Why we no longer engage with popular music

During the second half of the twentieth century popular music functioned as a major public domain which gathered young people in a cultural field of intensity – a realm of collective excitement and passionate engagement. 

Music as social life offered alienated youth mutual recognition and bonding:  it helped others recognize you by locating you in a community of culture, and it helped you bond with members of that community.

Listening to music involved loyalty to bands, performers, genres, styles, and scenes.  Such loyalty was practiced in distinct soundscapes and times, creating territories of style and sociality.

Popular music consisted in a broad repertoire of well-defined codes and their signs.  Expert listeners were trained to recognize, activate, and contest them.

Listening had its own aura and produced cultural capital which amounted to musical taste as sophisticated savoring and collecting.

It consisted in practices of such a taste and culminated in collections of albums, clothes, memorabilia, lists, and experiences.

Music had a distinct element of pleasure and a counter-cultural dimension.  It made a statement and declared a position:  It supported an entire aesthetic way of life, challenging a bourgeois symbolic order as the exercises of musical style held a transgressive promise.  It drew on the combined middle class cultural forces of youth and style to question the conventions of post-WWII Western society. 


By the end of the twentieth century, this socio-cultural configuration was over.  Now is the era of multiplicity and plasticity when identity is not a matter of subcultural belonging to an urban tribe but of practices of the transitional self, a fluid self always in transition.

With the exhaustion of the avant-garde, revolt in terms of artistic style became impossible since any aesthetic critique could be easily commodified.  Critique migrated to moral style that focuses on matters of environment, gender, health, race, and spirituality.

There is no cultural capital in taste, no lure of collections, no demand for loyalty, no special space and time for aesthetic pleasure, no music codes and tribes.

Arguing about music has become pointless since there is no popular music as such.  In the era of floating aurality, there is no music that one may acquire, own, collect, exchange, share, debate, enjoy for its own sake.  Structured, dedicated, and shared listening is now an antiquarian technique like historically informed performance.

These reflections respond to a paragraph in the article “Part-Time Punk” by Kelefa Sanneh, The New Yorker, 13 September 2021, p. 33.

1 October 2021

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