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Popular Music and Song and National Identities

About the Project

This research project was a joint initiative of the French, German and Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies (SPLAS) sections of the School of Modern Languages and the International Centre for Music Studies (ICMuS) at Newcastle. A number of researchers in the School of Modern Languages and ICMuS at Newcastle had already developed research interests in various aspects of the social, cultural, political and economic significance of popular music in France, Germany, Spain and Portugal and in other Francophone, Hispanic and Lusophone countries, and therefore a collaborative, interdisciplinary and comparative programme of research seemed a fruitful way of capitalising on expertise in the SML and Arts faculty.

The issue of national identity is of particular relevance at the turn of the century as postmodern theorizing engages with the simultaneous yet seemingly paradoxical processes of cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization that characterize interactions in transnational global markets. Popular music is perhaps the cultural product which most easily crosses national boundaries whilst perversely defining the local space. It is a marker of collective identity in that it is a cultural activity through which social groups come to know themselves as groups. However, listening and performing music as experiential processes are inextricably bound up with subjective, individual responses that may not correspond to social categories such as class, race and gender. The dialectic between personal response and the material conditions of production and consumption of popular music make this a particularly rich field for the exploration of the construction of social identities and cultural narratives.


The Research group organised a number of conferences in Newcastle. There were two conferences in September and November 2000 which brought together contributors to the project from all the languages/cultures. These resulted in the outputs:  Hugh Dauncey and Steve Cannon (eds.), Popular Music in France from Chanson to Techno: Culture, Identity and Society (London: Ashgate, 2003) and  Ian Biddle and Vanessa Knights (eds.), Between the Local and the Global: Popular Musics and National Identities (forthcoming, 2007). The Centre for Research into Film also hosted a conference on film adaptations of the Carmen narrative in March 2002. In July 2002, the International Centre for Music Studies hosted the IASPM UK and Ireland biennial conference. A selection of papers given at 'See/Hear' have been published with papers given at the Royal Musical Association's annual conference 2001, whose subject was Music and Film, in Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film (2006), edited by Phil Powrie and Robynn Stilwell.  


Seminar Series 2001-2002 (organised by Ian Biddle & Vanessa Knights)

19 October: Theorising the popular voice and vocality

  • 'Voicing the Subject: Psychoanalysis, Cultural Theory and Popular Song' Ian Biddle, University of Newcastle
  • 'Yummy down on this "white boy": degradation and reclamation in alternative rock songs' Freya Jarman and Alice Carr, University of Newcastle

22 March: Popular musics and gender/sexuality (in conjunction with the Centre for Gender and Women's Studies at Newcastle)

  • 'Tears before Bedtime?: Performance of Gender in the Caribbean Bolero' Vanessa Knights, University of Newcastle

    The Caribbean bolero is commonly conceived of as a genre privileging unrestrained romanticism and sentimentality. However, the desire expressed tends to be categorised as masculine (and heterosexual). Elsewhere I have argued that the bolero can provide a space in which women can transgress gender boundaries to openly express sexual desire and deconstruct traditional roles. In this paper I will focus on the contradictory aspects of the construction of masculinities through a brief examination of bolero lyrics, vocality and performative style. This will involve a listening exercise by the audience!

  • 'Creativity, Gender and the Professional Musician' Marion Leonard, Institute of Popular Music, Liverpool

    This paper will concentrate on the way in which the well-worn concept of the 'creative artist' can be seen to have material consequences for professional musicians. To refer to a professional musician as an artist has become so commonplace that it barely seems worth a mention. However, this label carries with it a set of assumptions concerning creative production and social persona which can have a determining effect on how an individual is conceptualised and treated within the context of the music business. In particular this paper will explore how the figure of the creative artist is tied into certain constructions of gender and how this can affect professional working relationships.

  • ' "Love me for a Reason": the transgressive masculinity of boy band pop OR why Gareth couldn't win' Diane Railton, University of Teesside

    'Boy band', teenybop pop music challenges ideas of what it is to be masculine. It does so by providing ways of being male that are based on the needs and desires of young women. In this paper I will use the example of the recent Pop Idol TV series to argue that the threat to hegemonic masculinity posed by this type of performer is neutralised by situating it within the genre of 'manufactured', commercial pop. The contempt in which this type of music is held by critics and 'serious' music fans alike serves to render the challenge of 'teenybop' harmless. Even in as 'manufactured' and 'commercial' a setting as 'Pop Idol' issues around hegemonic and transgressive masculinity play a central, defining role in matters of taste and judgement.

17 May: Popular musics and technology

  • 'From compositional interiority to irresistible fetishism in ‘Music’ Stan Hawkins, University of Oslo and City University, London.

    In considering the intricacies of compositional design and gesture in the track ‘Music’ by Madonna, this paper seeks to open up the debate surrounding pleasure and fetishism in pop music. Extravagance and the gratuitousness of sampling and editing techniques contribute to an overwhelming sense of pleasure for the fan. Musical features of excess in the production of this track therefore provide a compelling platform for critical reflection. What role does virtuosity play in the efforts of Madonna to maintain her position in the pop world? With a strong emphasis on new technology and creative plundering, her tracks can be experienced as a fascinating trajectory of developing trends in contemporary music. A central aim of this investigation, then, is to utilise the track ‘Music’ as a porthole into an inquiry into stylistic eclecticism through production in pop music.

  • 'Internet, Popular Music and the Public Sphere: Case Study of a Portuguese Online Forum' Pedro Nunes, University of Stirling

    The participation of Pedro Nunes is sponsored by Centro de Língua Portuguesa / Instituto Camões at Newcastle

    The online Forum Sons was created as a complement to a column in the Portuguese Friday music supplement, Sons, which covers news, interviews, articles and reviews on popular music. The column aimed to stimulate the exchange of ideas and arguments between journalists, artists and readers. According to one of the journalists involved, the idea was somewhat idealistic but succeeded to an extent. The need for a more interactive debate on particular, rather than general, topics led to the creation of an on-line forum supposedly organized around specific issues raised by the team responsible for the music supplement. However, since it was launched in the on-line version of the daily newspaper, Forum Sons became progressively self-managed by its participants. What started as a public space for debate, where journalists would be heading interactive arguments and readers with an interest in popular music issues would be able to express points of view, soon became a private community with only one journalist as a regular participant and a group of about 15 to 20 readers contributing regularly, almost on a daily basis. With a recent change of format that made it more accessible, the core of participants has increased to about 40 and the forum seems more pluralist than ever before. This paper assesses the contribution this forum can bring to arguments regarding the notion of public sphere (Habermas) by relating the discourse found in the forum with that of the music supplement which launched it. A case-study of Forum Sons would address the following questions: a) Is there space for rationality in discussions in popular music? b) What can on-line forums do about it? c) More broadly, does on-line communication marginalize or bring taste cultures to the public sphere? d) How can Forum Sons give a positive contribution to the public sphere?

  • 'Electronica: Form + Function = Tranquility' Matthew Sansom, University of Newcastle.

    What is Electronica? Circulating within post-rave sensibilities and late-twentieth/early-twenty-first subjectivities, what does this music speak to and of? Is it balm for the ongoing ideologies brought to the fore during eighties and nineties (in particular, Possessive Individualism and Ecstasy-induced visions of community), functioning as some kind of cure for or companion in the tensions of an 'ideology-hangover'? More explicitly, in what ways might it be understood to mediate contemporary negotiations of social identity that reflect and shape post-modern subjectivities? Following a discussion of a T-shirt, an image, the formula of the paper's title, the author's compositional process, and a musical example, this paper discusses these ideas in relation to selected musical characteristics of Electronica and its cultural and historical location.

Occasional Seminars 2003-4

Seminars run in conjunction with the International Centre for Music Studies:

Full possession of our musical heritage: Authenticity and the English Folk Revival
Georgina Boyes (National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, University of Sheffield)
9th October 2003

When a journalist sang: Burton Crane, the first successful American singer in Japan
Harumichi Yamada (Tokyo Keizai University)
30th October 2003

"Impassioned by song." Shepherds, nationalists, world music, and the evolution of polyphonic singing in Corsica
Caroline Bithell (University of Wales)
5th February 2004

Music in Afghanistan in the post-Taliban era
John Baily (Goldsmiths College, University of London)
19th February 2004

Music Listening and Television
Keith Negus (Goldsmiths College, University of London)
4th March 2004

Film music and the musical icon
Michael Chanan (University of West of England)
18th March 2004

Additional seminars:

Contemporary Trends in Urban Andean Popular Music in Peru
José Antonio Llorens
23 January 2004

'What the &*#$?!' The Soviet Heritage and Issues of Quality in Russian Popular Song Today
David McFayden (UCLA)
24  March 2004



Popular Music and National Identities (organised by Ian Biddle, Hugh Dauncey & Vanessa Knights)

On Monday 11 and Tuesday 12 September 2000, the School of Modern Languages and the International Centre for Music Studies of the University of Newcastle hosted an international and interdisciplinary conference on popular music and national identity (partly subsidised by the Society for French Studies). The conference examined popular musics and song from all over the world in their social, musical and political contexts. Thirty speakers contributed to the discussions, with papers ranging from analyses of the cultural and ideological implications of 'collaboration' by popular chanteurs during the Nazi Occupation of France to studies of the social significance of Banda music in Los Angeles, Brazilian Samba and the enduring fascination of the Moorsoldatenlied sung by labour-camp workers in Nazi Germany. Ten papers dealt specifically with France, three with Spain, five with Germany, and a dozen considered various manifestations of popular music in Latin America. The Plenary discussion which closed the conference identified a number of interesting themes which had arisen during the two days of discussions, including: the problem of interdisciplinarity and finding a common discourse or vocabulary for talking about music; the need to restore discussion of the national within debates about globality; popular music as a contested terrain for the production of meaning mythology and the musical tradition; the difficulty of deconstructing whilst strategically using terms such as authenticity, identity, and the popular, and debates around structural analysis.

See/Hear: Film and Music (organised by  Vanessa Knights & Phil Powrie)

On Thursday 9 and Friday 10 November 2000, the Popular Music and Song project and the Centre for Research into Film (Newcastle University) hosted a conference on the theme of music and film entitled See/Hear: Music and Film. The conference covered many areas of music and film, both from scholars working in film studies with an interest in the interface between music and film, as well as musicologists with interests in film.

IASPM UK and Ireland Conference

In July 2002, the International Centre for Music Studies hosted the IASPM UK and Ireland biennial conference

Popular Musics of the Hispanic and Lusophone Worlds (organised by Ian Biddle and Vanessa Knights)

14th-16th July 2006, the network hosted a conference on popular musics of Hispanic and Lusophone worlds. Some 80 delegates from all over the world delivered papers on popular music in Spanish, Portuguese and English. Click here for our new conference 2006 pages.