Culture Rover

#115 - Semipopular Criticism and Cultural Pluralism

Good interview with Dean of the College of Rock Criticism, Robert Christgau, in Popmatters.

Especially useful is his idea of "semipopular music," which is a way of thinking about music that is pop, but not necessarily popular.

"I mean, the first column I wrote for the Village Voice in 1969 was called 'Gap Again,' which was about the generation gap I perceived as existing, not between the old and the young, but between the three different generations of youth audiences. A year later, I wrote about the 'Semipopular,' or the growth of a kind of music that had all the earmarks of popular music, except it wasn't popular with a mass audience. Only certain people liked it. These two pieces form the cornerstone of my personal theory about music and culture. When I grew up, there was a monoculture. Everybody listened to the same music on the radio. I miss monoculture. I think it's good for people to have a shared experience." - Robert Christgau

You could just say that the semipopular is just commercial music gone niche -- mass consumerism abandoned for market segmentation. But there is something else to the idea of the semipopular, too. Here is a whole world of mass culture that is somewhere in between the niche market of consumer segmentation and the mass market of what Christgau calls "monoculture."

Of course, there is the whole question of whether there ever truly was a "monoculture" for "everybody," or just an imposed dominant culture by one group on everyone else, but that is a topic for another time. For now, I think Christgau's idea of the "semipopular" poses another key issue. It marks the appearance of difference and distinction as modes of being in mass culture rather than sameness and homogeneity.

Longing for the monoculture of the past (or the imagined monoculture of the past), Christgau himself implicitly asks how shared experience can ever come about in a world of multiple "semipopular" musics and cultures? What kind of common culture can we have? What can knit us together? Or to put it another way: can mass culture contain difference and commonality simultaneously? This has always been, and continues to be, the elusive but essential project of cultural pluralism. Can we all hang together or will we all, eventually, hang apart?

23 October 2006

Back to #114

Go to #116