Is music still culturally significant?

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In a recent interview with the NME Bobby Gillespie, the long-time singer in the just about evergreen band Primal Scream, said this:

“I don’t think a rock’n’roll record is gonna cause any huge social upheavals. I don’t think that’s on the agenda any more. I don’t think rock’n’roll has the cultural gravitas that it once had, if it had any. Maybe it just had some in my mind.”

This quote tapped into something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Bobby talks about the lack of ‘cultural gravitas’ that music now has. In this case Bobby is talking about the inability of music to provoke its audience in to action or to offer a genuine space for collective resistance. Beyond this though I’ve been wondering if music has lost its cultural significance. I’m wondering if it still, if it ever did, provides a source for identity building and collective solidarity and difference.

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In addition to coming across the interview with Bobby Gillespie, a recent exchange on Twitter with Les Back also reminded me of these questions. We ended up talking about music. Les sent me this photo of his desk:

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As well as providing a nice insight in to the forms of inspiration of a top sociologist, Les also commented on the album cover photo. He suggested it was representative of the politics of two tone music (which was the name of the record label but also came to be uses as the label for the music). I won’t go in the politics if Two Tone here, but what is important is that the music had deep cultural significance. I’m wondering if this kind of far reaching influence is still possible. I’m fairly sure that it is, but i’d like to know where.

My point in this brief post though is that music’s cultural significance might also have been eroded on a more mundane and mainstream level. In some ways it doesn’t seem to carry all that much cultural importance. There are of course exceptions and people still consume music and in some cases have profound attachments to it, but it just doesn’t seem to be central in contemporary culture – where gaming and social media in particular seems to have filled the void. This is certainly the case for my students. Over the last five years I have delivered a second year undergraduate module on popular culture. Each year I’ve reduced the amount of music in the module. Music is now provably covered on around 40% of the module. The students are happy to cover music, but conversations with them suggest that they still see this as an over-representation of music on the module. Some students, a very small number, have a strong interest in the sociology (and history) of music cultures, but most just don’t see it as being important. For many it would seem that music is a background incidental soundtrack, rather than a powerful cultural force that shapes their view of themselves and the world they inhabit. At least that is what I’ve observed from this admittedly small and barrow group. Music is literally streamed without it being incorporated very much in to their lives. This is speculation, but perhaps Bobby is right and music has lost a bit of gravitas. But maybe not, I just don’t think we have looked into such issues.

Originally I thought about writing this idea up for a journal article, but I knew what was likely to come back in the way of criticism. Indeed, I would agree with the likely suggestion that this observation is speculative. It occurred to me that weighing up cultural significance is actually very difficult to do. I’ve recently written a couple of articles that attempt to understand how people relate to music today, and particularly music genre (here and here). These would point towards some powerful underlying dynamics. But when I was writing my recent book on popular culture, I found that music was effectively struggling to compete for page space with a vast range of other types of cultural activity.

The other likely criticism is that I’m being nostalgic and that I’ve simply lost touch. As a result I might be missing the significance of music in certain social groups (although I’m thinking more of mainstream popular culture here). I’m perhaps presuming that music has lost its significance because I’m no longer in a position to see the forms that it now takes. This might be right, it is a problem I have written about before in relation to the sociological problems associated with being uncool. Despite these potential problems there is a sense that music as a cultural form has lost some of its cultural significance. This is not to say that it no longer matters, it is still mainstream, it still shapes lives and it still defines biographies. But perhaps we need to understand more about how people relate to it and the meanings they attach to it. There are two things to keep in mind here. The first is that music might just now be such a familiar and mundane presence that its actual influence goes unnoticed, we need to consider this familiarity and the cultural power it might be concealing. And, second, if music has lost its cultural significance this is interesting in itself. We need to understand how and why, and we also need to see if their is anything that might be filling the void. It’s important that we don’t abandon a focus on music just because it is no longer quite centre-stage. Perhaps capturing the spaces in which music is still a force would be good. But I’d also like to get a better understanding of its place in mainstream popular culture.

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3 Responses to Is music still culturally significant?

  1. Sam says:

    The beginning part of this post reminds me of a certain undergrad dissertation 😉
    http://esjaybe.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/the-incorporation-of-anti-capitalism-into-the-music-industry/

    Is it really true that students are less into music? Or is it the kinds of music they’re into? A kind of fleeting engagement with downloadable singles or spotify streaming, rather than a sustained identity project?

    I know this doesn’t contradict your argument at all. Just that I’m not sure it’s fair to say people are less ‘into’ music now.

    • Yes, it does have echoes of that classic dissertation.

      Yes. I think music still has a lot of significance for lots of people. It’s more of an observation about the general cultural standing of music. But I would agree, music does matter. I suppose I wanted to try to start thinking through exactly why it matters.

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