Ministry of sound

Performing Rites
April 4, 1997

What is a 38-year-old senior lecturer in sociology doing writing about rock music?" began youth magazine Jamming's 1985 feature on Simon Frith, founding father of "the sociology of rock" via his eponymous book. Twelve years on, Jamming has folded. In academe and the media, thirty and fortysomethings dominate pop analysis - itself no longer a novelty. Frith, meanwhile, wears various hats: music critic, Mercury Music prize judge, professor of English and respected authority on pop.

Performing Rites is almost a companion volume to Frith's now-classic first foray on the subject, since revised as Sound Effects, 20 years ago. That began with Frith reminiscing about choosing which records to take up with him at Oxford. Performing Rites begins with the author in passionate defence of the Pet Shop Boys (or the Pets as he calls them) at a dinner party in Sweden. But it is the earlier charting of rock/pop institutions that is complemented here by the project of mapping out a cartography of pop aesthetics. He writes: "We can only make sense of the aesthetics of popular music when we understand, first, the language in which value judgements are articulated and expressed and, second, the social situations in which they are appropriate." A close study of musical evaluation, genre, text, rhythm, voice and meaning follow.

This is more a book about music in all its forms rather than just "pop". Musical taste is specified as an important part of personal identity and expression. The distinction is made between "serious music", which is virtuous and cerebral, and "fun" music, which moves the body. Frith's "big idea", the musical performance, highlights the differences between the two. The pop performance is a success if the audience cheer or dance, whereas a classical concert is judged favourably if it commands still attention. Frith argues that music is omnipresent at our fin-de-si cle juncture. So much so that we hear music in fragmented ways and that accordingly silence itself has shifted meaning. Despite the fact that "musicians are ... surprisingly quick to accuse each other of 'prostituting' themselves by following the whims of an employer, an audience or a market", essentially the act of spectating and even passive domestic listening is also performance. He also presents an "erotics of pop", explaining "music is 'sexy' not because it makes us move, but because (through that movement) it makes us feel; makes us feel (like sex itself) intensely present".

There are flaws. On technology he claims interestingly "no sound, in short, can any longer guarantee truth". But the vast potential implications for traditional music performance with the promise of interactivity are only briefly addressed. At times some questionable assertions tumble out. Frith comes perilously close to employing the voguish and dubious concept of "tribalism" and coming across like a new age traveller in his discussion of genre. He writes: "The primitive in music (rhythm), the primitive in social evolution (the medieval, the African) and the primitive in human development (the infantile) are thus reflections of each other."

In his favour, Frith seems relatively unencumbered by middle-aged regrets on writing about an ostensibly youth-oriented subject. His statement that "one can (I do) love rave music without having ever been to a rave" provides an interesting comparison with Angela McRobbie's recent writing about feeling old when going to collect her teenage daughter from a hard night's raving. But perhaps the point is that pop is no longer just a domain anyway. Unlike some contemporaries Frith does not publicly disassociate himself from his previous theory. There are, however, some subtle revisions. He criticises academic cultural studies' rejection of value judgements: here the academic critic and the rock critic noticeably clash.

Elsewhere, to supplement his earlier definition of sixth-form taste, we are presented with a description of "student music". This entity "must fit student life, fit the student rhythm of collective indulgence and lonely regret, boorishness and angst, and also draw on shared teen memories and the sense of exclusiveness that being a student (at least in Britain) still entails". Needless to say, the model rings true in campuses throughout the country.

Frith may not be as young as he used to be but Performing Rites is nonetheless destined to become another classic.

Rupa Huq is currently researching at the Universite des Sciences Humaines, Strasbourg, France.

Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music

Author - Simon Frith
ISBN - 0 19 816332 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £18.99
Pages - 352

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