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American Quarterly 53.1 (2001) 165-177

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Music, Experience, and History

Nick Bromell
University of Massachusetts

Metal, Rock, and Jazz: Perception and the Phenomenology of Musical Experience. By Harris M. Berger. Hanover, N.H.: The University Press of New England, 1999. 336 pages. $22.95 (paper).
Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans. By Daniel Cavicchi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 222 pages. $18.95 (paper).
Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. By Steve Waksman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. 373 pages. $27.95 (cloth).

WHEN JIMI HENDRIX ASKED HIS AUDIENCE IN 1967 IF THEY WERE "EXPERIENCED," his word gestured toward a widely shared belief that listening to rock music now mattered--that it was now more than just fun (though it was still that) because it offered new and useful ways of being in and knowing the world. 1 Similarly, when Bruce Springsteen famously observed in 1984 that "we learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school," 2 he was voicing a deeply held conviction that rock music was instructive--not just entertaining--and that it provided its young listeners with what Kenneth Burke called "equipment for living." 3

While the truth of such claims may seem obvious to rock fans, most academic scholars of popular music and popular culture have dedicated themselves to demonstrating their falsehood, or at least their naïveté. [End Page 165] The first twenty years or so of popular music study were dominated by the Frankfurt School assumption that popular culture purveys false consciousness to a mass society caught up in a deluded quest for the unattainable satisfactions promised by capitalism. 4 This monochromatic skepticism toward pop music prevailed until the mid-1970s, when scholars at the School for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England started to construct a more complex understanding of the subject. Influenced by Saussurian semiotics as filtered through the work of Roland Barthes, and as well perhaps by their own exposure to rock subcultures and the 1960s counterculture, they sought to uncover threads of "authenticity" woven into the blanket of a duplicitous hegemony. But working within a Marxist paradigm of popular culture as an instrument of social control, and cognizant of the ever-expanding reach of market forces into virtually all aspects of everyday life, they could imagine authenticity only as a slender residue of "resistance" to capitalism. 5 Rock music was no longer all bad, but the qualities that redeemed it were few, fragile, and, in essence, political.

Recently, however, historians and critics of rock have tried to base their analyses of rock not so much on a priori theories of culture and society as on observed and recorded data about the way rock fans themselves understand their participation in music. These scholars are concerned with rock not just as a means of resistance but more broadly as an expressive form that does varied things for its audience. 6 This move toward the point of view of the rock audience is a difficult one to make. It is still hard for many in cultural studies to give up the idea that the masses are stumbling through a dense fog of false consciousness illuminated here and there by gleams of theory emanating from the academy. Indeed, as the author of one of the books under review here has noted, "It is generally expected in the Western university that ordinary people should learn about the world from the intellectual theories of academics," not that academics could "learn much about the world from the folk explanations of ordinary people." 7 But along with these temperamental difficulties come more daunting methodological ones. And looming behind these is the larger question of whether relatively theory-free description of a cultural phenomenon can do more than produce a kind of verbal facsimile of it. Nonetheless, reading recent efforts to account for experience as it is experienced, one has the sense of being present at a turning point in cultural studies, a moment [End Page 166] when creative efforts are being made to include within the...


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