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° Rubrique About The World

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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This organization of the record industry brings to light an essential ambiguity of rock music. If most new musical trends result from the criticism of mass consumption (including of music), they seldom resist very long the relentless attacks of the industry and its assimilating powers.

The most unorthodox practices are rapidly popularized and made palatable, losing in the process their radical character9. The latest example being that of the Seattle band Nirvana, jumping in a few weeks from the status of garage-band to the #1 position in the charts. 
Each musical trend, after a few months of existence, thus faces two alternatives: either to slowly fade away, or to integrate into mass culture. The evolution of the record industry lies on this well-documented process (see, for example, Richard Peterson and David Berger or John Fiske in Introduction to Communication Studies), the fierce and unrelenting competition between majors and indies, which is often closer to plunder than collaboration.

Rock music is never counter cultural for long. As a rule, after a short period on the fringes, each new style becomes a mass counter-cultural movement, before eventually joining the mass culture merry-go-round. Mass industry cares little about the subtle differences between culture and the counter culture. In fact, its essential feature is precisely its ability to digest any form of deviancy or marginality. As Herbert J. Gans noted in 1974: ... the youth culture of the 1960s has now declined, at least in public visibility, and no longer looks as threatening to the advocates of high culture as it did only a few years ago. 
Indeed, much of that youth culture is now being incorporated into commercial popular culture.

In the end, one may wonder how relevant is the questioning of rock music as it is carried out by the various schools of criticism mentioned earlier. The central question is not one of origin. To ask whether rock is a commodity manufactured and imposed by cultural industries or the authentic offspring of popular culture is pointless. In any case, it takes both to make rock commercially viable as well as artistically exciting; a commodity which doesn't rely on a popular taste is bound to flop. As Todd Gitlin put it regarding television programs: ... capitalism implies a certain sensitivity to audience taste, taste which is never wholly manufactured. Shows are made by guessing at audience desires and tolerances..." 
Similarly, rock music cannot be content with keeping a low profile. It needs the limelight to thrive.

What makes rock so special is its volatile and radical nature. It is actuated by a tension, the necessary resistance to an unavoidable commercialization, which creates new forces, prompts new talents. By regularly breaking free from cultural industries, by opposing the individual to the community, by questioning its involvement with mass culture, rock manages to stay alive.

  It may then resume its position within this culture with a renewed potency, until the next break. Rock music is not a state. It belongs neither to an individualistic counter culture nor to mass culture. Rock could be best described as a passage, an interval, the space between. Rock is a dynamic, the dynamic of change.


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° Rubrique About The World