Music Theory Online

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Volume 7, Number 6, December 2001
Copyright © 2001 Society for Music Theory

Table of Contents

Walter T. Everett*

Review of Richard Middleton, ed., Reading Pop: Approaches to Textual Analysis in Popular Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

KEYWORDS: rock music, popular music, Schenker

You want the bad news first?

[1] Poor Richard. He wants writers on popular music to address the topic from what he sees as the single viable perspective. He looks at what is offered by many American analysts, with their emphasis on the inner tonal relationships of a song or group of songs, and he finds the approach both doctrinaire (because it is based on what he asserts to be the uncritical adoption of "formalist" systems that had been created to clarify the workings of music of a different sort) and inadequate (due to its failure to consider the entirety of the music's social context). He turns to the cultural-studies sociologists, and admires their consumer-based interest in gesture and dance steps but is embarrassed by their lack of sophistication in parsing a musical text. He then announces that in order to pretend to any validity at all, the only proper approach in pop-music scholarship is to synthesize the two goals in every piece of published research. He reasons that "musical meaning cannot be detached from the discursive, social and institutional frameworks which surround, mediate, and (yes) produce it."(1) Middleton is not alone in this argument, but is supported by a number of the book's contributors. Thus, Philip Tagg: "no analysis of musical discourse can be considered complete without consideration of social, psychological, visual, gestural, ritual, technical, historical, economic, and linguistic aspects relevant to the genre, function, style, (re-)performance situation, and listening attitude connected with the sound event being studied."(2) Thus, Alf Björnberg: "It is a fact that pop and rock music have always been heavily infused with socially determined meaning such that an autonomous musical aesthetics appears clearly insufficient to explain their significance."(3) In his own chapter, Middleton grasps at cultural studies, linguistics, genetic theory, and even the electro-chemical nature of neural circuits to explain the nature of a gesture, because for him meaning is to be found not among musical relations but in the music's relationship to its surroundings.(4) To this reviewer, such an entanglement of music with its context seems almost less "necessary" than ever, in an age when a reference to the text of Abbey Road should mean exactly the same thing to everyone the world over--the collection of 478.5 megabytes appearing on a compact disc that contains in every case the same stereo mix of a recording fixed in 1969. This sort of musical text, common to most popular-music compositions of the past fifty years, can be studied as an independent unit much more easily than could a Mozart sonata, which exists only in a general notational roadmap suggestive of many possible valid and interesting tangible interpretations.

[2] Just as he gets comfortable advocating a balance of the musical and the sociological, in the thumbnail history of approaches to popular music featured in his Introduction, along comes the post-modern discourse-edifying critic, and a befuddled Richard now feels that his previous interdisciplinary prescription is inadequate unless it is also colored by an attractive political stance, hopefully one embracing a Marxist or a sexual-politic perspective. So, according to his current view, every scholarly attempt to discuss popular song must present research involving music-analytical work, sociological study, and political criticism--and all from the approved viewpoint.

[3] Part of the reason for Richard's conundrum is the odd-bedfellows nature of popular-music scholarship, with its mix of academic discipline and vernacular repertoire. A second aspect of the problem is posed simply by the immaturity of the field of popular music studies, with many voices from different backgrounds yearning to be heard. A third is due to the manifold tonal systems present in popular music, some no different from those of 200 years ago, others hardly related at all, and still others combining aspects from both of these extremes. But the dominant problem as articulated and exemplified in Reading Pop is the editor's own great urge to indoctrinate. In our chiefly American discourse, I like to think that different views are encouraged, that we learn from complementary approaches, that we are free to design the scope as well as the objects, systems, and methods of our investigations as we deem appropriate, and that no one is required to "do it all," to reflect in their own work that of everyone else within the field--let alone those in tangential fields. But Richard would not be comfortable with such flexibility and freedom. Whereas other scholars desire to be heard and understood, he asks to set the interdisciplinary agenda for everyone else. No matter that scholarship has traditionally been a domain that values highly developed expertise in a fairly circumscribed area of specialization. Perhaps because recent popular music represents rebellion, academic tradition is to be thrown on its head! We must crown a new leader--let's see . . . who is so prominent as to have been a founding editor of the journal, Popular Music, to have authored a couple of pioneering books in the area (Pop Music and the Blues [1972] and Studying Popular Music [1990]), to have earned the professional respect of many readers and other devotees, and to have proclaimed the one proper direction for scholarly inquiry? To repeat a line from the Who that John Covach has used in a related analogy elsewhere, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."(5)

[4] I applaud Middleton's interests in the interdisciplinary and the intertextual. I would be quite impressed and would be mighty grateful to find a single essay that skillfully weaves deep and convincing observations in such an interesting combination of disciplines as thought necessary by Richard Middleton. (In fact, the similar but smaller-scale call for a balance of rigor and imagination, of structural and hermeneutic approaches, is certainly the most important contribution to emerge from the influential work of contributor Philip Tagg.)(6) But all of the chapters in this volume, to varying degrees, fall short of such a standard, often because of weaknesses in interest or skill in musical matters, those matters that the readership of Music Theory Online would likely consider the root of the music-sociology-politics triad. Umberto Fiori, for example, does ask the necessary post-Bakhtin question "Who is really speaking?," a seemingly obligatory search for authorial voice that has been worked into a number of the book's studies, but there is no mention of music in his essay on Peter Gabriel.(7) Musical issues in John Moore's 35-page cultural study of torch singers are restricted to a few paragraphs characterizing vocal production in vague terms.(8) Richard Leppert and George Lipsitz collaborate on a psychological study of Hank Williams's relationship to his culture that boasts a total of two lines of musical insight.(9) (These chapters appear in a book whose jacket blurb claims it to be "the first substantial anthology to focus on the musical 'texts'.") But I will not take these or other authors to task for not meeting such an impossible goal. Instead, I will mention a few of the strengths apparent here and there from which readers may benefit. But first, I wish to continue my analysis of the book's central thrust as shaped by the editor.

[5] Middleton, if he can be judged against normal editorial obligations, shows throughout this book that he possesses little skill in working with aspects of musical structure. Given his own training (as a one-time student of Wilfrid Mellers at York University), Middleton cannot be expected to possess much of a background in Schenkerian analysis. But elsewhere, he summarizes with apparent ease what he believes to be the basis of the Schenkerian method, betraying a shallow and mistaken understanding (one heavily invested in the tree-branching "binary" opposition of information theory, that leaves no room to consider either shades of grey or structural components only implied in a composition, and heavily dependent on Eugene Narmour) that carries over into the book here under review.(10) In the Introduction to Reading Pop, he criticizes Allen Forte for applying, without critical judgment, the "formalist" tenets of Schenkerian analysis in the book, The American Popular Ballad.(11) Clearly, Middleton is in no position to judge the great degree of interpretation that has led Forte to borrow from Schenker what is relevant to the song at hand, and to reconfigure the apparatus according to the harmonic and voice-leading events that confront the analyst as they differ from common-practice conventions. And when contributor Peter Winkler advises the reader that the notation in his graphic analysis of melodic structure in one example is "based on Heinrich Schenker's theories," the editor is at a loss to rectify this statement with an example's notation that groups skips and steps within single slurs, arbitrarily mixes open stemmed notes with others unstemmed, and does not suggest any contrapuntal or harmonic support whatsoever for the vocal part--ultimately, the example says little about harmony or voice leading, and the connection to Schenker is phantasmagoric.(12) Middleton believes Schenker's privileging the falling fifth--particularly that supporting V-I--as a harmonic motion, as opposed to other pairs of chords that may occur more frequently in particular songs, is value-based and arbitrary. Where the contrapuntal IV-I embellishment occurs often in a song, he says, "the role of the plagal effect is to modify the otherwise strong I-V-I tendency which Schenkerians could easily find in the Ursatz."(13) He seems to be suggesting that IV can generate just as much harmonic value in relation to I as can V. After all, both pairs of chords, IV - I and V - I, are related by the same interval class, right? More fundamentally, Middleton and others in this book argue that structural tonal norms are determined within specific pieces rather than through essences of tonal behavior, and that all triads have essentially equal intrinsic harmonic value.

[6] In this case and many others, editor and writers share a fundamental-bass predisposition that fogs over both subtleties and deeper relationships tying together voice leading, counterpoint, chord, scale degree, and harmony. As an example of such confusion, the bVII - IV - I pattern is characterized by Alf Björnberg as "fairly low" in "directionality,"(14) whereas the sequence should be recognized as one with highly goal-directed voice leading and with no harmonic function at all beyond the consonant support of neighboring and passing tones. Early in her essay on Jimi Hendrix,(15) Sheila Whiteley admits problems in articulating just what musical factors permit what she refers to as progressive rock to contradict "mainstream pop conventions"; a Schenkerian view would have provided a most powerful tool for making such a case. Furthermore, Middleton holds that "gestural analysis" (a topic well developed in Studying Popular Music) is given short shrift in traditional musicology,(16) even though the true identification of a melodic gesture, on the surface as well as at deeper levels, is precisely the sort of thing that Schenkerian analysis clarifies beyond reproach. Middleton and others who criticize the application of Schenkerian analysis to popular music of the twentieth century often express the belief that the analyst is uncritically occupied with trying to force the piece at hand into the Procrustean bed, when to my experience, any skillful Schenkerian is most interested in calling attention to the tensions that exist between a given tonal diatonic piece and conventions of the tonal system. In other words, the Schenkerian's task is to clarify just how any one piece of tonal diatonic music distorts normative structures, a condition often achieved through an unbalanced overemphasis of embellishments above thrown-away structural events, exactly the concept that is celebrated in a non-Schenkerian context by David Brackett's discussion of a weakened cadential V in James Brown's "Superbad."(17) Rounding out this discussion of Middleton's view of Schenker, it seems pertinent to point out that he complains that theorists have no mechanism for understanding rhythm,(18) showing a lack of awareness or understanding of the seminal work of Carl Schachter and William Rothstein, among many others, over the past twenty-five years. And Björnberg is unfortunately allowed to use the term "prolongation" to refer to a method of phrase expansion.(19)

[7] Middleton's musical problems extend far beyond matters related to Schenker. One of his criticisms of the traditional-musicological approach to the analysis of popular music turns incomprehensible in passing from one sentence to the next: "There is a tendency to use inappropriate or loaded terminology. Terms like 'pandiatonic cluster' applied to pop songs really do tend to position them alongside Stravinsky, even though it is not at all clear that anything comparable is going on there."(20) But later in the book we discover that the meaning of the term "pandiatonic" as coined by Slonimsky (and as made clear in any reliable music dictionary that might be available in an editor's library) is unknown to Middleton, who allows Peter Winkler to use it in place of "bitonal," citing in this connection the famous tritone-opposed major-chord arpeggiations in Petroushka.(21) Only then do we understand why Middleton hears octatonic Stravinsky in Slonimsky's word, one that might conjure in the rest of us an added-sixth or eleventh chord or some other diatonic sonority that is quite at home in pop songs belonging to any number of genres. At an even more basic level, the entire notion of diatonicism seems unclear to Middleton. He and his writers are on firm footing when they oppose blues-based minor-pentatonic material against major-mode conventions, because melodies in the former typically follow no stepwise voice-leading norms and, more significantly, often behave with no consonance-dissonance relations whatever, although these properties are not offered as reasons.(22) But modal music is also set in opposition to "diatonic" music without a definition of their difference (e.g., Stan Hawkins: "This use of modality, in contrast to diatonic harmony . . . "),(23) and often wrongly; apparently unknown to this group, modal popular music usually contains the same voice-leading procedures characteristic of major-mode music, and whereas Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian songs often feature passing and neighboring chordal patterns that differ significantly from those common in the major mode, modal harmonic relationships often differ in color but not in function from their corresponding major-mode relatives. One wonders what precise meaning Middleton finds in this Hawkins statement: "As with most modality, the harmonic features of 'Anna Stesia,' on first hearing, seem to occupy a transitional space between tonality and modality."(24) The editor's passive confusion regarding the nature of diatony is perhaps most obvious in a comparison of two quotations made by Sean Cubitt, in which the writer provides a misreading of the word "natural," taking it to signify "non-modern" as opposed to its intended "achromatic" meaning. The misreading leads him to believe that the nature of diatonicism changed between 1774 and 1848, a confusion that at the same time undermines his (and, by proxy, Middleton's) larger argument that the foundations of single analytical systems cannot serve two different objects of analysis that he finds unrelated, such as examples of "classical" and "popular" musics. Here is Cubitt's argument: "The rules governing musical expression are conventional, not necessary, and are therefore subject to historical change. To illustrate this point: the Oxford English Dictionary gives two illuminating early uses of the word 'diatonic': Burney's 1774 History of Music which states that 'In modern music the Genera are but two: Diatonic and Chromatic'; and Ramboul writing in 1848 (that significant date) of 'Diatonic, the natural scale.' Would this suggest that between the Wilkes riots and the June revolution, what has been modern had become natural?"(25) How trenchant to be able to weave a bit of political history into the comparison, but musically, the inept illustration is not redeemed by irrelevant nimble-wittedness.

[8] Regarding "inappropriate" terminology, the reader in possession of the common understanding of the term "binary form," with its two sections and predictable tonal relationships, is thrown off balance by Stan Hawkins's assertion that "binary form is one of the most common structures found in popular music song."(26) But it eventually becomes clear that for Hawkins, the term relates not to classical-music practice but to the either/or opposition of two contrasting sections, verse and chorus, even where no tonicization takes place, even where the sections can be repeated in any order and any number of times, and even when a contrasting bridge is present, a condition that would lead most listeners to count three contrasting formal sections.

[9] A potentially interesting discussion by Sean Cubitt on the fade-out common in pop recordings could have benefited in the writing or editing stage from an understanding of the differences between surface and structure. Unfortunately, he extrapolates from his misunderstanding in this regard to create a weak foundation for a Gotcha! political statement. When he argues that Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" lacks a conclusion because the song fades out, he has mistakenly sought the final tonic in the very final sound of a cold-ending surface, rather than at the conclusion of the deeper structure, where it appears quite boldly. I suppose Cubitt would leave a Gary Cooper western, the final shot of which has the hero riding into the invisible distance, wondering how things would have worked out had a "real" ending been supplied. The following is how he hears the end of Berry's song, an interpretation that gradually grows in its political application as the sound dies away: "As it spirals down to the silence of the last grooves, it sends us outwards from itself to seek the completion of the song elsewhere. The melody does not even offer the fictional resolution of the restored tonic. It does not, in Coleridge's famous phrase, 'contain in itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise.' The great interest of the popular song for me is the way in which it confounds the Aristotelian aesthetics of the object, and with it the Cartesian notion of the subject: whole, autonomous, independent, closed. It demands instead a materialist aesthetic, where any single utterance is meaningful only in the context of the other discourses that surround it and the multiplicity of subjects imbricated in its production, both as artists and listeners."(27) Cubitt surpasses his rambling about the distracted interdisciplinary listener, going so far as to address the song's erotic involvement "with every other subject on the planet," all because the "missing" final tonic went by him unnoticed.(28)

[10] Aristotle, Descartes, Coleridge; let's talk Achilles here, and Captain Queeg too while we're at it. Because Middleton brings all of the criticism given in this review down upon himself, in response to his own skewering of others without regard to his own frailties. Remember his complaint about "a tendency to use inappropriate or loaded terminology"? We've shown a number of such examples from this book. But the deepest hubris appears in the context of his outright dismissal of the Americans: "The tradition to which Forte belongs is not represented in this book. . . . [W]ithout a grounding in a critique of its own assumptions, their approach is debarred from the self-reflexivity required for a properly theorized account of the relationship between analytical method and musical practice."(29) All the "self-reflexivity" missing in the American writers cited by Middleton is probably the sort of instruction in sausage-making that is favored by Philip Tagg, Stan Hawkins, and other contributors to this book who labor intensively over discussing their methodologies (particularly in the ubiquitous semiotic department), the gist of which is usually really quite apparent without all the self-important wrapping. I think most readers of analytical-interpretative essays (metatheoretical tracts aside, that is) are more interested in the writer's hearing of the song than a full description of--and justification for--the method, unless it is in some way not apparent in and of itself. American writers have not typically found it necessary to provide their core audiences extended coaching in how to read even the novel implications of their interpretations, assuming a general level of technical competence and an imagination live enough that a simple reference to a tonal feature perhaps common only in recent popular repertoires will lead the experienced reader to an appreciation of such deviations from the sorts of things that would have been encountered in older music. That Middleton praises the "rigour" of Stan Hawkins' and Philip Tagg's texts,(30) loaded as they are with voluminous and at times irrelevant lists, shows that both writer and editor lack perspective on the value of a reader's time.(31) But Middleton has far deeper problems with Forte, whereas he could have profited from the American's example. Allen Forte's consummate musical skill, a rapier-sharp pen (which has perhaps hit its mark unnoticed even in the one quoted passage reproduced below), and above all, a graciousness of spirit that relaxes in a truly fulfilling self-reflexivity are three attributes not shared by his critic. Concluding his dismissal of Forte's The American Popular Ballad, Middleton writes: "The larger issues of method, as discussed above, are not broached until the final two pages of the book, and then Forte's response is a cheerfully confessed ignorance: 'At the present time there appears to be a distinct split between scholars who are interested in a music-analytic approach to the study of popular music and those who regard popular music as a sociological artifact. . . . The issues are broad, cloudy and potentially significant . . . musicology cannot afford to neglect studies of popular music as music, for otherwise the sociological view . . . will prevail [--even though] . . . to show how incompetent I am to judge writings in this area, I readily acknowledge my inability to grasp . . . [examples of the "sociological view"]'."(32) Middleton pounces mercilessly on Forte's polite and "unguarded" declaration, unaware that he displays incompetencies just as severe at the opposite end of the sociology-music pairing. And I don't detect a trace of irony in the attack.

[11] Two last examples in the "take that, Richard" department: Some information seems to have fallen between cracks opened up by the author-date citation system: a reference to Marcus 1977(33) leads to no bibliographical listing (this error appeared to me through a curiosity exercised only sporadically--I couldn't say whether there are other such mishaps). One final curiosity: If Tin Pan Alley were truly on "28th Avenue".(34) it must have been based in Secaucus!

. . . And the good news . . .

[12] Actually, despite the large issues discussed above, and other smaller issues, too many to mention here, and despite the pugnacious stance taken time and again against many potential admirers and beneficiaries, Middleton has put together a fascinating volume. There is some excellent music pulled apart here, often with expert readings, and we are given great insights into text and methodology that will benefit any reader interested in popular music ranging from the torch singers of the 1920s through a few music videos of the early 1990s. And my highest praise goes to the editor for the frequent exercise of fair use in quoting words and music, often extending through the unauthorized quotations of entire lyrics. Far too few authors, editors, and publishers are willing to defend their scholarly rights in as strong a stand as is taken in this project, and so Reading Pop should be regarded and referred to as an important precedent for all future work in the area.

[13] The book's lead essay is one of the best. Winkler is a good enough writer to draw the reader in, he raises imaginative issues, he is a perceptive reader of Randy Newman's evocative lyrics, and his transcriptions are first-rate (but then we have come to expect that of him, particularly following his chapter in Keeping Score).(35) Dai Griffiths provides the book's best poetry in his clever and witty reading of Bruce Springsteen, and his original interest in syllabification unmatched elsewhere is substantiated with intelligent musical observations.(36) Charles Hamm discusses some specific features in the music of Irving Berlin, especially useful when relating performance-practice issues to meaning in a brief analysis that addresses the taxonomy of genres.(37) Ellie Hisama's thinking is extremely perceptive and original, and is simultaneously sensitive and provocative in her criticism of the racist attitudes and gender stereotypes underlying three disparate examples of recent music.(38) Timothy Taylor gives us another great reading of lyrics and an extended, thoughtful argument as to how the rock backbeat is an antiestablishment statement.(39) I have long felt the same way about the lowered seventh scale degree, in that the rejection of the subservient leading tone can often be taken as a rebellion against the dominant culture.

[14] Music theorists who are interested in reading cultural studies of popular songs and singers, particularly if a politically attuned preference for semiotic labelling is considered de rigueur, will probably find this volume consistently interesting. Those who wish to see a variety of approaches to the interpretation of song lyrics will also find many essays illuminating and useful.(40) Those, however, who might be looking for fresh insights into the often unusual and sometimes challenging musical text of popular songs, will probably do best to seek out the articles referred to in paragraph [13] as originally published in Popular Music. Browsing there, who knows; one might come across something better than some of the pieces collected here. And that person who economizes in such a way ($70 cloth, $19.95 paper) will be doubly enriched by having been spared Richard Middleton's gratuitously offensive Introduction.


Walter T. Everett
University of Michigan
School of Music
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2085

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Updated 18 November 2002