An exploration of pop music: serious sociology

September 15, 1996|By J.D. Considine BTC | J.D. Considine BTC,SUN STAFF

"Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music," by Simon Frith. Harvard University Press. 352 pages. $27.95.

One of the great terrors of junior high school math was the proof. As none of us particularly cared what, if y equaled 26, x might turn out to be, the notion of supporting those calculations with layers of mind-numbing logic seemed especially perverse. Sensing this, the teachers tried to put our puny efforts into perspective by observing that university-level mathematicians were expected to work lengthy proofs demonstrating that one plus one did, in fact, equal two.

Many of us, I suspect, gave up then and there. If it took hours of effort to "prove" what could easily be demonstrated on the fingers of one hand, academic math was more trouble than it was worth.

No doubt many pop fans will have a similar reaction to Simon Frith's "Performing Rites." Offered in an attempt to frame an academic context for the discussion of popular music, Frith's goal is to bridge the gap between "the discourse of the classroom ... and the discourse of the hallway." In other words, he hopes to find a suitably scholarly justification for the kind of value judgments pop fans make as a matter of course, thus providing an intellectually acceptable basis for arguing that the Velvet Underground was more important than Van Halen (or vice versa).

It's an interesting concept, but not one suited to the average Rolling Stone reader. For one thing, Frith (a sociologist by trade) assumes that his reader is as familiar with the Frankfurt School as he or she is with Motown, and so peppers the early chapters with references to Adorno and Horkheimer and their ilk. Granted, he can be fairly funny about it, as when he contrasts the "populist" sociology of John Fiske against "the cheerful train-spotting version developed over the years at Bowling Green," but it's hard to imagine the average Spin subscriber rolling on the floor over that one.

Even so, it's worth plowing through his prose if only because Frith grounds his sociology with a sound understanding of the way music works. It isn't just that he knows and likes the Pet Shop Boys; he's also learned enough to understand how modern performance practice reflects and refracts the aesthetic arguments of the last two centuries. Who else would be sharp enough to wonder, as Frith does, whether "it is at such sit-down [rock] shows - for Leonard Cohen, say, or the Cure, or P.J. Harvey - that one best gets the sense of what the mid-19th century battles over classical concert behavior were like"?

Moreover, because Frith comes to music with an eye on its sociological aspects, it's easier for him to slice through the assumptions that often color the average listener's musical judgment. As such, his analysis of the way most scholars differentiate between the "African" and "European" aspects of popular music is itself worth the price of admission.

J.D. Considine, pop music critic for The Sun, has written for Rolling Stone, the Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly as well as several other publications. He is the author of "Van Halen!" a 1984 publication, and contributed to "The Rolling Stone Album Guide," published in 1992.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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