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Thinking on your feet: Popular music and unpopular theory

Quinn, Steven (2000) Thinking on your feet: Popular music and unpopular theory. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Popular music represents one of the most ubiquitous and contested arenas within the cultural sphere. Yet in recent years, the dominant tone of studies of popular music has been manifested as a fatalistic and almost pessimistic disregard for contemporary popular music’s intellectual and political potentialities. The current reinvigoration of popular music within the academic field, long stalled in the aftermath of punk, has stemmed from shifts in the character of the musical object, movements which challenge many of our previous modes for the study of popular music. These shifts are arguably a consequence of the prominence granted, through the 1990s, to electronic dance-oriented forms of musical production and reception. In this thesis I will account for the changing character of popular music in terms of these developments.

As an initial premise, it is necessary to call into question the monolithic status of rock and its present domination of contemporary popular music but also its equally dominant presence within studies of popular music. The manner through which rock has been studied as popular music has had profound effects, not the least of which has been a narrowing of methodologies and disciplinary approaches but also a severe delimiting of the possibility of music as a form of political articulation. In the present, as we move from the analogue to the digital age, the profusion of genres and styles of electronic dance music does not simply indicate the emergence of newer forms of cultural expression but also involves the wholesale reclaiming of other dismissed musical histories.

This maintenance of the sonic past is a crucial feature of contemporary electronic dance music. Varying genre determinations are a means of discussing and identifying particular forms of socio-musical affiliation. There are a multiplicity of historical trajectories that have been effaced by the critical overdominance of the rock formation. It is not simply musical styles that have been made subordinate to its centrality, but vast domains of cultural experience and identity. There is a very real need to speak of musical-cultural formations in terms that recognise the shifting character of musical practice and social identity. The aim of this thesis is to establish newer modalities for writing about electronic dance music forms.

While there is much about electronic dance music that connects it to particular sociocultural spaces, it can be seen that, by examining its discursive history, it is not the story of any single socio-cultural space. The culture of dance music is highly mediated and its modes of transmission have been developed across national and regional boundaries. For this reason it is necessary to question the traditional conception of an Anglo-American hegemony within popular music, but also to interrogate the continuing centrality of national structures in determining cultural citizenship and affiliation. From an Antipodean perspective, the discourse of the nation is always problematic because of its long interdependence with the structures of colonialism. In many respects, the history of popular music has had a parallel trajectory to this formation. This is evidenced in terms of music’s transmission of cultural codes and meanings along existing trade and migration routes. Also, more disturbingly, cultural criticism has continued to deploy colonial structures in the form of centre and periphery models that marginalise the perspectives of those living and working outside the narrow terms of the global cultural studies village. This thesis offers a rigorous engagement with these theoretical models, suggesting the possibility of more postcolonial modalities for writing about contemporary popular music.

Traditional criticisms of intellectual work, continually frame the relation to popular music and culture as being determined by discourses of mastery that simply access the popular in order to illustrate in contemporary terms the continuing ‘fact-value’ of critical theory. Rather than such a determinist trajectory (which is ultimately one-way in its recognition of cultural and intellectual traffic), contemporary research into popular culture needs to be approached in terms of what it is that contemporary popular culture can reveal about our present-day modes of cultural studies theorisation. In this regard, while electronic dance music provides the narrative structure around which this thesis is organised, the overarching concern is with the status of the popular and our continual intellectual and political negotiation with the past, the present and the future.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Media, Communication and Culture
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Supervisor(s): UNSPECIFIED
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