Popular Music Education: Foreword

The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Education

This post is taken from my foreword to The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Education: Perspectives and Practices (Bloomsbury, 2019). Editors: Zack Moir, Bryan Powell, Gareth Dylan Smith. Used by permission.


Popular Music Education. These three words, even though they have been at the center of my professional life for more than 25 years, continue to challenge and intrigue me because each one generates questions. What do we mean by ‘Popular’? Popular with whom, and for how long? Popular in the sense of widely distributed, or in the sense of culturally influential? When we say ‘Music’, which music… and whose music? The consensus reached long ago in conservatoires about the centrality of the European ‘common practice period’ has no easy parallel in PME, and popular music has evolved into so many forms and sub-genres that it is arguably impossible for any teacher or student to have knowledge of it all. And when we talk about ‘Education’, what, exactly, are we teaching? PME in high schools and in higher education deals variously with listening, performing existing music, creating original music, music technology, the commercial music industry, and (often controversially) the history of various canons, styles and traditions. Which of these should we choose to teach? Each answer to these questions breeds further questions. If we decide that our curriculum supports creativity, then our students will probably need to be songwriters, the song being the dominant creative product in most popular music. But how does one build a suitable grading framework for songwriting, when songs represent personal expression? What if the teacher’s definition of a good song is different from the student’s?

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Popular Music scholarship conference #iaspm2017

Selfie in Kassel

Selfie in Kassel, Germany, the venue for the IASPM 2017 conference. You had me at “Giant pink Les Paul on top of a 12-foot pole in the street”.

This week I’m at the biannual conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. Our hosts are the University of Kassel, Germany, and the conference features presenters from all over the world.

Our opening keynote speaker this morning is Robin James, whose academic work spans philosophy, pop music, sound studies, and feminism. One of the pleasing trends I’ve been seeing in academic conferences in recent years is the increased willingness of presenters (particularly younger scholars) to post their work online. Robin has generously shared not only her slides but the full text of the talk. The keynote goes into considerable depth, so I won’t attempt to summarise it here, other than to say how much I enjoyed Robin’s acrobatic thinking as she leapt gracefully from Pythagorean philosophy to big data, US neoliberalism, YOLO and Chill culture, and illustrated all of this with a brief musical analysis of Harry Styles’s Sign Of The Times (embedded below) and Beyoncé’s Lemonade.

Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste

CD cover

Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On (1997) is the song used by Carl Wilson to frame an in-depth discussion of musical taste in his 2007 book ‘Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love’.

Today I’ve been at the University of Bristol with scholars from the Severn Pop Network. We were discussing Carl Wilson’s book Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste. It’s an interesting read, using CD’s work, biography and persona to drive a discussion of what we perceive as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music and why, and how this contrasts with demographic and literal popularity of a pop product. I personally find Wilson’s lack of musicological comment to be slightly annoying (he makes almost no reference at all to the musical content of the works, or the works of the other artists he uses for contrast – for example, Elliott Smith). Wilson’s own musical prejudices (as he very occasionally admits) are obvious in the book, and he never attempts to quantify his reasons for disliking Dion’s work. He does, however, get into a fascinating discussion of Dion’s Québécois cultural background and the way the French-Canadian music industry’s economic evolution in the last 20-30 years has contributed to its content. I found it to be a very entertaining book, and not terribly academic, apart from the allusions to Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital in chapter 8. I just get irritated when people talk about music without mentioning the music…

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Here’s a playlist of some of the music cited (and implicitly cited) in the book.

spotify:user:joebennettbath:playlist:5OWQt7Q7vm2gCOP3uWDh21

Here’s a few relevant citations, and a video from Steve Almond providing his own take on the discussion of taste and fandom.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction.” In Knowledge, Education, and Cultural Change: Papers in the Sociology of Education, edited by Richard K. Brown, 71–84. London: Tavistock, 1973.
Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996.
Salganik, Matthew J., Peter Sheridan Dodds, and Duncan J. Watts. “Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market.” Science 311, no. 5762 (2006): 854–56.
Washburne, Christopher, and Maiken Derno, eds. Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate. New York: Routledge, 2004.
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