Rock of ages

December 1, 1995

David Walker talks to the enduring music critic and professor Simon Frith.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Mercury Music Awards this year. Pop music became front-page news in a way it had not been for decades. Suddenly, this summer, it was as if popular culture had come together around music - the spat between Blur and Oasis was an item in all the papers and the antics of Portishead, winners of the award, were widely discussed. "It is curious," says Simon Frith, who was chairman of the Mercury event. "If you look at sales, they are not fantastic - singles nowadays appeal to only limited numbers yet somebody saw a marketing opportunity for newspapers here, though I noted all the journalists were writing about it by reference to the Beatles and the Stones."

Frith is, as they say in Scotland where he has now made his home, a lad of pairts. At 49 "lad" may not quite be it, but he has a full head of hair and, as the examples of Jagger and McCartney show, the rock of ages is being cleft wide enough to allow a whole generation of performers, critics and audiences to pass. A 60-plus Clapton playing acoustic guitar - is that so grotesque? "Age is a funny thing in music," Frith notes. "When I was a teenager, Muddy Waters seemed so old. But jazz has never had to be 'young'. For young people now rock and roll is old people's music - rock defined that is by guitars, amplification, music drawing on a steady blues beat."

Frith's parts are various. He is, simultaneously, a professor of English at the University of Strathclyde and director of the Economic and Social Research Council's five-year media, economics and culture programme. He is well-known as a rock journalist but, since he studied with Leo Lowenthal at Berkeley in the 1960s, he can happily talk Frankfurt School critical theory.

But maybe those contrasts are not as sharp as they sound. Simon Frith lived for a long time what he calls a "double life" as an academic and rock journalist. As rock critic for The Sunday Times until the mid-1980s he attended up to three live concerts a week. For four years after that he "could not face live music". Age counts. "I am too old now to go to concerts which do not start till 11 at night."

Yet theory is "not irrelevant to the way people in the music industry think. In fact the music industry is constantly having to find ideological reasons to persuade people why a good record is good, to explain it." The NME, he notes, was one of the earliest sites for talk about postmodernism.

What does mark off the two worlds is the professional neutrality of academics and that fact led Frith into studying the way music judgements are made. He has a book coming out soon (Performing Rites published by Harvard and Oxford University presses) which presents sociological arguments about the process of aesthetic evaluation, "why it is necessary for people to have a concept of the good. Culture cannot exist without evalution."

Behind Simon Frith's conversation you have a sense - though he does not quite put it this way - of someone for whom music is social participation, that at some level the great upsurge in popular music in the second half of the 20th century is a kind of sociability, a way for people to come together, that their pursuit of the good in their various ways is itself good. You feel he wants the conversation to be inclusive, intelligible at the same time to fans, performers, audiences, the business.

Frith's academic career, as he puts it, has taken place on the margins, in the interstices of the disciplines. But how uptight some of those remain. He notes in passing that the development of an option in film for undergraduates at Oxford, where he did PPE, generated huge publicity - "how surprising that people should still be looking askance at film, a major 20th century art form".

After Oxford and postgraduate work in California (his PhD was on the history of education in Britain in the 19th century), Simon Frith lectured at the University of Warwick before taking a secondment to the John Logie Baird Centre at Strathclyde set up by Colin McCabe. He then moved to take Strathclyde's chair of English, noting that both the ESRC and the British Academy are aware of how difficult the area around the media and communications is to pin down.

Frith was one of the first hard-nosed students of the economics and structure of the firms that make up the music business. His was and remains a "materialist" perspective - meaning the underlying notions he has brought to bear in trying to understand the music industry have been capitalism and class. You have the slight impression, however, that Simon Frith says that for form's sake. How much, after all, does the materialist interpretation tell you about Shaggy's success?

Before Simon Frith's work the sociology of communications had focused on either broadcasting or advertising or the press, passing over the influential and successful industry of pop music. "Attitudes towards others, towards one's generation were tied up with music. Musical taste became a sociological reference point, music much more than television, as an organiser of ethnic identity, rebellion against parents, friendship I I cannot believe it is only sociologists who when they visit a friend immediately check out the collection of records and CDs."

But that was then. More music was sold; listening had more common patterns than now. "Things have fragmented and individualised - this is a general aspect of postmodernism." I asked about his own tastes. The answer spread between classical music (he is a recent opera fan), film sound tracks, and world music. "The rise of CDs has made music buying much more like buying and selling books I people are not just after a best-seller, but want reprints too. This leads to more eclectic buying, of various styles, of different music."

Fogies tend to bemoan qualitative decline in rock and popular music but Simon Frith - the sociologist rather than the rock aesthete - will have none of that. Digital technology will, on one side, enhance the control of the music industrialists; on the other it will make it easier for young people to record songs to industry standard in their bedrooms. "It is still possible for 15-year-olds to do it through the medium of music, to express themselves, more easily than in books or writing.

"The system is fallible. Who would have predicted the success in the 1980s of hip hop?" Or the likelihood that a leading contender in the Christmas recording stakes in 1995 would be the electronically-reconstituted, generation-spanning, musically-innocuous Beatles?

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