Why I ...believe academics should take pop music seriously

September 18, 1998

Simon Frith, Professor of English studies at Strathclyde University This week the Mercury prize for the best British album of the year was announced from a shortlist that ranged from Robbie Williams to the more obscure John Furman.

Despite being an academic - not a hip and funky profession - I chaired the prize and found that being an academic actually helped.

Popular culture has a lot to offer academe. I teach a postgraduate course on the aesthetics of pop music. I try to get people to be rigorous in a subject not traditionally seen as academic. I get them to examine where their ideas come from and what assumptions they have when making judgements about what is a good or bad piece of music.

I did the same thing when chairing the Mercury prize. People can feel strongly about a particular record, and it is important to get them talking without tempers fraying. Academics are trained to think about their opinions so I chaired the meetings in a way a non-academic would not. It was about how people come to value judgements and how they persuade other people. My role was to keep that process going such that everybody was happy.

I have always had a double life, working in a university and as a pop critic, and think it is important that the criticism of popular culture be as principled and honest as that of high culture. I do not accept that there is a clear distinction between the two - contemporary culture is just as exciting to think about as is high culture. Which is not the same as saying Shakespeare and soap are the same.

Pop music is something people love but do not talk about coherently. I came out of the tradition of sociology, which means you are interested in the process by which Robbie Williams becomes a star but you do not pass comment on the music. I am more interested in listening to a Robbie Williams record and analysing how I decide if it is good or bad.

One interesting question is what sort of authority a teacher has when teaching people from different cultural backgrounds. Chairing the Mercury prize gave me the opportunity to talk about music seriously with people whose livelihood it affects.

And, of course, I got a lot of free records.

Simon Frith, Professor of English studies at Strathclyde University

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