IASPM day 2 plenary – “Under the Bridge” – Popular Music at the Margins

WigglesChair: Carlo Nardi

The Wiggles: Australia’s most popular unpopular musical export. Liz Giuffre (Macquarie University, Australia)
Children’s songwriters, musicians and performers The Wiggles have regularly appeared on the Business Review Weekly (BRW)’s list of highest paid entertainers in Australia, and have also become an unlikely embodiment of Australian success internationally. This paper argues that The Wiggles produce undoubtedly popular music for their target market, but given that this demographic is almost exclusively children (particularly those of pre-school age), they have been overlooked by the popular music academy. This omission reignites questions of exactly what is popular music, but also draws on cross-discipline arguments such as those in television studies which challenge how we gauge ‘quality entertainment’ and its audience. Children (particularly those of pre-school age) are not a demographic that is often considered in examinations of popular music or media (beyond studies of educational impact or narratives of children’s relative vulnerability to exposure to certain ideas or concepts), however I will show how the niche marketing and success of this band and their broader music and media work functions in much the same way as other popular music subgenres. I will show that The Wiggles remain unpopular with scholars and researchers because of the band (and wider franchise’s) continued focus on its core, preschool market.

Liz analyses The Wiggles’ success, pointing out reasonably that they sell many millions of albums, DVDs and sheet music copies, and are the most commercially successful artist in Australia. She observes that popular music studies does not engage with the band and its ilk because it is aimed as ‘pre-listeners’ (i.e. the under fives) who are perhaps perceived by scholars not to have enough agency as a demographic to be worthy of study.

Pleasingly, the analysis of the Wiggles example deals with the musical specifics of the content of a Wiggles performance. Their original performance (from the TV show) of the song ‘Wake Up Jeff’ is contrasted with a cover version [by The Blue Jeans?] which is an adult ‘Latin’ arrangement. The paper asks why the Wiggles are so (culturally) ‘unpopular’, asking if The Wiggles represent ‘ordinary television’, ‘Cult TV’ or ‘quality television’. She points out that few adults would return nostalgically to The Wiggles in the same way that a middle-aged person would return fondly to the music of their teens.

Liz then asks the question, backed up with reference to relevant scholarship (Frith particularly), of what The Wiggles TV show means for cultural studies. It is paralleled with Sesame Street, about which some scholarly work exists, but this focuses on its educational content despite its extensive (and, she argues, excellent) use of music.

She follows this by citing Frith’s assertion that ‘there is no such thing as bad music’, stating that ‘bad’ is only contextual and there is nothing objectively or measurably ‘bad’ about The Wiggles. Certainly they are worthy of study, not least because they are popular.

How might academics engage with The Wiggles, she asks? It’s all about the audience. We know that youth music is getting older, but in academic study terms why can’t it get younger too? The final question is ‘why is it up to us as academics to be embarrassed?’.

Earl Klugh

Let the People In: De-Marginalizing Popular Styles of Jazz within Academic Discourse. Kevin Fellezs (Columbia University, USA)
As jazz studies became institutionalized into a bona fide disciplinary area, it slowly shed the historiographical orthodoxies that emulated the knowledgeable fan discourse of its early proponents. While much of this work focused on deconstructing an established jazz canon of mainstream jazz “masters” and their “masterworks” by legitimating experimental jazz, this has largely meant, in the end, an extension of the jazz canon rather than a radical re-thinking of its borders. Just as importantly, these efforts shaped jazz into an “art music” that effaced its relationship to popular music audiences and aesthetics. This paper analyzes jazz’s relationship with “the popular” by debunking the orthodoxies surrounding soul jazz, smooth jazz and other types of popular jazz styles. The academy has customarily dismissed these styles as hindering rather than assisting in maintaining jazz’s legitimacy.

Kevin takes a similar approach to Liz in that he is asking essentially the same question, which is ‘why should something so popular not be a worthy subject of study?’. He follows the careers and outputs of Earl Klugh and George Benson, focussing on the former. Drawing on Klugh interviews, he charts the artist’s journey through popular music, quoting Klugh as saying “I don’t play jazz – I don’t like jazz. […] I play pop music […] If I’d grown up in Nashville I’d be playing Country & Western instead.”. A lovely example is played of Klugh performing with his greatest influence – Chet Atkins.

Commercial success is rarely proportional to critical acclaim, and Kevin attacks those who take a negative view of the former, citing examples of those who have accused Klugh and Benson of ‘selling out’ just because of the self-evident fact that they were commercially successful. Another musical example is played – ‘George, Chet and Earl’ performing ‘Manha de Carnaval’, which I confess I didn’t analyse in real time, instead just sitting back and enjoying the wonderfully melodic guitar playing of these performers (I’m a fan of them all, but I’m a sucker for a prominent melody).

Interestingly, Kevin’s examples are mainly from the 1970s, and it perhaps interesting to note the way broadcast has moved on since then; it would be rare in 21st century mainstream media for a solo instrumental performer (even one as crowd-pleasing as Klugh) to be given so much prime-time TV. Kevin’s concluding statement summarises his inferences about mainstream popularity – and populist artists – very effectively; ‘Letting the people in, you might say, is never smooth’.

1 comment

  1. I toured with the Wiggles as sound engineer and tour manager a few years ago. It was the most fun I have ever had on the road. It was a fantastic show for the under 5s. Couldn’t stop singing the songs for months!! They deserve every dollar of their success!

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