip-hop (the broader culture) and rap (the music).

Chapter 7, entitled ‘Shop Around’: Marketing and mediation, is not one of the stronger chapters. Highlights include Marketing Marley, the discussion of payola, and the circular logic of ranking in the music charts.

Chapter 8, ‘U Got the Look’: From film to video games: music and pictures, has two excellent case studies on Duran Duran and MTV. The rest of the chapter moves at a dizzying pace, keeping your head spinning as it races through various mediums and titles. Noting all the films with outstanding soundtracks will create a “bucket-list” for years to come. As the reader, you are torn. You want Shuker to slow down and provide more detail about the shows and movies, but on the other hand, you are eager to go forward and read on about the hidden gems of cinema. What is missing in this chapter are the links between the sub-sections or a logical flow, which would allow the reader to connect the various bits of information.  New to this edition is the sub-section Video games. Unfortunately, this sub-section is short and adds little insight.

Chapter 9, entitled ‘On the Cover of the Rolling Stone’: The music press, provides insight into the music industry’s “gate keepers,” or those who can make or break a career. Shuker first provides some background on new journalism and biographical studies. I find that these two topics are condensed to the point that they are difficult to understand without some prior knowledge of the field.  The two strengths of this chapter are the discussion of fanzines and the case study of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill.

Chapter 10 is entitled ‘My Generation’: Identity and consumption: audiences, fans and social networks. It is an enlightening chapter, but perhaps, a denser read. Shuker discusses fans and fandom but, disappointingly, no longer uses the terms groupies or aficionados. Interesting trends in music preference are summarised, along with the idea that music is “cultural capital.” There is a new section on Digital consumption/fandom but it is unimpressive with a single citation from 2004.

Chapter 11, ‘Sound of Our Town’: Subcultures, sounds and scenes, takes the reader through an understanding of youth culture from the 1950s onwards, from such perspectives as the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Of interest is Shuker’s statement that Canada’s youth cultures were “largely derivative (influenced by the USA, Britain and France) and any potential oppositional force in them was highly muted” (p. 177), citing Comparative Youth Culture by M. Brake (1985). This chapter also looks very briefly at music scenes around the world. If there is a universal criticism of this text, it is that its 237 pages (to the end of the conclusion) make it too short for the number of important artists and topics it undertakes. Almost without exception, the reader is left wanting more. And unlike a live music performance, this is not preferable in a book. One of the music environments discussed in this chapter is Seattle’s grunge scene. I do appreciate that Pearl Jam is given equal weight to Nirvana in this discussion. It is about time someone got that right. Concluding the chapter is a section on gothic rock that is short but well written and informative.

Chapter 12, ‘Revolution’: Social change, conscience rock and identity politics, has several wonderful ideas, each meriting further exploration. However, together the ideas make a bit of a motely crew. I love the fact that Shuker highlights the political awareness of Midnight Oil and Rage Against the Machine and showcases the campaign Rock Against Racism. He also engages the reader by taking him or her from the beginning to the end of conscience rock or the “Band Aid” movement. There are also some very good discussions on sexuality and ethnicity in popular music, women in rock, and the Riot Grrrl movement.

My favourite chapter is 13, ‘Pushin’ Too Hard’: Moral panics. Shuker sets up the chapter well by defining “moral panic” and the history of the phenomenon. He then outlines a pattern in society and in rock ‘n’ roll where conservative groups overreact to anything that is different. You are labeled different if you step outside the boundaries or break the rules created by those in power. Shuker describes the parties that make up this conservative contingent, such as the New Right and the Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC). He then provides several case studies in popular music where moral panic was evident. These include such artists and bands as the Dead Kennedys, 2 Live Crew, NWA, Ice-T, and Marilyn Manson. It is scandalous and informative – what is there not to like?

Chapter 14 is a bit of a “buzz kill” after Chapter 13. It has the prosaic title of ‘We are the World’: State music policy. I actually have my students read the book out of order because there is no way I am ending on this chapter. There is a decent discussion on the cultural imperialism thesis but unfortunately, after this dry topic is explained, Shuker concedes that this thesis is no longer relevant as globalization (or glocalization) is now paramount. This chapter has a good summary of Canada’s CRTC regulations and the MAPLE code but spends several pages discussing the music industry in New Zealand. It does not make sense to me to end a text on popular music generally with a detailed look at New Zealand specifically. Sure, there is the Conclusion: ‘Wrap it Up’ but as this book has tackled popular music from a variety of angles, an additional three pages cannot and does not bring it all together.

In summary, this text is well researched and structured, and generally is an engaging read. If you wish to learn more about a topic, there are several text-based and online suggestions at the end of each chapter. There are no pictures or other visual aids. A few rare or apropos photographs might be worthwhile. I do recommend this text as a reference book for a popular music course. By pointing out its strengths and weaknesses, a teacher may choose to use this book and provide other materials as necessary. Rarely do you find a professor that is fully satisfied with any textbook. Many end up writing his or her own to match the curriculum. When that day comes, someone can pick apart my work.

Dr. Michael Kearns is a musician, bandleader and part-time faculty member at Seneca College, Georgian College and Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. He teaches a variety of courses in music, popular culture, education and the liberal arts and can be reached at