If we started with something like blues or folk or spirituals and ended up at Post Malone, who can predict how the sound of pop will develop next?
In the colophon for Agnès Gayraud’s scholarly treatise Dialectic of Pop, a rather strange note appears. It reads, “A series of playlists has been created to accompany this book, bringing together many of the songs referred to in the text.” A complete hyperlink follows to encourage readers to listen along as they peruse (or perhaps skim) Gayraud’s 469-page tome. While the gesture is a cute one, it points out the persistent gap between academic and popular forms of writing, as well as awkward attempts on the part of academic presses to reach new audiences.
Dialectic of Pop—translated from Gayraud’s French to English by a three-member team (Robin Mackay, Daniel Miller, Nina Power) whose individual contributions the book never discloses—also tries to bridge this gap and, thankfully, comes much closer to succeeding. The premise of the book doesn’t look too promising on paper, however, largely because its main assertion will strike most readers as self-evident: pop music should be recognized as an art form in its own right, on par with cinema and photography.
Even though it’s unlikely that anyone under the age of 70 is going to argue with this, Gayraud’s methodology clarifies that her beef is with academe. In her book’s first part, she relies predominantly on the work of Theodor W. Adorno, a stridently Marxist, 20-century German intellectual who famously hated all forms of popular music, including jazz. (Although one particularly delicious conspiracy theory claims that he wrote the entire Beatles catalog.) Using his body of work, she both dismantles his airless critiques and finds passages in his oeuvre that suggest he may not have hated pop as much as it initially seems. It’s a smart way to both take Adorno’s writings seriously and dismantle them completely, a process that may seem to hold importance for only the most hardline Frankfurt School fanboys. But Gayraud’s careful, passionate examination (which is sure to point out that Adorno “never got to hear Jay-Z or Rihanna”) is actually pretty fun.
On the more obviously entertaining side, Gayraud peppers her text with references to all sorts of pop music: Ice Cube, the Rolling Stones, Aaliyah, King Krule, R. Stevie Moore. (Unfortunately, the aforementioned YouTube playlists don’t actually do justice to her diverse tastes.) “Pop,” as these references demonstrate, is a term she understands quite broadly. One of the most compelling early portions of Dialectic of Pop examines how pop implies the possibility or promise of the popular—something that the masses could like but may not actually enjoy. This ties to the “dialectic” of the book’s title, too: pop is encompassing enough to include even those songs that are adamantly against it. This is, she argues, how pop defines itself. It exists because it will always have its naysayers (even if these naysayers usually end up enjoying other pop).
Pop, Gayraud convincingly contends, is full of contradictions. Dialectic of Pop’s second part considers a number of terms that are central to pop and analyzes their internal inconsistencies: “authenticity,” “hit,” “progress.” These sections are essential reading for music writers, who will gain new insights into pop-crit concepts that can tend towards cliché and generality. A lot of folks already know that pop equals art, but Gayraud’s monograph helpfully situates that knowledge within a precise delineation of key debates in popular music and their history.
In her conclusion, Gayraud takes on the future of pop. If we started with something like blues or folk or spirituals and ended up at Post Malone, who can predict how the sound of pop will develop next? Nobody, she implies. But Dialectic of Pop maintains that whatever comes next will continue to maintain a vital democratic dream, some utopia where people and parties and the sublime can combine in perfect and contested harmony.