Tuesday, May 22, 2012

One Note Timeless: Allan F. Moore's Song Means: Analyzing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song*

The text of this post has been changed to reflect corrections both in spelling and construction.
It is of course a mistake to think that an artwork or cultural product is the expression of certain feelings, ideas or values which exist independently of the creative product and which simply result from the intention to communicate them . . . What is felt is mediated by the lyrics, rhythm or beat as a form of creative expression . . . we do not have a fully formed, reflexively comprehended experience which we then reproduce in the verbal or sonic form. What this experience means to us, and how we may value it, is usually only discovered in the form of utterance or figuration that is given to it. The expressions not only forms the experience but also transforms it, makes it into something whose meaning changes our understanding of it.
Keith Negus and Michael Pickering, "Creativity and musical experience", Popular Music Studies, p. 184, quoted in Song Means: Analyzing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song, p.210
If Rock: The Primary Text (R:PT) by British musicologist Allan F. Moore was, as I wrote in my review, "focused, one might almost call it lean", Song Means: Analyzing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song, (SM) Moore's latest addition to the Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series, is nothing less than a huge, ambitious, sprawling, and ultimately successful attempt to move forward the argument set forth in the earlier work. Expanding the "primary text" - the recorded song - from rock to "popular song", Moore offers nothing less than the possibility of fruitful interpretation within the locus of what he calls the "track", a particular recording of a song.

There was not a page I read that I did not find myself closing the book around a finger, sitting and considering something I'd read. More often than not, at least initially, it was a series of "Yeah, but . . ." scenarios, as Moore offered exemplars of particular analytic categories in traditional musicology, and how they function in particular tracks. I realized that I was engaging in a favorite sport: offer a possible counter-example as a way of challenging a clear definition and its demonstration. I detest when others do this to me, so if I caught myself about to do that I stopped and gave Moore the benefit of the doubt.

Other times, when I stopped, it was because the overwhelming detail, the breath-taking breadth and depth of his knowledge of popular music and the sheer mass made me want to catch my breath. When I did, I would open the text again, perhaps read again a particular passage, and then I'd have to stop and think, "Wow." It is rare I come across a work I believe is not just important in a particular field of study, but might actually be important for larger audiences who want to know why it is music is so important; Moore shows us why by showing us how, over and over and over. Whether it's a particular rhythm or harmony, the use of timbre and pitch, or melodic surprise or the lack thereof, even the traditional analytic categories of musicology offer the opportunity to come to a more clear understanding of what a particular track means.

Before I get to some critical comments, I think the most important analytic category Moore offers is what he calls the soundbox. The best way to describe the soundbox is, first, to have the reader put on a pair of headphones and play a song. Any song will do. Listen carefully to the exact spacing of the sound sources. How far to the left or right are particular sources in the mix? Usually the voice, the kit, and a lead instrument are centered, but there is the matter of how these are placed vertically in that center that offer clues as to what we are hearing. Finally, some sources sound closer, suggesting either intimacy or, perhaps, confrontation while other sound sources, mixed further back, suggest a distancing. Considering a track as occupying a particular space in particular ways offers opportunities for all sorts of questions that come back, again, to the meaning of a particular track.

I must admit, however, that I was struck for the first time - the concepts aren't new to me; it was, perhaps, using word "Form" as the title of Chapter 3 that lit the light - with what might be called a kind of Aristotelean essentialism in the description of "song". There is the formal structure of song - the rhythm and harmony and melody - and the material substrate that takes the empty form and makes it what it is. Timbre and voice and pitch and volume fill out the formal structure, which, going back to the Peripatetic, are the constituent elements of all things. I think this kind of essentialism is inescapable due to Moore's two-decade old decision to make the song the locus of consideration for the study of popular music.

Moore is quite clear in R:PT that he is not interested in the creative process that led to the song. He takes a further step in SM, quoting Paul Ricoeur at length on page 10:
What is indeed to be understood - and consequently appropriated - in a text/ Not the intention of the author, which is supposed to be hidden behind the text; not the the historical situation common to the author and his original readers; not the expectations or feelings of these original readers; not even their understanding of themselves and historical and cultural phenomena. What has to be appropriated is the meaning of the text itself, conceived in a dynamic way as the direction of thought opened up by the text. in other words, what has to be appropriated is nothing other than the power o disclosing a world that constitutes the reference of the text. in this way we are as far as possible from the Romanticist ideal of coinciding with a foreign psyche. If we may be said to coincide with anything, it is not the inner life of another ego, but the disclosure of a possible way of looking at things, which is the genuine referential power of the text.
I am somewhat sympathetic to this as an interpretive stance, at least as the second stance. The first stance should consider the text - however that word may be understood; in this case, of course we have the recorded song or "track" that functions as the text - in all its particularity. It is the product of this person or group and not that. This person or these people create the track out of their experience, their understanding of how best to communicate through this track a particular idea or narrative thread. The track first appears in time, along with other tracks, offering to potential listeners a unique possibility for incorporating this song in to their own lifeworld. Once the song has been recorded and made available to the public, it becomes a thing, to be sure, an object for analysis and understanding; these analyses and interpretations then become a part of the track's own life as an on-going part of the larger culture.

Perhaps an example will help. Over the winter, we purchased the Beatles for Rock Band for our home game system. My older daughter, at 14, loves music, but she told me she didn't like playing that particular game because she just doesn't like The Beatles. I have to admit I was shocked; I don't know if I've ever heard anyone ever say such a thing. Yet, she was adamant that the songs just didn't say anything to her. While this might be the case because, at 14, she hasn't been exposed to them as much as I was (my two oldest sisters had enough Beatles music around our house that at 10 and 11 I was listening to their greatest hits LPs over and over again). More to the point, however, their whole aural texture, from rhythm through timbre to the particular lyric concerns just don't resonate with Moriah. As much as it pains me to admit it, The Beatles are, at least for some young people, just no longer meaningful because they are . . . well, they're old.

This is a not-unimportant observation to make. If we take song seriously as a vehicle for shaping our lives, then those songs have to be relevant in some way to the listener. Reifying "song" the way Moore does makes an observation like Moriah's incomprehensible. I think the same kind of reification - or, from another angle, perhaps: positivism (I consider Aristotelean realism and positivism flip-sides of the same coin) - accrues around Moore's discussion of style.

I'm thankful for several matters in his discussion of style, including a history of popular music from a British perspective as well as distinguishing "style" from what he calls "idiolect". In the former case of the historical survey, it was nice to have a corrective to the American-centered histories of rock and pop that abound. Popular music in Britain formed in completely different circumstances, and for all there are affinities and cross-overs, the music is, and continues to be, very different from American music. Idiolect refers to what might be thought the particularities an artist or group brings to crafting tracks. We recognize, say, a song by Tool or James Taylor not only because of the styles but because of the particular approach these artists bring within the markers of the styles within which they work.

At the same time, "styles" are just conventions. I think they have become, in particular in the minds of music company executives and marketers, hardened, unbridgeable categories. In the late 1980's, it became impossible to classify the band Faith No More. They had a heavy metal guitar sound, a bass style brought over from 70's funk, drumming heavily influenced by reggae and dub through a band like Bad Brains, a keyboard player who was classically trained, and a lead singer who alternated between singing, shouting in the style of hardcore punk, and rapping. What, exactly, was Faith No More? Even labeling them "nu-metal", the genre that emerged in the late 1990's with Korn and Limp Bizkit, didn't do them justice precisely because their stew of sonic elements, under the very categories of musicological analysis, rendered them "unclassifiable". While they were, for a while, marketed to the then-large heavy metal audience, it just wasn't sustainable because their music was NOT heavy metal. Unable to put them under any stylistic heading, their output subsequent to their debut The Real Thing, while having a great deal of merit, wasn't classifiable under any style heading precisely as Moore describes. Without the support of their label, they foundered for a while then broke up, without, perhaps, defining their sound more clearly. Precisely because we need to recognize the contingency of style labels, I am personally wary of spending a great deal of time wondering whether a track is heavy metal, progressive metal, symphonic metal, or perhaps progressive death metal (Opeth). How about, "Hey, listen to this really awesome song?"

I agree with Moore that songs are things; if we are going to make the case that music provides meaning for listeners, then we have to have music to provide that meaning. This obvious point is, I think, all too often missed, especially by critics and journalists who are unfamiliar with music qua music, preferring to limit their discussions to matters of personal style and presentation that create an empty space where the song actually is. All the same, I would much prefer a less positivist approach, in which a song becomes a thing detached from the human agency that created it. Music is an artificial medium, and we need to recognize that artificiality for what it is, giving some due to those who produce a particular track. Not pride of place, certainly; all the same, at least a nod in the direction of the conventionality of everything from the analytic categories of musicology through matters of style would, at least for me, be preferable.

One more issue related to this whole matter of the conventionality of musical analysis. After Levitin, it is important to remember that those elements of music that have the most emotional resonance with listeners, namely timbre, pitch, and volume, are not real, inherent qualities of sound. Sound is a physical thing, and one can speak of frequency, to be sure, of sound. While there is a physical effect to extremely loud and low sounds - I will always remember feeling my pants move against my legs to the rhythm of the beat as I stood at a Rush concert - "loudness", "high" versus "low", and "guitar" or "keyboard" are only the ways our brains interpret the sound waves that impact our ears. They are qualities that do not inhere in music itself. Manipulation of these secondary characteristics is an important part of song-construction; accepting them as secondary is important to analysis so we don't go too far in making of these secondary qualities something real in and for themselves.

Finally, a note on the construction of Moore's text. He writes on p. 16 at the close of the first chapter, entitled "Methodology":
[W]ith the proviso that this is a methodology rather than a theory, I believe that what is offered here does have wide applicability, across the whole discursive field that was, is, and for some time will be popular song. While how something operates is dependent on the way the style within which it is couched operates, the rules of such a style are only ever implied and incomplete. This methodology, a process of discovering, can be applied irrespective of style.(italics in original)
What struck me most about this particular line was a previous discussion in which Moore was quite clear there were certain theoretical debts he owed, most especially to Ricoeur, as quoted above.  I believe he is making clear he is not setting out a "theory" of popular music; rather, he is  working within a broad scope defined as "recorded popular song", spanning decades of time and myriad styles, he is demonstrating that analysis can offer up questions that can only be intelligible this way. All the same, it is rather bold to make the case that one is not setting out a theory.

Starting in Chapter 6, Moore moves through a set of interpretive categories, successively "Friction", "Persona", "Reference", and "Belonging". Here, he sets aside his disclaimer that he is just explicating a method and dives, yet again, in to theory. Most helpful was his long discussion on the ineffectiveness of semiotics as an approach for understanding popular song.  Precisely because these categories are contested space, it becomes necessary to make clear how they function as interpretive schema; how they intersect and, perhaps, contradict, thus creating variant meanings. In particular, separating "Persona" from the dual matters of authenticity and intertextuality explored in "Belonging" seems to me a bit of theoretical sleight-of-hand; while perhaps convenient for reasons of explanation, the much-contested matter of authenticity impacts directly on the question of persona in any number of ways, not least the trustworthiness of the persona's voice. While Moore recognizes this, continually cross referencing various passages to make several points across these chapters, it is the return of theory that interests me here. While not arguing with his inclusion of the theoretical sections of these chapters, it might have served his readers to have at least some of these explored, at least tentatively and generally, at the start. Further, had the quoted sentence on page 16 included the qualification that he is offering a methodology of analyzing and a theory of interpretation, would, perhaps have made the sudden appearance of theoretical discussions less surprising.

These, however, are quibbles. This is an important work that offers readers the tools to understand what is going on when they hear a particular track. For all that capitalism reduces music to a product without meaning or purpose, part of the struggle against the totalitarian tendencies of capitalist ideology occurs precisely in music's refusal to be denuded of meaning. In this, it is a glorious testimony to the human refusal to surrender meaning to the demands of the market. For that very reason, making clear for ourselves not only that songs are meaningful, but how they are and why they are, is a necessary task. Moore's work goes a long way in that regard, and I have no doubt will bear much fruit not just within musicology, but in the study of culture in general.

*I am very grateful to Allan F. Moore for sending me a review copy of this book. There is no way a review can do justice to it, and I'm quite sure this has failed.

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