Canonizing the Popular

.......................A paper delivered by Robin Markowitz at the 1991 conference "Banality and Fatality," sponsored by the CUNY Committee for Cultural Studies

Cultural studies, as many of us are aware, represents a certain kind of challenge to the accepted practices of knowledge- gathering within the academy. Those accepted practices are characterized primarily by an ongoing establishment of knowledge hierarchies -- serious rankings of what counts and what does not according to pre-established sets of standards. We call this defining the canon of academic knowledge and it is very important part of what academics do. It is also the most important work of those of us in cultural studies to call this process into question.
Nowadays, those who've placed their faith in protecting academic canons from cultural studies apparently feel they're under attack. They fear that their canons (what have been called the canons of Dead White European Males) will be replaced by new ones --those of living, non-white, non-westerners, many of whom aren't even male. And this is true. The old canons are being replaced by new ones and the anxiety is palpable. My question, though, refers not to this anxiety which propels an ongoing war over what counts, but instead to the ways in which canons, old and new, are produced.

Even if the hegemony of Dead White European Males were finally vanquished once and for all, would anything have changed? In creating fresh canons of the work of marginalized peoples, have we yet confronted whether canons (however marginal) ought to be produced at all? I don't really think so, and I'd like to offer an example of how easy it is for the well-meaning among us to get lured into the game. I'd like to show that the consequences of this game of dueling canons can be grievous.

In The Popular Arts, Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel ask "In what terms is it possible to establish even rough standards of judgment about this kind of music? " They'd just concluded a discussion of the workings of the youth music business in the U.K. and the U.S. and were searching for some sort of justification.

They decided that a time would come when such standards could be established. "It differs, " they wrote, "in character, but not in kind, from other sorts of popular music ... If we are unable to comment on its quality and to make meaningful distinctions, it is largely because we lack a vocabulary of criticism ... We need that vocabulary very much indeed now, since this is the area in which the new media are at play. " (Hall and Whannel, 1964, pp. 294-295)

Hall and Whannel were not the only ones in the mid-sixties who felt the "need " to make what they described as "meaningful distinctions " between light popular music (non-jazz music) that was insightful, artful, and even illuminating, and that which was useless and counterproductive.

At around the same time, in response to the various social movements which had recently gained force and momentum, young journalists who'd been swept up in those movements began to write about the kind of culture they loved while they were growing up: principally about music. Some members of the young, vulnerable, somewhat heedless audience Hall and Whannel had earlier observed were now college boys (and it was primarily boys) who could match their knowledge of high art and intellectual canons with anyone. They now decided that "their " own music (produced primarily by people who did not go to college and who made "meaningful distinctions " without regard to existing standards established by Europeans), could be canonized and that they were the ones who'd have to do it.

The journalists were generally young, white, and politically active: mirror images of members of the new left who led the social movements of the sixties. They rejected what they considered mainstream values like materialism and competition. They considered themselves set apart from the world their parents had left them, and this extended most certainly to their notions about what constituted art and entertainment.

They didn't write about show business as it had been conventionally understood: instead they described a kind of show art -- a melding of entertainment and spiritualality which could serve as an inspiration to their political activism as well as point towards a utopian future. It became their responsibility to make distinctions between music which affirmed capitalistic values and that which subverted those values.

They began writing about the music in underground publications before larger journalistic enterprises realized that there was a market for this sort of writing. Soon national magazines appeared with "counter-cultural " names like "Crawdaddy " and "Rolling Stone. " These outlets provided a forum for what came to be recognized as "rock criticism. " The rock critics, freed from many earlier journalistic conventions by their involvement with the counter-culture, wrote in a looser, hipper, more conversational style than their predecessors. But they also felt an intense need to establish standards and make distinctions between music which "mattered " and that which did not. The music had somehow to embody the values and objectives of the counter- culture -- it had to point (however symbolically) to the new world which would rise from the ashes of the old. What was most important to the rock critics was that the music, if indeed it mattered, belonged to the counter-culture, to them. If anyone else was to understand it, they'd have to learn the rules of the canon for themselves. And if any artists wanted the join in, they'd have to both learn the rules and play by them. Not everyone was welcome.

Sometime in the late 1960's, the production of the rock 'n' roll canon began. Just as the anti-war movement of the time borrowed tactics, strategies, and momentum from the movements of African-Americans to gain civil rights and social and political equity, the new rock music coming out of Britain and the U.S. utilized the conventions of black American music in its production. Often the artists, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were considerate enough to mention this and express gratitude. Bob Dylan, the proclaimed "poet laureate " of the era, called Smokey Robinson a poet. One assumes Robinson was supposed to overwhelmed by the honor.

The popular canon grew in size and stature to the point that there is now a "Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, " where those who made their mark according to the standards are honored annually. The important question about this process is whether such canonization really does fulfill the objectives of the social movements to which it was originally attached. It's also necessary to question the reasons the "need " for such canonization was felt in the first place. Finally, it's imperative to ask whether or not it is ever possible (or indeed desirable) for cultural criticism to transcend the process of defining and producing canons.

Ralph J. Gleason, a writer who was one of the co-founders of Rolling Stone magazine, elaborated the goals of the new kind of cultural criticism early. Gleason was older than most of the other writers and was thrilled at the sense of new possibility they seemed to embody. Gleason, along with several other influential critics, was convinced that music, in paticular, was an essential, even determining force in the social movements of the time. If there is any validity to this feeling of the critics, it remains important then to look at the way these critics treated the music.

Rock 'n' Roll was originally a music created by working- class and poor blacks and whites -- mostly blacks. For the first ten years or so, there was no formal canon of rock 'n' roll music. Middle-class white adults tended to dislike it (some more vehemently than others), while teenagers of various races and classes tended to love it. Division's of race and class in the music's reception mattered little, then. But the kids grew up. And some went to college and learned about art and history and protested U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia. And others went to work and went to war.

Some of the ones who went to college began to make decisions about what kind of music mattered to the social movements they were involved in and which did not. Their newly aquired knowledge of European art criticism helped them to make these decisions. The critics started out as a relatively small group -- Gleason was a key figure, Greil Marcus, a young Berkeley teacher, was Rolling Stone's first reviews editor. Langdon Winner was a buddy of Marcus from school and Lester Bangs was college student who wrote wild and fascinating letters to Marcus about the music which impressed Marcus enough to give Bangs a shot at a writing career.

During the late sixties, they began to develop standards, criteria by which to judge the music. They felt very passionately that these standards had to be met. There was an often humorous pseudo-religous fervor to the early work of these critics. Soon others wanted to join in the process. At Rolling Stone, Marcus would often accept reviews from free-lancers and completely rewrite them himself. As he once explained to a writer, "Most of the people I was working with couldn't write. So because I was a control fetishist I'd sit down and completely rewrite them. They didn't know enough to be pissed off. " (Draper, 1990, p. 87) Gleason went into some detail about the standards they were developing at the time.

In almost every aspect of what is happening today, this turning away from the old patterns is making itself manifest. As the formal structure of the show business world of popular music and television has brougth out into the open the Negro performer -- whose incredibly beautiful folk poetry and music for decades has been the prime mover in American song -- we find a curious thing happening.
The Negro performers, from James Brown to Aaron Neville to the Supremes and the Four Tops, are on an Ed Sullivan trip, striving as hard as they can to get on that stage and become part of the American success story, while the white rock performers are motivated to escape from that stereotype. Whereas in years past the Negro offered style in performance and content in song -- the messages from Leadbelly to Percy Mayfield to Ray Charles were important messages -- today he is almost totally style with very little content. And when James Brown sings, "It's A Man's World, " or Aaron Neville sings, "Tell It Like It Is, " he takes a phrase and only a phrase with which to work, and the Supremes and the Tops are choreographed more and more like the Four Lads and the Ames Brothers and the McGuire Sisters.
I suggest that this bears a strong relationship to the condition of the civil rights movement today in which they only truly black position is that of Stokely Carmichael, and in which the N.A.A.C.P. and most of the other formal groups are, like the Four Tops and the Supremes, on an Ed Sullivan-T.V.-trip to middle-class America. And the only true American Negro music is that which abandons the concepts of European musical thought, abandons the systems and scales and keys and notes, for a music whose roots are in the culture of the colored peoples of the world.
The drive behind all American popular music performers, to a greater or lesser extent, from Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson, on down through Pat Boone and recently as Roy Head and Charlie Rich, has been to sound like a Negro. The white jazz musician was the epitome of this. The clarinetist Milton Mezzrow, who grew up with the Negro Chicago jazzmen in the twenties and thirties, even put "Negro " on his prison record and claimed to be more at home with his Negro friends than with his Jewish family and neighbors.
Yet an outstanding characteristic of the new music of rock, certainly in its best artists, is something else altogether. This new generation of musicians is not interested in being Negro, since that is an absurdity.
Today's new youth, beginning with the rock band musician but spreading out into the entire movement, into the Haight-Ashbury hippies, is not ashamed of being white.
He is remarkably free from prejudice, but he is not attempting to join Negro culture or to become part of it, like his musical predecessor, the jazzman, or like his social predecessor the beatnik. I find this of considerable significance. For the very first time in decades, as a I know, something new and important is happening artistically and musically in this society that is distinct from the Negro, and to which the Negro will have to come, if he is interested in it at all, as in the past white youth went uptown to Harlem or downtown or crosstown or wherever the Negro community was centered because there was the locus of artistic creativity.
Today the eletronic music by the Beatles and others (and the Beatles' "Strawberry Field " is, I suggest, a three-minute masterpiece, an electronic miniature symphony) exists somewhere else from and independent of the Negro. This is only one of the more easily observed manifestations of this movement.
(Ralph J. Gleason, "Like A Rolling Stone, " in Leap Into Reality -- Essays for Now, edited by Richard Peck. New York, Dell, 1973, pp. 167-169)
Originally: The American Scholar, Volume 36, Number 3, Autumn 1967.)

So we have to assume, within this formulation, that James Brown ought to have gone to Mick Jagger for fresh musical ideas. A music which was created principally by African-Americans was discounted (though expropriated) as influential on a movement which was also originally inspired by an African-American social movement. Now British and American middle-class kids could make reformulated black music and only their reformulation would be valued as significant. Now the movements and the voices which fueled the movements were their's, and anyone who wanted to wanted to play by their rules would count, would become part of the canon. Jimi Hendrix, yes, James Brown -- no.

It's not that the voices of marginalized people were excluded entirely -- simply that they'd have to accept their place in the canon as marginal. And this is how it progressed into the seventies until black music and black voices were relegated to the periphery of popular culture. Did the canon matter at all? Well for one thing, the narrow-casting of radio formats in the seventies and early-eighties was pretty much based upon the standards set originally by the rock critics: there was soul & disco for blacks and gays and women, easy listening for grownups, rock for young white males. It became difficult, if not impossible, for marginalized voices to be heard as part of any kind of social movement. "Punk " was privileged by critics principally because it was a nostalgic harkening back to the days when angry white male voices reigned supreme. Records were produced differently because of this pattern of hyper-segregation. The voices of subordinated groups often made their most popular work when they expressed the least anger. Who was listening anyway?

I would say that the same process of which excluded the work of African-Americans and working-class musicians from key slots in the canon also excluded them from participation in social movements as well. Such people did not have a forum to speak to society at large in their own voices about their own concerns, and so had little choice but to abandon those movements to which the canon had been attatched.

Making canons is a way of defining who has the power to speak and who does not. Making the rock 'n' roll canon was part of a larger process of cultural and political appropriation in which power was expropriated from subordinated groups by those who wished to speak for them.

At this point, we have to ask what we can do today to avoid this situation from ever happening again.