History without royalty? Queen and the strata of the popular music canon
My article, ‘History without royalty? Queen and the strata of the popular music canon’, published in Popular Music (32.3), investigates canonisation processes in popular music, using Queen as a case study. The ‘popular music canon’ has been discussed in popular music studies for over a decade now, and canonisation is not always welcome. For example, Philip Tagg and Allan Moore have pointed out that classical musicology has been negatively affected by the canon of ‘great works’ by white male composers and its elitist claim for cultural hegemony. Accordingly they have demanded for popular music scholars to be self-reflective and aware of the effect of their work on canonisation. However, this requires cognisance of both the criteria of canonicity and the processes by which canons are established.
Following a discussion of the prevalent models of canon formation that have been applied in popular music studies so far, I argue that the criteria of canonicity are essentially the same in popular music as in the ‘classical’ arts, i.e., transcendence, historical importance and ‘greatness’, except that the latter is measured by ‘authenticity’ in popular music. The application of these criteria to popular music acts differs depending on people’s frame of reference as well as their knowledge and relationship to music. In order to account for these differences, I propose a model that distinguishes between three large strata in the popular music canon, the mainstream, critical and academic canons.
The reception history of Queen constitutes a particularly suitable case study for the analysis of canon formation processes and the relative importance of the three criteria of canonicity due to the discrepancies between the academic and mainstream view of the band and the changes that have taken place in the critical reception of Queen during the last 40 years. Detailed analysis reveals the relative importance and relationship between the three criteria of canonicity, of which ‘authenticity’ is the most complex and, at least initially, the most influential.
It seems to me that it can be useful for scholars to be aware of the dichotomy that arises from the dismissal of commercially successful acts in popular music studies based on the application of value criteria derived from the ‘classical’ arts – despite the fact that the field started out with a focus on the music of the ‘lower’ strata of society rather than that of the cultural elite.
In addition, an awareness of the discrepancies between the mainstream and academic canons may be useful since the field started out with a focus on the music of the ‘lower’ strata of society rather than that of the cultural elite. Indeed, the view of music history, whether classical or popular, as a succession of revolutionary moments is too narrow – history comprises not only the chronicling of the opposition to the mainstream, but also that of the mainstream itself.
Access the full article free of charge for a limited period here.