On pop music and the human condition

Remedios Varga-Taylor

Rebecca Sheehan

Rebecca Sheehan

‘Kanye West’s actions both at the Taylor Swift event and at the Beck winning have fundamentally protested racism in the music industry. In fact, during the years of her career Beyonce has largely been nominated for awards and won awards in categories that are traditionally black. This reflects segregation in the music industry that goes back to the 1920’s.”

And so Rebecca Sheehan begins to elegantly unfurl the misleading simplicity of popular music. She strips back the glossy layers to look at the often murky politics in the development of pop in the United States.

Beyonce and Kanye are victims of a long practice of creative segregation, says Dr Sheehan, who lectures on US history at the University of Sydney and writes on identity, music and culture.

“If you look for a Beyonce record, you might look in popular female artists. You wouldn’t find her there. You might look in top best-selling albums. You won’t find her there. Where you will find her records is in the urban category, where she is put and segregated along with other black artists.”

In the criticisms that followed the Beyonce, Kanye and Beck scandal, the justification was that Beyonce couldn’t own her music. Her music was collaborative, born from the work of many artists. Beck deserved to win because he was the sole artist. His sole authorship made his music more authentic.

“The message is clear,” Dr Sheehan says. “Beck is a great genius and worthy of the award because he did it himself. Beyonce was just one of many that worked on an album that she couldn’t possibly put together alone. The album was something that she honestly couldn’t take credit for. This is a standard that has never been applied to white male artists.”

Beyonce and Kanye are part of a culture that has survived through community; they are survivors of the deep histories of slavery in the US, she says. The survival of African Americans was partially because of their communities.

Dr Sheehan poses the question: “Is it less creative for people from historically marginalised communities to continue to create within these communities? Is the glorification of sole authorship simply a cover for supporting the continued authority of the straight white male?”

Popular music is shuttled between two poles. One is real, what popular culture accepts as legitimate. One is fake, a cynical product that is created for purchase; music that is manufactured and an extension of the capitalist system. She says Beck’s music is accepted as authentic, because it is informed by “our cultural obsession with lone artistic genius”.

So why then is authenticity so important? Dr Sheehan says the answer lies in the evolution of work and leisure. The industrial revolution left society deeply divided by class. Leisure culture emerged to placate class conflicts.

Music, in its various forms, came to signify the politics of class division. Pop music came to represent working and lower class leisure. “Authenticity seemed impossible, and yet became a kind of holy grail. The idea is that authenticity evades and defeats an artificial and dehumanising cultural economic system,” she says.

Critiquing of popular culture emerged in the 1960s. The birth of the new left and the counter-culture movement created this desire for the authentic. Folk and rock burst forth as authentic genres of music.

But this authentic expression was limited. During the sixties music production was dominated by white males. At the same time, the politics of identity met the politics of music. “The stakes of popular music are political,” Dr Sheehan says. “It’s also what makes the stakes so personal. Because in the concern for authenticity, our own identities are at stake.”

Identity is something she follows into the seventies, where New York authorities were defunding music programs in black communities while there was a rise in gang violence.

The young people became more resourceful in their music production. They scratched records and used drum machines. They created loops and beats. A youth called Afrika Bambaataa introduced break-dancing as a means of resolving gang conflict without violence.

This was the birth of hip hop. “There’s an incredible core in hip hop that’s about social identity, finding yourself and resisting a system that’s (left) you behind.”

Pop became a playground of identity. Pop music gave agency to people who were disempowered in the broader culture.

Then in the late seventies and early eighties the politics of gender and sexuality began to be explored in popular music. “David Bowie presented himself as a third gendered, bisexual alien. In the context of the gay liberation movement, listening to David Bowie was as empowering as marching in a gay liberation parade,” Dr Sheehan says.

“Pop provides a realm of possibilities where identities including race, class, gender and sexuality can be played with. It’s a realm where boundaries can be pushed, questioned and resisted. Pop can tell us much about the world and the human condition.”