Popular Music: Topics, Trends & Trajectories

Tara Brabazon
London: Sage Publications, 2012.
ISBN: 978-1-84787-435-1 (hardcover), 978-1-84787-436-8 (paperback)
RRP: US$108.00 (hardcover), US$43.00 (paperback)

Ed Montano

RMIT University (Aus)

For students of popular music there is no shortage of books, with the field now firmly established in the corridors of academia and interpreted through a body of literature as diverse and as vibrant as the music itself. The most engaging and stimulating reading is more often than not to be found in the writing that has a specific focus, whether that be on singer, subculture, style or scene. By contrast, you rarely seek out a textbook for reading pleasure outside of the classroom context. With this diversity of literature, it is questionable whether the world actually needs another textbook on popular music, given that between monographs and journals it is relatively easy to compile a list of required readings for any course on the subject. That said, having introductory material in the one easy-to-digest form is particularly convenient, and therein is the appeal of Tara Brabazon’s Popular Music: Topics, Trends & Trajectories.

The book is promoted as “the first text book on Pop Music to be completely researched and written after the arrival of the iPod”. While I can’t be sure of the veracity of such a claim, it allows space for Brabazon to explore and interrogate the many changes to music production and consumption that have occurred with recent developments in technology, explaining in the Introduction that “digitization” was one of the propelling factors behind the writing of the book (4). The text is structured into five key sections (Approaches, Music Spaces, Instruments of/for Study, Genre and Community, Debates), each of which is subdivided into short chapters. These chapters feature four “Key Questions” at the end to stimulate student discussion, testing not just comprehension of the chapter content but also of broader debates and issues around that content.

In relation specifically to electronic dance music culture, Brabazon provides a handful of interesting discussions. In the section on Music Spaces, attention is given to the centrality of clubs and pubs in the flowering of particular music scenes, with The Warehouse in Chicago and The Hacienda in Manchester receiving detailed descriptions, together with passing reference to London’s Shoom, Spectrum and The Trip as clubs that “were not only located in a precise geographical location but also in a distinct moment in history” (69). Elsewhere, there are references to rave culture and the rise and fall of acid house, the genres of disco and house (the latter located alongside a discussion of “post-house musics”), and the flourishing of remixing and mash-up culture facilitated by digitization and user generated content. Brabazon certainly takes a broad perspective throughout the book, demonstrating an appealing open-mindedness. In the section on Instruments, one chapter is devoted solely to turntablism, with references to not only hip hop and its pioneering DJs but also the shifts from analogue to digital that have given rise to software such as Final Scratch and the practice of controllerism. While all of this is nothing new for the scholar of EDM, the attention given to dance music and club culture is an acknowledgement of EDM’s standing in the development of popular music, Brabazon going beyond the rock-centred orientation of much popular music writing. As she notes in the Introduction, one motivation for the book’s creation was “a desire to construct a more complex and contemporary musical history that is post-rock and post-genre” (6). At the conclusion of the book I’m still unclear as to what “post-genre” could possibly refer to, but Brabazon certainly succeeds in outlining a history of popular music that accounts for style and genre complexity and that shifts away from any infatuation with the sound of the guitar.

The breadth and scope of the book is impressive. Brabazon displays a thorough knowledge of popular music history, technologies, debates and theories. While any book is ultimately defined as much by what is excluded as what is included, Brabazon certainly cannot be accused of omitting the essential facts. This is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book. While the array of topics covered dictates that each chapter runs to no more than a few pages, you never feel that Brabazon has failed to mention important information. Her ability to speak with equal authority on subjects as diverse as, for example, metal, sonic architecture, and race, appropriation and commodification lends the book an integrity that will ensure its relevance for a number of years. Obsolescence is the destiny of all textbooks, and while the reference to the iPod in the promotional blurb already seems somewhat anachronistic (perhaps “iPhone” or “Apple’s dominance” would have been more appropriate), there’s an intellectual rigour and comprehensiveness embedded within the book that ensures it transcends its year of publication. No doubt this will be one of those texts that gets republished very few years in an updated edition.

A colleague and I used this book as the prescribed text for an introductory undergraduate course on popular music earlier this year, and we both found it highly effective as a starter book for students to initially consult before moving on to more theoretically detailed journal articles and topic-specific books. Feedback from students was that Brabazon’s writing style is accessible and engaging, and that the variety of sources listed at the end of each chapter (Further Reading, Sonic sources, Visual sources, Web sources) is useful for anyone seeking to pursue a particular topic in more detail. The broad coverage of the book means that it will comfortably fit in to most popular music courses. Brabazon has crafted an essential textbook that balances historical outlines with contemporary debates, meaning that it is comprehensive enough to engage not just students studying popular music for the first time but also those with more sustained involvement in the field. Fusing discussions of key artists, styles and moments in the development of popular music with acknowledgement of the work of key academics, theorists and journalists, Brabazon demonstrates how popular music is both a diverse and intriguing cultural phenomenon that demands continued research and investigation, and a complex and challenging area of study surrounded by a variety of theoretical debates. Textbooks rarely provide a stimulating cover-to-cover read, but Popular Music: Topics, Trends & Trajectories breaks that tradition, and will be at home equally in the hands of students as it will on the shelves of their lecturers.