British sociologist Chris Rojek has just published a major work in the social analysis of pop music.  To say its argument isn’t completely satisfying doesn’t belittle the remarkable accomplishment of Pop Music, Pop Culture (Polity, 2011), which covers the gamut of musical production, content, and reception from the pre-historic oral tradition to today’s P2P networks.  Most distinctively, Pop Music, Pop Culture(hereafter, PMPC) is the first work that I know of in this genre to address the “tectonic” technological and cultural shifts brought about by the rise of the laptop and mobile phone as our main listening devices.  I can’t think of any other academic textbook that mentions Spotify or, much less gives them the even-handed and thoroughly sociological treatment as Rojek has done here.

PMPC works well as a college-level survey of the key empirical developments and scholarly perspectives in popular music.  Sure, there are interesting digressions into specific music groups and industry trends throughout the book, but make no mistake: it’s a work of academic theory, and if you’re unaccustomed to theorists’ generalizing sweep across case studies and the way they pose questions for your consideration by making bold assertions supported elsewhere (i.e., in the bibliography), you may find PMPC a tough read.  Still, many readers eager for something more intellectually substantial than the normal mass-market music book fare will find something stimulating to chew on here.  Or, think about it this way: in a little over 200 pages, you can come away from PMPC with a rather extensive review of the many ways that academics have approached the topic of pop music, no term papers or essay exams necessary.


Cultural de-differentiation and cultural monadism

As for Rojek’s own framework, he characterizes it like this: “Pop culture, rather than the biography of the artist, the history of the record corporation or the values of the media, is regarded to be the crucible for understanding pop music” (pg. 9).  His notion of pop culture doesn’t actually exclude these other emphases, but rather incorporates them alongside further interest in the evolving technologies of musical performance and dissemination; the diverse yet dynamic ways that listeners consume and come together around music; and the recent diminishment of music into just another multimedia format alongside videogames, film and TV properties, and celebrity branding.  This catholic approach lets Rojek survey the entire circuit of creative production and consumption (encoding and decoding for the cultural studies specialists) with a particular attention to the struggles for creative control between corporations who organize the economic contexts for musical production; the artists, technicians, managers and other professionals who create the music and its (often inseparable) publicity; and the audiences who seek to incorporate music (sometimes as devoted fans, sometimes with little thought) into the practice of their everyday lives.

The trend across the last few centuries toward increasing technological mediation, economic rationalization, and audience expansion in popular music leads toward a contemporary pattern of cultural de-differentiation, in which global networks and digital technologies introduce whole new dimensions of cultural activity that a narrow focus on ‘music’ is likely to miss.  Cultural de-differentiation, meaning “the collapse of boundaries and the breakdown of genres” (pg. 6), includes some familiar artistic developments celebrated by pop music analysts, such as the re-splicing of genres, references, and performative/compositional techniques illustrated by hip hop, sampling and scratching.  Rojek identifies analogous shifts in the music industry: corporate reorganizations and business strategies centered upon “bespoke aggregation in which recordings are franchised as ringtones, internet streaming, advertising jingles and computer games” (pg. 144).  (I think PMPC provides quite insightful discussion of Simon Fuller and Simon Cowell, those music management/TV programming gurus who can be blamed for several insipid developments in recent pop culture.)  Music fans also drive the engine of cultural de-differentiation via illegal file-sharing, increasing sophistication in the consumption of celebrity and spectacle, and growing expenditures on non-musical multimedia, all of which compel recording artists and music companies to further evolve.  Even our conceptual distinctions between artists, corporations and audiences are complicated by the trend of cultural de-differentiation, as the boundary-crossing examples of Sean Combs, mashups, and music blogs illustrate.

The context of cultural de-differentiation gives rise to an emergent mode of listening that takes active listening and subcultural identifications (traditional subjects in the academic field of cultural studies) to new levels.  Rojek call this cultural monadism, and it’s worth quoting his explanation in length:

A cultural monad is someone who distils wider cultural agendas and internalizes and applies them as a private, mobile unit in the form of gestural currency.  Consumption occurs through a combination of multi-media platforms, including television, film, DVD, games and the web.  Because the distillation of culture occurs along many fronts and through multiple media, social unity and collective focus are more elusive.  In order to be regarded as credible, competent and relevant agents, cultural monads need to be well versed in popular culture.  This includes knowing about the deceptions of solidarity as well as the social and cultural potential of togetherness.  In sum, the main characteristics of cultural monadism are as follows:

1. Articulation: knowledge about cultural data and associated powers of expression.
2. Mobility: an ease of movement along many layers and between many fronts of popular culture.
3. Dramaturgy: the competence and credibility to transplate political, cultural and economic issues into gestural culture. By this term I mean a form of cultural articulation that expresses commitment and solidarity as cultural representation rather than a basis for action.  So the cultural monad, unlike the activist, listens to ‘Feed the World’ (1984), approves of the sentiment with respect to global inequality and the complacency of the advanced industrial countries and uses it as a cultural capital to achieve identification, without engaging in any form of concrete action to transform things.

Might it be that mobility, access (including unlawful access) and privacy are the primary characteristics of the consumption of pop, so that the main consumer type is the cultural monad? (pp. 31-2)


PMPC’s implicit urban theory

So far I’ve discussed the domain of Rojek’s pop music analysis on his own terms.  But I’m primarily interested in a question that is of secondary interest in PMPC: what do these cultural shifts portend for musical urbanism?  The digital deterritorialization of music production, exchange and consumption; the decline of brick-and-mortar music retailers; the mobility of digital music collections; the increasing privacy of the settings where we listen to music — all of these trends appear to destabilize the traditional relationship between cities and pop music.

Let me clarify.  Rojek in fact devotes considerable attention to the “urban-industrial backbeat,” by which he means the concrete contexts and settings that give meaning and motivation to our uses and activities of pop music.  Consider the following statements:

Urban-industrial society creates a new aesthetics, having to do with the body, that the Romantic division between body and soul cannot encapsulate (pg. 74, characterizing Richard Shusterman’s criticism of Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory).

The idea that popular music is a form of ‘enstorying’, of encoding personal and collective life experience, connects up with the proposition that some music performers are entry points into the cultural biography of a time and place and the related notion that some popular songs provide a ‘window’ into a specific ‘structure of feeling’ that is summative of a discernible geography, history and culture (pg. 80, referencing Paul Friedlander’s agency framework on pop music).

In the twentieth century, pop evolved into the urban-industrial backbeat of daily life.  Nearly every home and vehicle has a sound system of some sort.  Canned music is a standard feature of shopping malls, call centre waiting lists, fast-food places, elevators, hotel lobbies and most forms of advertising.  Sports arenas play popular music during half-time intervals and before and after fixtures.  The Super Bowl intermission has become one of the pre-eminent stages for live music in the world (pg. 46).

There’s no question, then, that Rojek acknowledges the multidimensional force of the city — its spaces, social relations, economies and institutions — as a structuring context, an independent variable if you will, for pop music.  Rather, it’s the collective, public or subcultural nature of city life — the city’s status as a dependent variable of pop music, to extend the analogy — that Rojek’s analysis questions by implication.

One of the most compelling cases in PMPC’s implicit urban theory comes from the decline of urban musical subcultures.  What effects do deterritorialization, digital networks, and the rise of cultural monadism have on this mode of urbanism?

For example, internet exchange makes it unlikely that regional subcultures, like the Mersey and Madchester scenes of, respectively, the 1960s and late 1980s, or the Compton rap scene in Southern Los Angeles of the 1990s, will emerge with the same force and influence in the future.  Scenes depend upon physical locations.  The effect of the internet is to disembed listening and the production of music from primary spatial locations like the neighborhood or the city and spread them out electronically (pg. 9).

Of course youth subcultures continue to exist, but visual and oral markers are less pronounced.  The main reason for this is the transformation in the supply routes of popular music.  The internet and the iPod have replaced the radio and the club as the prime sources of access.  The mobile, private nature of internet consumption militates against the incubation of strong ties of collectivity and solidarity which are the prerequisites to delineate social inclusion and exclusion.  It encourages forms of flexible consumption.  For consumers are able to download files from many genres, from soul, post-punk, heavy metal, rap, jungle and electronica, without committing to any one of them.  The iShuffle function on the iPod is a metaphor for how popular music is widely accumulated and experienced through downloading, streaming and ripping…. The result is the dilution of metropolitan tribal looks, since access and consumption are often mobile and private rather than public and concentrated in specific social and physical settings (pg. 81).

Or, consider the urban institutions that traditionally support pop music.  Few can argue with Rojek’s assertion that the “high street record store” where fans discover new music and absorb aesthetic/subcultural distinctions has generally disappeared from the urban scene.  Even behind-the-scenes infrastructure like recording studios, which organize collective artistic-technical labor and imbue aesthetic-commercial distinction into recordings, is going the way of the dodo bird, increasingly replaced by “the laptop as the main digital compositional tool” (pg. 140).

In sum, the digital/network manifestations of cultural de-differentiation mean that we increasingly listen to music alone, at least where physical settings — the most traditional of urban dimensions — are concerned.  This isn’t to say that pop music today portends social isolation and anomie.  As analysts of network society (e.g., Manuel Castells), virtual community (Barry Wellman, Mary Chayko), and the individualization of social structure (Ulrich Beck, John Urry) might anticipate, Rojek asserts that individuals simply carry the channels of musical production, exchange, and consumption on their own backs, or rather in their laptops and mobile phones.  But physical spaces for cultural sharing and collective action around pop music are on the decline.  For Rojek, the only exception is the concert venue, as the erosion of the music-industry model on selling CDs and other material objects has bestowed new cultural value and economic scarcity to live performance.


Theorizing the urbanism of cultural monadism

And this is where Rojek’s implicit urban theory leaves us.  Not that the domain of his argument can be faulted (this is a general work of pop music studies, after all), but I think this is ultimately unsatisfying, if only because Rojek doesn’t engage the explicit urban theory that touches on many of the developments that PMPC addresses.

Most obviously, economic geographers and economic analysts would probably reject his implication that cities are unimportant to musical infrastructure and economies.  The research of Allen J. Scott and Richard Florida have documented pretty well that despite the possibilities of digital technologies, recording studios, music corporations and professionals, and musicians themselves are concentrated in a conspicuously small number of cities and regions.  I suspect this might be an issue where the glass can be variously viewed as half-full or half-empty.  How many recordings need to be made on laptop computers in bedrooms and other DIY settings, and how much control needs to be retaken by artists from the economic and geographic centers of the music industry, before we have an “emergent” trend — which is ultimately the kind of argument Rojek is putting forth?  (That said, most electronic music recording artists know that you better get that digital file professionally mastered before you play it at the club, and mastering facilities aren’t located just anywhere.)

I’m more intrigued presently by Rojek’s argument about cultural monadism, which I find to be a compelling analysis of the ways we often listen to pop music today.  There’s no doubt that this activity is increasingly taking place online and on the move.  But does this activity make an imprint upon physical geography and urban life?  I think it does.

For one thing, I suspect that if you were to locate the people sustaining the cutting edges of cultural monadism — expertise in music knowledge and celebrity culture, an omnivorous appetite for genre, consumption of multiple media (and by necessity competency across multiple technologies), and Rojek’s delightfully eggheaded notion of “gestural culture” — you would find them particularly concentrated in the enclaves of young affluent consumers that we associate with bohemian enclaves and college towns.  Here urban space plays a vital role in not only supporting flexible consumption economically and infrastructurally, but symbolizing flexible consumption and signaling it to other cultural monads as well.  As real estate agents and college admissions staff might tell you, there’s no simpler lifestyle cue for today’s cultural monad than a coffeeshop with wi-fi and loads of young people walking around with iPods and cool band t-shirts.

Of course, cultural monadism isn’t exclusive to hipsters; middle-age bloggers like myself and high-school American Idol viewers texting their votes for Scotty also fit the definition.  But if the locational visibility of these demographics don’t in fact trigger bona fide investments and developments in brick-and-mortar urban space (your Best Buys, American Apparel outlets, Starbucks, etc.), at the very least they colonize community life with the ever-evolving constellations of remote affiliations, secondary group identities, and superficial relatings that have been associated with urbanismsince Georg Simmel and Louis Wirth.  The latter famously theorized that urbanism could no longer contained within cities.  Might PMPC reveal the latest textures of “urbanism as a way of life”?

And what of the public nature of urban life?  Anyone who’s shared a subway car crowded with iPod zombies knows that cultural monads are indeed attuned to their own individualized, cognitive space and unavailable for social exchange.  For my money, the best conceptualization of this is “chill urbanism,” as explained by Michael Bull in his book Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience (Routledge, 2007):

Isolation in the midst of connectivity — this is the urban tale to unravel and conceptualise, demanding a theoretical articulation of the twin phenomena of urbani isolation and connectivity.  iPod culture embodies a dialectical relationship between the desire for an ever-present intimate or personal connectivity and the impoverishment of the social and geographical environment within which it occurs.  This dynamic is expressed theoretically in the present work through the concepts of ‘warm’ and ‘chilly’ — ‘warm’ representing the proximate, the inclusive; ‘chilly’ the distant and exclusive….  iPod culture represents an expression of personal creativity coupled with a denial of the physicality of the city.  The city becomes individualised in iPod culture — a unique and pleasurable experience, as one New Yorker commented: ‘This [New York] is a great city where you might not wat to be infiltrated by anyone else’s distracting or disruptive energy’….  iPod use makes the city what it is for users — rather than the city as inhabited by embodied ‘others’.  iPod culture is a culture in which individual experience is cultivated, fostered and attended to through the micro-management and filtering of experience (Bull, pp. 8-9).

Significantly, iPod culture — a useful concept to emphasize the physical, interactive manifestations of cultural monadism — lets its participants aestheticize the city and its spaces with an individualized, on-demand soundtrack that enchants their sensory engagements with the physical environment.  Our sympathies with Jane Jacobs’ standards for public space (from The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “an almost unconscious assumption of general street support when the chips are down — when a citizen has to choose whether he will take responsibility, or abdicating it, in combating barbarism or protecting strangers”) might hinder us from seeing how the chill urbanism of cultural monads isn’t necessarily (only) an impoverishment of public space but (also) an affirmative redefinition of it.  In turn, the underlying context here is one Rojek might recognize, I think: the ordinary accomplishment of daily life in an urban setting of ontological, social, and lifestyle insecurity.