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The Popular Arts – Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel

by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the Financial Times's pop critic and has also written for the New York Times, the Guardian and the New Statesman

It is easy to be wise in retrospect, but 1964, the year when Beatlemania spread from Britain to the rest of the world, was not a fortuitous moment for Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel to commit to print the observation that pop music's prospects of becoming 'a genuine popular art' were 'dim'. Perhaps the authors sensed the slip themselves. A last-minute addendum to the chapter about youth culture in their book The Popular Arts, which was published in 1964, carries an air of impending retraction: 'Already, when we were writing this chapter, we were aware that The Beatles, and groups in their style, were something of a new phenomenon.'

Hall and Whannel were not alone in underestimating this 'new phenomenon'. The year after the publication of The Popular Arts, The Observer hired the jazz musician George Melly as its pop critic, the first such post in a British broadsheet newspaper. Although he became an important early figure in British pop criticism, his inaugural column at the start of 1965 struck a dismissive note. 'Pop music,' he wrote, 'is both pervasive and disturbing. It contains objectively a few nuggets of real, if low-grade, value among the mountains of rubbish'. The Popular Arts is more sympathetic but adopts a similar tone at times. 'The worst thing which we would say of pop music', Hall and Whannel write, 'is not that it is vulgar, or morally wicked, but, more simply, that much of it is not very good.'

Three years after their book’s publication, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band showed how radically perceptions of pop music had changed. In the New Statesman, the musicologist and composer Wilfrid Mellers stated that although the album 'starts from the conventions of pop it becomes "art"—and art of an increasingly subtle kind'. In the New Yorker, Lillian Ross compared The Beatles to Duke Ellington as occupants of 'that special territory where entertainment slips over into art'. The Times’s chief music critic William Mann published a review under the headline 'The Beatles revive hopes in pop music' in which he linked the album to Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe. In the same newspaper, Kenneth Tynan went so far as to claim that Sgt Pepper marked 'a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization'.

Dismissed as exploitative, callow and faddish just a few years previously, pop music was now being lionised in Establishment mouthpieces such as The Times. Not long after Mann’s Sgt Pepper review, the paper published its celebrated 'Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel' editorial in condemnation of the prison sentences handed out to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards following their arrest for drug possession in 1967. After the Court of Appeals quashed their convictions—the judge who did the quashing was Lord Chief Justice Parker, heraldic motto 'Nec fluctu nec flatu movetur' (‘Neither wind nor rain will move us’)—Jagger was flown by helicopter to take part in a televised discussion about the state of youth with Times editor William Rees-Mogg, former Home Secretary Lord Stow Hill and the Bishop of Woolwich. Ironically, most of the British young people on whose behalf Jagger was speaking were pro-breaking butterflies on wheels. In a survey, 85 percent of 21 to 34 year olds said that his and Richards’ jail sentences were deserved.

Jagger’s flit from courtroom to the convocation with Rees-Mogg and the other Establishment stuffed shirts is cited in a theoretical study of subcultures that Hall co-authored just over a decade after The Popular Arts. The encounter, he, John Clarke, Tony Jefferson and Brian Roberts wrote in 'Subcultures, Cultures and Class' (1975), epitomised the 'characteristically two-faced musing in the high-brow press over the fate and fortunes of pop music throughout the period'. This ambivalence about the kind of attention to pay to youth cultures—'patronising publicity and imitation versus moral anxiety and outrage'—was rooted, the authors argued, in 'a deeper social and cultural crisis in the society'. Working-class youth subcultures such as the mods and the more broadly based counter-culture of the later 1960s did not just register opposition to the established social order, but also reflected changes within it. The new groupings that young people were creating for themselves were not so much a rebellion against the status quo as an adaptation to the new technologies and economic forces that were remaking the status quo. This complex process of rejection, accommodation and mutual self-definition applied to both sides of what The Popular Arts calls 'the gap between the generations', which from 1967 became codified as the 'generation gap'.

The publication of The Popular Arts coincided with a particularly shrill representation of that gap. Pitched battles between mods and rockers in south coast English resorts began taking place over the Easter weekend of 1964. Over the following weeks these thuggish contretemps were inflated by the press into hellish scenes of disorder carried out by a depraved generation of youths hooked on violence. Stanley Cohen summed up the tone of the coverage in his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers: 'As the Birmingham Post (19 May 1964) put it, drawing on Churchill’s "We will fight them on the beaches" speech: the external enemies of 1940 had been replaced on our own shores in 1964 by internal enemies who "bring about disintegration of a nation's character".'

Pop music was often caricatured as the acoustic expression of this depravity—loud, crude, an abomination. Yet, contrary to the Birmingham Post editorial, it could also be seen to have an integrating effect on the national character. As British pop broke free of American dependency, it gave form to notions of Britain as a nation that was at once traditional and modern, an ancient ship of state tacking into the winds of change.

However uneasily, old and new could coexist. 'Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?' was the impudent but oddly reassuring question posed in an early promotional campaign for the band. Parents seized by sexual anxiety at their offsprings’ shrieks of desire for the rakish Jagger and his disreputable confreres could at least console themselves that marriage remained part of the disturbing new erotic order. Better surely for a daughter to marry a Rolling Stone, however disastrously, than live in sin with one.*

By the same token, even the most disgusted inhabitants of Tunbridge Wells could derive a small measure of satisfaction from the British Invasion, a pop cultural panacea for the failed War of 1812. The wave of acts that conquered the US charts in 1964 suggested that the old country could still bestride the stage as a global actor, a symbolic corrective to the geopolitical indignations of decolonisation. When Harold Wilson put The Beatles forward for MBEs in 1965, he couched their suitability for becoming Members of the Order of the British Empire in the language of change, 'as having a transforming effect on the minds of youth, mostly for the good'. A number of MBE recipients, the ultra-disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, returned their honours in protest at the Fabs being awarded the same—but in the main, official Britain showed itself capable of adapting with surprising alacrity to the 'new phenomenon' that The Popular Arts identified but struggled to apprehend.**

Hall and Whannel partly faced a problem of timing. The pop music that they address is mainly drawn from anaemic pre-Beatles models, like the diluted British version of rock and roll or light-entertainment crooners and warblers. Their analysis is often acute. There is a particularly good section on skiffle, the true British variant of rock and roll, which was concocted from a grab-bag of American jazz, blues and folk styles. The authors—unsurprisingly, considering Hall’s Jamaican background—are open-minded and uncensorious about these transplantations. They share with the folk music revivalists of their era a suspicion of the music industry, whose attempt to convert skiffle 'into a commercial music was the kiss of death'. But they do not suffer the disabling hang-ups about cultural authenticity that impelled purist folk clubs of the period to insist that musicians could only perform songs to which they were linked by geography and class. Skiffle is held by Hall and Whannel to be the 'most authentic' style of British 'teenage music' not because it fulfils some folk-ish idea of traditional British culture, but because it is perceived as being less 'commercially induced' than other genres and thus more authentically of the people. 

Insightfulness about skiffle is not carried over into its successor, the beat music that swept all before it in the British charts in 1963. It is lumped into general observations about pop’s limitations—a form whose rhythm is 'crude in its simplicity, but lively and compulsive', whose 'lack of variety is staggering' and where the churn of talent 'is too rapid'. Marketing is held to be paramount: 'with the present organization of the pop-music industry so firmly based on strict commercial principles, the industry need only risk money on safe bets, which means in essence finding a selective popular strain and milching it for as long as the fans will take it.' In its most pessimistic encounters with pop, the book recoils from what it perceives as the triumph of mass culture, a crude consumer product in which artistic content is extinguished and the audience manipulated. As Theodor Adorno put it, in a quote that appears in The Popular Arts: 'The composition hears for the listener.'

The book’s own ear for pop is not attuned to musical innovations that had recently taken place. There is no mention of Phil Spector’s imposing orchestrations for the girl groups that dominated the charts in the early 1960s. ('I was driving and I had to pull over to the side of the road—it blew my mind,' was Brian Wilson’s reaction when he first heard the Ronettes’ 'Be My Baby' in 1963. 'I started analyzing all the guitars, pianos, bass, drums and percussion. Once I got all those learned, I knew how to produce records.') Hall and Whannel, focusing primarily on British developments, also overlook the spread of the "Motown Sound” from Detroit in the early 1960s, a clearly audible sign that commercialism and artistry were not always opposing forces: Motown’s conveyor-belt output and production methods were modelled on the city’s car factories.

Both the girl group craze and Motown’s hits inspired 1960s British pop, which soon developed its own set of artistic aspirations. 'We stand for pop art clothes, pop art music and pop art behaviour', The Who’s Pete Townshend declared in 1965. Over the following years, the linking of the words “pop” and “art” was made more insistently, borrowing from the classical tradition of “art music”. By the 1970s, the terms “art pop” and “art rock” were in common usage.

Hall and Whannel struggle to imagine a future in which the idea of art pop might exist. 'Perhaps it is too early to tell,' they concede, but then proceed to offer a negative prognosis: 'The world of pop music will not of its own accord give an artist the opportunity to make that deep, memorable impression upon which the really outstanding popular artists depend'. Jazz is held up as the exemplary popular music form, unique in its capacity to encourage the kind of expressiveness that is taken as a condition for true artistry. A comparison between Miles Davis and Liberace sums up the one-sided nature of the comparison.

Yet despite its reluctance to recognise the potential of the popular art that was developing most rapidly in Britain at the time of its writing, The Popular Arts finds something within itself unlocked by the topic. It is addressed most intensively in a chapter called 'The Young Audience'.

'The main emphasis in this book is on the content and forms of mass communication and the popular arts, rather than the sociology of audiences,” the authors write at the start of the chapter. “But when we come to deal with ‘teenage’ entertainments and culture, the distinction between media and audience is hard to maintain.” The collapse of this distinction is due “to the complex interaction between the attitudes of the young and what is provided for their consumption by the world of commercial entertainments.'

The potential for divergence between what a young audience wants and what the market is determined to provide leads Hall and Whannel to confront 'one of the basic problems in popular culture—does the audience get what it likes (in which case, are those likes enough?) and needs (in which case, are the needs healthy ones?), or is it getting to like what it is given (in which case, perhaps tastes can be extended)?' The twistiness of the phrasing suggests a maze out of which exit is not assured. But pop music provides The Popular Arts with the outline of a way.

Suggestively, from the point of view of Hall's later theoretical work, here is where we find the book’s most sustained engagement with the idea of audiences as active agents in cultural transmission. The notion is implicit in the book's purpose as a teaching aid ('We should be seeking to train a more demanding audience'). But audiences in The Popular Arts tend to be construed as passive, like potentially reactive chemicals whose natural state is one of inertness. Writing about the forced bonhomie of television programmes and the popular press, for instance, the authors state that: 'We can [...] understand why the providers claim, on the basis of this intimacy, that these are "democratic" media—they "present the people to the people"—although the more we examine this claim, the more it falsifies what the relationship actually is between a provided communication and a receptive but relatively inactive set of publics.'

However, the particular public analysed in 'The Young Audience' is not inactive. Tensions abound: 'Teenage culture is a contradictory mixture of the authentic and the manufactured: it is an area of self-expression for the young and a lush grazing pasture for the commercial providers.' The figure of the pop singer illustrates these contrasting forces. 'He is usually a teenager, springing from the familiar adolescent world, and sharing a whole set of common feelings with his audience. But once he is successful, he is transformed into a commercial entertainer by pop-music business. Yet in style, presentation and the material he performs, he must maintain his close involvement with the teenage world, or he will lose his popularity.'

The central purpose of The Popular Arts was to argue for a better understanding and appreciation of popular culture at a formal artistic level, by 'drawing quite sharp distinctions between it and high art'. It did so not in the spirit of hierarchy but ecumenicism, going against 'one of the great—perhaps tragic—characteristics of the modern age', namely 'the progressive alienation of high art from popular art'. 'Few art forms are able to hold both elements together', Hall and Whannel go on to write: 'and popular art has developed a history and a topography of its own, separate from high and experimental art. Nevertheless, the connection between the two cannot be denied. In some way difficult precisely to define, the vigour of popular art [...] and the relevance of serious art are bound indissolubly together.'

This core rationale for the book remains refreshing to encounter today and has proved astute in the long-term. But the arguments themselves are largely historical, old battles fought and won, mostly on the side of The Popular Arts. When Hall and Whannel turn their attention to pop music, however, an unresolved set of fissures appears, 'where the use intended by the provider and the use actually made by the audience of the particular style never wholly coincide, and frequently conflict'. The book’s disparaging view of 1960s pop’s artistic prospects—its supposed inability, unlike jazz, 'to retain an independent life of its own somewhere between the folk arts and the commercial assembly line'—is countermanded by the degree of independent life that its audience is understood to possess. The art form whose future was so 'dim' according to The Popular Arts actually opens up, within the book itself, a series of contests between autonomy and co-option, social change and social control, which continue to resonate as forcefully today as in 1964.

Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel, The Popular Arts. Introduction by Richard Dyer. Duke University Press, 2018.


* In what might be the clinching illustration of Establishment ambivalence towards rock music, it has been claimed that Queen Elizabeth II refused to knight Mick Jagger at his investiture in 2003 due to suspicions about the nature of his friendship with Princess Margaret. Prince Charles conducted the ceremony instead.

** As the Financial Times pop critic, I have been subjected to people saying, 'Oh, I didn’t know the FT covered pop music', with wearying regularity over the years. But the newspaper has done so for decades. According to the Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods, Robert Plant’s father, a chartered accountant who viewed his son’s choice of career with grave misgivings, was won round only after reading a review of a Zeppelin gig in the FT.