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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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In France, rock music has retained part of its early seduction insofar as it does not belong to mass culture to the same extent as in English-speaking countries. Though obviously it now is part of mass consumption, it somehow remains on the fringes of consumer society. For a long time, it had been restricted to an elite (whether it be students or working class) which had been "initiated": rock was an exotic idiom, the music from the other side of the Atlantic, an element of the American Dream, of the American Way of Life.

As such, rock has preserved an aura of mystery and acquired a more prestigious, mythical status. French rock magazines, for instance, are more glamorous than their American counterparts and rock critics see themselves as missionaries or apostles (Les Inrockuptibles, the most fashionable magazine of the day, is a pun on the French for "the untouchable"); the only rock program left on French TV is entitled Rock Culture. And if few French artists could be rightly described as rock artists (when they are, their life's goal is to play in America), most popular middle-of-the-road singers integrate rock sounds into their music.

 What our central issue, i.e., the conflicting relationship between rock music and mass culture, eventually boils down to is in fact a matter of assessing the value of this culture, and more particularly the concept of "mass." Some consider it as synonymous with standardized consumption, bad taste and fleeting fads; others, less contemptuous, give it a positive value and stress that "popular" does not necessarily rule out "quality." However, the very relationship between rock and mass culture is seldom questioned; almost everyone agrees on equating rock music with one of the commonest definitions of mass culture : produced for the greatest number, consumed by the greatest number. It must be that the intimate links of rock music with mass consumption blur all tensions and contradictions between the two.

Indeed, rock depends for its growth on the basic principles of consumer society. To launch an artist, produce a record or mount a tour takes time, men and machines, which require heavy investment. American capitalism offers rock its potency and its taste for business ventures. Contrary to European businessmen, American entrepreneurs are not suspicious of entertainment. Since popular music, musicals or plays can be profitable, they deserve the interest of investors. As a result, show business is more integrated in the United States than it is in European countries. In France rock music was able to develop thanks mainly to student societies, which organized concerts, published magazines, etc.

Major record companies, often the subsidiaries of foreign multinationals, imported British or American rock albums irregularly, under simplified sleeves (words, for instance, were not printed). Rock music represented just a fraction of their turnover. The whole music industry feared rock audiences, the questioning of deeply ingrained habits of dealing with mainstream performers. It is only by the early 1980s that the specialized companies (studios, halls, tour operators) that still function today took shape.


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° Rubrique About The World