Sunday, February 20, 2011

Frith - Sound Effects

Frith, Simon. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock'n'roll. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.


The essential argument here is (I think) post-Marxist. Frith rejects the arguments that have emphasized the role of the record industry in shaping the rock music market, and position the audience as a mostly powerless mass - rock (particularly pop rock) is designed to be mass market music for an audience whose tastes can be manipulated, as opposed to more niche categories such as classical, folk, and jazz whose audiences can be serviced but not manipulated. Inherent in this distinction is a hierarchical aesthetic classification by music critics. Frith emphasizes the role of the audience in shaping the rise of rock and pop, as well as the role of rock and pop stars as artists within the system.

Key Quote (Final sentence)
"[The history of rock], like the history of America itself, is a history of class struggle - the struggle for fun."

Other key tidbits...
On music...
Frith notes that it is particularly difficult to write about music because the lyrics are only a fraction of the experience. Related is Frith's point that the consumption of music is a very physical sensation (from tapping a toe to dancing in a club).

Critics often forget that music is fun (Frith emphasizes this several times, including in his final sentences). It arose as an industry as a feature of increasing leisure time in advancing industrialzed nations. In a way, rock stars epitomize leisure ideals - they live a life of constant leisure-time and pleasure.

On the music industry...
While rock is consumed by all demographics, its rise is particularly tied to the rise of youth culture, and it remains a youth-driven industry. It is the youth to which the record industry is marketing to and must respond to.

Pop music arose in the 1960s because the music industry began to market for the youth audience, whereas previously it had aimed for the family.

Rock Roots (Chapter 2) - Black music, Country, Folk. Elvis essentially blended black music with country.

On Mass Culture...
Two different approaches...Leavisite literary criticism and Marxist ideological criticism

Leavisite - comparing mass cultural objects by how they are produced and consumed. Concludes that mass music, because it is created to be sold, must be a corruption of the artistic process, is thus inauthentic, and is therefore aesthetically worthless. Rather than dealing with emotion, mass music exploits emotion to sell a product.

Marxism - similar, but emphasizes both the political and the economic processes of capitalism. The ruling class cherishes the use of pop as a means of social control. The culture industry creates and satisfies false needs.

Frith's response - both approaches assume a passivity on the part of the audience. 1960s - youth culture became self-conscious and politically assertive. Rock musicians belonged to this group, thus music was the counter-cultural voice of the movement. Problem then became the loss of authenticity when musicians achieved fame and fortune. By the 1970s, counter-cultural argument lost its force. Rock began to be explained in terms of art rather than community.

Problems for Rock as Art - 1. Rock relies on complex system of production. Critics thus established a rock version of auteur theory which celebrated the individual creator within the system (writer, singer, instrumentalist, band, record producer, or as the mechanical process got more complex the engineer). 2. Rock is entertainment - an easy art, rather than one that makes people work to appreciate it. Listeners began to explore the meanings in music in greater depth.

Meaning of Rock for Frith - Has come out of teenage/college counterculture to a popular culture of "sophisticated, individualistic, suburban and campus youth".

On Youth Culture...
Following Paul Fass (191-2), Frith differentiates between Youth culture of 20s and 60s. Both were centered at the college level. Both saw a sexual revolution. But 20s culture was based on competition, exclusion, conformity - precisely the values 60s purportedly opposed. Also, 1920s was an expression of generational difference NOT hostility. Finally, class relations were reversed; in the 1920s, college fashions influenced working class. In the 1960s, working class influenced college fashions.

The role of Folk music shifted (and reflects the revolutionary shift in youth culture in the 60s). In the 1930s, Woody Guthrie used Folk music to spread a political message - to bring the plight of rural poor to a middle-class audience. In the 1960s, youth culture embraced Folk as a part of their wider embrace of counter-culture, ie adopting working class dress. Folk-rock (Bob Dylan et al) became a means of the youth culture to proclaim their politics, setting themselves in opposition to the "elites"/mainstream adult class.

On Punk...
Highlights, perhaps because it was the most recent rock movement. Punk is realist music. Punk adapted reggae because it emphasized a freedom of musical choice in opposition to the thoughtlessness of rock n roll. Punk existed in the moment for the artist and audience, rather than expressed some prior moment which triggered the long process of creating a song (writing, recording, performing, etc.).

On girls and music...
In contrast to the "cock-rock" of harder bands such as Led Zeppelin which emphasize an explicit expression of male sexuality, female music (teeny-bop) is a more private discourse, meant to be enjoyed in the bedroom of teeny-bop girls (10-13-year-olds), which is their center of culture.

Because this was written in 1981, Frith doesn't foresee the rise of the music video/MTV as a critical form of marketing music, much less the rise of the Internet and related decline in albums.

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