- The Pop Palimpsest: Intertextuality in Recorded Popular Music ed. by Lori Burns and Serge Lacasse
[End Page 127]
"Good artists borrow; great artists steal." Variations of this aphorism have been attributed to luminaries from a variety of fields, including T. S. Eliot (poetry), Pablo Picasso (visual arts), Igor Stravinsky (music), and William Faulkner (fiction). Not only does this quote imply that a fundamental aspect of creating art involves appropriation from previous works, it also implies that the success of artists (and their work) is strongly related to the skill of this appropriation. To fully assess and understand any work of art, therefore, we presumably need to identify and evaluate the ways in which it takes from the old and makes it new. This guiding principle underpins The Pop Palimpsest, an interdisciplinary collection of twelve essays that investigates "intertextual" relationships within recorded popular music. According to the book's editors, this is the first essay collection to consider the full range of intertextuality in popular music, with previous publications covering only a narrow slice of the broader topic (p. 2). Indeed, what binds the essays in this volume together is a very wide and all-inclusive interpretation of intertextuality. This expanded framework may be one of the book's strengths in that it spurs readers to think about various types of relationships between musical and nonmusical texts that they had perhaps not previously considered. But it may also be one of the book's weaknesses, because it seems to allow for almost anything to be considered intertextual, thereby neglecting some of the more overt issues that arise given a more prototypical understanding of the term.
Admittedly, the discussion of intertextuality in music requires an element of metaphor. In its central meaning, intertextuality refers to a specific set of literary devices—including allusion, quotation, pastiche, and parody—whereby one work of literature is referenced in another, typically with the hope that readers will pick up on this reference and infer meaning from it. A parallel situation is easy to imagine for music if we take the "text" to be a musical work. And analogous instances of quotation or parody, for example, are common throughout the history of music, as J. Peter Burkholder expertly sketches out in the book's foreword. But the danger in each additional level of abstraction is that the term's initially solid meaning becomes further and further watered down, such that it is ultimately rendered rather meaningless. In his essay on different cover versions of Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah," for example, Allan Moore takes the performance to be a text; Simon Zagorski-Thomas, in his essay on the relationship between electronic and acoustic sounds, takes timbre to be a text; in the essay by Serge Lacasse and Andy Bennett on mix tapes, the selection and sequence of songs in a compilation is a text; for Stan Hawkins, who focuses on the music video for the Eurythmics song "I Need a Man," Marilyn Monroe's persona is a text. In this loosened sense, intertextuality no longer concerns simply one song referring to another. Rather, it allows for some generic aspect of a song (or songs) to evoke some vague category of style, recording technique, cultural iconography, or whatever else. From Fiol-Matta's collective perspective, this is the power of intertextuality: to expose and interpret threads from the vast web of possible connections. But that description could essentially be taken as a synonym for music analysis itself. With intertextuality defined so generically, in other words, it does not seem clear what the difference is between simply analyzing music and analyzing music from an intertextual perspective. After all, if music—as the quote above suggests—has always been about borrowing, has not music analysis always been about unpacking it? [End Page 128]
To be fair, each essay in the collection provides interesting insights into aspects of one or more musical works. But...