- Idioculture: De-Massifying the Popular Music Audience
Cultural Studies frequently constructs popular music as a particularly disruptive sort of object, a form of resistance (Frith: 179). Part of the resistance displayed by consumers of popular culture has been seen in their reinterpretation and creative appropriation of mass-marketed products. Though the best-known examples of this process have been literary (e.g. Radway on the romance, or Penley on K/S zines), Frith sees popular music consumption “becoming the model for ‘active’ popular cultural consumption in general” (Frith: 180).
The book under review features ‘active’ consumption as resistance, though in a way not limited to popular music. In this book the disruptive moment of consumption is generalized beyond pop: here it is the moment of listening across genre borders. In a world where the music market and musical institutions impose strict boundaries between styles, people resist by having eclectic tastes. The “most important message” of this book is that there is “far more complexity and far more self-directed searching, testing, and experimenting than either music schools or commercial market categories can account for.” People find their way to “an astonishing range of musical choices, despite the inhibiting constrictions of the music industry” (Lipsitz: xiii). Their tastes are broader than the “confines imposed upon them by marketing specialists” (xiv).
That is the book’s message; but My Music is much more than an illustration of a thesis. Whatever the plausibility of this view of eclectic listening—and I shall add my reflections on this subject below—the book presents a lively cross-section of lay commentary on music. My Music is an edited selection of 41 interviews out of 150 conducted in Buffalo, NY. The interviewees range in age from 4 to 83. Most are white Americans, though five African-Americans, one Hispanic, and one Asian-American are included, as well as one Bolivian and one Ethiopian.
The Music in Daily Life Project started in 1984, when Carol Hadley, a student at SUNY Buffalo pursuing an independent study project, asked a few people about the role of music in their lives. She found people with unsuspected combinations of tastes (for example, one woman’s listening revolved around a Bette Midler/Allman Brothers/Joni Mitchell configuration) or striking trajectories (a woman who moved from classical music to Neil Diamond). That was the stimulus. Two undergraduate classes carried out further interviews, and three graduate seminars edited and organized the results. The result is this kaleidoscope of individual voices, too diverse and specific to be easily grouped into subcultures.
My Music is a portrait of particularity. As Keil puts it in his Introduction, “Like your fingerprints, your signature, and your voice, your choices of music and the ways you relate to music are plural and interconnected in a pattern that is all yours, an ‘idioculture’ or idiosyncratic culture in sound” (2).
The interviews illustrate Keil’s notion of musical idioculture. A few seem to fit common stereotypes, but just as many defy such caricatures. May, for example, is an overachieving high school violinist who attends Julliard on weekends. Her favorite listening music is Italian opera, but she grew up on the Rolling Stones and the Who, has tapes of Talking Heads, and can play Grateful Dead tunes on request.
The editorial choice to present whole (edited) interviews was made to spotlight the interviewees, many of whom prove to be trenchant observers and witty conversationalists. Molly (age 11) comments on how music videos interfere with individual visualizations, “because you just think of what you saw on TV and not what your mind sees” when you listen (31). The insufferably cute Lisa (age 12) listens to the radio while studying for a test: “when it comes to the test, I remember the song, I remember the question, and I remember the answer” (40). Ralph, the polymath truckdriver (113–16), notices the “Ride of the Valkyries” in an Elmer Fudd cartoon, holds forth on the connection between the Jewish diaspora and polka...