Review of Rojek’s Pop Music, Pop Culture

My review of Chris Rojek’s Pop Music, Pop Culture came out recently in the the Journal of Consumer Culture, here (paywall). A sample:

Chris Rojek’s Pop Music, Pop Culture, opens with an argument that the term “pop music” has a lot to recommend it, and we’re not better off just using “popular music” instead, as Simon Frith has suggested. This argument turns on two points: (1) that the pop genre (as opposed, say, to rock or hip hop) has wide appeal and (2) other forms of “popular” music—Bob Dylan and 2Pac are Rojek’s examples—share many characteristics with pop. Both arguments are compelling. In consumer society pop has a real claim as “the people’s music,” as Rojek says. And the term “popular” has so many overlapping implications with “folk” or “vernacular” that it potentially obscures the obvious commerciality of artists like Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. Talking about those artists in the same breath as Michael Jackson or Justin Bieber is perfectly appropriate, and labeling them all “pop” nicely emphasizes the very common circumstances of their production, promotion, distribution, and consumption, even if fans of the former would prefer not to think so.

But the two approaches lead in different directions. This book is not, it becomes clear, an analysis and celebration of pop specifically. Instead Rojek inverts Frith’s suggestion, expanding the meaning of “pop” to include everything “popular”—and perhaps a lot more. By the middle of the book Rojek’s topic seems to be a very broad view of music in society, so even in a discussion of “pre-capitalist, tribal societies,” Rojek mentions the “general features of pop music in this period” (61–62). And elsewhere Rojek seems to turn back on his own early valorization of pop, saying for instance that the Beatles transformed pop songs from “mere entertainment” to “channeling the myths, dreams, and popular politics of the day” (68)—seeming to dismiss as trivial the same entertaining pop he initially set out to defend. This is too bad. By expanding the term so far outward from entertainment and commerce, we lose the initially promising project of examining the genre of pop music as a privileged site in the expression of consumer values—a project which would have substantial interest for an audience in consumer studies.