For three years rock music has been considered, both within and outside its socio-cultural base, as a subject for serious critical attention; yet the standard of writing on rock remains poor and the major breakthrough necessary to found a genuine rock aesthetic is still to be accomplished.

The biggest obstacle in the path of rock criticism is the notion of pop. The term is of course British, but the American word rock is not free of the pop mystification. Pop denotes a cultural, not an aesthetic object; the distinctive popular music of white urban youth, North American and British, that has developed in the past 15 years. The acceptance of a cultural definition of the object of criticism leads inevitably to a cultural as opposed to an aesthetic criticism. Musical form and musical practice are studied as an aspect of social relations, and significance is determined by social, not musical, criteria.

The moments of pop are such things as:—the rock idols of the ’fifties, ‘highschool’, ‘folk’, California, Motown, the British groups, acid-rock, underground. Pop criticism is not concerned with a musical appreciation of Presley or Holly, Beach Boys or Byrds, Stones or Beatles, Jefferson Airplane or Moby Grape. Of course the pop critics are lavish with pseudo-aesthetic judgement. But because their basic premise precludes the possibility of an aesthetic based on the specificity of rock as a musical genre, they appraise either on totally extra-musical criteria, or on criteria imported illegitimately from the aesthetics of other musical forms.

The pop critic’s attitude towards the music is generally patronizing in the extreme; pop, and this is precisely why it is of interest, is the simple and vulgar music of the masses, lacking any genuine musical substance. The pop musicians who merit praise are those who attempt in their naïve way to better themselves by learning from ‘serious’ music or from jazz, or who escape from the run of the mill in some non-musical dimension. No pop critic is interested in Dylan as a rock vocalist, even though his stature in this field is now comparable only to Presley; but every pop critic is fascinated by Dylan’s lyrics, now the subject of special university courses in the usa. A whole sub-division of pop criticism has developed to cope with the Beatles, the most interesting object of study since the most consistently popular. It is quite pathetic to read essays by Wilfred Mellers, Ned Rorem or Tony Palmer concerned with comparing the Lennon-McCartney songbook with Schubert or Poulenc, as if work in the genre of ‘song’ could have any aesthetic value in the mid-20th century, and as if such a conception has any place in the rock aesthetic, even for Lennon and McCartney themselves.

British writing remains almost totally dominated by the pop mystification. Two recent all-British works in book form are complementary forms of cultural ctiticism, and exhibit a parochialism and philistinism that is distinctively British. Richard Mabey’s bookfootnote1 is sociological journalism in the New Society/liberal studies vein. To give him his due, Mabey makes it explicit that his book is intended ‘principally for curious adults—parents, teachers, youth leaders—who... are perplexed about the role (pop music) has come to play in young peoples’ lives, and indeed in our society as a whole’footnote2. He is generous enough to admit that ‘it is no longer sufficient to discuss pop purely in terms of its social significance, because it now has, in addition, a quite definable artistic role’,footnote3 but in those sections of his book where he is concerned to discuss ‘the music itself’, he concentrates almost exclusively on the lyrics (understandably, he takes ‘Protest music’ as a case study), and virtually the only specifically musical judgements to be found are in his liberal and largely uncommented quotes from articles by Mellers, Horowitz, Mitchell and other pop critics. Mabey’s personal musical reactions, as to be expected in the absence of any aesthetic framework, are naïvely subjective: (on Hendrix) ‘a slow-blooming, sostenuto top C, knifing its way from a guitar sound system working at a few hundred watts, can have the same effect as a feather brushed gradually up the spine’footnote4.

Nik Cohn’s book can be opposed to Mabey stylistically, but it shares many of the same premises. Pop from the Beginningfootnote5 makes hilarious reading; it is a celebration of pop in an idiom doubtless designed to match Cohn’s musical taste—a grotesque vulgarity sufficiently dated to be quaint. ‘The way I like it, pop is all teenage property and it mirrors everything that happens to teenagers in this time, in this American 20th century. It is about clothes and cars and dancing, it’s about parents and high school and being tied and breaking loose, it is about getting sex and getting rich and getting old, it’s about America, it’s about cities and noise. Get right down to it, it’s all about Coca Cola.’footnote6 The coke parameter adequately maps Cohn’s musical field, and if anything with musical value happens to find itself on the right side of the fence, it’s no fault of his. Highschool is ‘the most POP pop ever’, ‘an exact reflection of what white American middle-class teenagers really liked and dreamed of’footnote7; Spectorsound, California and the early Beatles continue the story, and pop enters its final decline when Cohn’s heroes turn sophisticated and abandon the teenybopper millions to make ‘fine music’. Cohn’s aesthetic is a fairly straightforward musical Powellism, and he waxes as eloquent on the subversion of pop as Powell on that of the British Empire. ‘(The Beatles) have changed. They don’t belong to their own time or place any more, they’ve flown away into limbo. And there are maybe a million acid-heads, pseudo-intellectuals, muddled schoolchildren and generalized freaks who have followed them there, but the mass teen public has been lumbered’footnote8.

Cohn’s vulgarity is of course forced. His book can be seen as an attempt at a pop aesthetic, which explicitly demands the liquidation of autonomous artistic development. Fortunately Cohn’s legions of crew-cut T-shirts have today a very tenuous existence outside his own nostalgic fantasy. Least of all in 1969 could such a book have been written in the usa itself.