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Melissa K. Avdeeff
The study of popular music has been plagued by a number of orthodoxies, often hindering what genres and artists are and are not studied within the academy. One of the most prevailing orthodoxies – the authenticity of rock music versus the commerciality of pop music – has prevented the inclusion of pop into the canons of popular music study. This paper questions where the ‘pop’ is in popular music studies. Through an examination of Justin Bieber’s popularity in mainstream culture, as mediated through social networking sites such as YouTube and Twitter, the cultural groundedness of pop popularity is demonstrated, as well as the re-negotiation of the barrier between pop artist and fan.
I cry because I love Justin Bieber!!! 27 Feb 2010 (Joe Jonas, Twitter) Rap and blues musicians are black; pop is for teenaged girls; country music only uses three chords; autotune is destroying the concept of the ‘good’ singer: these are just a few of the stereotypes plaguing popular music. This paper is concerned with the orthodoxies surrounding the academic study of popular music, and what that means for what, who, and how popular music is studied. A number of orthodoxies have emerged in popular music studies – rock is authentic, while pop is ‘fluff’, confusion over the definition of ‘popular’, and there is a troubled sense of interdisciplinary research – all leading to the most pertinent question: where is the ‘pop’ in ‘popular’ music studies? This paper will explore issues surrounding mainstream, Top-40 pop music, before providing a brief overview of one of the most popular contemporary artists: Justin Bieber. It should be noted that this is not an attempt to disregard, or negate, almost 40 years of popular music studies as irrelevant, but merely to suggest ways in which to move the field forward, by considering new methodologies and taking inspiration from discourses outside of cultural studies and musicology.
Finding the Pop In Popular
got love for everybody today. #MUCHLOVE 28 Aug 2011 (Justin Bieber, Twitter) The most prevailing and, arguably problematic orthodoxy in popular music studies is the pop/rock dichotomy, as viewed through a commercial versus authentic lens, or low/high binary, where pop is perceived as low art, not worthy of study, and even musically inferior. The problems surrounding
which can be applied to any genre (although for the sake of his argument. In his own words. however. 2002. Moore offers three ways to define authenticity. they have been countered by those who argue for its relevancy (Moore. as crafted by the Haus of Gaga. or an (absent) other’ (ibid. he applies them to rock music and contemporary folk music. in those terms. ‘the performer herself. What Moore describes as ‘second person’ authenticity. As a way to combat the negative value judgments associated with pop music. As an alternative. Frith 1989). The concept of authenticity remains too ingrained. current to his publication in 2011. they represent an authentic cultural experience. Shuker 1994. everything becomes authentic. While I find it hard to believe that Spice Girls could represent anything in the realm of on ordinary experience. the performer’s audience. p. her insistence that she is the person that is on-stage as much as she is off-stage. In this way. that the music is “telling it like it is” for them’ (ibid.149).. Recently. focusing on the aesthetics of her performance as an artist and as a brand. Abstract). In 2002. Corona succeeds in placing Gaga’s artistry within a cultural framework. authenticity can either be identified as. p. p.10). Victor Corona published an article about Lady Gaga. Locating Lady Gaga above authenticity does not render her 1 . I suppose if we take culture to be ordinary... Taylor 1997). as it is what it is. Applying notions of authenticity to pop music has always seemed like a veiled attempt to uplift pop music to the status of the perceived inherent authenticity of rock music.the term ‘authentic’ are not new. one of the most popular contemporary artists. p. is where he argues one can ascribe authenticity to pop music. authenticity of experience ‘occurs when a performance succeeds in conveying the impression to a listener that the listener’s experience of live is being validated. For Gaga. and Corona also discusses Lady Gaga’s position within authenticity. Focusing on the aesthetics and ‘subcultural allure’ of Lady Gaga. While attempts have been used to abolish the term (Fornas 1995. In discussing how the authenticity of other pop stars has been discredited in academic research by their separation between on. and challenging its use in popular music studies has been long documented. rather than inscribed in it. he feels that ‘the question of authenticity is rendered almost meaningless…given that the star’s day-today life is thoroughly consumed by the mechanics of performing’ (Corona 2011. authenticity is ascribed to a performance.and off-stage personas. has helped her avoid the authenticity debate. Though. by applying a framework for authenticity to the pop act (2001.) For Moore. Allan Moore argued against the ‘prematurity of any dismissal of the notion of authenticity as meaningful within popular music discourse’ (ibid.. p. Notably. Leach concludes that the Spice Girls represent an authentically ‘ordinary’ experience (ibid. or authenticity of experience.143). however.220).220). Elizabeth Leach’s examination of the Spice Girls attempted to ‘collapse notions of value’.
It is essentially akin to applying score-based analysis to rock music. I would estimate that approximately 1% examined an artist who had mainstream chart success in that decade (Till 2011. In my own experience. Not to say that mainstream pop music is never studied. which has more recently been challenged by a subcultural lean (Thornton 1996. what is worthy of the listener’s ears. By placing certain artists outside the realm of authenticity. Johnson’s point is that we do not know our own history.outside of the dichotomy. Defining popular music is difficult enough. However. 32% dealing with 1950 to 2000. it would be beneficial to have less of a distinction between art and popular music. or cultural studies department translates into a lack of course space devoted to its history and even the theoretical development of surrounding discourses. the concept still retains its validity within rock music. but I am calling for an inclusion of what society deems ‘the most popular’. Butler 2003) in the field. Keightley 2001. Where are the boy bands of the 90s and beyond. and perhaps. Bruce Johnson commented on the fact that popular music studies tends to focus on music from the 1950s onwards. songs. Inevitably. and not the archives. Kruse 1993). I would take this a step further by asking where is the mainstream Top-40 pop music? While the majority of papers may have dealt with music from the past decade. media studies. but creates a new dichotomy within pop music: those who are subject to the rules of authenticity versus those whose art is beyond judgement. I wonder how popular music histories would differ if ‘popularity’ was the defining factor in what musics were studied. rock genres. ending in the 1980s. artists and ideologies have to be bared down to fit into a one-semester ‘history of popular music’ survey course. or how to keep genres on the Outside. and 65% looking at music of the last decade (Johnson 2011). applying notions of authenticity to pop music only perpetuates the dichotomy and subsequent value judgments on what is worth studying. arguably where the start of a modern ‘pop culture’ begins. as we are too concerned with studying music that we like. This leads us to the question of where the pop is in popular music studies. At the 2011 IASPM International conference in South Africa. As popular music studies develop. so comparing the two within the same ideology remains problematic. In no way am I saying that we should not study the history of popular music. the Idol/X Factor winners of the 2000s. or in other words. In regards to Johnson’s call for more focus on history. without having to be concerned with what it is not. with 3% of the papers dealing with the 300 years of popular music history leading up to 1950. lack of time translates into a focus on the development of popular music from the 1950s. but there has been a rockist focus (Grossberg 1993. 2 . which musics entered into the academic canon? The interdisciplinary nature of popular music studies. as well as between pop and rock. Hammond 2011). and the fact that it is often taught within a more conservative music musicology. or any other genre. or various subgenres. pop/rock is not art music.
not merely including Top-40 artists in the current course curriculums. while providing an extraordinary arena for self expression. the fan experience tells an entirely different story. especially when focused on the fan experience. it easily lends itself to sociological methodologies (DeNora 2000. it does not translate that these connections are of any less value than long-term investments in artists. Twitter) While there is no consensus on what the term ‘popular music’ entails (Popular Music 2005). especially youth. not temporally-based. escape. such as Twitter. Justin Bieber: New Negotiations of Popularity and Fandom I'm at ihop about to mow down some pancakes :p 10 Jun 2009 (Justin Bieber. have with artists and songs. Music is included in a description of culture. Even though there is the stereotype that pop music is fluff. But has pop music become ordinary? It may be omnipresent. but it is not enough to adopt a deterministic approach to culture. How. Facebook or YouTube will confirm the intense connection people. especially from the perspective of the artist or fan. through common expressions and emotions. for the sake of this paper. as culture is ordinary. One cannot place value judgements on people’s experiences. effort course development. then. Frith 1978). but life is equally dependent on art. Popular culture is neither deterministic nor constructivist. There is no question that music is cultural in nature. popularity in regards to mainstream pop will be defined as a triangulation between 3 . desire. One of the appeals of pop music is its ability to simultaneously engage fans. and university support to remedy. To renew an old saying: art may imitate life. should popular music be situated? With a number of interdisciplinary approaches possible. and very few devoted popular music departments. This change will take time. should a common methodology be supported? As music is a social activity. A cursory glance at social networking sites. by developing new discourses about music completely removed from traditional musicology (Tagg and Clarida 2003). I find that a combination of sociological and cultural studies methods and theories would prove effective for a culturally-based grounded theory of music. and bodily movement. Just because emotional connections with pop music can be as ephemeral of the changing of the Top-40 charts. Andy Bennett makes a good argument for the inclusion of popular music studies within cultural studies (2008). it operates symbiotically in culture. while Philip Tagg has offered new suggestions for the study of popular music within musicology. and a measure of popularity does not necessarily mean record sales in the age of digitality. but it is by no means ordinary.and the white rappers? Popular music history without the inclusion of Justin Timberlake is synonymous to teaching the history of Western Art Music without Handel. As a fan of interdisciplinary approaches. an emotional connection is emotionally-based.
media and music. Although Lady Gaga is the most followed person on Twitter. as it is inevitable that these forms of digital communication will become obsolete in the near(ish) future. (5) Vuvuzela. Klout.charts. and 50 million once a day (Taylor 2011). (6) Apple iPad and (7) Google Android (Schroeder 2010). Scooter Braun ‘discovered’ Bieber singing covers of R&B songs. according to Mashable. As of August 2011. in particular.5 million followers. It is frowned upon when it is clear that the artist is not posting their own Tweets. contemporary pop fans look to YouTube and Twitter as their musical gatekeepers. as well as number one with his video for Baby ft.. but this does not discount charts. where the majority of youth listen to new music (Avdeeff 2011). In 2008. Dominated by the culture of the clip. It has become almost expected that an artist have a Twitter account in order to communicate directly with fans. Ludacris. and search for on YouTube. On YouTube. with 100 million active users logging in once a month. YouTube views and Twitter followers. in order for his family to see. as the fans expect full disclosure from the artists that they support.). but as of July 2011. YouTube viewcounts are in constant flux. It should also be noted that this method of defining popularity is a temporary option. which his mother posted on YouTube. with a score of 100. with just over 12. claims three of the top-10 spots. and consistently in the top10 Twitter trends each month. likes. followed by the Dalai Lama (90). In 2010. YouTube is credited for much of Justin Bieber’s success. which solidified his relationship with a fanbase deeply connected to digital technologies. as opposed to a more traditional music-career projection. Justin Bieber was the only musician in the top-10 Twitter trends. Bieber’s own decision.5 million followers. Twitter has over 200 million registered users. which has reached over 588 million views (Muncy 2011). YouTube seems a viable avenue to rate popularity. i. with almost 13. Justin Bieber takes top spot. Twitter has become one of the primary sources of contact between artists and fans. following: (1) The Gulf Oil Spill. (2) FIFA World Cup. youths. Braun made the important decision to retain Bieber’s online following.e. Justin Bieber. status updates and other social media musings’. Lady Gaga (89) and Barack Obama (88) (ibid. Google mentions. (3) Inception (4) Haiti Earthquake. remains one of the most influential people online. due to digital downloading. in 2009. Justin Bieber. to 4 . using ‘a complicated series of algorithms…adds up a person’s tweets. at number eight. pings. measured how much influence a person has online (Rushe 2011). LinkedIn connections. Justin Bieber’s fanbase is just as extensive. as they are still influential in what youths listen to. With the dematerialization of music. influencing and influenced by technology. leading one to believe that it has become the MTV of the digital generation. There is no doubt that Justin Bieber is firmly planted in contemporary culture. all the Top-10 most viewed videos of all time were music videos.
which ultimately translate into profits within the live music sector. the discussion does not deal with the music of Bieber. Although it is concerned with popular music. This loss of barrier is not new. such as X Factor and the Idol franchise. such as the Beliebers. They often send Tweets to Bieber’s Twitter account and post congratulatory and supportive comments on his YouTube videos. but merely a new reflection in the academic study of pop music. Looking at Bieber as a culturally grounded artist. and wishes he could re-tweet all their comments. why read an interview with an artist when you can read their own thoughts in real time? Conclusion The above discussion of Justin Bieber provides a brief consideration of his popularity within contemporary culture. not only with Bieber’s songs. for these fans. while MySpace was one of the first large-scale venues in which artists could interact personally with their fans in a mainstream platform. We can situate the development of this phenomenon as a progression and merging of reality-based singing competitions. The loss of barrier between fan and artist has solidified the belief. that Bieber cares about each of them. Fans. Known as the Beliebers. is definitely only one piece of the 5 . This is not an attempt to downplay the importance of music in the pop genre. as it has become integral to the success of pop artists. By breaking down the barrier between fan and artist. the music. The role of social mediums cannot be ignored if we are to further the field of popular music studies. but because they are still mediated through a series of writers and gatekeepers. we are able to incorporate technological aspects of popular music dissemination. in that it becomes less about what you pay for records. such as MySpace. The former illuminated the importance of the artist’s backstory and personality. his fans felt they had a deeper emotional connection to the artist. a group of Justin Bieber’s fans are devoted followers of both his online and offline presence. and more about your personal involvement with the band and/or artist. While I hesitate to say that the music has become secondary to image. in regards to popularity. One could argue that music magazines previously filled the role of bringing artist and fan together. by often Tweeting to fans that he loves each of them. Beliebers feel an emotional connection. Artist personality and openness are rewarded with fan appreciation and YouTube views. with music-focused social networking sites. demonstrate a new exchange-value (Adorno 1991) relevant to Top-40 pop music. as fans expand their online relationship offline. but has been significantly reconfigured with the success of Justin Bieber. itself. who they could reach out to and communicate with. but with him.begin documenting his day-to-day life on Twitter further secured his online presence and cultural position. Bieber promotes this.
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