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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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Obviously, continental Europe was somewhat left aside by these sweeping movements. True, 1968 was for France a time of deep change in which American popular music played a part. To keep in line with the spirit of the time, magazines were launched which devoted much space to rock music. 
But French youth were mere witnesses of what was going on in English-speaking countries. French youth gladly and readily acknowledged the new musical forms, going as far in some cases as translating the songs into French (as the lyrics had become meaningful) but they seldom actually took part in the musical evolution.

 In America, the changes in popular music were carried out in the name of authenticity. The new principles were a quest for simplicity and the pureness of the origins, the questioning of large-scale marketing operations and standardization. Throughout the 1960s, a number of artists, by putting back in fashion white and black American traditional music and incorporating the rock idiom (folk-rock, blues-rock), managed to topple classic rock'n'roll, which had become solidly entrenched in mass culture, thus exposing the discrepancy between two deceptively similar notions: mass culture and popular culture.

The tension between mass and the fringe to which we initially referred, overlaps this opposition mass/popular insofar as within industrialized societies, returning to traditional values (here traditional music) testifies to the same desire of breaking with the current values of these societies.

The first wave of contestation culminated in the second half of the 60s with acid-rock and the black music associated with the counter-culture (soul and funk). It is the same counter cultural dimension that can be found at other times and for other musical styles which do not bear any direct connection with the counter culture of the 60s (whether it be punk, reggae, pub-rock, thrash, hard-core, rap, grunge, etc.); what matters is to break with established traditions, with the musical code. All these styles operate on the same small-scale basis, the exact opposite of what mass culture advocates. This is true not only of the size of the bands, of the management companies, of the concert halls, of the budgets involved, but also of the technical know-how of the musicians. A too high degree of musicianship and technical command, as it fits the demands of the record industry, is considered suspiciously. The emphasis is rather on amateurism and improvization, on careless and ephemeral attitudes.

Ideally, one should remain a "cult" band, whose success depends more on the grapevine than on the marketing strategies peculiar to mass culture. The very organization of the record industry reflects the tension between the mass and the fringe. In English-speaking countries, business is shared between separate but complementary bodies: independent companies (the "indies") and large corporations (the "majors"). Multinational corporations are a key element of mass economies but they are too slow in decision making to match the spirit of rock music; it takes swiftness and flexibility to grasp the volatile quality of new bands and styles. Smaller companies are better equipped in this respect.

They are responsible for the discovery and the initial "harnessing" of a great number of artists (thirty-three of 1956 top fifty recordings, e.g., were released by independants companies). Large corporations, which have the manufacturing, distribution and marketing clout and the capital necessary for worldwide developments come in later.


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° Rubrique About The World