Carys Wyn Jones (2008) The Rock Canon

Carys Wyn Jones
The Rock Canon: Canonical Values in the Reception of Rock Albums

(Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008)
Review by Maria Hanáček

The ongoing debate over the concept of a Western canon keeps various disciplines occupied and popular music studies certainly are no exemption. This academic debate is not the main frame of reference of this book, though. It is concerned with the emergence of canons – seemingly a high art concept – in popular culture and examines the extent to which canonical models from literature and classical music inform the reception of rock albums.

The study focuses on ten albums repeatedly appearing in “greatest albums” lists. The term “rock”, however, is applied very broadly here to “music defined primarily by albums”, thus this top ten includes not only the Beatles and the Rolling Stones but also Marvin Gaye and the Sex Pistols. (This definition appears quite plausible if one considers that “classical” concepts and values are most likely to be found in albums, which come close to the idea of a work of art. It seems a bit problematic, though, when later on an “ideology of rock” with narrower genre connotations is employed).

Jones examines the “canonical” facets in the reception of these albums. She does not, however, argue that there actually is an established canon of rock music, as the title suggests. Though she demonstrates that features of high art canons are present, she concludes that it is too early to speak of an established canon. Thus she seems to prefer to talk about a process of “canon formation” and “canonical suggestions”. At other points, however, she does talk about “the canonical values of rock”, “the rock canon” and its “canonizers” – thus she seems to be a bit undecided on this point. In the first chapters the “canonical“ refers to an art music concept, but what exactly the term designates in a rock context ultimately remains a bit unclear (especially if there is no such thing as a rock canon yet).

Among those traditional canonical values examined is the figure of the romantic artist/genius, a composer-centred view and a traditional work concept. As one would have expected, a high art concept of a “canon” is transferable to a rock context where the albums under review come close to art music principles and “classical” aesthetics. This puts the album as the canonical work at the centre and presumes the attentive listening of a mature audience.

In the second half of the book Jones examines what she calls “the canonical values of rock” – criteria in the assessment of rock albums which don’t coincide with an art music concept but with an ideology of rock. These are criteria like sonic originality and a perceived authenticity of performance, which endorses the integrity of the artist as much as his/her resistance to the music industry. The self-taught musician fits best into this image of anticommercial artistic freedom and a rock narrative that is actually not that different from its “classical” counterpart.

Though Jones comes to the conclusion that traditional canonical values can be found in the reception of the albums studied, she argues that they don’t represent a stable canon, not least due to a conflict of canonic authority within popular music. Even though she states that the ten albums examined have the potential to become part of a canon, she reasons that it is too early to speak of a canon in the sense of an enduring consensus. She even suggests that the existence of a canon in rock music would ultimately be a matter of individual perception. In general, she suggests that “The postmodern state of coexisting possibilities allows canons to exist but denies them a degree of their former authority” (p. 139). Regarding the question whether the academic study of popular music still needs canons, she concludes that they are still necessary due to a lack of alternatives and a need for
some structure, though these canons will have to adjust to a pluralized culture and might be open to change.

Though this study has a clear structure, it doesn’t follow a clear argument – it is rather of a dialectical nature. Throughout the book Jones is neither arguing for nor against a canon, only the last chapter gives a summary of the pros and cons. This last chapter also provides a synthesis of the individual parts and a closer engagement with the academic debate, presenting her own point of view. This is unfortunately missing in former chapters, thus it still reads a bit like the different stages of a PhD thesis, finally leading to a conclusion. It is a comprehensive analysis, examining many different aspects of “canonicity”, though the greater significance of the individual parts is at times hard to grasp for the reader. A stronger theoretical framework might have been helpful in that regard.

It is a contribution to a topic that would warrant more attention and closer examination due to its omnipresence in popular music discourses, though. And since Jones is asking for the mechanisms of canon formation within popular culture, maybe the question to ask is rather
why such concepts are employed within the culture industry. If one asks for the criteria of “canonicity” this is probably always bound to a high art versus popular culture argument and whether canons exist within popular music or not ultimately remains a matter of definition. Canons or canon-like concepts don’t form without reason, however, and these underlying mechanisms of canon formation are surely of interest.

Throughout the book Jones also points to the social role of canons, like the separation of high culture and pop culture. Such instances of exclusion are certainly also to be found
within the field of popular music – rock music is a prime example, excluding that which is designated as the inauthentic. Jones points out that there are canonical narratives, coherent histories of progressive evolution as well as terms evoking that sense of history. That certain works stand a “test of time” is accomplished not only through their own durability and reproducibility – they are as well culturally reproduced by what Jones calls “secondary material”. She points to institutions and “canonizers”. These may be rather associated with classical music and academia but can be found within rock culture as well, not least since commercial interests are involved. As Jones points out, canons can even be marketed as such.

I’d say that these are the relevant mechanisms of canon formation, since perceived canonical criteria don’t form a canon by themselves, don’t explain the motivation, the interest that stand behind an ideology of rock. It is quite obvious that the music industry always found traditional concepts, e.g. the star persona as the core of auteurism, useful for marketing its products. It employs well-known and well-tested mechanisms and concepts and popular music simply doesn’t exist without any relation to this industrial context. And since publishers still market “classical” music in various forms, it is actually hardly surprising that such concepts as a canon survived. Fans and musicians also contribute to its longevity, however, thus the role of canons within popular music is certainly worth exploring further and this book surely provides some incentives.

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