Postmodernism is a concept in flux. The nature and description of postmodernism has changed during the past few decades as the movement has developed.
Scholars dedicated to the subject generally do not agree on a definition. Different concepts have been proposed in deconstructionist theory (Derrida, Lacan), politics (Foucault), social theory (Baudrillard), architecture (Jencks), literature (Barthes), philosophy (Rorty), etc. Some of these theories are European in origin and reflect what is primarily an American phenomenon, where the practice is focused. The result has been a mishmash of deconstructivist verbiage that is barely comprehensible, even to those who are considered to be postmodern practitioners (Anderson, p.6).
As postmodernism unfolded, it found its way into all facets of life. One of those areas is music. Although music plays a considerable role in contemporary popular culture, it does not get appropriate attention in the ongoing debate about postmodernism. Music is still a neglected field of cultural studies, and this seems to be changing slowly.
One reason is that music is a vast and complex social practice and seems to escape any attempt of systematic and thorough examination. Although a number of studies concerning specific styles and issues already have been published, the dispersed discussion about music reflects this current state of musical practice.
Speaking about postmodernism in music, we need to differentiate between classical and rock music. In classical music, fundamental changes surfaced in the late ’40s and ’50s in the music of composers such as John Cage, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Marcel Bernio. Here, postmodernism marks a development predominantly on a textual level. The new music abandoned the common language of tonality and tonal harmony. Instead, it offered a musical structure that had to be filled by the performer and the audience, thus being open to randomness, change and essentially different interpretations. Ending the restriction of a limited canon of instruments, sound and noise were adequate to be incorporated together with unlimited citations of the musical traditions.
To describe a postmodern change in rock is a more difficult task. Rock emerged in the 50s in a temporal distance form modernism in other art forms that already had reached the period late modernism. While the modernist avant-garde strove for the reconciliation of art and life outside the sphere of production, rock is a direct result of the rise of consumer capitalism after 1945. Rock obviously met the needs of the economically tense situation in the postwar United States. New demands and markets had to be created to guarantee industrial growth and prosperity. The category of youth proved to be successful in developing a growing demand for fast-changing products with a short lifespan. It also helped to undermine traditional consumer habits that otherwise would have inhibited the rapid rise of a new consumerism. Rock, opposite to the traditional bourgeois aesthetic, always has been an aesthetic of pleasure and fun. Together with other mass media such as film, rock reshaped the understanding of pleasure. It offered satisfaction through buying and consuming records and products of the entertainment industry. As a growing part of this new industry, rock profited from the economic relations and cultural export of the American society.
Furthermore, rock developed a far more complex social practice which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to speak of any homogneous trends (Jameson, p.1). From this perspective, the experimental character of the 60’s rock had built an unprecedented canon of music that was diluted and exploited by crossover music such as art rock, jazz rock, hard rock, etc. The authentic counterculture of the 60s was subject to commercialization, collaboration and sell out. The 60s had formed the classic of rock, which ushered in the era of the postmodern. While rock always retained a framework with local artists and audiences, the industry and media provided the means for the distribution and marketing of rock on a global scale.
In his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin describes the impact of reproductive technology on art as a split of the production process, the inclusion, of new artistic material, and a fundamental reception of art. Until the invention of the phonograph, music was only to be heard when actually performed. Musical practice and listening were inevitably tied together, and the commodification of music was limited due to the medium of sheets. The phonograph brought the split of performance and reception. The first use of multitrack recording technology some years later split up the recording process so music was recorded or altered outside the studio. The new recording technology was accompanied by a range of other electric sound devices such as simple sound effects, electric instruments such as guitars and synthesizers. Noise replaced the notion of music, the sound object, the single note or melody. Music once described with terms such as pitch, timbre and dynamic were described in terms such as frequency, duration and intensity. The rise of the new sampler-produced music generated widespread discussion about the effects of this new technology. Thornton summarizes: “The main currents of debate consider whether it is democratizing or hierarchizing, rationalizing or disruptive of production process, commodifying of challenging the legal definitions of property, inhibiting or enabling of new creativities and sites or authorship” (Thornton, pp. 31-32).
When the Sugarhill Gang released Rappers Delight in 1979, their music was based on extensive vocal tracks sung or spoken over repetitive and simple rhythmic patterns–the basic structure of Rap/HipHop that later was elaborated with the use of sampling. It must be looked at in the context of a traditional opposition between rhythm and harmony associated with African versus European music traditions. HipHop contrasts the structure of harmonic telos based on a tonal system and suspended dissonance. Instead, it is based on rhythmic patterns and repetitive loops. This structure points at the origin of HipHop: African music traditions and modern industrialized mass society which both rely on repetition. HipHop is explicitly a speech-based form of music. It is dialogical in many respects. Rappers address each other within a track. The audience is specifically addressed and included in the course of a HipHop show. HipHop always is conceived within a network of musicians–extensive credits are given on record sleeves to musicians to whom the artist wants to pay respect.
Furthermore, HipHop speaks and often responds to a community usually formed by local and/or ethnic constrains. It is also an excellent example of the power of territorialization created through music based on language and its power to signify. HipHop helped to improve the visibility of ethnic representation and the voicing minority experiences.
Some years after Rap emerged, around 1985, DJs and producers in Chicago and Detroit developed new forms of dance music later called House and Techno. The new music, mostly sampler-based, changed the dance music culture significantly. It laid the foundation for a rapid development of a number of other styles such as Ambient, Acid House and Acid Jazz. House, as is Rap, is based on self-contained patterns and loops. The signification of history and language, however, plays a considerably different role. House reflects the disillusion concerning the power of language to signify meaning. It mostly omits any form of coherent lyrics. If language is used at all, short utterances with little meaning are repeated, or language is broken into its bare pieces and reassembled without creating any linguistic meaning.
Techno is a form of music with similar roots as House music. The black DJ Derrick May is said to be the producer of the first Techno tracks in Detroit around 1986. While using the same technology as House and HipHop, Techno drew more inspirations from the synthesizer music of the 70s. The hard penetrating sound is with few exceptions utterly synthesized and sampled. The use of language is as rare as samples that could evoke recognition and refentiality. The deafening sound makes any communication impossible. In addition to the music, gigantic light shows contribute to the sensual overkill of a Techno rave. It is almost impossible for participants to remain in personally distanced position. Drugs usually help to enhance this already enormous experience of intensity.
From the different styles discussed, some conclusions can be drawn considering postmodernism and music, something that might reflect the general state of postmodernism, as well. First, and this is especially true of rock, modernism and postmodernism cannot be clearly separated. Second, it is not that music became postmodern from a certain point of time. Instead, the development of a postmodern music took place while a pre-postmodern practice of music still continues. On a mere contextual level, postmodern music is characterized by the following: The thoroughly composed piece is replaced by randomness, improvisation, and tracks that are reassembled and mixed together. With sound instead of staff, music has lost the obligatory code that allowed its representation. Parallel to that, the notion of music is replaced by the theory of noise. Styles and genres intentionally are blurred with the continuous hybridization that characterizes club music.
From this perspective, subculture looses its privilege to better cultural practice as expressed in Sham 1969’s song “The Kids Are Alright” written in the ’70s. The equation of youth culture, emancipation and rebellion sounds antiquated today. Fascists have appropriated Punk and the entertainment industry launched Techno, new music and lifestyles; and new subcultures are apolitical rather than rebellious. “The kids are not alright” was the answer of music critic D. Dietrichsen, suggesting the previous notion of opposition in music must be discussed differently considering postmodern practice of music.
• Anderson, W.T.; The Truth about the Truth; Putnam; 1995.
• Bennett, Tony; Rock and Popular Music: Politics, Policies, Institutions; London; Routledge; 1993.
• Connor, Stephen; Post Modern Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary; New York; 1989.
• Felder, Rachel; Manic Pop Thrill; Hopewell; 1993.
• Frith, Simon; Music and Copyright; Edinburgh University Press; 1993.
• Jameson, Frederic; Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism; Duke University Press; 1991.
• Lipsitz, George; Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and The Poetics of Place; London/New York; Verso; 1994.
• Rose, Tricia and Ross Andrew; Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture; London; Routledge; 1994.
• Thornton, Sarah, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subculture Capital; Wesleyan University Press; 1996.
For more information about PowerHouse Youth Ministry or Randy Brown visit PowerHouseYouth.us.