Online Exchange With
Simon Frith

Simon Frith is perhaps best known to fans of rock criticism as the author of Sound Effects (titled The Sociology of Rock in an earlier incarnation) and Performing Rites, the book that asks--in much further-out detail than the question was ever asked before--"what do we talk about when we talk about music?" (PR is also the only known book of pop scholarship that can boast acclaim from both Pete Townshend and The Financial Times.)

Performing Rites back cover

In between his professorial gig at the University of Stirling in Scotland and chairing the judges panel of the UK's Mercury Music Prize (see below), Frith took time out to answer a number of questions from our readers.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions, and to Simon Frith for his time and answers.

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> >From: Scott Woods
> >Date: Friday, September 06, 2002 8:18 PM

In your recent Perfect Sound Forever interview, you said that Internet technology has changed "compositional possibilities," but not "compositional principals," and that you "haven't seen anything that's really going to shift on the whole the way that music gets made and listened to." I'm wondering if you've heard any of the recent MP3 bootlegs or "mash-ups" (i.e., the Strokes vs. Aguilera, Destiny's Child vs. Nirvana, et al.), and if so, if this has altered your thoughts on this at all? Are these computer mixes merely an extension of DJ culture, or is there any significant difference because of the fact that they're literally made in the bedroom? Also, is mixing two records together in this way to create a new song employing compositional "principals"?

    From what I've heard and, more particularly, read of these they still seem examples of technology making it easier/cheaper for people to do things that were being done anyway. Unexpected juxtaposition, quotation, overlapping pieces, etc., have always been an aspect of avant-garde performance and composition, since long before DJ culture or even rock'n'roll. So this is composition and some of it is as clever, creative, thought provoking, moving, etc., as any other kind of music. But I'm not sure it's new in principal. If the key compositional effects of previous technology concerned volume (loud and soft--use of electrical amplification), repetition and layering (use of tape), I'm not sure what digital has really done, for all the rhetoric of interactivity, etc.

I'm curious to know your thoughts on any of the following critics (i.e., how or if they influenced your thinking):

  • Pauline Kael
        Yes, liked her! She was particularly important in articulating an account of the value of popular art in terms of craft, professionalism, the simple pleasure of seeing something--anything--done well, and as being entirely uninfluenced by any sense of conflict between art and commerce (while being perfectly cogent on how commercial pressures could ruin things).

  • Marshall McLuhan
        One of the earliest of the soundbite cultural studies people whose arguments were actually extremely hard to follow and based in dubious evidence. So not much influence (consciously at any rate) but I did read everything he wrote at an impressionable age and he certainly inspired me to think that the media were a suitable topic for high academicism.

  • Camille Paglia
        I went to some trouble to get her book when it first came out (probably because of a Greil Marcus review) but never read more than a few pages--didn't seem to be about anything I cared about. I've been entertained by her various rows but I can't take her seriously as a music critic--too much time spent in self-justification.

  • Richard Meltzer
        I found the Aesthetics of Rock book unreadable when it came out and ever since. But I liked him the one time I met him, liked Gulcher quite a lot, and he's written some of the funniest one liners ever. I'm not sure he really is a music writer, though. An essayist and short story writer for whom music is just a trigger. He hasn't influenced me but he is, I guess, a significant other--the person against whose measure anything I've ever done is obviously dull.

  • Nik Cohn (in particular, early Nik Cohn, the pop critic).
        Probably the person who inspired be to write about pop in the first place. He was the first person I read who wrote about British pop from the inside, as it were, and who made no attempt to redeem it. I also bought all his early novels the day they came out. On the other hand, he had little influence on how I wrote or what I wrote about

    Do you think there are significant differences between how American and British rock critics approach their subject? And is there any sort of parallel to be drawn here between American and British pop music?

        This question would need breaking down some--that is, there are critics and critics. And the differences between say Marcus/Christgau/Bangs/Marsh are just as great as between the average US and UK hack, just as in Britain there is no similarity whatsoever between the '70s/'80s NME and today's paper. That said there are some generalizations...US critics are more professional, UK critics are more cynical; US critics are more egalitarian, UK critics are more self-conscious; US critics are more pompous, UK critics are more utilitarian. By and large (as a Brit) I think UK critics have better musical tastes. All these things could be said about US/UK musicians too.

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    > >From: Frank Kogan
    > >Date: Sunday, September 08, 2002 3:08 PM

    Simon, what do you think of Shakira? My idea is that Ray Charles knocked down the barrier between gospel and Garland, Celine Dion (and many others) knocked down the barrier between Charles and Streisand, and Shakira now knocks down the barrier between Celine and Dylan. But I don't know if Shakira's success will change the game, or have little effect.

        I don't think much about her at all, I fear. Like Pink she sells records here, so I must have heard her on the radio, but she's not a pop phenomenon and has left no traces in my imagination.
         I would answer your question with two tangential answers, though.
         First, the British pop industry seems more peculiarly British presently than at any time since the 1950s. The acts who get all the attention may be consumed by very young record buyers (the promotional norm for new groups now is free tours of elementary schools) but their fame depends on an unholy combination of tabloid press gossip (preferably of a sexual nature) and tabloid television shows (which want troupers who can sing their hearts out on stage one minute and cry their hearts out off stage the next). Music is not exactly irrelevant here, but works as a more or less serviceably background sound to other dramas, even on record. But then you've got your Pop Star now too.
         Second, I don't really hear Ray Charles or Celine Dion like you do. Or, rather, you've made me think about a different point. In their different ways, Charles and Dion provide ways of emoting (male/female) that aren't camp (like Garland/Streisand) because they're not excessive. Celine Dion is probably the most loathed superstar I can remember, at least by everyone I know, not just critics but even my mother-in-law who usually shares my 'bad' musical taste. I doubt if she will ever be redeemed, Abba-style, and what seems to concern everyone is that she is just naff.

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    > >From: Jay Schwartz
    > >Date: Tue, 10 Sep 2002 08:57:36 -0400 (EDT)

    What is your all-time favourite Pet Shop Boys song, and why?

        I'd answer this differently on different days, but at the moment "West End Girls" because it still sounds like the perfect pop song, owing as much to Noel Coward (bitter sweet and all that) as to disco, and feeling (at least today) more timeless than their later, subtler tracks.

    Why do you think the Pet Shop Boys outlasted most of their synthesizer contemporaries from the '80s?

        More intelligent--they had things to sing about; better musical taste--no hang-ups about prog rock; much better writing for the voice--Neil's vocals are far more characterful than the voices in most duos, even Erasure, not because he's a better singer but because the songs are written around his slightly plaintive, conversational, reluctant to be too emotional style.

    How did you feel about being mentioned several times in Literally, Chris Heath's Pet Shop Boys biography?

        Dead chuffed!

    Is there any modern band (from the last 10 years) who have intrigued you as much as PSB?

        There are bands whose music I like a lot (The Coral and The Streets and Mull Historical Society presently) but nobody whose sensibility has been so fascinating--Pulp probably come closest.

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    > >From: Mark Sinker
    > >Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002 10:49 PM

    How did you get to where you are and what you are?

        With hard work and by never saying no--I'm not sure that here is where I want to be.

    It's nearly 25 years since Sound Effects was first published, as The Sociology of Rock. In that time, what's most surprised and pleased you about its reception, and what's disappointed you most?

        Surprised: that nobody else did it. Pleased: that it's still treated as a definitive text. Disappointed: that it's still treated as a definitive text

    Do you consider Sound Effects and Performing Rites as correctives to some extant way of thinking (or not thinking) about music? If so, what--and did they work?

        Sound Effects: as a corrective to the neglect of music in media studies and the sociology of culture, no it didn't. It is still neglected (I believe that society is best studied through music rather than vice versa but there are only a handful of academic sociologists globally who believe this). As a corrective to rock ideology ('authenticity,' etc.) then it definitely did effect thinking--or rather argument. Performing Rites: as a corrective to assumption that high/low music described quite different things, I think it has had some effect (or, at least, fed into other ways of arguing this)--though more so in Britain than the US.

    What questions did Sound Effects and Performing Rites ask--if not answer--that hadn't been asked before?

        Sound Effects: How successful/powerful was the music industry actually? Why did rock seem such an important (self-important?) form of pop? Performing Rites: What's going on when people evaluate music? Why should pop fans evaluations be any different in philosophical terms than classical fans' judgements?

    As a sociologist you have to talk and think about class: what is the single most maddening cliché in rock & class/pop & class that you have to bully yr students out of?

        I'm not sure class clichés come up here. The most maddening assumptions are a) that girl groups/pop bands are by definition worthless and b) that pretentious rock bands (e.g., Radiohead) are fighting the forces of commerce. I can't remember class ever being raised--not much by me. I suspect this is a subject for further investigation--is rock now an essentially middle class music?

    Ambushed by the Unexpected: what insights from yr students, if any, changed how you think/work? (If none, does that suggest there's a problem?)

        Sounds before insights--hearing Thai pop quite shifted my understanding of world music (which tends to exclude/dismiss 'commercialized' forms of local music while 'commercializing' the authentic sounds for global consumption). It was students talking about their own musical maps who made me realize that Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, etc. marked the integration of indie and dancehall sensibilities that had previously been opposed. Discussions of students' everyday musical tastes/practices led to me thinking anew about the role of music in everyday life--e.g., I'm more interested in friendship than identity, which definitely goes against the grain of cultural studies academia presently. Not sure students have changed the way I work, though having to justify what I do to people who have little interest in it is endlessly frustrating/inspiring.

    Here are two well-known radical cult crit positions rendered as cartoons. 1. Frankfurt-Leavisite: "Oh you fools, you are being gulled by the unsleeping evil corrupting manipulative barbarian Culture Industry, as are the Passive Masses. Example of corrupting trivial mesmerizing evil: DISCO." 2. Birmingham School Cult-Stud: "Oh you fools, you are being gulled by your own unsleeping evil corrupting manipulative sense of Snobby Cultural Superiority, unlike the Masses who know Where It's At, and actively subvert social norms by virtue of what they appear merely passively to consume. Example of Active Subversion: DISCO." Pre-'68, the customer is always wrong. Post-'68, the customer is always right. Is that fair? Take it to pieces even if you think it is.

        This is turning into an exam paper which I'll resist, just make the point that neither Frankfurt nor Birmingham schools actually did much work on how the music industry actually works (which means both, from different ends, underplay the complexity of the production/consumption process), and that both Frankfurt and Birmingham assume that any psychological issues here can be referred to Freud.

    What was rock's attitude to sociology in 1978?

        In as far as it (who?) had one it was that sociology either stated the obvious or missed the point.

    What was the industry's attitude to sociology in 1978?

        The industry is only interested in market research.

    What is rock's attitude to sociology now?

        It hasn't changed.

    What is the industry's attitude to sociology now?

        It hasn't changed.

    How much truth is there in Ben Watson's "Popsicle Academy" claim that Sociology, Cultural Studies, etc., by covering pop music at all, are primarily concerned with rebranding themselves as branches of market research (i.e., offering themselves as a more useful future, career-wise, to students).

        I don't understand why selling new kinds of courses on the grounds they'll get students jobs is market research, as against just marketing, so I don't altogether follow this question. And you'd need to distinguish between the rise of cultural studies (which certainly has its own material causes) from sociology, which has always--rightly--claimed to study all aspects of social life. Speaking personally, the question isn't relevant as teaching anything about popular music has and is a minor part of my teaching life, and isn't offered to students as any sort of vocationalism. If true, is this a problem? An opportunity? No answer.

    Which is the bigger evil: market research as a whole, or poor market research? Same question re: focus groups?

        Market research as a whole. To my mind the hustler, the salesman, is as significant to popular culture as the performer--and uses much the same persuasive skills (the great salesman of the last 30 years was Rupert Murdoch). The model here is that someone is inspired by a song or group or act to go out and get a market for it. Market research is a way of persuading producers that you have a scientific understanding of what is actually irrational--public taste--and that they should produce/mould acts accordingly. Focus groups are one of the scientific trappings. This approach--giving people what they want and getting market researchers to determine what that might be--is always going to be worse for culture than giving people what they should want and persuading them that indeed they do (which is not just an issue for public service broadcasting but the working practice of all good marketing). The reason why you think people should want something is another matter.

    What would Punk Market Research consist of?

        I've no idea what you're talking about.

    What's the fact about rock culture that you'd most like to be true/false, that--reluctantly and after much resistance and soul-searching--you have concluded AIN'T?

        That it would open people's ears rather than close them.

    Commodification: is it a good or a bad thing?

        Shopping--is it a good or bad thing? We have to do it, that's how we live.

    Rock's mythologies of liberation/resistance/freedom are endlessly complicit in the selling process of the music/the lifestyle: is this a good or a bad thing?

        A good thing as a matter of sensibility, a bad thing as a matter of thought.

    Name three great overlooked writers.

        Writers about music: Richard Williams; Chris Heath; Ben Thompson.

    Name five great overlooked records.

        Delgados, The Great Eastern; Pulp, This is Hardcore; Fred Frith, Eye to Ear; Michael Marre, Posted Sober; Aztec Camera, Dreamland.

    Talk us through the Popstars and Pop Idol phenomena.


    Does Reality TV demystify the gatekeeper and/or process? Would the industry be improved if Ahmet Ertegun and/or Alan McGee had to demonstrate the courage of his public convictions the way Nigel Lythgoe does?

        Yes and yes.

    A year in, the Reserve Army of Wannabes have seen exactly what's on offer--so who's Radical Artist enough to step up and USE this forum, and how could it be used?

        You want a name? It would need somebody who could polarize the views of the public and the professionals (we've seen signs of this) but given that the professionals are partly chosen for their ability to respond to the public, and that the public is anyway represented by the tabloids, it's difficult to see this going all the way. But we'll see. I believe strongly that things do go wrong...

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    > >From: Frank Kogan
    > >Date: Tuesday, September 12, 2002 8:12 PM

    What do you think that politics has learned from rock'n'roll (and related pop musics)?

        Politics or politicians? Nothing much--maybe something about crowd control.

    What would you like politics to learn from rock'n'roll (and related pop musics)?

        That people are as instinctively social as individual, sociable as competitive, and that curiosity is a more important human motivator than fear.

    What do you think that academics and intellectuals have learned from rock'n'roll (and related pop musics)?

        Academics nothing at all (I suppose musicologists have learned something about musical principles they hadn't previously thought about)--from a sociological/anthropological point of view rock'n'roll is just one more example of life's rich tapestry...Intellectuals is a more interesting question. I still get the sense that while rock/pop now features on the soundtrack of most novels, movies, TV series, art works, etc., it is in just the same way as any other songs. This may now be changing, but I'm not sure whether public speech--newspaper writing, essayists, politicians, etc.--could be said to have changed the rhythms or what I'd call the compactness or even the elusiveness with which they make words mean. Maybe it's an effect of aging but I'm more often surprised these days by how little things change not how much.

    What would you like academics and intellectuals to learn from rock'n'roll (and related pop musics)?

        I've no idea. Until I became an academic I thought people were necessarily changed--made better people--by reading books and listening to music (let alone by writing them). Now I don't. Never be too certain, I guess.

    "Intellectual" can include you or Frank Kogan, or Lester Bangs or Iggy or Jagger or Clinton or Kraftwerk or Ornette or Chuck D. But can it include Timbaland or Missy Elliott or Beyoncé Knowles? Can it include Chuck Berry? Can it include Little Richard? Can it include Louis Armstrong? Can it--the real big deep question--include Elvis?

        Yes, of course. As Gramsci long ago argued, being an "intellectual" is not a question of social status, but social role. Timbaland, Elvis, et al. all have an effect on our perceptions of the world. Even George W. Bush is an intellectual, even if his mouth is worked by other people.

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    > >From: Myles Barker
    > >Date: Thursday, September 12, 2002 4:20 pm

    What is presently your favourite type of record shopping experience? Chain stores (i.e., HMV), small indie operated stores, online purchasing, etc?

        I loathe chain stores--particularly Virgin--and don't shop in them, except for the classical/world music sections of Tower in London, just because they're huge. I've always shopped in small, indie specialist shops but they're all now gone in Glasgow (one little classical shop left). There is an indie vinyl-inflected chain, Fopp, which is good value but not particularly pleasurable as a hang out. Second hand shops have taken over the small shop role, but mostly with lousy stock, though a Scottish outpost of Rough Trade is due to open shortly, for which I've got high hopes. I can't resist the vinyl racks in charity shops, though rarely find much these days. I online purchase things I know I want. I can no longer go record shopping as a weekly therapy but I still fantasize about finding the perfect shop.

    Can you describe your relationship with Lester Bangs and Creem magazine during the days of your "Letter From Britain" column? Was Bangs a good editor to work for? Did you have much contact with your American colleagues at the time?

        These were pre-email, pre-fax, even pre-computer days. I mailed columns in; they got published, usually without any editing at all. Day-to-day editorial matters (all done by post)--deadlines, cheques, etc.--were, as I remember it, handled by Susan Whitall. Every month a critical analysis of the latest issue was circulated (produced I guess by the editorial team, sometimes just Lester), so I got to find out what they thought of what I'd written. I got fairly regular long letters from Lester (whom at that stage I'd never met) which could be about anything, but were never about my column. I was never ever given any instruction as to what to cover, and all my suggestions for features were approved. Otherwise I had regular correspondence with Greil Marcus (who'd become a friend while I was at Berkeley) and Dave Marsh (who commissioned the Creem column). But I didn't have very much sense of the US rock crit scene.

    Any theories as to why Britain hasn't produced many great rappers?

        By coincidence, this year's Mercury Music Prize shortlist includes three rappers: Roots Manuva, Ms Dynamite, The Streets. Roots Manuva has been round awhile, but Run Come Save Me seems to me the first really effective British rap album--it clearly is a Black British record in terms of voice, concern, rhythm. etc., while retaining the essential energy and jittery drive of US rap. Ms Dynamite has a different approach, using US producers to underpin her super sharp words (a fine album, I think). The Streets may not be rap exactly--to my ears he (Mike Skinner) is reflecting on growing up (white) in Birmingham more in the tradition of punk poets like John Cooper Clarke and Patrick Fitzgerald, using club sounds and a very funny mix of voices. These records, which all work very well, may give clues to the answer to your question: on the one hand, city music here has been dance music, jungle etc., in which rap is just one of many cut-in styles; on the other hand, it's been quite difficult for British acts to develop a rap voice (given they're using the same language) that doesn't sound imitation-American (a long standing problem for British rock). Somewhere in here there's probably an argument about different rhythmic sensibilities, and another about why the British music industry has been unable to sustain a major British r&b star.

    Are you still pleased with your Stranded selection of Beggars Banquet, and the accompanying essay?

        Yes! I still love/play the record and find what I said interesting!

    Robert Christgau mentioned in his Online Exchange that [the Stones] power as a band has diminished over time. Do you agree?

        Yes, and I haven't found them interesting on record for a very long time. On the other hand, Keith Richard is some kind of genius and I tend to think that the sheer stage power of the Stones/Who hasn't really been matched as a matter of musical arrangement (rather than amplification) by any band since.

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    > >From: Scott Woods
    > >Date: Friday, September 13, 2002 1:37 AM

    In your answer (above) about Celine Dion, you said, "I doubt if she will ever be redeemed, Abba-style..." As someone who grew up with pop music in the '70s, I've been obsessed with Abba-style "redemptions" ever since the mid-or-late-80s, when not just Abba, but Led Zeppelin, the Carpenters, Black Sabbath, and numerous early '70s K-Tel one-shots and oddities (from "Hitchin' a Ride" to "Little Green Bag") underwent something of a critical re-evaluation. Except that it wasn't really the critics leading the brigade--it was the artists: Quentin Tarantino, the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, the Replacements, and hip-hoppers too numerous to mention. You strike me as someone who's always been sympathetic to discredited artists and genres, and I'm wondering, does it please you to see the likes of Abba come up for a critical re-evaluation years after their last actual hit? (Ditto for '70s disco.) And why do you think critics often miss the boat with radio pop or loathed genres (like soft-rock and metal) the first time around?

        There are two different issues here, one about canon formation (and musical memory), one about critics. I think the creation of musical history, musical memories, and the relationship between them is an interesting and complicated process. How does the canon of great pop and rock works get built? There are a number of ways, which don't necessarily coincide.

  • Straight commercial: radio is probably the key here. Golden/oldie/classic stations playlist primarily according to chart success; radio hits remain radio hits, though with some subtle shifts. There are certainly some 'classic' tracks that are more successful in this guise than they were originally. The Eagles' hits were much more commercially successful thus packaged (as Their Greatest Hits 1971-75) than originally. Bob Marley and the Wailers' Legend likewise. This is not so much redemption as a kind of repositioning in the soundscape (and the use of particular old tracks on commercials or in films can accelerate this process). The other side of this process is that some very successful acts for their time barely register again after their demise--I don't think I've heard a Peter Frampton track on air (or anywhere else) for at least twenty years. Record companies have some influence here too, of course, in terms of what they choose to release, how much they invest in marketing, etc.--Abba and the Bee Gees have an ongoing radio life in a way that, say, the Kinks or the Cars don't (at least in Britain). What's going on here is less to do with nostalgia as to what fits into radio stations' format and basic sound.
  • Musical influence: Bands/tracks live on because of their effects on other bands/tracks and as these in turn become successful so this success is reflected in a new interest in/respect for the original. Velvet Underground are probably still the most famous example of this, or, more locally, Big Star and the La's. (And there is, of course, ceaseless activity going on among collectors, fanzine writers, etc., to uncover lost classics and explain why some obscure track is the most important ever made. Some of these people form bands themselves, just as deejays doing similar quarrying moved from issuing streams of records called Buried Treasures, to making music out of such treasures sampled.
  • Personal commitment: There are undoubtedly some artists (Bob Dylan, the Smiths, PJ Harvey) who inspire in their fans a kind of commitment which isn't necessarily translated into immediate commercial success but means they'll go on being listened to--intently--for ever! (And will shape the tastes of the fans' children and their children's children.)
  • The academy: As popular music courses grow, so will a canon of those works thought fit to teach. This is primarily determined by pedagogic needs. So, musicology departments feature progressive rock in their canon more prominently than anywhere else because it lends itself to technical musical analysis, while cultural studies departments elevate Talking Heads, Madonna, and rap because they can be discussed in terms of postmodernism.
        How do critics fit into this? They play a part in all these processes, of course, although a much smaller one than critics in other fields, and it's probably unfair to talk in terms of missing the boat and then hastily jumping aboard when it comes round again--as acts get revived so their meaning changes. So I'm pleased that I wrote in praise of Abba in Creem, and was amused by the sudden critical interest in them in the 1990s, but I think the point of your question here is different. My critical principle has always been that a great record can come from anywhere and anyone at any time. It is still possible that the Rolling Stones will make the greatest track of their career, that a Pop Star will put out a single that I'll want to live with daily. The great pleasure of the radio (though increasingly denied by its formats) is that one can hear something without any trappings and be immediately hooked by it. What you call my sympathy to discredited artists really just means that I've trusted my ears first--run out to buy Robbie Williams' "Angel" or the Blue album before realizing how naff it is. And I still love '70s disco more than anything else.

    Click here for part 2 of Simon Frith