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The popular musical canon August 17, 2019

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Thinking about Joy Division, and forty years of Unknown Pleasures – everything’s an anniversary this year (soon we have the second Summer(s) of Love, I kid you not), and how they’ve neatly slotted into the fairly diffuse musical canon of what is regarded as appropriate and worthy of note – what else is in there. The Beatles, the Stones, the Velvet Underground (natch!) and many many more. And yet when I was first listening to music it was ever thus, particularly with the Velvets. Though it was also heavy on The Doors in 1980. But seeing successive bands slotted into the canon has been interesting. Bowie – though he was there way back when. Prince. Nirvana.

And what are they constructed around? Familiarity, a degree of popularity (though how popular is an intriguing question and what is popularity anyhow), critical acclaim, and of course who is tasked with compiling them

This here in the Guardian by Michael Hann is interesting where it examines some interpretations of the canon – at least as mediated by NME – but points to it changing radically. I’d guess the Beatles will still be there. But a lot will fall by the wayside, and as Hann notes some one-album groups will definitely fade away.

Check out this from earlier this decade – NME’s 60 Most Important Albums Of NME’s Lifetime (60 Years) – there’s a canon alright there – one that has expanded to embrace some previously unthinkable names (Sabbath?) But look at more recent additions and ask whether The Libertines or Arcade Fire are likely to ring through the ages. But then that’s the problem with the recent, it’s… well… recent.

And let’s not shy away from the incredibly US and Eurocentric aspects of this too. Indeed not just Eurocentric, but an English centric really (NME, anyhow).

And then there are multiple canons. I think of heavy rock, metal and punk and how for their fans the canons are so clearly demarcated (and in truth slightly intertwine) or by contrast how disparate that of electronica is, indeed there’s a task to disentangle that one(s).

Perhaps Hann is right, that in a digital/internet world the canon is almost irrelevant. But I’m not entirely convinced. The gatekeeper role, or even the more prosaic sifter of music role, that music critics and magazines once held has fallen apart – or perhaps more accurately there’s now many many more voices appropriating that role to themselves. So again, multiple canons. And multiple areas for canons. And yet these sort of lists provide a shorthand, or a point of entry for those curious about where music developed from, or some forms of it anyhow. But there’s so much more out there that they can only ever be a reference point, a starting point…

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