Review of ‘Exploring the networked worlds of popular music’ by Peter Webb

The aim of this book is quite ambitious. Namely, developing a theoretical framework for the study of music-related subcultures that departs both from the position of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which conceived subcultures as class-based and symbolically ‘resistant’, and from a more recent ‘postmodern turn’ (Muggleton: 2000) that emphasise the flexibility and ephemerality of contemporary ‘tribes’ (Maffesoli: 1996). Criticising these perspectives, Webb tries to grasp both the changing nature of what he calls music ‘milieux’, and their very historical, social and cultural ‘substance’ (Hodkinson: 2002). Surprisingly, the author never mentions Hodkinson’s work on goth culture, as long as the two books show a similar tendency: a counter-postmodern stance that points to the concreteness of contemporary subcultures in relation to their increasingly global dimension and media-dependent relationality (Hodkinson: 2003).

Drawing on traditions as diverse as Alfred Schutz’s phenomenology, Bourdieu’s sociology of culture and globalisation studies (among others), Webb designs a methodology that enlightens the different but intertwined social forces that shape the structure of music milieux. As in the case of the neo-folk (Cap. 4), music subcultures still emerge as relatively coherent and enduring in terms of knowledge and systems of value. This is obviously nothing new in subcultural as well as cultural studies, but Webb’s theory put such cultural density in relation to different sets of structural influences, like subcultures’ groundedness in the local dimension and their place in the wider ‘field’ (Bourdieu: 1993) of music industry. At the same time, the individual becomes a key site of analysis. People can in fact inhabit different milieux at the same time, and their biography and social mobility will affect the ‘stock knowledge’ that they carry into such contexts.

Overall, this position has the merit of putting the milieu in relation to a complex range of social activities and contexts. From this perspective, the question of the ‘independence’ of cultural producers is addressed as well (Cap. 6). In fact, producers belonging to a given musical milieu may have a significant degree of independence from the field of music industry, but this autonomy is ‘relative’ because the music industry still affects their choices and the institutional rules of cultural production (see Cap. 7). The analysis of Webb, in fact, shows the extent to which emergent labels and producers in UK experienced very different forms of pressure and influence in dealing with major record companies.

If there is any weakness in the book, it is related to the artistic (and to some extent political) value that the author attributes to some music milieux. The book reflects a certain difficulty in subcultural studies about departing from the idea that such groups are necessarily deviant or ‘non-normative’ (Gelder: 2005) to some degree. In this respect, Webb clearly expresses a sympathy for non-mainstream music genres (like Bristol-based trip hop) and milieux that flirt with radical political ideas (like the neo-folk). However, his theoretical perspective does not answer the question of why such music milieux deserve more sociological attention than the ones supposedly less radical. Also, Webb’s aesthetic judgements do not go farther than general statements about the creativity of given genres or producers.

This does not mean that his methodology can not evolve toward a more elaborate reflection about the relationship between cultural/aesthetic values and people’s agency (a line of enquiry recently discussed in sociology of culture, see Born: 2010). Moreover, the book remains more than valuable for the ways in which it explores the complex forms of social interaction and organisation produced by people’s engagement with popular music and culture. An area of enquiry that, as pointed by Webb in the Introduction (p. 7), is still underestimated in ‘mainstream’ sociology, despite the substantial influence of popular media on people’s life-choices. The greatest merit of the book is to show quite clearly the extent to which other spheres of social life (like politics and work) may be affected by the allegedly less important social activities – as well as fantasies and pleasures – enabled by popular culture.

References

Born, G. 2010. ‘The social and the aesthetic: for a post-Bourdieuian theory of cultural production’, Cultural Sociology, Vol. 4/2, 171-208.

Bourdieu, P. 1993. The field of cultural production (New York: Columbia University Press).

Gelder, K. 2005. ‘Introduction: the field of subcultural studies’. In K. Gelder (ed.), The subcultures reader, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge), 1-18.

Hodkinson, P. 2002. Goth: identity, style, and subculture (Oxford: Berg).

— 2003. ‘ “Net.Goth”: Internet communication and (sub)cultural boundaries’, in D. Muggleton and R. Weinzierl (eds), The post-subcultures reader (Oxford: Berg), 285-298.

Maffesoli, M. 1996. The time of the tribes: the decline of individualism in mass society (London: Sage).

Muggleton, D. 2000. Inside subculture: the postmodern meaning of style (Oxford: Berg).


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