TRYING TO TEACH POPULAR MUSIC AS A RESEARCH-LED SUBJECT IN HIGHER EDUCATION: II The Endless Struggle with Indoctrinated Taste: Towards a Pedagogy of Virtuosic Subjectivity

This post is meant to tell a very simple story about how student composers working within a pop medium (what I’ve long bracketed as non-notated composition, performed live and/or studio realized, out of necessity and convenience) perennially find themselves trapped within a bogus dichotomy between what they perceive as the accessible-commercial, popular mainstream and its ‘left-field,’ ‘underground,’ ‘alternative’ (avant garde, experimental) counterpart. A relative majority have tended to gravitate towards the former, while one small minority gravitate towards what that majority perceive as accessible-mainstream (without acknowledging the dichotomy), and another small minority gravitate towards the left-field in apparently express opposition to the perceived ‘commercial’ (thus maintaining the dichotomy). Any would-be composer setting out from such a dichotomy – which, I must repeat, is utterly bogus – is embarking on a pursuit from a false premise whose perceived existence is an illusion symptomatic of what Guy Debord terms ‘spectacular society.’ For those who truly succeed in pop (by which I mean musicians and entertainers whose work transcends the business-moment of its short-term promotion)[1], there is no commercial vs. underground, there is no mainstream vs. alternative; there is just a fascinatingly deep history of great records and great performers (that includes all recorded music, mind you, not least classical), whose provenance is beautifully unpredictable; and they’ll look wherever they can to find music that does the job, regardless of what the corporate industry is gratuitously and mercilessly foisting on the rest of the consumer public at any given time. Thanks to the nature of mass culture, however, and its need to appeal (you can only get so far by pumping cash into lame product), the commercial mainstream not only manages to produce a lot of those great records and performers itself; it’s those great records and performers that play the dominant role in motivating each subsequent generation of artists. Yet, to succeed, composers and performers still need to navigate within that framework without being tricked by the mythic promotional narratives through which the corporate industry reaps its rewards and keeps a firm hold on proceedings. Moreover, in a further twist, the corporate structure relies on precisely the maverick tendency that disavows its values in order to keep refreshing its production line.

The nature of pop and its mechanisms present a fascinating nexus of cyclic loops, multiple contradictions and dialectics. From a pedagogical perspective it’s an incredibly difficult thing to get across, above all because most of the students who sign up for a degree in pop music have long since been sold on the model that the industry instills and they are generally very reluctant to let go of it; a lot of them have also been unfortunate enough to have had their initial impetus to pursue music distortedly shaped according to the clumsy logic of a European classical tradition grotesquely mutated to fit its own misappropriation and misunderstanding of pop.[2]

In Part One of this series, I frequently alluded to the way in which corporate power shapes and directs the course and content of pop music to, essentially, two intertwined ends: to maximize profit; and, as a way of optimizing the conditions for continuing to both maximize profit and secure its gains, by promoting, instilling and reinforcing an ideological framework of which such corporate interests are not only a part, but actually are that framework – our epoque is one wherein the State incontestably and unambiguously represents the interests of multi-national, corporate industry; to all intents and purposes, governments and corporate power are indistinguishable. Put more simply, pop instills and reinforces dominant, ruling ideology; it could even be argued that that is the primary corporate reason for investing in pop, not least given the relatively small returns it yields and how relatively uncertain such investment can be. Even without putting it in such broad-brushed terms, the extent to which music is used as a means of control is far too frequently overlooked or ignored altogether – most people unwittingly collude in the notion that music just grows out of soil manifest in the beings of ‘gifted’ individuals.

Now, I possess no expertise in either politics or economics, and at this stage I can’t afford to pursue an attainment thereof, devoted, as I am, to exploring avenues within music/art practice and musicology (as both researcher and research-led educator, not to mention trying to carry on making art). My knowledge and understanding of how a 21st century corporate-global economy affects our lives and the culture industries we partake in comes from a variety of sources: film/TV documentaries by Adam Curtis, John Pilger, Nick Broomfield and others; editorials in, usually, The Guardian or The Independent; books by Noam Chomsky and others; online sources such as youtube for interviews and web documentaries; novels; and, not insubstantially, my own empirical, critical reflection on daily experience, itself informed by all these things and everything else I (have) experience(d), not least actual musicking. In addition to all that comes a lifetime (well, an ongoing adolescence[3]) of listening to music, making music and reading philosophy; I’ve maintained in class for years that music is philosophical discourse, albeit (if you insist, which I don’t) in the abstract which is to say (and it seems silly to say, since it ought not need be pointed out) that the very substance and material of music, how it’s conceived, crafted and articulated is always doing something, always saying something, it always renders. Over the last two decades my thinking has been influenced by a number of writers and critical commentators such as Nietzsche, Badiou, Benjamin, Sadie Plant, Chantale Mouffe, Nathaniel Mackey, Robert Musil, Ishmael Reed, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin… I’m reeling off a list now, and wondering how much point there is in this laborious self-justification while embarking on Part Two of this series Trying to Teach Popular Music as a Research-Led Subject in Higher Education. Except to say that, at a certain stage of engaging relentlessly in the parallel pursuit of new (great) music and the historical human endeavour to make sense of things, the two things cease to be parallel and become the same thing: listening, again, to different versions of ‘Chasin’ the Trane’ from the Complete Village Vanguard Sessions becomes synonymous with reading, again, ‘One-Way Street.’[4]

The thing is, whenever I stand up in front of a class full of composer-artist-performers, I set out with the base assumption that they must all be au fait with the understanding that what we call mainstream pop is inevitably a standard-bearer and mega-communicator (Debord’s ‘monologue’) for the political, economic and ideological interests of the corporations that invest in and promote it. Surely? Or that they have a fairly good grasp of what Tesco (or any of the supermarket chains that dominate UK retail) stands for, how they make their money, and what they’re actually doing when they offer you two-for-one or loyalty-card air miles, or that their motive for giving you what ‘you want’ or ‘your choice’ isn’t grounded in some wellspring of unlimited, unconditional altruism… Yet so often I’ve tried to set out on a narrative around what pop music is and how they, the students, can try to orient themselves within it, by taking such recognitions as a given, only to be met with facial expressions that betray both doubt and perplexity (expressed on the surprisingly rare occasion with actual questions or challenges). So, year-in, year-out, I’ve found myself having to backtrack and dissect the context in increasingly fine and tangential detail in order to get them to at least see what I mean, let alone actually entertain the notion that I may be right, even though being ‘right’ isn’t what I’m interested in (the absurdity of the situation creates a false polarity) so much as being able to proceed, individually and collectively, with as clear an understanding of what the real conditions are so that we may negotiate, together, a realistic pathway through them.

It still amazes me how successful (and increasingly so, with the passing of time) the music industry has been at instilling a sense that the products it peddles are made of music that just happens to emerge, somehow naturally occurring, like coal or diamonds (‘talent’); that Dark Side of the Moon is merely a great record (which it is[5]) and not also the result of lavish expenditure; or the fact that Roger Waters’s lyrics on that album are a firm espousal of middle-English bourgeois values is just incidental; and that the manner in which its music and sound reinforces a sense of the monetary value of investing in luxury space is an insurmountable condition for creative expression. Dark Side of the Moon is, of course, a ‘great record’ (and for me, personally, was one of those seminal mainstream gateways into music itself), but it oughtn’t be the Rock blueprint it became, nor the industry-institutional standard for Rock music’s production; nor was it healthy for anyone critically or politically switched on to continue luxuriating in its sumptuous opulence without acknowledging its place in the wider socio-economic scheme of things (what it’s meant to be), which is to say without factoring in that for the vast majority of the millions who bought it, and loved it, it was a source of relief from the imperative to fear, doubt or question one’s participation in, and contribution to, mass human misery. Among so many more things, yet fundamental, for emerging composers to understand, Dark Side of the Moon’s greatest legacy was to establish a template for a music product that, today, is synonymous with the leather-upholstered SUV with all mod cons; what I mean by this is that the manner in which products made on that template are produced reinforces a sense of financial and professional inaccessibility to its mechanisms (you have to achieve a recognized standard and you have to spend a sizeable sum of money), while it sells its consumer a luxurious sound-space experience that feels comfortable, propserous and justifiable, enhanced by lyrical content that soothes, smoothes, unpins and obscures. It’s subtler, though, than that: one of the magic ingredients of the bourgeois-imperialist order is that enough of those oppressed and exploited within it are disinclined to make a serious attempt to overthrow it because while it rules there remains that slim chance that they, as individuals, could themsleves rise to the top of it – the American Dream is the most fulsome manifestation of that magic-logic: the Dark Side of the Moon blueprint reaffirms affluence while simultaneously goading prosperity and self-interested hope.

Above all, it’s crucial for anyone taking contemporary composition seriously (which is to say they aspire to be taken seriously) to extricate themselves as rapidly as possible from the psychological tangle that market-driven consumer taste instills in regular folk; at the same time it’s equally crucial that they retain an ability to genuinely enjoy records made to be enjoyed (which counts for just about every ‘mainstream,’ ‘commercial’ release, if not all music[6]) even when they critically acknowledge that it’s either ‘bad’[7] or that its raison d’être is suspect or derisible (which generally means appealing to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of maximum profit[8]). To become a producer (in the broader sense) you have to both disentangle yourself from the manipulative forces of consumerism, while preserving your capacity to be wooed by its wares… It is very difficult, much harder than one might assume – a challenge certainly worthy of HE scholarship. As a student, I was initially utterly perplexed when I first read the transcript which appears in Cornelius Cardew’s polemic Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, of a talk John Tilbury gave for BBC Radio 3 before a broadcast of a concert performance he gave of John Cage’s Music of Changes whose bourgeois-imperialist origin and orientation he damningly critiques from a (then) Maoist perspective:

… there is no such thing as an artistic conscience which is not governed by world outlook. In a class society such as our own an artist observes, selects, refines, in short, creates not simply according to his own needs, but, more importantly, to the needs of a particular class – the musical ideas which created the Music of Changes are necessarily ideo- logically rooted and it is only within the context of ideology that the question of the true nature of a work of art can be meaningfully answered.


The Music of Changes [is] a pianistic masterpiece rooted in bourgeois individualism, anarchism and reformism. And what is its value? To the working and oppressed people it has no value, it bears no relation to their life. Its value is to the ruling class, it serves the stability of that class and is a weapon in their fight against revolution. Its value, therefore, is its counter-revolutionary value to the status quo, to imperialism; this, in the last analysis, is its true nature.[9]

I admit that at the time I was a little shocked… How could this mild-mannered, congenial and humorous man (who, as my piano teacher at Goldsmiths provided my first introduction to the music of Morton Feldman’s music, along with that of Cage’s New York School circle, like Christian Wolff, as well as the circle of composers associated with Cornelius Cardew, such as Howard Skempton, Dave Smith and John White) completely undermine a piece of music before performing it as convincingly and as faithfully (as truly-to-itself) as possible? Back then, it never occurred to me that one could value or respect something musically, even really like something and care about it artistically and aesthetically, while being critically aware of its flaws, or even the manipulative evils of its ideological-political bearing. As a world-renowned interpreter of New York School piano music, Tilbury has continued to perform that music all over the planet in the decades since.[10] One of the few truly great moments in my ill-fated single-year sojourn at Goldsmiths was being invited, along with a handful of his other students (in all, five or six of us) in 1988, to listen to him play through Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus (then a fairly new work) before he was to play it at (as I recall it) a ‘Marxist-feminist conference in Italy.’[11] Afterwards, he joked (as I paraphrase it from memory), ‘if they knew what Feldman’s politics really were they’d have me thrown out the window!’ What I remember especially of that performance was how Tilbury’s manner was so utterly devoid of the gestural rhetoric so typical of concert pianists who so often seem to make every demonstrative effort to underline the professional rigour of their virtuosic merit through facial expressions, muscular tensions and an often overbearing anality.[12] Obviously such histrionics are very often natural and intuitive (I guess…); but in so many cases they’re wholly contrived.

A further twist on this subjective-taste-consumer schematic was provided by my PhD supervisor, Bill Brooks, when he said at his inaugural postgraduate composers’ seminar at York that he was seldom ever interested in a piece of new music unless he initially found it irritating; the suggestion was that the origin of such irritation surely reveals a flaw in his critical receptivity, emerging from some possible shortcoming in his capacity to hear what the music was doing, or communicating, and that it required a certain virtuosity of listening to arrive at some viable understanding of the piece, regardless of whether it turned out to be any ‘good’ in the end. For me, the natural consequence of this train of thought is learning to assess the merits of a given piece of music initially according to the terms of its own frame of reference, then according to the extent to which it succeeds in arresting an audience’s indifference. What we call ‘commercial pop,’ designed, above all, to appeal to as many consumers as possible, has to be judged on those terms – in fact, regardless of an artist’s original or true intention, the effect a piece has on its audience becomes an irreducible element in its defining character.

Brooks’ attitude actually suggests a deeper tendency that responds to new, unexpected and potentially contradictory-antagonistic pronouncements, emanations, and positions by allowing their logic to (at least transitorily) persuade, so that one understands its logic from the inside. Kind of an internalized game that says ‘what if they were right…?’ There’s a very simple reason why this is a much more useful way to behave: in a population of over 7 billion, the world and its actions, ideas and excitements will be racing beyond you, all the time, to an infinite extent: what you, as an individual, like all individuals with our crude limitations, are able to understand of the world at any given moment is utterly bound to be hopelessly, even insurmountably, limited. The only hope is to see and hear what the world is, what it is being, what it’s saying, and try, from each fractional moment to moment, to formulate positions based on what you’ve grasped so far and as much of what you can cope with from the wildly esemplastic, endlessly multifarious now. In an attempt to use this paragraph to mete out some practical advice, I’ll say this: try and spend as little time as possible (once you realize you’re in their company) arguing with people whose position is immovable (devoid of questioning) because what they’re bringing to the table is a neatly wrapped box of treasured findings whose interest for them has always been their capacity to reassure and reaffirm tenets they cling to out of fear. Fear of what need not concern you; generally one must imagine it will likely be fear of failure, fear of being ‘wrong,’ or fear of being exposed as inadequate or unqualified or some other such bullshit. But if you’re reading this and you fully understand what I mean, then you’re already someone who has long since not given a fuck about ‘looking like a dick’ or being seen to fail anyway. In the introduction to her Routledge guide to Deleuze, Claire Colebrook relates how the philosopher couldn’t bear to sit at a table in a café or restaurant if it was next to one where two or more people were having an argument between opinions[13]; most of us will have had someone say to us, at least once in our lives, ‘well, that’s just your opinion’ – the brilliantly unwitting tragedy of that reasoning is that it automatically cancels out the opinion of whoever says it. As Method Man, Charles Bukowski and countless others have enjoyed telling us over the years, opinions are like assholes; ‘everybody gotta have one.’ It’s a dictum whose accumulated triteness obscures its cutting pertinence: opinions really are like arse holes because both produce waste matter… Except of course that’s unfair to both anuses and shit, since they both serve innumerably more useful purposes than opinions ever could. None of which should confuse ‘opinion’ with Hegel’s category ‘understanding,’ denoting a point-arrived-at which will hold the weight of our pursuit long enough for us to cleave its immanent dialectic, and thus move forward.

As a quick aside, I should expressly banish from my argument, right now, what has become a popular apologism known as ‘guilty pleasure,’ a consumer valve that pretends there’s ever anything to be guilty about in enjoying music while reinforcing a sense that what we should properly like ought to be indissociable from our ideological outlook. Nor is it about addressing some balance between subjectivity and objectivity. I don’t recognize any true capacity in humans to be objective, trapped as our consciousnesses are inside such crude cranial caskets, at the unreliable mercy of our five means of sensory perception and what ‘learning’ we can store; while subjectivity, insanely complex, is far too commonly hijacked by the exponentially sophisticated mechanisms of spectacular culture, trying to get people to even begin to entertain the idea that they are likely to have played little, if any, autonomous part in forming their own ‘taste’ – that they ever had much control over what they ‘like’ – is virtually impossible. It seems obvious to the point of simplistic to even bother devoting any space to the observation here, except, again, I need to keep reminding myself (and the reader) that in my experience trying to proceed from all this as a given is virtually impossible.

Taste is a core contrivance of consumer marketing; talent is a cultural myth. The whole purpose of trying breach the gap between what we like to listen to and what our critical faculty elevates or denigrates according to ideologically forged criteria is, above all, to blow open the territory of pop music production, by definition commercial (whether corporate backed or DIY self-organized ‘subculture’) in order to be liberated from completely bogus parameters that restrict, reduce and demean artistic endeavour. Ultimately, in trying to teach composition to students at any level of the ‘learning’ process, my prime concern has been to illustrate as fully as possible the extent to which they have thus far been taught to close down avenues of creative potential, rather than to recognize that, when an artist stands on the threshold of producing any kind of work at all, absolutely anything is possible; the only thing constricting an artist’s potential is, in theory, the measure by which they impede the flow of their own ideas, and such impediments are manifest as a result of constant interference from the myriad micro-authorities that tamper with our daily experience of the world and all the other people in it.

What I need to do at this stage is provide a reasonably sound illustration of the bizarre context that consumer ‘taste’ precipitates among a fairly sizeable proportion of would-be and emerging composers. There are complexities that cannot be untangled here, which have to do with the ways in which styles, traditions and subgenres are manifest as myriad subcategories of pop music as a whole, functioning on multiple points on the spectrum between the extreme ends of ‘mainstream’ and ‘underground.’ For all manner of different reasons, the vast majority of musicians identify with a particular style or aesthetic subcategory of pop. It’s pretty obvious to observe that this has a lot, if not everything, to do with identity formation and the diverse ways in which distinct identity groups are authored and nurtured from within spectacular culture. So, nowadays, supposedly ‘outsider’ or countercultural subgenres are as much a part of corporate industry’s investment in malleable identity as the more visible, highstreet affiliated big screens. There are, though, zones of pop music productivity that function outside of such a variegated, subdivided infrastructure, and I will come onto those at a later stage.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that generic subcategorization is a ‘bad thing’; more often than not subcategories provide a very useful cultural framework for musicians to establish themselves through and within. Moreover, there’s nothing to suggest that any musician need ever necessarily become a defector from whatever scene they start out from – tradition is a very powerful thing, and defining one’s self within a tradition’s strict borders is among the toughest challenges, yet most rewarding, in art – almost as tough as the ultra-commercial imperative to craft a commodity that millions want to buy. But far too often, and wholly unnecessarily, musicians get trapped within paradigms for no other reason than their having never been encouraged to consider the limitlessness of expressive, creative potential. Working within the protocols of a given style is the most widely pursued approach, and there is nothing wrong with that at all; but it’s amazing the degree to which certain styles are prioritized at the expense, or complete ignorance, of others – indeed, at the expense of other styles and scenes that have a much greater contemporary relevance than those pedagogically selected for attention. Consider for a moment the perceptibly vast and established history and culture of Hip Hop that gets taken as a foundational and ongoing given in the 2015 hit movie, Dope: three key characters discuss the culture from separate, no less learnèd perspectives: the film’s protagonist, Malcolm, is a self-styled scholar and aficionado of 1990s Rap; his ’hood’s principle player-dealer (played by A$AP Rocky) takes a historically broad, contemporarily savvy perspective on a discuss of the music early on; while towards the latter part of the film, Malcolm expressly disavows the older-generation, semi-legit, respectable druglord (played by the enigmatic Roger Guenveur Smith) of his presumptions of contemporary Rap in relation to an orthodox Old Skool. Absolutely none of what the three characters discuss will have ever made it onto any school music curriculum (except for the odd patronizing, hermeneutic misrepresentation that seeks to justify and assimilate it with European ‘standards’), and yet they’re talking about music that has dominated the choices of a majority of global music fans for decades.

One of the main reasons for this ongoing inconsistency within music pedagogy and scholarship (setting aside historic issues of race and imperialism) is that the vast majority of people at the centre of significant new developments, those who are relevant, have developed their sound and style completely independently of any formal, conventional learning, creating the bizarre situation that HE pop music educators face wherein a significant proportion of students who sign up for a pop degree are those unwittingly caught in a no-man’s-land between what’s really happening in music and arbitrary frameworks of musical formalism derived from the archaic protocols of the European classical tradition. Too often it’s the ones who’ve been duped early on (instrument lessons during formative years) who wind up even enlisting. None of which is to ever suggest that registering for an HE pop degree is a bad idea; quite the contrary – but in trying to teach them, educators have to provide a realistic framework that genuinely reflects as closely as possible where the culture has reached and where it’s heading; lamentably, that’s not generally the case.

Another unquestioned regime is that which teaches epigonality – diligently following the example of established figures. Under the European classical model, this approach can be seen to make a certain kind of sense, given that a substantial proportion of the canon will have been subject to generations of scholarship and analysis, scrutinizing perceived masterpieces, endlessly reassessing the merits of Beethoven String Quartets, Wagner’s music theatre, Stravinsky’s stylistic shifts etc. But with pop, the tradition, as such, is, on the one hand ebulliently and exponentially contemporary, and on the other so manifestly subject to corporate investment and marketing that a very unreliable and distorted view of what any equivalent ‘masterpieces’ are, by whom and according to what criteria. The most obvious reason for not teaching epigonality in pop is that the practice of imitating the material style and substance of what’s already firmly established through proven industrial success is a mean trick to play on pupils and students; people graft tirelessly to perfect their rendition of songs by bands from the 70s and 80s, paying lip service to their elevated place in an often bogus hierarchy, devoting hours to mastering something whose relevance (such as it might have been) has long since come to pass. Furthermore, using a canon of corporate Rock classics as a curriculum manages to overlook the fact that when they were originally made, they needed to be ‘new’ music as per their purpose within the industry they were crafted for; the only viable way to conceive of a pedagogic framework for such an environment would be to assess a student musician’s ability to do the same.

Now, of course, music hopefuls all round the world have dreams and desires of emulating the heroes that inhabit their private experience (usually) courtesy of multinational corporate promotion, and a huge amount of them will never get anywhere for many more varied and complicated reasons than the fact that what they dream of has already come to pass. However, they’ll also far too often get nowhere because a) no one has bothered to point out the absurdity of disproportionately lauding such dull and unimaginative (‘simple and plain’[14]) human specimens as Bono, Chris Martin or Hetfield/Ulrich, and b) because the way in which the spectacle works is to forge paradigms out of promoted commodities in order to reinforce a justification of their perceived value and secure for future efforts the territory upon which any success was won. Among many other things, out of this comes the ridiculous pantomime that perennially surrounds the New Album by any one of an increasing amount of past-it white men who incredibly don’t seem to have moved on creatively (or imaginatively) from what they were trying to do in their teens and early twenties. I always loved AC/DC; but in the 1970s when I was originally one of their fans as they emerged from a hard-gigging underground to mainstream success, Angus Young was apparently a vital human being whose passion for John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins translated convincingly into a distinctive expression of white working-class experience (in Melbourne or Glasgow and beyond), molded into a sound whose frankness, wit and raw instrumental urgency carved a space which disavowed the affluent hubris of corporate Rock while avoiding the facetiousness that defined the caricature of DIY that the music industry hastily foiled Punk as with great success. What starts out as an exciting and relevant response to music born of a particular historical, socio-economic and racial experience in the United States, becomes a depressing affirmation of the nihilist fixity that characterizes dominant Europeanism: they found a product that worked, corporate business invested in it, and thereafter, instead of remaining people who were excited and motivated by what people could do, and be in the world as a response to it, their efforts were rigidly focused on reliably (‘professionally’) delivering the same commodity, decade-in, decade-out, in a trajectory marked only by an increasingly savvy trade cynicism.[15] Are we to concede that an Angus in his late 50s has really nurtured no evolving, incremental, keening interest in music since Back In Black?

But there again, I wouldn’t want to be seen to advocate that a group or an artist cant keep trying to pursue and perfect the same vision, which has historically shown to be as earnest an approach to art as any other; but more often than not, rigorously remaining focused on a specific trajectory (in the manner of Badiou’s ‘evental site’) has been marked by a tendency for the work to sometimes significantly change and its forms to mutate: an extreme example would be John Coltrane, whose steep incline from Giant Steps to Ascension and the work with his final (post-quartet) group could, despite its apparently dramatic shifts, be seen to remain true to some intangible pursuit of an unattainable absolute in Coltrane’s spirit. A less extreme, though no less poignant, example, would be Joseph Haydn’s lifelong devotion to the string quartet, through which the most intricate details of his creative insight can be seen to have grown and flourished against a backdrop of more prominent works such as the symphonies and the late, great masses.

Returning to the sphere I set out from, the kind of commitment to material and form displayed in the Haydn quartets is no less characteristic of Slayer’s unfolding output since their inception, despite many passing, surface similarities to the monster commodity Metallica. Among many other subtle differences, it is that consistency of vision that sets Slayer apart, a vision that is, in part, characterized by a certain ironic distance from the material content of the music, the violence, angst and aggression is played out much more cartoon-comic style. This is what allows Tom Araya to chant ‘God hates us all!’ with such relish despite his avowedly devout Catholic faith; it’s also why we never witnessed, and never will, in Slayer, the disintegration of aesthetic focus heralded by Hetfield’s sudden plunge into facile introspection with the lyrics, ‘Never opened myself this way…’[16] (‘integrity’ is one of those bogus attributes unduly valued by bourgeois culture). As a consequence, compare the kinds of billing and kinds of festival-show each band is now most likely to perform: in May 2012, Slayer were invited to headline an All Tomorrow’s Parties weekender at London’s Alexandra Palace co-curated by the band Mogwai; the remainder of the bill (typically diverse and contemporarily relevant for ATP) featured only 3 or 4 other acts you could associate with any Metal subgenre. In 2013 Metallica played an awkwardly self-conscious headline set that foregrounded their peripherally seminal early material on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, greeted with mild controversy, but hailed by a Guardian-reader public as some kind of magnanimous embrace of Heavy Metal by the discerning mainstream. I thought it was awful and embarrassing, albeit entirely apt for the context and setting; I wrote a review of it for the old ICMUS Hub which I may post on here some time if it feels worthwhile doing so.

Just to once more remind the reader, none of this is about my taste, my rules, my opinions. For what it’s worth, I bought Metallica when it came out, listened to it a lot and liked it. But in my teaching job at the time, suddenly it was the 8- and 9-year-olds who were into it and wanting to learn ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’ (the easiest ever intro to teach a beginner). In one respect that was great because the more engaged and interested pupils would then go out and look for the earlier records, which in turn could then lead them to Exodus, Suicidal Tendencies, Pantera, Sepultura and who knows what else. Above all it clearly reflected the agenda of those who were marketing it (with the wholehearted collusion of the band themselves): make more money, expand the market younger. It worked, but the price they pay is that their legacy bears none of the influence Slayer can be seen to have had, which extends very broadly – Drum & Bass, Free Jazz, various hardcores and numerous avowedly countercultural subgenres (or even relatively mainstream acts like Mogwai). To view Slayer now, they still come across as artists – including in the replacement of the late Jeff Hannemann with Gary Holt, significantly not a session musician or some guitarist nerd from a younger generation of fans[17] – while Metallica remain just blokes.

Bloke Rock covers a large proportion of predominantly white male, middle-aged acts whose careers are increasingly steroid-pumped by corporate investment. The absurdity that they occupy a zone of creativity that is somehow to be taken more seriously than, say, Miley Cyrus or Britney Spiers, in what the pop meritocracy allows, betrays a deeply entrenched conservatism that pervades established commercial music; and, worse still, the absurdity that it dominates how pop music is taught, amazing and depressing in equal measure, presents major problems for academics seeking to establish pop as a viable HE subject area. On what grounds are they prioritized? Presumably because they can be seen to be working ‘hard’ to make their own (limited and puerile) models: Metallica and Coldplay are like Good Husbands who are handy round the house, always able to fix the washing machine or tinkering away over some hobby-project in the garage (model railway, vintage car etc.), handy with the barbecue – the bulk of their output is commensurately mundane. And I wouldn’t want to let my ‘Good Husband’ tag not stick to the likes of James Hetfield simply because he’s had a candidly documented battle with drugs and alcohol; such embellishments lace the sauce like a dash of cayenne or the odd raw chilli – they make an otherwise morbidly quotidian tale marginally more spicy, quite apart from the fact that his personal crisis can always be exploited by his investors as a handy parable about ‘overcoming demons’ and, ultimately, renouncing deviance and daring of any kind on the understanding that one can only come a cropper.

Guy Debord’s analysis deftly articulates the amplified ordinariness in how celebrity is crafted in order that people might identify with key figures within their sphere of interest while guaranteeing that no sense of autonomous agency or self-definition is inspired:

Stars — spectacular representations of living human beings — project this general banality into images of permitted roles. As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations that they actually live. The function of these celebrities is to act out various lifestyles or sociopolitical viewpoints in a full, totally free manner. They embody the inaccessible results of social labor by dramatizing the by-products of that labor which are magically projected above it as its ultimate goals: power and vacations — the decision making and consumption that are at the beginning and the end of a process that is never questioned.[18]

Debord touches on a common willingness to identify with composite constructs of personality designed to market and manipulate in equal measure. The tenor of his critique is negative for obvious reasons, in keeping with the entire project of the Situationist International. Yet, while the issue of the ‘never questioned’ is central to my position, it is crucial that we acknowledge how the cultural products in which the spectacle is manifest inevitably become part of the soil from which any new agency might grow; for just about every potential musician or artist, the starting point is the materiality of the spectacle itself (like those 8- and 9-year-olds who could gravitate from Metallica to Exodus, to Wolf Eyes to Moondog to Diamanda Galás to Varèse etc.). During the formative process set in motion by a first encounter with music (or more truly the gradual absorption of it from a formative environment) people apply an intuitive intelligence to incorporating its meaning and materiality; so long as they’re, then, not meddled with by institutional regulation and reductionism, they have a realistic chance of making something socially and culturally worthwhile from it. This is why the most important and influential innovators in pop emanate from proletarian, under-resourced and neglected settings – they’ve been left alone, beyond the mercifully cynical reach of institutional hampering, often to forge their own agency out of raw necessity. LA rapper Vince Staples describes this scenario perfectly in a remarkable interview he gave Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad for their NPR show, Microphone Check:

At a very young age, I could look at people and tell that everyone was, in a sense, worthless in their own mind. And you couldn’t trust anyone. No one was good. My mom wasn’t good. My dad wasn’t good. My grandmother wasn’t good. My grandfather was good to me, but if you ask around, he done some stuff. No one’s good or bad. And then I understood it was a trick. I knew we was being fucking tricked. At a young age.[19]

I have a six-year-old great-nephew who seems to have been switched onto music from a very young age. He sings incessantly and remembers the words to everything; when he gets around any musical instrument (even just a pair of drumsticks) he becomes animated in a way that can only be a result of how music (pop) is woven into the daily fabric of regular (and regulated) entertainment (including, I’m guessing, flicking between music video channels on digital TV) – as far as I’m aware he’s never been exposed to anything musical beyond what the spectacle provides. The fervor of his animation around anything music-related is remarkable, though, and reveals what I myself can remember being inspired by: despite the level of sanitization, dilution and reductionism required to render ‘manufactured’ chart music palatable on a mass scale, it must retain a fairly substantial element of the kind spontaneous energy and urgency redolent of improvised social engagement and performance (the centrality of improvisation to pop’s antecedents in both folk and blues is too often overlooked). He’s obsessed with Ed Sheeran; at his age I was into the Osmonds… A year later I became obsessed with my sister’s Pink Floyd LP, Dark Side of the Moon, which became my jump-off point into a far more exciting and precarious musical discovery.

The point is that the corporate-invested mainstream will always be the most likely entry point for most musicians, no less so for those whose imagination and adventurousness are subsequently allowed to run free – the result usually being a career in what most people are given to view as the ‘leftfield.’ As I indicated above, in the case of those conservative students whose stated intent to produce ‘mainstream, commercial’ music, their attitude towards chart pop is even more scornful than it is to the supposed ‘avant garde.’ Such a paradox is symptomatic of the overbearing indoctrination they’ve been subjected to by either established, official music pedagogy and by a dominant-ideology laden music industry that promotes a kind of vacuous white-male, Protestant rock-band hierarchy as the arena for ‘serious’ musicians. According to this imposed schematic, chart music is trivial and shallow. It’s crucial, in trying to teach pop, to fully embrace all its elements in order to be able to work realistically with what gets handed (well, rammed) down (people’s throats). Much as we may hate the extent to which pop and rock are ‘manufactured’ by corporations, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid their material ubiquity and the effect that has on daily life; corporate pop is daily life.

Ultimately the trick is to rid one’s self of the framework of prejudices and protocols with which the popular media and music curricula have so successfully petrified and putrefied musical experience. The long-standing success of such interference and dominance can be put down to the same methods with which MacDonalds make their Big Mac so irresistible: a cunning balance of excess sugar and salt, which in music is manifest in the sweetness of pop’s sensual-emotional appeal and the salt of the assumed seriousness of professionalism, seemingly essential because it’s good for you…

Expressly commercial pop deals in what Peter Sloterdijk terms ‘invasive sensualities,’ an irresistible sweetness that actually penetrates the subject in order to take control of it:

The most basic luxury food is suitable to convince me that an incorporated object, far from coming unambiguously under my control, can take possession of me and dictate its topic to me. If a banal case of sugar consumption already hollows out the subject through the flaring up of an aroma presence, however, and makes it the scene of invasive sensualities, what is to become of the subject’s conviction that its destiny is self-determination on all fronts? What remains of the dream of human autonomy once the subject has experienced itself as a penetrable hollow body?[20]

Rather than warding us off commodities designed to lure us into a specific programme, resulting in further elitism, an observation like this should better equip us to handle forces bent on exploitation that seek to entice us through pleasures, desires and anxieties. Composers setting out to find a viable space within the broader context can’t afford to restrict themselves to narrow aesthetics and hierarchies; they need to be able to accommodate the reality of invasive sensualities so as to be able to control them and redeploy their energies productively, not just for their own personal, material gain, but in order to help expand the social-collective capacity for meaningful agency.

Picking up the tenor of the Sloterdijk quote, centred around an apparent assumption that everyone ought to be aware of ‘the subject’s conviction that its destiny is self-determination on all fronts,’ there’s surely no need to acquiesce to the grotesque ‘being for others’ that the corporate-institutional model so overwhelmingly insists on and implants. And yet it’s pop, more so than almost all other element among mass media, that so effectively instills such acquiescence. Music is the site of almighty struggle for power and control over individual thought. As Badiou suggests,

[The world of merchandising] is an anarchy of more or less regulated, more or less coded fluxes […] thought at least must be able to extract itself from this circulation and take possession of itself once again as something other than an object of circulation.[21]

Badiou advocates reclaiming control of one’s own capacity to think autonomously as a vital matter of general principle. In the case of those who are seeking to contribute actively to the cultural framework of ‘more or less regulated, more or less coded fluxes,’ the imperative becomes a matter of urgency, for the benefit, above all, of the composers themselves. For me, teaching composition has always been about removing impediments rather than increasing them for those pursuing an advancement of their expressive-creative potential. In order for this to be possible, a wholesale questioning and dismantling of everything taught and sold to date is unavoidable; the biggest challenge should be to see how far back in the process of a lifetime of interference and indoctrination the emerging composer is prepared to go.

So, if you’re ‘teaching’ pop as a creative discipline, what do you replace bogus protocols and hierarchies with? Well, the priority becomes listening, and developing the instrumental virtuosity in listening I suggested earlier. Listen to anything and everything with an ear that learns to hear what the music is saying (in an abstracted, aesthetic sense, not translating it into inadequate verbal pronouncements) and doing (to yourself and others); and a critical faculty that, on the one hand respects all artists’ motivations no matter how foreign, shallow or trivial they may seem to the identity-set you’ve found yourself caught up in and settled into, and on the other hand maintains a clear sense of who funded a recording’s production and distribution and what, besides money, their interest was in it (and if it is just money, then that needs to be clear, although that’s rare and actually has tended to produce some bizarre results[22]). If you have the time, motivation and inclination to learn Western notation and harmony, it may be useful (it is, after all, just a technology, like Ableton Live or analogue multitracking, one which presents certain, distinct possibilities), but it’s not essential or important, and it’s definitely not an orthodoxy or a mandatory drill; indeed, given the urgency of the situation, it may be crucial to proceed with an overt disregard for it. Above all, remember what it is, and has been, politically and ideologically, and make sure you’re in control of its place in your own scheme, i.e. that it can in no way take the form of a predominant rule system, and that it isn’t being imposed on you from some ulterior authority.

After the immersive listening comes the doing and the making and this should be a daily operation[23]; by making something new everyday, a reliance on authority and prescription begins to dissipate. The most important thing to remember is that through as total an immersion in music as possible, making new material constantly allows your own actions to become part of the same dialogic flow in what you’re listening to – it becomes part of the same thing to the point where your unconscious drive to create becomes a (first internal, then externalized) discussion with everything else that’s happening (including all the perpetual happening of what’s gone before – historical chronology became irrelevant with the inception of the record industry).

To conclude, then: while my main intention here has been to relate some of the more problematic conditions of trying to teach pop music as a higher education practical discipline, negotiating the tricky bridge between damning the provenance of mainstream, corporate pop and Rock, while simultaneously advocating not only an accommodation of its material content but also an embrace and absorption thereof, ultimately it would be far simpler to say that the best artist-musicians will always have one thing in common: a passion for finding great records and a passion for making them. In the end, whether we’re talking about the most austere noise music or chart-oriented pop, it has to be good if it’s to stand a chance of rising above the surface of a churning industrial morass, and staying above it. So how do you tell what’s ‘good’ and what’s not? Absurdly, that’s what I’ll be taking on in Part III.

Finally, I feel kind of annoyed to have felt it necessary to make some of the points contained in this post. When I started at Newcastle in 2004, I not only didn’t realize that so much pop music teaching was so narrow and backward-looking, but I’d also never have guessed that a decade or so down the line things would be utterly unchanged, if not worse. At that time, Trevor Wishart’s excellent formulations (originally published in 1985) on how recording and computer technologies had significantly altered the landscape for artists working in the media of music and sound, seemed like old hat – for the staff and students I was working with, their familiarity with (and acceptance of) the analysis set out in On Sonic Art was taken as a given. In writing this, I quickly opened an old Word doc of quotes I copied out while studying for my PhD; here’s a casually grabbed selection of examples that more than adequately reinforce what I’m saying:

The principle point I am going to develop is that the priorities of notation do not merely reflect musical priorities – they actually create them. […] What I am looking for are experientially viable criteria for making music. A preoccupation with conventional notation can lead us into formalism, a situation where there is no longer any experiential verification of our theories about how to compose music. (p. 11)

It is music’s intrinsic irrefutability, its going behind the back of language, which has caused it to be viewed with so much suspicion and disdain by the guardians of socially-approved order. (p. 17)

The conception of music as consisting of fixed-pitch, fixed-timbre entities called ‘notes’ is extremely persistent. It even imposes conceptual limitations upon the design of digital musical instruments (where such traditional conceptions are no longer necessary). (p. 25)

… the codification of motivic practice, starting first with neumic notation, is part of a certain puritan thrust apparent in Western civilization! (p. 112)[24]

What I’ve written here is a report rather than the articulation of a specific argument or position. I have what I consider far more interesting things to say (and I will be saying them). I’m not overly enthusiastic about getting bogged down in issues of how pop music is actually taught at university; but the current situation in the main is so dire, I genuinely wonder where an advancement can come from. This is partly because most of the hundreds of thousands of people involved in music who already do know, and for whom the ideas in On Sonic Art are not only old hat but don’t even need pointing out, the idea of even bothering with pop within an HE music department is utterly irrelevant. In which case, you may well ask, what am I doing in music academia? Naivety takes a long time to cure, I suppose. Except I would revisit what I said in Part I: around 10% of each year group comprises musicians already switched on, clued up and who are already good; another 10-20% have genuine potential and are ready and willing to be rescued from the constrictions previously imposed by the media, school and tutoring (often this comes from a restless intuition that there must be more to all this); the remaining ca. 70% are too preoccupied with the institutional procedure of getting good marks and a good degree result to be sufficiently swayed towards making half decent music. Over the years I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to teach and collaborate with some really amazing artists, so I’m a long way from personally complaining about any of this. In addition, there are other departments that have successfully moved far beyond the sorts of constraints I’m talking about, and there are many great people at various different points in an academic career, around the world, to connect with and develop exciting ideas and projects with. But the fact remains that, as a sector, we’re still woefully behind the game.

Addendum concerning some responses to Part I

In Part I of this series, in relation to the ethics of teaching pop music at HE, I suggested that ‘it is the duty of those who are engaged to teach [students who register for a pop degree] to try and make it worth their while, to deliver a degree that is as intellectually and professionally commensurate with, first of all, other Humanities subjects, but also with those in the sciences, engineering and so on.’ I shouldn’t need to extend that – but for the purposes of driving the point home I feel compelled to – by saying that such an undertaking absolutely requires that those teaching it should really know their subject very thoroughly indeed (as per being commensurate with other, unrelated, yet broadly comparable, disciplines). In the light of the kinds of narrownesses and limited thinking I’ve written about here, in Part II, one finds more often than not that pop degrees are being taught by people who a) subjectively, substantially, favour a particular style, attitude and aesthetic over others; and b) in tending to unquestioningly apply the logic of a Europeanist musical perspective, they don’t even manage to get a decent grasp of their own preferred style and aesthetic. As one of my PhD students said to me recently, ‘they don’t even like pop…’ To which I would add, they’re just the same as all commodity-culture consumers: they’re fans and they have favourites. And I’m afraid that’s useless in a Higher Education context.

I also stressed the unifying principle of new knowledge across all HE subjects and disciplines. It seems blatantly obvious to me that applying and grafting on systems and structures from an established historical tradition (i.e. the European Classical tradition, which has little direct connection with the field of research behind pop music) to a field above all characterized by proliferate, multifarious expansion, thus constantly pegging back our understanding of it, is a pointlessly backward tendency, and can only serve as a significantly damaging impediment to developing salient and pertinent insights. The development of such insights is at the very heart of what drives new knowledge as a fundamental concept.

Finally, there was a brief flurry of tweets in which the lame old adage about ‘learning the rules in order to break the rules’ was repeatedly made or alluded to. But what rules? By what logic can one justifiably elevate the European notation tradition to the status of ‘rules’, not least when the most relevant and penetrating work in the field is being done by artists who never gave such supposed ‘rules’ a first thought, let alone a second? The same flurry of tweets included a defence of that position by arguing that it was wrong to deny students access to the European tradition since that would be to deprive them of a broad view. Let me be as clear as I can: my position isn’t one that seeks to deny, obscure or eradicate Western harmony and its system of notation; I am simply arguing that it has no place as an overriding orthodoxy in the study of pop music and should in no way be presented as taking any kind of precedence over other approaches, not least in an age when current practice significantly undermines its value(s).

[1] Who am I talking about here? I’m thinking of music that has been both commercially successful and critically acclaimed and which has continued to sound good, sound relevant and sell well for a reasonable period after its initial release. Such criteria yields a list that would include David Bowie, The Beatles, George Clinton, Kate Bush, Radiohead, Prince, Miley Cirus, Madonna… I’d be inclined to stop there: the undertaking is a stupid one, since the list is necessarily enormous; after several decades of recorded pop, there are thousands of acts whose music fits into this dual category and that’s as it should be given that the nature of the game, ultimately, is to make great records

[2] I’ll continue to take a hard line on this. It is true that an imaginative, intelligent and musical teacher will always know how to integrate the European systems of notation and harmony, but sadly such a teacher is very much in the minority. And I’m not targeting the more regular kind of teacher on an ad hominem basis here – they are as much a victim of their own muddled education themselves. Above all, my position advocates a demotion of the European tradition to one among the world’s many, rather than the de facto orthodoxy it has been taught as for too long.

[3] On the nature of an ongoing adolescence, see Gustav Thomas, ‘The Eternal Fire of Darkness: Black Metal, Gnosticism & the Body (

[4] John Coltrane, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse, 1997);

Walter Benjamin, ‘One-Way Street,’ 1935-1938, Selected Writings (Harvard, 2006).

[5] Apologies for this kind of parenthetic aside: I’ll write later on in more detail about how my attempts to loosen the grip of spectacular culture immediately, and often irreversibly, precipitates and assumption that I ‘hate’ mainstream culture and that I’m slagging off the likes of Pink Floyd, U2 and Coldplay – among so much more, the spectacle teaches dualism and reinforces polarity, a crucial dividing tactic that has always been crucial to bourgeois-imperialist administrative government.

[6] With the possible exception of certain substrata of Noise and Power Electronics, or even Black Metal, not withstanding that its adherents still do ‘enjoy’ their pain thresholds and willfully bleak or harsh coldnesses.

[7] To address what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in any determined way is generally avoided, sort of a no-no – Part Three of this series will be devoted entirely to that issue.

[8] The extent to which such music is generally seen as a ‘bad thing,’ unworthy of serious consideration or attention is also a major obstacle I’ve found almost insurmountable – this will be addressed further down the post…

[9] John Tilbury, ‘Introduction to Cage’s Music of Changes, in Cornelius Cardew’s Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (ubuclassics Edition, 2004 – pp. 42 & 45 respectively.

[10] Like I say, I was shocked; I was naïve. And, given the position I now find myself in, being charged to ‘teach’ non-notated composition to aspiring artists, you’d maybe suggest I expect the same naivety as them. Well, on the one hand, of course I have to, and I account for that and accommodate it into my approach; however, on the other hand, what Tilbury was discussing was music written by John Cage, an artist whose work was never aggressively promoted (corporate-playlisted etc.) to a mass audience and therefore has to this day remained very much in the tighter margins of common experience. In dealing with pop music, we’re not even dealing with a matter of choice or erudition: it’s around us and in us everywhere, every day, and for no more less natural or no more mysterious a reason than its violently forced into the public’s consciousness.

[11] Morton Feldman, For Bunita Marcus (for piano solo, 1985). I’ve tried to find an online reference to this concert/conference, without success.

[12] When I was thrown out of Goldsmiths at the end of my first year, John Tilbury took me out to celebrate and congratulated me, saying, ‘Now you can get out on the road and get on with it.’ His attitude to the hokum of professionalism was easily as critically incisive as Christopher Small’s. As a fan of Radioactive Sparrow, he once persuaded me to write to Jim O’Rourke (providing me with his home address) suggesting we collaborate, the latter having been in touch with John, himself, as a fawning admirer; I never heard from him – I always put that down as symptomatic of professional hierarchy (I was signally ‘no one’), but I could be wrong, of course… I usually am.

[13] Claire Colebrook, Gilles Deleuze (Routledge Critical Thinkers) 2002 – I’ll source an actual quote and page ref once I can get back to my copy of the text…

[14] To quote Chuck D in ‘Fight the Power’ (just in case anyone doesn’t have the reference already built in).

[15] The evolution of such a cynicism during the period between the real shit and the real shit can be fascinating, illuminating and even hilarious to observe: I always felt AC/DC’s brilliant and most confused ‘low’ came with albums like Fly on the Wall and Blow Up Your Video, which end up being favourite LPs as a perverse consequence. The penetratingly relevant influence such inept heights can have inadvertently is a truly worthy avenue for further exploration…

[16] Metallica, ‘Nothing Else Matters,’ from Metallica (Vertigo, 1991).

[17] Gary Holt emerged from the same nascent Californian Thrash scene as a guitarist with Exodus.

[18] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, thesis/statement 60. Italics in original.

[19] Vince Staples, interviewed on NPR, Microphone Check, July 1, 2015. [accessed December 12, 2015]

[20] Peter Sloterdijk – Spheres. Volume 1: Bubbles. Microspherology (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e); 2011) pp. 93-94.

[21] Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought (New York: Continuum; 2005) p. 36.

[22] During my years of regular crate-digging, some of my favourite finds were LPs like Staff Carpenborg & the Electric Corona’s Fantastic Party, The New World’s Trumpet A’Gogo and soundtrack music for porn films; such records could contain wildly anarchic and off-the-wall material simply because the musicians making them realized that the fat cat funding the release was so singly bothered about making any (whatever) product to sell, he actually couldn’t care less about the music on it.

[23] Gang Starr’s decision to name their second album Daily Operation reflects precisely this ethos within Hip Hop.

[24] All from Trevor Wishart, On Sonic Art (New York: Routledge; 1996)

TRYING TO TEACH POPULAR MUSIC AS A RESEARCH-LED SUBJECT IN HIGHER EDUCATION: II The Endless Struggle with Indoctrinated Taste: Towards a Pedagogy of Virtuosic Subjectivity