Mediality and the Music Chart
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Mediality and the Music Chart

One lingering, unresolved dimension of intermediality theory is the status of mediality itself. Typically, the concept of intermediality is offered as a challenge to the idea that media exist as “isolated monads” (Mueller 105); the task of the analyst then becomes that of thinking through the variety of relationships between them. The risk is that this conception of intermediality may work to hypostatize media as particular kinds of objects. In this hypostatization, work on intermediality has sometimes diverged in important ways from the ongoing development of ideas about mediality itself. Mediality is best seen, I would argue, not as a permanent and definitive property of objects or forms but as the occasional state of a wide variety of objects, including those not normally classed as “media.”

Friedrich Kittler’s deliberately simple typology of media functions provides one route into an expanded conceptualization of mediality. While the list of elements that constitute this typology varies slightly across his work, the key media functions he identifies are those of processing, transmission and storage (Griffin 711). The capacity of a given object (a cultural form or technology) to carry out one or more of these functions will define its mediality, as a state in and out of which such objects pass. The eyeglasses that “remember” the size of their owner’s head, as a result of use and subsequent alteration, are medial in their storage of that information (and as a result of the “inscription” by which head size is marked upon them). Likewise, the bagel, whose central hole remembers the original circulation of bagels when they were carried by vendors on poles, transmits that original function as one of the historical features stored and expressed in its present form. There is little point, however, in gathering up eyeglasses and bagels within an ever-expanding list of media. Mediality is better seen as a distributed and intermittent property, the occasional (but not definitive) state of an object depending on its particular use at a given time or the prism through which it is viewed.

In this sense, then, intermediality is less the variety of possible relationships between objects pre-identified as media than a property of those assemblages in which the functions of media are extended or transformed. In what follows, I will develop some of these ideas by examining a minor, ephemeral cultural form. For several years, in a graduate seminar devoted to the study of popular music, I have invited my students to consider the mediality of those printed charts, like Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100,” which rank the popularity of musical recordings in a given week. It seems [End Page 128] unproductive to see the popularity chart as itself a medium in any strict sense, particularly insofar as it is one of the categories of content included within a number of widely-recognized genres of media, like the periodical or the website. At the same time, as I have suggested elsewhere, the popularity chart sits in an ambiguous relationship to materiality: it is the physical representation of that intangible phenomenon called popularity, but, at the same time, the simulacrum of a variety of material processes in which money and commodities are exchanged or by which music is consumed through the activation of technical devices and networks (Straw, “Music and Material Culture” 233).

We begin approaching the intermediality of the music chart by mobilizing Kittler’s admittedly reductive typology of media functions. Gathering up a large number (typically 100 or 200) of musical recordings, in a list that both presumes and constructs a certain simultaneity, the chart processes a set of events (the various measurable acts by which a recording is consumed). In particular, it transforms the often erratic commercial life of a musical commodity into a curve of ascendant and descendant popularity, so as to endow that life with the legibility of both narrative and tabular form, as we shall see. At the same time, the chart serves as a storage technology, an archive of sorts, in which are contained tokens of the recordings deemed to be popular in a given period. Indeed, the chart, as I will argue later, is usefully...