PopMAC day 3: Analyzing Bad Music. Willemien Froneman #popmac

Analyzing Bad Music. Willemien Froneman (Stellenbosch University)

[abstract] Boeremusiek, a genre of predominantly white folk music in South Africa, is in many respects a fascinating topic of study. Its weird and wonderful anecdotal tradition and vibrant events offer rich opportunities for the analysis of postcolonial politics, race and class. Accordingly, my previous work on boeremusiek has focused mainly on the social, cultural and political contexts of boeremusiek. Kofi Agawu s 1997 attack on the new musicology, however, keeps ringing in my ears: that new musicologists have so far not found a use for the surplus of detail that theory-based analysis produces . Although Agawu was speaking about Western art music here, his arguments are no less relevant for the analysis of popular music. In the case of boeremusiek this surplus of detail is especially problematic. In many ways, boeremusiek aspires to an aesthetic of amateurism: participation is more important than tuning, for example, and loudness trumps the importance of careful sound engineering. Even accomplished musicians seem to hide their musical prowess in group contexts. Although the badness of boeremusiek has distinct and interesting socio-cultural meanings, there is no precedent for analyzing the musical surface of bad music. In this paper, I am after a hermeneutics of badness. To this end, I am willing to go against the grain of ethnomusicological ethics. By focussing on flaw rather than merit, I hope to draw new connections between ethnographic and musical analyses.

Willemien Froneman holds a PhD in Music from Stellenbosch University (2012) and an MPhil in Musicology from Cambridge University (2006). Postcolonial aesthetics, the relationships between official and popular culture, and the history of white popular music in South Africa are the topics that engage her at the moment. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Stellenbosch University and co-editor of SAMUS: South African Music Studies from 2015.

Willemien begins autobiographically, describing her own experience of boeremusiek as a listener and as a scholar, but states that this is the first time she has attempted an analysis of the music itself. She sites this in the wider content vs context debate in popular music studies, and asks the important question – how does one analyse music that on the surface appears banal or musically unoriginal? She plays us a video example of an amateur ‘bad’ example [that sounds to my UK ears like a Shadows-influenced pub band]. She comments that error shows up identity, giving the example of a computer or projector that crashes, showing its logo only when the error occurs and being otherwise invisible. This frames her approach – she intends to use ‘error’ as a method of highlighting the operational logic of the music. She uses the term ‘modality’ in a socio-linguistic way – those aspects of language that reveals the speaker’s meaning beyond the content of the words; it expresses potentials, aspirations, opinions etc. She uses the expression ‘Susan is dancing’ and rephrases it in many different modally marked ways, giving different meanings. In this way she intends to infer semantic meaning beyond the plain ‘text’ of the music itself, suggesting that music has a ‘modal logic’ beyond its ‘structural logic’ [modality being, again, used in the non-church-modes sense].

She now alludes to some specific musical characteristics – taken from ‘Opsitaand’ by Chris Blignaut c.1945, playing us a four-chord four-bar loop I IV V I. At the end of each 8 bars is a ‘period’ – a phrase ending – so this is referred to as a ‘double period’. The second audio example  uses the same A section loop, then for the B section we go to I I V I, then I I V (I-I7). This ‘minor section’ [the adjective being used in the qualitative rather than harmonic sense] is effectively an exhortation to dance. Willemien infers that the A section says ‘we are dancing’ but the B section says ‘we should dance’, suggesting that inherent in the form and modulation has a modality of meaning for the dancers.

The paper undertakes a melodic comparison between the section, noting that some thematic elements risk making the song undanceable. We then hear in full the field recording of the amateur/semi-pro band that was played at the beginning, observing a couple of on-stage ‘looks’ between the players, harmonically subtitled and then playfully captioned “what are you doing?!” as the bassist makes eye contact with the guitarist. The work goes to ‘minors’ [sections based on the key of the V chord] then ‘minors of minors’ [effectively, secondary dominant keys].

In the 1940s example, the listener is properly led through the possibility of dancing. In the ‘bad music’ 2013 example, the errors in communicating the cultural codes mean that the ‘actual’ makes way for the ‘virtual’. She concludes that modal logic is a useful analytical tool in situations where the possibility of effects is greater than the expected and culturally understood – the ‘as ifs’ of musical nostalgia.

In the questioning Willemien points out that it is important to analyse ‘badness’ with musical objectivity – to avoid aesthetic judgement – and that this is not as easy as one might hope.

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