Friday, June 17, 2011

Simon Frith - The Social Functions of Music

Simon Frith - "Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music" - summary
part 1 - 2 - 3

In "Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music" Simon Frith offers four functions of popular music which account for the manner in which value judgments are made. The first function of popular music that Frith notes is that of self definition and of creating a place in society. The pleasure of popular music is the pleasure of identification "with the music we like, with the performers of that music, with the other people who like it". Being a "fan" is being a part of something which says something about you, and Frith describes the fan hate mail he used to receive after negative reviews he wrote as a rock critic.

The second function music has according to Frith is that it provides "a way of managing the relationship between our public and private emotional life". In this respect Frith notes the obvious fact the many pop songs are love songs, and this is because "people need them to give shape and voice to emotions that otherwise cannot be expressed without embarrassment or incoherence". Love songs are a way of allocating emotional intensiveness and even shape to intimate feeling in a way that seems richer and more convincing. "people do not idolize singers because they wish to be them but because these singers seem able, somehow, to make available their own feeling – it is as if we get to know ourselves via music".

The third function of music that Frith lists is the shaping of popular memory, and the organization of our sense of time. Music has a "stasis" quality which enables it to stop time. On the other hand, "music in itself provides out most vivid experience of time passing" which is why music, at least good music, always has something nostalgic about it.

The fourth and final function of popular music according to Frith is that "popular music is something possessed". People feel like the "own" their preferred music in a manner which is not (only) material. As Frith puts it "the intensity of this relationship between taste and self definition seems peculiar to popular music – it is 'possessable' in ways that other cultural forms (except, perhaps, sports teams) – are not". According to Frith, an aesthetic of popular music is one which explains value judgments in relation to these four functions of poplar music for "in pop, transcendence marks not music's freedom from social forces but its patterning by them".
Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music

See also a summary on the social functions of music

Simon Frith - "Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music" - summary
part 1 - 2 - 3