- Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place, and Globalization ed. by Brett Lashua, Karl Spracklen, Stephen Wagg
Sounds and the City, part of a series called Leisure Studies in a Global Era, is a collection of essays about the relationship between music and place. Broadly speaking, the book attempts to answer these twin questions: What can popular music tell us about cities, and what can cities tell us about popular music? (5). More specifically, the book purports to focus on “the social relations produced amid and through popular music and cities,” which allows for “a test of social theories” (2). This central argument is perhaps necessarily vague, given the variety of essays in the collection, not to mention the variety of elements in the average city: the editors are careful to point out that, in the words of another scholar, cities are ultimately “too vast to be noted in their entirety” (1). Indeed, neither in their introduction nor in their after-word do the editors propose a theoretical explanation of the sound/city relationship. But over the course of the book’s 18 chapters and three sections, a picture nonetheless begins to form—and, for those to whom “sound” and “city” seem a natural pair, the picture may be surprising.
The default assumption about this relationship, in the words of contributor John Schofield, is that music “reflects and draws upon the physical and social landscapes from which it originates” (281). So much seems intuitive. This is one of the “standard assumptions” about music: that it should “develop from an ‘authentic’ or ‘organic’ local sense of place, identity, creative community, or way of life” (297). This is the assumption that the average reader will bring to the book, and in fact a small handful of the book’s chapters rest upon this assumption. The second essay—“Birmingham’s Postindustrial Metal” by Deena Weinstein—convincingly [End Page 145] links the heavy-metal sound of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest to the material circumstances of the members’ hometown, Birmingham, namely its abundance of iron ore and coal (38). Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward recalls lying in bed at night and playing along to the rhythms of nearby metalworking factories by tapping on his headboard, and guitarist Tony Iommi famously developed his distinctive “down-tuned” tone after having lost the fingertips of his fretting hand in a metal press (39–40). Given this one-to-one relationship between soundscape and landscape, Dr. Weinstein is right to pose this memorable question: “Would heavy metal have arisen in sunny Los Angeles?” (41).
One can likewise ask whether smooth jazz would have arisen in Ukraine, whether industrial thrash metal would have arisen in Tibet, and so on. Such questions point towards some kind of close—albeit murky—connection between music and place. But Dr. Weinstein is one of the few contributors to attempt to establish such a connection, and even this chapter is undermined by a few ironies, such as the fact that Birmingham had already been home to 500 bands of various styles five years before Black Sabbath’s first album, including the Spencer Davis Group and the Moody Blues (45). Why not 500 heavy metal bands, then?
The book’s unstated central argument is that the relationship between sound and city is fundamentally arbitrary. Such an argument could have been made at least by the ’60s, when a “much more fluid relationship between the local and the global” began to develop and “the relationship between music and place” began to blur (106). But today, especially with the ubiquity of the Internet—that is, in a world where anyone with a computer can download several lifetimes’ worth of music—such an argument is especially timely. The reverse question to Weinstein’s must be asked: In our increasingly globalized world, is there a relationship anymore between music and place? Indeed, from our perspective, why shouldn’t heavy metal have arisen in sunny Los Angeles?
The bulk of the book dismantles the supposedly natural ties between music...