a crash course in popular music studies – pt 1, the theorists


Adorno, you use to take down the whole of Britpop:

Disengagement from active listening resulted in audiences becoming dislocated from an understanding of their social position. In effect the soporific nature of popular music depoliticized listeners, and kept them in a compliant state that fostered full acceptance of their subordinate place in society. (Anderton, Dubber & James, 2012)

With Bourdieu, you can dismiss Foo Fighters and their entire audience for (as he argues) taste serves social distinction:

Bourdieu argues that it is not possible to analyse society through class structures and ideologies alone, and that other factors (for example, cultural and educational) have effects. It is not credible to argue that in the field of popular music and rock music (in particular) that the only factors influencing the listener are whether they ‘like’ a song or not. Their social status, their cultural background, their circles of friends, their aesthetic values; all of these are factors when it comes to determining a ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ of popular music, especially as much of that popular music is specifically designed to appeal to one or more of these factors. (Thackray, 2016)

Try Storey or Adorno, if you want to tackle pop music head on. You’d be wrong to, but go ahead, try:

[It is] mass-produced for mass consumption. Its audience is a mass of nondiscriminating consumers. The culture itself is formulaic, manipulative (to the political right or left, depending on who is doing the analysis). It is a culture that is consumed with brain-numbed and brain-numbing passivity. (Storey, 2006)


Deconcentrated listening produces an infantilized consumer who enjoys music through the recognition of repetitious refrains. Adorno (1990), writing during the height of Tin Pan Alley pop music in the 1930s and 1940s, described this as ‘quotation listening’: a passive listening state created by the highly repetitious standardized songs promoted by the music industries. (Anderton, Dubber & James, 2012)

Grossberg and Thornton are for when you want to get inside the head of a Justin Bieber fan:

Fans operate in ‘the domain of affect’ – those psychological states of feeling and mood that ‘give colour’, tone and texture to our experiences. (Wall, 2013)

and (Thornton):

[Subcultural ideologies are how] youth imagine their own and other social groups assert their distinctive character and affirm that they are not anonymous members of an undifferentiated mass (Thornton, 1995)

Simon Frith you can use on… well, anyone you don’t like really:

[If] social relations are constituted in cultural practice, then our sense of identity and difference is established in the process of discrimination (Frith, 1996)

(With thanks to Professor Martin James, and the students of Solent University, Southampton)

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