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Here is a classical choral arrangement of Smells like Teen Spirit- would make most people’s blood boil I’m sure, but it certainly is taking popular music in to the realms of high art, rather like Nirvana’s “unplugged” performance in a way, but may be you will disagree.

I know that this has most certainly been a whistle stop tour of my thoughts on Nirvana and how the music and fans fit into different sociological scenarios/theories.  Even though I have not been posting quite as much as I would have liked I have certainly been thinking about what I would like to talk about.  I know I have probably missed out on a lot of other angles but I feel that I have still managed to achieve what I wanted.

When looking back on this module, I must say that it has most certainly been my favourite to date.

I have a totally different perspective on music in general.  The different sociological theories have at times been difficult to get my head around but I know now that there is not just one answer but several and they may not be right for everybody.

I just hope you have enjoyed reading my thoughts on the various aspects of music and in particular the music of Nirvana and now I have my exams to revise for, but I hope to pursue my interest in sociology next year.

  This essay will explore and evaluate the concepts of cultural and subcultural capital in terms of explaining the value of popular music. There will be a brief discussion on the work of sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Sarah Thornton. Both concepts will be applied to modern day popular music and how these concepts relate to and compliment each other in helping us understand popular music cultures.

 Sarah Thornton’s studies on ‘ Club Cultures ‘ looked at the development of dance music through the club movement in Britain from the late eighties and into the early nineties. It would seem that these studies are key when considering Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital and Thornton’s development of subcultural capital in terms of an explanation of the value of popular music. Thornton’s work is certainly influenced by the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu but she does not necessarily agree with it in full (Gelder 2005:145).

 Bourdieu defines “cultural capital” as ‘ the unequal distribution of cultural practices, values and competencies characteristic of capitalist societies’ (Shuker 2005:64). Bourdieu theorised that although a person’s status is defined through their upbringing and background, their status is also defined through a number of factors and not just the person’s class and economic standing. The idea of cultural capital seems to portray the image of a person’s individual values and beliefs in society bringing them status and power. Bourdieu theories on “taste” are interesting. He believed that, a person’s taste in the arts (music, film, etc) is linked with their social class and background (Shuker 2005:64).

 ‘Taste’ according to Bourdieu is something that is conceived and maintained in social groups in an effort to be different from and distance themselves from others. This suggests that popular music is not just musical but sociological. Different musical styles are followed, or in some cases adopted, by certain groups. The consumption of these styles is not just attributed to personal preference but is in a way constructed socially. This can be demonstrated with music that is popular within individual peer groups or sub cultures. This links to the process in which musical tastes serve as a form of ‘cultural capital’ (Shuker 2005:64).


Cultural capital, however, seems to spread across all social classes and is not just restricted to the higher classes. If we looked at the idea of cultural capital being of a greater importance with a higher class status, it would seem to not stand as an argument. If we look at popular music, for example, the cultural capital difference between bands signed to major mainstream music labels and artists signed to an independent label. The independent bands will more often receive great critiques for their individuality alongside their heroic status within their independent music scene but they do not gain any economic capital. Whereas the mainstream bands will be rich enough in economic capital, but their cultural capital is somewhat diminished as they are not seen as individual, innovative songwriters. Even though these mainstream bands/artists are more popular in their own right, their ‘hipness’ amongst different youth cultures would decline. Sarah Thornton is thought to perceive the idea of ‘hipness’ as a form of sub cultural capital (Gelder 2005:186).

The idea of musical ‘cultural capital’ can be demonstrated when an individual likes a particular genre. They will strive to find out about anything relating to the genre with the view to discussing artists, records, styles, trends etc. in a knowledgeable manner. When people chose to follow non mainstream genres, cultural capital seems to become the oppositional stance which has become the pattern within many youth subcultures. They adopt innovative non mainstream styles whilst forming an identity made up of subcultural capital (Shuker 2005:64).

There is a distinction between cultural and economic capital, even though high levels of income etc. will result in high levels of cultural capital, they will also conflict (Thornton 2005:185). Independent music would appear to have a higher cultural capital than mainstream music but less economic capital. The individuals involved in the independent music “scene” have the opportunity to produce music which allows them to show their own identity. However it appears that those involved in the mainstream are not allowed showing who they truly are by agreeing to act out a constructed identity to appeal to a certain image that the industry wishes them to portray.


In her studies of Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital, Sarah Thornton develops the idea of ‘ subcultural capital ‘ as an extension to Bourdieu’s different forms of capital – cultural, economic and social. Thornton defines ‘ subcultural capital’ as, providing status to an individual in their own social world. To extend this idea in a musical context, Thornton suggests examples of subcultural capital such as, having ‘ fashionable haircuts and well assembled record collections ‘. Regardless of the music scene, it is the importance of taste, being ‘in the know’ about your chosen music genre combined with the appropriate fashion look that will improve your subcultural capital (Thornton 2005:186).


The idea of Music ‘scenes’ may seem simple in some respects when in actual fact they can be quite complex. Even though the independent music scene is recognised by many, there are many cultural scenes within these independent scenes but they will all identify as being one. For example the Seattle grunge scene and the UK grunge scene would both contribute to the independent grunge music scene globally but they will both be different from one another in terms of their individual background class, fashion etc. The Seattle grunge scene develops and works in a local context which can be transmitted globally, with the scene acting as a site of production and consumption. It relies on this locality in order for it to succeed globally. The UK grunge scene feeds from Seattle grunge, maybe sharing aesthetics but each scene locally have different characteristics that make up a cultured, global market.
Thornton’s study of club cultures explores the idea of the local scene being transmitted globally with the exporting and importing of dance records and club clothes, but the dance crowds being different in each region with their own dress codes, rituals etc. (Thornton 2005:184). This certainly shows us that music can be globally marketed but the crowds and individuals in each locality will have their own characteristics.


It would appear from the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Sarah Thornton that the development of their theories aid in the explanation of popular music today. Even though Thornton disagrees with Bourdieu’s Class system of cultural capital in relation to popular music, she has developed her own idea of subcultural capital. Thornton’s ideas of subcultural capital certainly help to identify the factors that are important within the particular music ‘scenes’. This in turn compliments Bourdieu’s thoughts on cultural capital as a form of self definition within certain peer groups or subcultures. Although Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital applies to popular music, the idea of a class system does not really relate to the popular music scene of the modern day. They both show that popular music holds an extremely high value within society today musically and sociologically. Even though these studies may be somewhat out of date, they still have a lot to offer when considering and explaining what makes popular music ‘popular’.


 

List of References

Gelder,K 2005 The Subcultures Reader Second Edition, Routledge, Abingdon.

Thornton, S [1995] 2005, The Social Logic of Subcultural capital, The Subcultures Reader, Routledge, Abingdon.

Shuker, R 2005, Popular Music: the Key Concepts, Routledge, Abingdon.

Sell kids for food, weather changes moods
Spring is here again, reproductive glands

He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means and I say

He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means and I say, yeah

We can have some more, Nature is a whore
Bruises on the fruit, tender age in bloom

He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means and I say

He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means and I say yeah

He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means and I say

He’s the one who like all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means, knows not what it means
Knows not what it means and I say yeah

This video is of the Song In Bloom.  It is an interesting song lyrically, even though Cobain often said there was no meaning to his lyrics, it seems that Cobain is mocking his fans with the lines:

He’s the one who like all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means, knows not what it means
Knows not what it means and I say yeah

There was a strained relationship between Cobain and the Fans (well documented in the press), as they wanted to know more about the meaning of the Lyrics. It is thought that Cobain hated the thought of his art attracting people who just stared back sheepishly or even reverently at his rage.  It would have been a less strained relationship if the fans were more in tune with his expressive ways and less interested in the worship of some superficial hero.

It could be possible to say  that by branding there music as “alternative” associating themselves to an anti-establishment cultural movement, the fans meaning is prioritised over the meaning intended by the artist.  The fans expected their idol to have the same sincerity and devotion as themselves.

Even though Cobain could not satisfy his own expressive “authenticity”, his fans used Nirvana’s music as a means to form their own identities by associating with the music and deeming it “authentic”.

Was the consumption of Nirvana’s Music a strategy of resistance against the Mainstream even though it was technically part of the mainstream?

Were the fans just a part of this post subcultural consumption? The creative process of youth style distinction, where young people choose style or elements of style in their quest to create and re-create identity. I would say that the use of Nirvana and grunge style as part of a post subcultural consumption still takes place even today as I still see many young people with the iconic style of ripped bleached jeans, flannel shirts and oversized white t-shirts and claiming to know everything there is to know about Nirvana and more specifically, Kurt Cobain.

I would also add that those who choose Grunge nowadays in particular are not restricted to a social class, part of Neo Tribes perhaps where their practices are more fluid and fleeting? Their main focus is not in the stability of their community but that of the individual needs which may be effected by their peer group.

This video is a live performance of Nirvana’s song “Rape me”  (In Utero, 1993), a song which shows off the elements of Nirvana’s standard practice of  calm simple verses, rising up with a crescendo to a raucous refrain and the repetition of text. The repetition of text is something classic of Punk  but it doesn’t just sound like Punk. “Rape Me” does have the hint of a classic pop song with it’s formal structures, dynamics and narrow range in the vocal line.

Although Nirvana’s sound is obviously indebted to the grunge sound, it has this rhythmic airiness and cleaner sound compared to their Grunge counterparts. I think it was this pop element that allowed Nirvana to break in to the mainstream, which would lead me to conclude that Nirvana’s sound was not totally “authentic” Grunge.

Nirvana’s fans understood the band’s music as a form of resistance to the mainstream music culture, mainstream social norms or at the very least their parents.  Cobain freely admitted that there was no real meaning to his lyrics and more often than not they were made up at the last minute. Regardless of this the fans desired to find a more comprehensive social meaning in the music of Nirvana. Their music was described as having a “pseudo-countercultural” ideology.

Nirvana’s sociocultural role was really seen as representative of the political stances linked to the Grunge movement. The Grunge movement as we have discussed earlier was certainly a fashion phenomenon like Glam and Punk. Grunge was not just a musical style but a social pose or attitude with a certain political belief system. The image of grunge is that of clothing from the Pacific North West which was highly driven by the media in an effort to characterise Grunge.

The Grunge sound itself was the result of certain musical devices, such as special drum set ups and amplifiers to provide the thick mix and heavy feedback. The Grunge sound shared a closeness with larger popular-music scenes such as Punk and Metal, with the heavy distortion and feedback.

This video clip shows a performance by Nirvana on MTV’s “unplugged” program late in 1993. The scene was set in a post modern mix of music stands, candelabra, salon-style curtains with psychedelic flowers painted on the floor along with various different flower arrangements placed around the stage. In the midst of the scene sits the band with frontman Kurt Cobain, the irritable, disheveled grunge icon. A totally peculiar situation where this normal Plugged-in band with it’s heavy guitar riffs, screaming vocals and aggressive nature taking their “foot off the gas” and producing some kinder, gentler versions of their songs.  The scene itself seems like an engineered challenge of the culture barriers shortening the gap between Popular culture and high art. This was a major statement for the band showing their desire to change and progress their image, to be up there and respected with all the other Music greats.

This video shows Cobain’s cover of  David Bowie’s 1971 song, “The Man who Sold the World”. This concoction of grunge, glitter, punk and progressive rock all in one performance is baffling but yet attractive. The song itself does not really show the essence of Bowie’s musical style as that really came a bit later, with his classic manipulation of the recorded sound. The Nirvana “unplugged” version leaves out the original, ornate style of glam. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it could be seen as Cobain churning out his version of a bouncy pop song.  I personally like this version although some see it as Cobain missing his opportunity to shine as his strained, tired vocals show him up to be nothing but a mediocre musician. I would disagree. This shows that he did not conform to the perfect, polished performance expected in the mainstream and staying true to his roots of non conformity!

I came across this interesting video about the grunge “style”.  It reminded me of Dick Hebdiges theories on subcultures being style driven, which we discussed in Week 4. This style becomes mediated by the media where the style is re-produced and re-presented, which, in the case of grunge definitely appeared to be the case.  The video looks at not just the style of grunge being reproduced for the masses but also the language which started out as a joke. The use of a pop synth version of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” was genius in my mind. Showing how much Grunge had broken into the mainstream and everyone was jumping on the bandwagon.

A style which was used for practical means, being exploited and reproduced to cash in on ecomonic capital that was a product of exploiting this created/imagined subcultural capital. Brilliant!

Characterized by distorted guitar sounds and dispirited vocals, the grunge sound emerged in 1991-1992 from the Seattle music scene, where it had been popular for most of the 1980s.  Clark Humphrey described it as an “angry, disheveled” version of rock. The grunge movement was supposedly authentic street rock—not a bunch of packaged bands hyped by major music record producers. However, the bands that were most successful, did indeed sign with major record labels, leaving behind other local talent.  Humphrey insisted, “There is no singular “Seattle Sound,” but there is a common Seattle attitude. We believe in making great music and art, not in the trappings of celebrity.”

Seattle-based Independant Record Label, Sub Pop Records was mainly responsible for introducing grunge to a national audience. Sub Pop signed bands such as Green River, Soundgarden, Blood Circus, Swallow, Nirvana, and TAD. In an effort to market the sound of grunge, Sub Pop promoted the bands’ anti-yuppie message by distributing T-shirts emblazoned with the word Loser to mock the yuppie obsession with success. The use and distribution of subcultural capital? Providing the individual listeners with a means to show their status and commitment to the cause within their adhering peer groups or subcultures.

Considered one of the leading bands in the Grunge Scene Nirvana, formed in 1986. In 1988 they signed a record deal with Sub Pop Records (an independent label). After a positive review by Everett True, a writer for the British New Musical Express, there was an increased interest in grunge in general and particularly Nirvana. The band’s first album, Bleach, released in 1989, considered an unpolished effort with the demonstration of creativity through melody and lyrics. In 1991 Nirvana left the independant Sub Pop label and signed with DGC Records, when they released their second album, Nevermind. The most famous single from the Nevermind album was “Smells like Teen Spirit”, drawing in various different curious groups. The band broke in to the mainstream and were performing on Saturday Night Live, recording acoustic sessions for the MTV Unplugged series.

It was believed that Nirvanas music was an anthem for a generation. Front man, Kurt Cobain being often seen as the leader of the grunge rock movement and spokesman for a generation of young people. This was a position that the introverted Cobain never wanted and felt uncomfortable with from the very first moments of the band’s success.

The video Clip I have chosen is an interview with Butch Vig about the recording of “Smells like Teen Spirit”. I think it just shows how simple the different elements of the song were but when they were combined produced a complicated sound which intrigued many young people of that generation. The use of double tracking certainly gives the track a powerful edge but at the same time is this not a hook.

Is this track not just like all the others with a standardised core structure as Adorno suggests with chorus, verse, bridge? The methods of double tracking and repeating of lines over and over are the ‘frills’ which provide the hook for the listeners. Instead of it being an individual stamp of the band it is perhaps a pseudo-individualistic stamp instead?


This essay will discuss the Frankfurt School’s idea of the Culture Industry, pseudo individualism, and how these may or may not be useful in describing contemporary popular music. The Frankfurt School was made up of left wing Jewish intellectuals, mainly of upper or middle class German society. The school was set up in the 1920’s and was most famous for the analysis of the ‘culture industry’ producing one of the more well known theories on popular music (Strinati 2004:47-48).

Theodore Adorno was the key figure in the study of popular music and used his intrinsic Marxist view on the capital nature of society to influence these ideas and theories.  Adorno believed that the culture industry was the key in contemporary capitalism for the production and satisfaction of false needs (Strinati 2004:52-54).  He argues that popular music is a mass-produced and shallow standardised part of the culture industry, suggesting that all aspects of popular music, including types of songs, song lyrics and parts of songs e.g. chorus, are all standardised (Strinati 2004:58-59).

Popular music is usually divided into particular categories, or genres, of music such as rock, pop, rap, heavy metal and reggae etc. However, according to Adorno, all popular music is standardised consisting of the core structure of verse, chorus, and bridge, which are interchangeable from one song to another.  The effects of standardisation are often hidden by what the industry calls pseudo-individualisation.  These are incidental differences, also known as ‘frills’ that are put within a song to disguise that it sounds the same.    These ‘frills’ provide these songs with a ‘hook’ which makes the song apparently unique for the listener (Strinati 2004:58). Adorno clearly distinguishes between popular music and serious music. Serious music, which he regards as classical and avant-garde, plays to the pleasures of the imagination offering an engagement with the world, as it should be. It could appear, due to this segregation of culture, that this theory is elitist.  The comparison of pop music and serious music was a main topic.   Adorno’s view seems to account for the emotional needs that popular music may fulfil as false, unnatural and immature, rather than deep, meaningful and natural (Strinati 2004:58-60).

The Frankfurt School theory of the Culture Industry and popular music, believes that popular music is the end product of a production line where everything sounds similar. It also suggests that it is an industry that exploits the mass population for profit and social control, in the hope that they accept a certain ideology about the world they are living in.  The music industry is also seen as the process of absorption, which is achieved by capitalism through advertising and marketing of a product with a pop star or pop band (Strinati 2004:59-62).  Everything about these pop stars becomes a commodity, their clothes, image, likes and dislikes etc. These components bypass their original functional use and become a key symbol of a whole lifestyle.  This argument seems to imply that the rise of the popular music to mass status is the result of symbolic strategies invested in the music rather than the actual quality of music being produced (Strinati 2004:64).

To summarise, mainstream music of the culture industry is similar in most cases, however some ‘individuality’ is deliberately added to make it different from the rest, even though essentially it is the same product.  This is pseudo individualism (Strinati 2004:58).  A modern day example of this can be seen in boy and girl bands such as ‘Westlife’, ‘Take That’, ‘Sugarbabes’ and the bands such as ‘One True Voice’ and ‘Girls Aloud’, that derived from reality talent show ‘Popstars the rivals’.  Although the music is very similar in structure, tonality and content, the customer can choose between several versions of these boy and girl bands.

It could be suggested that the culture industry produces culture, which the mass population consume unconsciously. Adorno would claim that the mass population consume everything the culture industry produces, which appears to be both standardised and pseudo individualistic as it is sung by a new group with added frills (Stinati 2004:58-61). However a consumerist society is where these manufactured groups survive as they are providing a service for their audience.   It could be possible for this standardisation to be a form of security for the audience and the majority often welcome the element of predictability (Strinati 2004:60-62).

Theodore Adorno claimed that popular music operates as a tool of ‘social cement’ (Strinati 2004:61).  Adorno’s theories on popular music, though published in the 1940’s to an extent relate to contemporary popular music. Aspects of these theories do not cover the complexities of recent popular music and popular culture, providing quite a pessimistic approach, which may be considered as a narrow minded view of popular music.  Having said this, these thoughts have created some kind of foundation for interpreting and understanding popular music.  These theories of pseudo-individualism and the culture industry have their strengths and differences in helping those who wish to unpack the meaning of music.  They acknowledge that popular music has an impact and effect on society.

It is fair to say that that although popular music in today’s generation can be considered standardized and will continue to be. Adorno’s views are somewhat out of date and biased as he seemed to have a very low opinion of popular music.   His opinions were based on his own assumptions of high and low culture and although  some substantial claims were made about standardization and pseudo individualisation, popular music in the present day has more important issues that require attention such as the messages the music is portraying.  We live in a consumerist society where everything is a product, including classical music today, which Adorno would have classed as high art. This high art is now commercialized and used as a commodity to sell through the medium of advertising.  Adorno does not seem to account for music capturing a moment or feeling, however, music is another form of emotional expression, whether it is classical or pop music. The purpose of music in the present day is to provide a service and enjoyment to the listener.

List of References

Strinati, D (2004) An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture: Second Edition

Abingdon: Routledge

The time has come where I need to get started on this project and decide where it is going.  There are so many angles that could be taken and I will most likely take many of these angles and touch on them.  My main focus though will be the rise and fall of the Grunge “scene”, in particular the music of the band “Nirvana” (during 1990-1994).  Some thoughts I would like to explore –

Was Nirvana’s music “authentic” grunge or just a collection of catchy pop songs set to heavy rock riffs?

Did they sell out to the mainstream?

Do the CCCS Assumptions of Subculture relating to the consumption of commodities as a form of resistance etc. apply?

Commodity of the ego identity?

The Media and its part in launching the local scene in to a glocal phenomenon?

Hopefully by covering just a few of these topics, it will lead closer to finding out how  authentic the music of Nirvana was, in contributing to the Grunge scene.