Sonic Borders Virtual Panel: Barry Shank, “On Popular Music Studies”

by justindburton on February 6, 2013


IASPM-US and Sounding Out! are proud to bring you a collaboration that represents the first official panel of the the 2013 IASPM-US conference. While the rest of the conference will be held in Austin, TX (2/28-3/3), this first panel will feature six essays from Sounding Out! and four from IASPM-US during the months of January and February – a discourse in cyberspace that addresses and enacts the theme of the conference, “Liminality & Borderlands.” “Sonic Borders” features scholars from sound studies and popular music studies (many of whom work in both disciplines) discussing the two disciplines’ shared principles, disparate ideologies, and un/common purposes. The results should be exciting, as we invite not only the panelists to contribute their essays but also conference participants and readers of both sites to join in the conversation as we prod the connective tissue of popular music studies and sound studies.

Many thanks to the three co-founders of Sounding Out!Liana Silva, Managing Editor, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief, and Aaron Trammell, Multimedia Editor, as well as Kwame Harrison, chair of the IASPM-US conference program committee, and all of our panelists. A full schedule will be included at the bottom of each essay we publish to this site. Today’s post comes from Barry Shank.

There are no generic limits to popular music studies.  It is defined by its methods, not its objects. Popular music studies approaches the popular through music.  In this way, it can be distinguished from sound studies, ethnomusicology and other neighboring fields. But this definition requires that we understand the meanings of those keywords—music and the popular.

Music is what we hear when we are engaged in musical listening.  Musical listening is not equivalent to that rarified practice known as “structural listening.”  Musical listening is common and everyday.  It is what happens when anyone discriminates between music and noise.  The ability to make that judgment, to discern the patterning of sound and to assent to the potential pleasure in those patterns, is the fundamental aesthetic judgment.  Once that judgment is made, the sound—any sound at all—has become music.

In a documentary shot in 1991, John Cage makes a cogent distinction between music and sound. He said that when he listens to music, he feels as though someone is talking to him, talking about their feelings and their ideas about relationships.


He prefers, he said, to listen to traffic.  No one is talking to him when he is listening to traffic. He is only listening to sound being active, moving up and down, getting louder and quieter, longer and shorter. Cage does not need sound to talk to him; its active being is enough.  Although Cage uses this thought to dismiss musical listening, the distinction he makes is helpful.  Cage appreciates the activity of the sound itself. Musical listening, on the other hand, is an activity that transforms sound into a meaningful and feelingful structure. Musical listening does not allow sound to be itself. It forces sound into a web of interconnected thoughts and affects. Musical listening does not happen by itself; it is the consequence of an intention.  A person must become a listening subject and, when they do so, they open themselves up to music’s effects. When engaged in musical listening, we are not trying to hear what it says but to feel the affects that it spreads. Any time a person listens musically, that person becomes aware of the commonality of being, of the shared nature of subjectivity.

The popular is what emerges when individuals seek out their commonality. This is an evanescent process, consisting of fleeting moments that seek sustaining structures.  We become aware of the popular when we recognize that our identity is divided and multiple, always a node in interlocking networks of affect and meaning. The act of musical listening enables us to confront complex and mobile structures of impermanent relationships—the sonic interweaving of tones and beats, upper harmonics and contrasting timbres—that model the experience of belonging to a community not of unity but of difference.  Each moment of the popular has its feel, its set of characteristic affects, what we sense when we know we are among our own.  Yet this popular is not unified by categories of identity or political ideologies.  It is not a group characterized by sameness, but rather difference.


We all know this feeling: the joy of mutual recognition that leaps within us during moments of dance floor communion, when the dj or the musicians hit it. We also know this feeling: the profound disappointment that comes over us when later conversation with our dance floor compatriots reveals vast gulfs of mutual incomprehension. Even the sense of the common that is brought into being by a traditional political song like “We Shall Overcome” is a collective in conflict. Those famous photographs of Dylan, Baez, the Freedom Singers and Peter Paul and Mary, singing from the Newport stage as well as of young civil rights activists crossing arms and singing along together capture moments of shared affect, not moments of identical political motives or goals. Popular music creates a sensuous confirmation of a feeling of belonging. At times it is capable of producing that belonging, even in the face of profound and overt disagreement.  Its pleasures are the pleasures of shared presence, of the multiplicity of being. Popular music studies works through musical listening to apprehend the affects that constitute the popular.  It is a method of analyzing auditory pleasure in order to uncover the shared ground of that pleasure.

For example, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video has been viewed more than 1.26 billion times.  It has generated hundreds of copies and parodies. The original video is a parody in itself. A big part of its appeal lies in Psy’s irrepressible and incessant demand for pleasure while surrounded by example after example of his improper decorum. Psy is out of place in the Gangnam district. He sprawls drunkenly in a children’s playground. His equestrian imitation is ludicrous.  He dances awkwardly through an outdoor yoga class and rises from the bottom of a private hot tub, rippling shock waves out from his presence. “Gangnam Style’s” improper demand for pleasure is produced musically by dirty-timbred synthesizers whose interlocking lines highlight their electronic origins.  Indeed, those swooping blatantly artificial synthesizers never hit a note straight on. Most, rather, are approached from below, creating a tonal “whoop” that forces an improper rise from dancing bodies. The song’s demand for pleasure is supported by the low pulsing four on the floor “kick” that continues throughout the entire track. Stopping only at the end of the bridge where its temporary cessation opens the room for Psy to restate the hook, that kick pushes the dancing crowd into waves of shared demand. Annoying but also reassuring, that kick is the only pitch in the backing track that is hit directly every time. Even in the midst of destabilizing waves that surround and saturate the listener with the impulse to rise up or be left behind, popular demand never stops. While this demand is out of place, its insistence refuses to be shamed. Its steadiness is also its unruliness.


In our current moment, any demand for pleasure seems out of place.  It is as though there are no non-guilty pleasures. The capitalist imperative to work, to compete, to win or else to be left behind has stripped daily life of small rewards.  The attention we pay to our children is now an investment in their future.  Classroom time is no longer an opportunity for careful cultural analysis but must be approached as a training ground for corporate leaders. Even going out to clubs must be legitimated as a necessary blowing off of steam that reinvigorates you for the next day’s work. If we are not among the hyper rich, we have no legitimate pleasures. We haven’t yet earned the right to them.  And yet, we refuse to stop demanding them. The music of “Gangnam Style” captures the affect of our time. Bouncing along on an imaginary horse, waving our invisible ropes in the air, we insist on our right to purposeless pleasure even in the heart of the machine.

Sonic Borders Schedule

1/21 – Liana Silva, Sounding Out! – “I’m on My New York Sh*t”: Jean Grae’s Sonic Claims on the City

1/28 – Regina Bradley, Sounding Out! – I Like the Way You Rhyme, Boy: Hip Hop Sensibility and Racial Trauma in Django Unchained

2/4 – Marcus Boon, Sounding Out! – One Nation Under a Groove?: Music, Sonic Borders, and the Politics of Vibration

2/6 – Barry Shank, IASPM-US – On Popular Music Studies

2/11 – Tavia Nyong’o, Sounding Out! 

2/13 – Theo Cateforis, IASPM-US

2/18 – Tara Betts, Sounding Out!

2/20 – Shana L. Redmond, IASPM-US

2/25 – Airek Beauchamp, Sounding Out!

2/27 – Devon Powers, IASPM-US

{ 1 comment }

justindburton February 8, 2013 at 4:11 pm

I’ve been thinking about (and enjoying) this essay a lot this week, especially in conjunction with Marcus Boon’s essay over at Sounding Out.

Each does a little dance (or, if we extend the PSY imagery, an imaginary horse trot) around differance. Here, it’s the differences that define what is popular (ie, a preference that isn’t restricted to a single group or definable demographic) and the deferral that results from pretending that we postpone pleasure until we’ve earned it, even as we indulge it. Boon culminates his discussion of sonic ontology with the difference between complexly multiplied identities and minimalist beats, with deferral rising through abjection. Abjection, in Boon’s reading, creates solidarity through belittling.

These strike me as remarkably similar ideas: in each case, popular music uses its broad simplicity to join disparate groups in a manner that differs from the easiest surface reading (guilt v pleasure; abjection v solidarity).

So far in this virtual panel, these two essays are the ones to most directly address each field (sound studies and popular music studies), and in so doing, we arrive at two analyses that overlap a great deal. Is this the nature of the two disciplines? When we look for difference, we find differance?

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