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ABOUT The World ...  

Par Claude Chastagner, professeur d'anglais à l'Université Paul Valéry à Montpellier.

Rock music, mass culture & the counter culture

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  Rock music has always been at odds with mass culture. It is at the same time one of its essential components and among its most vocal critics. Rock benefits from mass culture's economic framework and in return feeds it with its remarkable energy. But musicians and fans alike have repeatedly expressed feelings of uneasiness or even downright rejection at this close interdependence. 

It is precisely such tensions that give rock music its momentum.

The ambivalent nature of rock music as regards mass culture stems in fact from a well known dichotomy that permeates most 20th- century analyses of cultural productions. For Marxian or Veblenian1 criticism, the ideological contents of rock music derive from its economic status. Being nothing more than a merchandise, it has to abide by manufacturing and marketing principles such as market research, standardization, advertising and profitability.

 These imperatives deprive the consumer of his free-will and turn rock music into an anti-revolutionary art, more concerned with profit margins than the advancement of radical theories or popular causes. Such views were particularly propounded in the 1960s by journalists or academics like Donald Horton and Paddy Whannel in England, or Jean-François Hirsch in France, but all agreed on the fact that rock music defied reductionistic analyses and was a more delicate subject to tackle than other aspects of mass culture.

Paradoxically, Marxian perspectives linked up with the harsh comments passed on rock music by numerous conservative scholars (Allan Bloom, Alain Finkielkraut,etc.) who, drawing on, and distorting, Theodor W. Adorno's theories on jazz, described rock as a degrading and stupefying music. For them, it had nothing to offer but an ersatz of individualism, as it in fact standardizes cultural tastes and practices.

But rock music can be seen as more than the stale product of capitalism. Contrary to the early hostile reception, a different and more positive analysis gradually emerged, prompted by F.R. Leavis' works in the 1930s, and more particularly D. Riesman's in the 1950s. It upheld the opinion that rock is a popular and authentic artistic medium, the spontaneous expression of minority groups (colored people, the youth...), which was reflected by the change in terminology: from the analysis of "teen culture" rock studies became that of "youth culture." The most active representatives of this new trend were to be found at Birmingham University, at Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdige's Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which conciliated Marxian theories with a positive approach of rock music, thus rendering traditional political divisions obsolete. 

Patrick Mignon synthesized perfectly these contrasting viewpoints when he noted that "rock music is the universalization of both market logic and individualism, the standardized product of cultural industries and the true expression of the people."


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° Rubrique About The World