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The Rise of Rock and Pop

Fabian Holt is an associate professor of music and performance at the University of Roskilde, Denmark.  He studied at the University of Copenhagen and was a research assistant professor there.  He also is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago.  Additionally, Holt is currently an external examiner at the University of Copenhagen and DK’s School of Design and Architecture.

In his book, Genre in Popular Music, Fabian Holt explores the concept of genre as well as the development and impact of rock and pop music as a cultural mainstream.  Focusing mainly on the 1950s to the 1990s, Holt delves deep into modern popular culture to discover the true meaning of genre.  Holt covers a broad spectrum of popular music genre, from roots music to rock music to jazz music.  He deems genre “a fundamental structuring force in musical life.”1 Through this literary piece, one’s mind opens to the deeper meaning of cultural fads and the direction of modern popular music.

Holt begins by describing the purpose of his book and the general concept of genre and popular music.  He establishes the role of popular music in contemporary society as a symbol of social groups, places, and time periods.  Holt explains, “genre is not only ‘in the music,’ but also in the minds and bodies of particular groups of people who share certain conventions.”2 Emerging as a term in the mid nineteenth century, genre is always collective, musically and socially, with age and gender being primary determinants of musical preferences.  In addition, genre categories can only be established if the music has a name.  Holt then describes how he framed his book, from the context of his inspiration to the book’s purpose.  The book is supposedly one of the first scholarly writings on genre.  Holt establishes that his book is about understanding rather than defining genres.  His purpose is to bring genre scholarship closer to musical practice and experience.  The chapters that follow are a series of case studies that examine musical and cultural issues of genre making.  The nine genres that Holt mentions are as follows: blues, jazz, country music, rock, soul/R&B, salsa, heavy metal, dance, and hip-hop.  He defines genre culture as a concept for the overall identity of the cultural formations in which a genre is constituted.  He also defines collectivities as everything from the intimate relation between a couple of fans or a band to communities and scenes.  Finally, modernization refers to the divisions in a genre culture that are exacerbated by the pressures of new fashions.  From the get-go, Holt makes his subject and objective clear—his book is a explanation and inquiry into the development and concept of genre in the twentieth century.

After the introduction, Holt proceeds first to folk music.  In the mid nineteenth century, the opposition between notions of a simple life in the pre-industrial South and a complex modernity in northern cities was a basic scheme in American popular culture.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) is a film in which musical performances are central in some of the momentous scenes but also function as entertainment in scenes of lesser importance.  Fantasies of authentic and unmediated history govern the representation of music, too.  O Brother did indeed boost the popularity of music that was largely unknown to younger generations.  Beginning in the late 1990s, a discourse on American roots music developed in music magazines, CD anthologies, and encyclopedias.  The audience consisted of people with different tastes and levels of genre specialization.  On a side note, experts in record companies’ headquarters notably had organized a central catalog in which every CD was registered under a numeric label.  According to the author, “Deciding what kind of music to play is apparently a matter of finding the community that best satisfies one’s needs.”3 Holt then advances to rock and roll, whose revolution was primarily located in the national mass media and was associated with stars.  Rock and roll affected musical cultures in the West and beyond.  It witnessed a split between younger people, who were attracted to new and outside influences, and older people, who were witnessing the loss of tradition.  The mid 1950s was a time of decline for the culture of live swing music and dancing.  The changes in media culture and markets and the advent of new social and musical styles were important components of a new era in popular music dominated by rock.

Holt then covers country music, which is defined publicly by media products that are aimed at a mass market and tell popular stories about popular things.  The corporate music industry became more interested in country music during the 1940s.  The optimism following the growth of country music was soon challenged by the emergence of a new musical form called rock and roll.  The country market shrank around 1954, but it recovered around 1958, and skyrocketed in early 1960s.  More traditional country music performers were losing ground, while those who were adjusting to pop were gaining ground.  Holt then describes the Nashville Sound style, which is defined by the absence of certain traditional instruments, and a smooth character created by strings.  The Nashville Sound was a move toward white mainstream pop.  Central to the values of the genre were notions of tradition and authenticity.  Country music did not change in the same way for everyone, and age-related divisions in the genre culture are important.  According to Holt, “One of the most obvious rules of the mainstream ideology is the systematic exclusion of elders.”4 Moving on to jazz, Holt explains that jazz diversified in the mid-twentieth century into cultures of traditional, modern, pop, and art jazz.  Jazz artists paid little attention to rock and roll in the 1950s, and the diversification of jazz continued after 1958.  On the other hand, folk revival took a share of the market away from various genres of music, including jazz.  Jazz artists had crossed boundaries to popular music in many ways before rock sounds emerged in full force around 1969.  For example, the Monterey International Pop Festival was held a year after the Monterey Jazz Festival.  Jazz was generally absent from big rock festivals and rock venues in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  However, the Newport Festival was a major jazz festival on the East Coast.  Moreover, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew signaled the full entry into the rock era of a canonical jazz artist.  In the early 1970s, it was clear that there would be no convergence of jazz and pop.

In the latter part of his book, Holt gets more specific, referring to the artist Jeff Parker and Chicago consistently.  Chicago has no big jazz stars, and gets little coverage in international publications.  Chicago’s cultural life is defined in relation to larger cities, especially New York and Los Angeles.  Holt claims, “Like the concept of culture, the concept of scene has been plagued by holistic views that create a false sense of unity.”5 Chicago has been divided between the black South Side and the white North Side since the 1920s.  The history of broad-minded mainstream musicians goes back at least to Von Freeman.  The term non-mainstream is centered on what jazz historians call free jazz or avant-garde, but the musicians instead us the terms free improve, improvised music, and creative music.  The musicians in the indie jazz community share an eclectic aesthetic of which avant-garde jazz is an important component.  Notably, magazines shape the practices and identities of individual musicians.  Furthermore, genre mixing is a central feature of musical practice in the underground circle.  Grooves function as a ground for music making in many oral traditions and can be viewed as vehicles for genre making.  About half the recordings on Like-Coping, a Jeff Parker album, have substantial groove elements.  Holt describes each of Parker’s albums thereon.  The Chicago Underground Quartet is based in small-group jazz idiom and experiments with textures, meters, and genre, Cushicle is a trio of Parker, Ajemian, and Tanaka, and Tortoise is identified with the label post-rock.  Important to note, race did not create a significant distortion in encounters with Jeff Parker—who is black—but it did with other old black musicians.  Many of these discontent black musicians expressed concern for the incomplete point of view of a white man, Fabian Holt, writing on what is largely accepted as black-dominated music.  Jeff Parker seemed the only interviewed musician to dismiss race as a factor in ability to accurately account the history and gist of jazz and other black music.  Then, Holt states that musical nationalism developed in the late nineteenth century from European bourgeois models.  The notion of roots enjoyed a revival in the culture of American roots music in the 1990s.  New Musicology remains focused on high-culture theory.  Poetics were consciously built around a decentered concept of genre.  National folk canons have influenced popular music, and the South became a major agent on the national scene in the 1950s and 1960s with rock and roll, the Nashville Sound, and Memphis soul.

Holt states his thesis as, “to bring genre scholarship closer to musical practice and experience.”6 After careful analysis of Holt’s arguments and evidence, one can see that he had accomplished his purpose.  He establishes a firm ground on which the concept of genre can stand—its development and boundaries are made clear through case studies.  The reason for his focused, almost narrow thesis may be, as he stated in his introduction, to provide the music community with the first condensed history/discussion of genre in popular music.

As the author himself elaborates on in the introduction of the book, several factors pushed the author to write this book. First and foremost, “there is relatively little scholarly writing about [genre] and…[genre] has been relatively marginal despite the growth of interest in issues of identity and culture in music studies over the past couple of decades.”7 With a major in music, Holt understandably undertook the challenge of establishing academic literature on the concept of genre in modern popular music.  He provides a probable explanation for the lack of attention to such an important aspect as genre, “it is more difficult to establish useful genre theories for music than for other art forms.”8

One reviewer of Holt’s book, Bradford Lee Eden, the Dean of Library Services and Professor of Library Science at Valparaiso University, states, “This work fills a void in current thought and development regarding popular American music and its influences, and it provides a unique perspective and grounded research.”9 Eden simply provides an overview of Holt’s book, describing the covered areas as encompassing rock ‘n’ roll, country, and jazz.  He acknowledges the case studies and genre transformations discussed in the book, including the Nashville Sound, jazz-rock fusion, and the influence of Jeff Parker and the Chicago jazz scene on the development of indie jazz.  Eden concludes by recommending the book for public and academic libraries.  Another reviewer, Wolfgang Marx from the University College Dublin, agrees with Holt on most issues.  For example, Marx refers to Holt’s words continually and concurs with them, “As Fabian Holt rightly points out in the introduction of this monograph, writings on generic identities are few and far between, while they share little common methodological ground.”10 Marx discusses Holt’s arguments bit by bit, elaborately explaining and, usually, supporting them in their appropriate context.  Marx serves as a guide through the complexities of Holt’s arguments and dissects the major portions of Holt’s analysis.  The two reviewers capture the essence of Holt’s discussions in positive lights.

Despite his claim that the reader need not have extensive musical knowledge, Holt’s depth of argument proved to be overwhelming.  He utilizes several music terms and concepts—though many of them are defined—to probe deep into his topics.  Still, advantages of Holt’s complex style and structuring include an extensive comprehension of the discussed material, if properly scrutinized.  Readers will find many important terms defined properly and conveniently by the author, as well as the historical context of each discussion clearly portrayed.  Holt’s extensive research on the subject was evident, shown by his intricate case studies and interviews with important figures in the music industry.  On the other hand, readers may find this book an overall difficult read, as the intended audience most likely constituted of more musically learned individuals than me.  Countless times, Holt’s pace and direction of discussions may potentially cause the less knowledgeable audience to get lost in his theories and abundance of knowledge.  One last and perhaps the largest drawback was the overemphasis on genre rather than the actual history of modern music.  Of course, Holt had stated his purpose and content in the introduction, yet his emphasis on genre seemed somewhat exaggerated and unfitting to the broad context of American Art.  For instance, Holt reveals, “I try to chart a path that at once recognizes and defamliarizes the role of genre in canon formation by reconsidering major and minor figures as well as introducing some new and unknown.”11 Not surprisingly, he delves deep into the strictly musical elements of genre and popular music history.  However, his interesting specific examples combined with his placement of genre development in a broad context served as on overall good read.

Modern music and American pop culture show the blend and variety that is so American in nature.  Most of the music described in this book is blends and varieties of original genres.  This is uniquely American in that, a mixture of the black South and the white North produced the miracle that is American mainstream culture, a combination only truly existent in America.  Although American pop was mainly a concoction of influences from around the world, pop culture ultimately spread around the rest of the world.  Just as the British Invasion, which, as Holt describes, “marked the musical and terminological change to ‘rock music,’” influenced American mainstream culture, figures such as Elvis Presley shocked not only America, but also the rest of the world.12 American art is so special in that it is the largest recipient of outside influences and blending.  America plays a role that no other country may fulfill.  This melting pot of ideas and concepts then lets out its own creations, thereby influencing the world.  As is the case for American modern music, American art is the primary recipient and donator of the rest of the world’s art.

In conclusion, Genre in Popular Music covers genre and modern popular music with excruciating detail.  Holt covers the topic as he claimed he would in the introduction; he uses a myriad of evidence to help understand rather than define genres.  As Holt wisely comments in his final sentences, “there is not just one truth about genre.”13 An intricate read, this book would be well suited for avid music listeners with substantial knowledge and passion for music.

1. Holt, Fabian. Genre in Popular Music. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. 2.
2. Holt, Fabian. 2.
3. Holt, Fabian. 47.
4. Holt, Fabian. 78.
5. Holt, Fabian. 117.
6. Holt, Fabian. 7.
7. Holt, Fabian. 4.
8. Holt, Fabian. 4.
9. Eden, Bradford Lee. "Genre in Popular Music." Library Journal 132.10 (2007): 119-20. Print.
10. Marx, Wolfgang. "Fabian Holt, Genre in Popular Music." Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland 4 (2008-9): 27-34. Print.
11. Holt, Fabian. 12.
12. Holt, Fabian. 85.
13. Holt, Fabian. 180.