IASPM 2013 keynote: Prof Simon Frith

To anyone who is involved in the academic discussion of popular music, Professor Simon Frith is perhaps one of our megastars. I was delighted to hear that he was the keynote speaker for this conference, as he is one of the driving forces behind IASPM itself and our journal – Popular Music. That this is his final conference (he intends to retire within the year) made his speech all the more poignant.


[with apologies to Simon for any inelegance or misrepresentation in the summative text below – I found the keynote extremely engaging, and have tried to balance my own interest in his points with the practical necessity of live blogging!].

Simon opened his keynote with a comment about his preference for the avoidance of nostalgia – and noted that Bruce Springsteen will be performing in Gijòn this week! He talked briefly about his influential book Performing Rites, written in the 1990s, and then discussed where popular music scholarship might be going today. His interest has always been partly located in the arguments of what constitutes ‘value’ in popular music, and notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ popular music. As an academic he takes what is still a very brave approach – of using academic tools to analyse highly contextual social considerations of aesthetic value in music.

The Digital Age means that music fans today don’t need to listen to music that they don’t like. As Mercury prize chair, Simon has to listen to around 250 CDs over 6 weeks; the fact that fans no longer have to wade through lots of music to find what they like (due to Spotify ‘sampling’ of tracks by listeners) changes the way music is consumed and, arguably, made. Part of the culture of music consumption is that consumers have expressed a view of what they like and what they don’t like – this last is a common theme in Frith’s work. He argues that the change in the extent to which ‘bad’ music needs to be tolerated means that others’ roles – for example, music critics and even academics – must change in response. There are still mediators between music and listener, but they play a very different role from ‘tastemakers’ (my word, not his) and curators of the past.

He also spoke about unpopular music – and suggested that PM scholarship has a role in discussing and perhaps even preserving this work. He makes the reasonable blanket assertion that academics do not make good music critics. The decline of music print outlets has been replaced perhaps by the rise of blog outlets for music discourse.

[Aside] There was an interesting and perhaps uncomfortable moment when Simon pointed out that one of the most (literally) popular music-makers of the last 30-40 years has never been covered by academic scholars in a dedicated conference – and that person is… Andrew Lloyd Webber. There was a question (which I hope was non-judgemental) later from the floor about the potential value of such a conference, and a few postmodern titters from some of the audience. Simon responded, unfazed, that such a conference would be of tremendous academic usefulness, because it could enable deeper understanding and discourse about this particular maker of popular music and the creative/cultural/economic environments in which he operates. This academic open-mindedness was a lesson to many, I suspect, and the postmodern titters perhaps confirmed my suspicion that some academics come to scholarship of popular music no more or less judgemental than any other music consumer. [as you were]

An anecdote appeared from many years ago, in which an early incarnation of IASPM scholars (Frith and Tagg amongst them) were asked to provide an opinion regarding who should win that year’s Eurovision Song Contest. The scholars became so lost in academic argument that they missed the contest.

He stresses the importance of dancing in the historical development and practice of popular music, and the implicit neglect of this practice in extant scholarship. To demonstrate his point he cites the phrase ‘dad dancing’ and discusses briefly what this phrase means for the relationship between dance, popular music and its audiences. He suggests that the DJ-as-popstar persona is partly a solution to the problem of the disparity between the listener experience of live and recorded music.

Music is a craft, as he acknowledges here, and criticises the romanticism of creativity that underpins much music criticism and fandom. He expresses an interest in the potential study of craft and (my own area of interest) the process of creative collaboration within and beyond the recording studio.

The American Federation of Musicians used to exclude singers, and Simon states that he once ridiculed this practice, but now revisits they question of whether singers are, in fact, different from musicians, suggesting that there is more [academic] work to be done on the singer as an actor or a representation of a persona.

The keynote frequently returns to the idea that popular music studies has perhaps too narrow a focus, having begun by reminding us that the most popular music-maker who has never had an academic conference/text devoted to his work is Andrew Lloyd Webber (contrasting this with the many hundreds of thousands of words written about Punk).

He suggests playfully that perhaps IASPM should be renamed to IASIM – the International Society for the Study of Interesting Music. He then talks about the popularity of amateur music-making – choirs and bands etc – which often (musically speaking) inhabit quasi-commercial genres, but do not necessarily engage in commercial activity.

Appropriately, Simon ends with some of the questions about popular music making raised by Jan Fairley, a hugely influential figure in IASPM and in popular music studies, who died last year. He joined Martha in dedicating the conference to Jan’s memory.

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