The impulse behind Andrew Chester’s attack on the notion of pop music is correct. ‘The pop critic’s attitude towards the music is generally patronizing in the extreme,’ Indeed. After contumely or scandal, patronage is the entrenched mode of bourgeois consumption of plebeian art. The question arises, however, if it is a Marxist response to this mode merely to invert its terms, and insist on the exclusively musical values of rebaptized ‘rock’, abstracted from the social formations of which they are one of the effects. Chester’s project, in fact, rapidly runs into shoals of contradictions. Rock is advanced as an authentically aesthetic category, capable of evicting the cultural illusions of pop. Yet rock itself is not ‘free from mystification’. Unsurprisingly: for it cannot cover all the phenomena of Chester’s own object. He himself later asks, what are the frontiers between rock, blues and soul? Many of the groups mentioned by him operate in the interstices ‘between’ them. In effect, no concepts for constituting the autonomy of rock as an aesthetic object are provided by Chester, so that his plea for one ultimately becomes a petitio principi. The absolute antinomy between ‘aesthetic’ and ‘cultural’ criticism with which the article begins ends by collapsing into an immediate identity: thus Chester can finally affirm that ‘aesthetics is the politics of art’. The danger of a mechanistic reductionism is exorcized at the front door only to install itself the more firmly by the back door.
What is the preliminary mistake that produces this logic? Confusion of the regional autonomy of the art-object from the other instances within a social formation, with an idealist ‘independence’ of it. An aesthetic and a cultural criticism of contemporary music are complements, not opposites. More than this: a cultural criticism, as I shall try to show, is a condition of possibility of the discovery of the specific novelty of rock/ pop for an aesthetic reflection on it: correctly evoked by Chester in his concluding lines as a music ‘that provides a complex structure of values of a new order to match the revolutionary changes in social relations that are on the agenda in the advanced capitalist countries’.
Let us take, simply for the sake of demonstration, the precisely opposite road to that advocated by Chester. In other words, let us deliberately abstract from the melodic or instrumental quality of these songs as ‘music’ to interrogate their character as ‘popular’. The familiar simplicity of the phrase conceals a quicksand. Who are the people? Here Chester’s formal rejection of the categories of bourgeois criticism is
The rules of politics are here pertinent to art. The ‘people’ (Lenin, Mao) are never a stable category: their identity is mutable and conjunctural, because they are perpetually redefined by the conflict of classes and their culture.footnote1 This should be the ABC of a Marxist critic. Chester’s formula abandons the whole alphabet. In fact, this music is neither exclusively urban, nor necessarily white, and is it never—above all!—asocially ‘youthful’. It is the product of concrete social classes and groups in different social formations, and the history of it over the past ten years is largely that of the permutations and displacements of its locus between all these. Not in spite, but because of these very variations, the ‘people’ who have produced and appropriated this music define and legitimate its character as ‘popular’. The most cursory examination of its evolution since the ’fifties will show this.
The origins of this music in the ’fifties stemmed from the oppressed black population of the United States, South and Border (Charles/Berry), and the rural white poor of the South (Presley)—i.e. three groups very far from Chester’s allusions. It was at this date an exclusively American phenomenon. Outside the usa, everything else was a colonized imitation of it. Then, in the early ’sixties, the take-off of an authentic British popular music, no longer a naturalization or pastiche of American sounds, occurred: it can be dated from 1962, in fact, when the first Beatles numbers hit the charts. Sociologically, the British pop music which was born then represented a wholly new phenomenon. It was the product of a certain economic ‘emancipation’ of urban working-class youth in a social formation overwhelmingly dominated by manual labour (70 per cent of the population), with no rural hinterland: a pattern altogether foreign to the usa. This marked British pop off from its American predecessors from the start. Its artists were in their majority escaped workers or proletarianized petty-bourgeois: it was a national and plebeian not a regional or minority art-form. There is no space here to document all the consequences for its character that derived from this fundamental fact. Suffice it to say that the impetus of this music was generated by the deep spontaneous revolt of working-class youth against British bourgeois society which it articulated (ideologically, hence often involuntarily). The precondition of this revolt was economic: its products were cultural—musical, sartorial, sexual and so on. So much is a truism. Yet these products constituted in the first instance a violent inner reversal of a whole complex of traditional working-class values in Britain—the puritanism and utilitarianism of the national proletariat, that Tom Nairn has called the ‘deadly mediate assimilation’ by the working class of the culture of its oppressors. Today, the fleeting (?)
What has happened since then? Ian Birchall has recently advanced the thesis that the ‘economic crisis began to break down the feeling of security. Unemployment began to creep higher, affecting particularly the youth just leaving school. Wage restraint, price and rent increases, cuts in social services, all meant a steady erosion of living standards’.footnote2 He argues that the renewed ‘insecurity’ of British society rendered the ‘controlled revolt’ of rock increasingly unviable, and hence produced a ‘decline and fall of British rhythm and blues’. This line of argument is evidently reductionist: musical structures become epiphenomena of fluctuations in the economic order. It would be more correct, in my view, to see the causes of the rock crisis within the cultural constellation of which it was from the start an integral part. It was this constellation that had run into its own inherent limits by 1967.
This had nothing to do with any failure: it was its success which checked it. For a certain sexual-cultural emancipation of working-class youth was for most purposes a fait accompli by that date (not universal: but generally available as a possibility). There is nothing surprising in this: bourgeois society had retreated at one level (ideology: family and decency) but recuperated on another (market expansion: mode). Since property and work relations remained unaffected, nothing fundamental had been changed, in the short-term anyway. The radicalism, of the initial revolt thus spent itself swiftly, because of the very attainability of its ostensible targets. Today, its manifest themes have lost their virulence. Banally triumphant, they cease to have any aesthetic charge.