Pop Music: Stretching the Bonds of Ethnic Identity

Popular music brings to mind many different musical styles that have captivated audiences over the years.  The notion of popular music in a Western societal sense goes hand-in-hand with the rise of commercialism and mass media in the twentieth century.  Popular music can be defined as being a musical style that is primarily urbanized, produced by professionals, for mass distribution. (Manuel 2).  In essence, it is the ‘people’s music’.  However, even a cursory look at popular music can demonstrate the wide societal changes that have influenced it or vice versa.  Popular music has stretched the bonds of ethnic identity and group connectedness throughout the world.

The mass appeal of popular music does not silence those who criticize the medium – far from it.   The ‘social elite’ bemoan the fact that popular music, with its basic, formulaic make-up has lowered the standards of music appreciation and has greatly injured ‘high art’ (Manuel 9).   Besides being criticized for watering down art to its lowest denominator, popular music has also been accused of breaking many traditional societal ties.  The popular music of the West has become secularized and is no longer connected to the ritualistic existence of society (Manuel 3).  Community based music has been replaced by a commercialized version which relies on popular musical trends and well-known performers.

Popular music in the Western world tends to rest heavily on ‘star-power’.  These stars are nurtured, promoted, developed, and (eventually) discarded once the new commercial sensation arises.  In this way, western popular music does not draw people together to form ethnic bonds in the way traditional folk music may have.  The star-power of modern day popular music becomes the attraction in itself.   People may comment on, talk about, and spend a lot of time obsessing over the latest musical fad, but it doesn’t create the connectedness and common experiences in modern society which used to be identifying features of different ethnic communities around the world.

Modernization and urbanization have played large roles in the continuing evolutional process of popular music.  Popular music tends to be an urban art form, and as urban society changes, the music follows.  Of course, there is much debate on the matter of which one changes  first – does music change society or does society change music?  (Manuel 8)   No matter the case, it is undeniable that both modernization and urbanization has greatly affected musical traditions in the developing world.

It could be argued, however, that urbanization and modernization have done more harm than good in relation to the development of music and how society interacts with music.  In more traditional societies, everyone – even non-musicians – may have been expected to pitch-in with their musical talents and contribute to the societal music pool  (Manuel 11).  Social obligation was the driving force where lay folk were strongly encouraged to be involved in music on some level  (Manuel 11).    But modernization has created situations where people are less actively involved in making music and have taken on the role of what Manuel refers to as “passive consumption” (12).  This passive approach to music has consequences to the development of music.  Manuel writes that “the increase of passive consumption leads to a decrease in topical contemporaneity, as song texts expressing immediate concerns relating to social function or socio-political issues give way to…” more broad minded themes which are less event oriented and time sensitive (12).   The consequence of this would be that certain forms of popular music have nearly disappeared altogether.   In Trinidad, song lyrics which used to be strongly connected to daily happenings have been broadened to have more universal appeal (Manuel 12).  In Jamaica, the immergence of commercial reggae has precipitated the near disappearance of certain amateur folk genres (Manuel 11).   Another common consequence of this is that recorded music has become common place in third world countries where live music used to thrive (Manuel 11).  In many senses, music no longer fosters group identity as it once did because it has merely become another mass media product to consume.

Social identity, according to Manuel, plays a crucial role in how new immigrants survive and adapt to their new environment (16).   Therefore, popular music still can be a powerful symbol of identity which can give new life to an immigrant’s social expression (Manuel 16).  However, Cooper’s critique of the word identity must be looked at in order to clearly understand what part of identity that music can influence in the midst of social change.    Cooper suggests that terms such as commonality, connectedness, and groupness can form useful replacements for the term identity.  According to Cooper, “commonality denotes the sharing of some common attribute, connectedness the relational ties that link people” and  groupness being the hybrid meaning of both of these terms linked together (76).  So in this context, how can we look at the role of popular music in the midst of social change?  Some examples may help to further delineate the meaning.

Certain immigrants to New York City have long used music as a way to stay connected to their culture.  Certain ethnic groups in immigrant communities in New York City have used music as a way of keeping their ethnic and cultural ties (Manuel 18).  In the midst of foreign customs and culture, music creates a form of connectedness that link people together and perhaps creates a sense of belonging so that a part of their new life is still tethered to their homeland and native culture.

Cultural and economic aspects in the non-Western world may help foster commonality and connectedness in some cases.  Because of mass media, some forms of traditional folk music have become wide spread and embraced by populations on the whole (Manuel 3).  For example, the lack of radio ownership in India creates scenarios where dozens of people may stand around listening to one local radio (Manuel 3).  With their economic situation being similar to one another, the sharing of the radio and the interaction and gossip which surely follows may help create a sense of societal connectedness which surely would be lost if everyone had their own personal music device.










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