Notes 59.2 (2002) 313-317
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The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock. Edited by Simon Frith, Will Straw, and John Street. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. [303 p. ISBN 0-521-55369-5. $64.95 (hbk.); ISBN 0-521-55660-0. $22.95 (pbk.).] Illustrations, bibliography, index.
With this noteworthy book, Cambridge University Press's Companion series moves beyond its traditional focus on Western art music and an emphasis on instruments and composers. The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock differs from most histories in that it deals with topics rather than presenting a string of styles, bands, albums, breakups, and deaths. This is, in fact, its most significant contribution. The editors are major figures in popular music studies—indeed, Simon Frith may be described at this point as a patriarch in the field—and they all excel in viewing popular music, with all its messiness, from a long-range perspective that cuts across historical periods, genres, cultures, and technologies.
This topical approach leads to historical insights lacking in most histories of popular music and rock. The Companion is divided into three parts ("Context," "Texts, Genres, Styles," and "Debates") separated by "Star Profiles" presenting the careers of representative pop and rock artists within the areas just described. Within each part, important scholars of popular music, including Paul Théberge, Richard Middleton, and Jocelyne Guilbault, contribute chapters in their particular areas of expertise.
Théberge's chapter on technology is an appropriate beginning for the book. As he writes at the opening, "Any discussion of the role of technology in popular music should begin with a simple premise: without electronic technology, popular music in the twenty-first century is unthinkable" (p. 3). Beginning with a discussion of the microphone and loudspeaker and their contributions to the meteoric rise of twentieth-century pop and rock, Théberge also discusses the impact of sound recording, musical instruments, and consumer audio, an important element often forgotten in discussions of technology in popular music.
Frith's chapter on the structure of the popular music industry is both stimulating and insightful, presenting a history of its development along several trajectories: the shift from collective to individual activity, the invention of musical storage/retrieval technologies to commodify music (notation and printing, discs and cylinders, digital technologies), and the economic imperatives of supply and demand. He wryly observes that by bringing both the supply (musicians) and demand (consumers) sides of the equation into balance, the music industry is "organized around the bureaucratic organization of chaos" (p. 33). He also wisely factors into the equation the role of music media—from specialist music-genre magazines such as Vibe (New York: Times Publishing Ventures, 1993-) for rap and Urb (Los Angeles: Urb Magazine, 1990-) for techno, to radio and MTV— elements of popular music culture that are ultimately beyond the record companies' control, although one may justifiably question whether MTV or VH-1 are all that independent of the major labels.
Frith is occasionally guilty of succumbing to cute turns of phrase. One particularly unfortunate example is his statement "girls, it seems, are dupes; boys are cognoscenti" (p. 39). He has since explained himself. Female consumers tend to purchase only one or two recordings of "hits" by a particular artist, whereas male consumers tend [End Page 313] more to be completists and encyclopedic in their purchasing (see Jason Gross, "Simon Frith Interview," Perfect Sound Forever [May- June 2002]: www.furious.com/perfect/simonfrith.html [accessed 7 June 2002]). If that was what he meant, the reader may well ask why he did not express himself that way originally.
Will Straw's chapter deals with consumption, the next and final link in the chain from the artist to the consumer via the industry. Again, he takes a view that is broader than usually taken in popular music texts:
We 'consume' music in a variety of ways ... many of which do not involve the direct exchange of money.... Music is, much of the time, among the most ubiquitous, easily ignored and trivialised of all cultural forms. It may unfold just beyond our...