I: Rock vs. Pop

Musical programs (traditionally: genres) are never just about musical aspects, they are also “based on non-musical factors” (Mauch et al., 2016). Rock’n’roll was not just “a musical form of a strict sort” (Bangs 1987). A program always incorporates certain semantic components: “Rock is not just a matter of musical definition. It also refers to an audience (young, white), to a form of production (commercial), to an artistic ideology.” (Frith/McRobie, 1994, 373) Programs can be therefore considered  ‘attitudes with sound’  (as Larkin points out for the program of independent, 1992, 3). The “ideology of rock,” as Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie have called it (1979, 373) differs from the ‘ideology’ of the romantic ballad, of ‘teeny bop’ or ‘bubblegum.’

‘Pop,’ however, is not a program or genre. On the contrary, ‘pop’ is more characterized by the grinding away or omission of stylistic peculiarities, as a kind of idiosyncrasy-free zone that triumphs over all such peculiarities. This stylistic deconditioning also succeeds thanks to the form of the classic pop song – the verse-chorus scheme. In the words of Lena and Robertson: pop songs “have their distinguished genre characteristics purposely obscured or muted in the interest of gaining against appeal” (Lena/Robertson, 2008, 699.) Therefore, they do not understand pop as a genre either: “Thus, pop is considered a chart, a way of doing business, or a demographic target, but not a genre …” (ibid., 700). The distinction is nonetheless socially plausible. On the ‘attitude,’ i.e., the thematic level, pop is mostly associated with romantic themes: “If you sing about love, and going to school, and drinking milkshakes, and having sex in the missionary position, you’re doing pop music.” (Ice T/Siegmund, 1992, 99)

The nucleus around which the self-organization of the pop system evolves is rock’n’roll. Which elements become a system’s nucleus or core often depends on chance, on a random historical constellation. Different cores create very different stabilities. In the case of pop, it was the alternative rock’n’roll that led to the system formation of pop, and this beginning had an anchoring effect (Fuchs/Heidingsfelder, 2004, 304ff., Heidingsfelder, 2012, 198). Nik Cohn talks about a time “when everything was soft, warm, and sentimental” (1989, 54) – but then rock’n’roll “wiped away all of the politeness that had gone before” (13). The program presented itself as the music of a minority, opposed to greasy ballads, “the respectable conventions of showbiz” (Davies 2009) – in the words of Frank Sintra: as “the most brutal ugly, vicious form of expression,” “a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac,” “martial music of every delinquent on the face of the earth” (Herman, 1982, 15). Which is why one of the most famous jazz singers of all times informed his audience as late as in 1960 that “Mr. Cole Won’t Rock’n’Roll”. On the other side, the early Elvis Presley was expected to do exactly that – he had to rock and roll and was not allowed to sing the sentimental songs that he loved so much, ballads like I’ll Be Home by Pat Boone. “But I could not do that. Every audience will usually want a fast, moving number on stage.” (Posener/Posener, 1993, 34, translation M.H.)

The confusion that engulfed pop as a genre is owed initially to these historical conditions under which the system originated. Starting with the program of rock’n’roll, ‘pop’ – the music of the crooners, mainly romantic ballads characterized by their ‘smoothness’ and adherence to the classical forms of Tin Pan Alley songs – was banished to the outside. Politeness, warmth, sentimentality, the ‘sweetness’ of pre-pop finally completed a re-entry in the form of Brill Building songs and girl groups, which led to the resignification of Frank Sinatra as “front-runner on the pop scene” (Meltzer, 1970, 270). 

The system solves the contradictions at the program level, it shifts the idea of ​​resistance, subversion, authenticity (with Nik Cohn: “crude, powerful, infinitely loud” music) to the rock programs, while warmth, sentimentality and politeness are categorized under the ‘pop’ label. It so licenses the pre-pop forms, albeit with a certain restriction: the music belongs to pop (it is about hits), but these hits need not to be authentic or ‘raw.’ “While it wasn’t the rawest or most artistically expressive pop music, few forms of rock were as affecting, romantic, and tuneful.” (Erlewine et al., 1994, 1109) To date, it is above all these semantic correlates that characterize the imaginary genre of ‘pop’.

It started as mixture of basically two genres, Tin Pan Alley and R & B, a combination that appears to be the missing link between Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Before the ‘boy bands’ of the British Invasion, who rehabilitated the concept of romantic, tuneful music, there were the girl groups of the post-rock’n’roll era – with songs like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow by The Shirelles. They represented the re-entry of the romantic ballad into the the system, and by doing so, provided pop with more possibilities and flexibility. The Beatles made use of these possibilities by merging rock’n’roll with ‘pop’, leading not only to the fusion of stylistic elements but also semantic components incorporated in these styles: “The British sound in general, the Beatles in particular, fused a rough R&B beat with yearning vocal harmonies derived from black and white romantic pop; the resulting music articulated simultaneously the conventions of feminine and masculine sexuality, and the Beatles’ own image was ambigious, neither boys-together aggression nor boy-next-door-pathos.” (Frith/Goodwin, 1994, 383) Consequently, the Beatles covered several Shirelles songs, from Baby It’s You to Boys.

Although all programs specialize in the hit/flop coding, the semantics associated with some of them differ. Ryan Adams’ cover album of Taylor Swift’s 1989 and the debates surrounding its release can serve as a case study here. 

II: Adams vs. Swift

The reason why Adams came up with the idea to cover an entire album of an artist located on the other side of rock was – if his statement is to believed – that he “heard more” when he was listening to it (Browne 2015). Swift had already attempted to present such a ‘more’ in the lyrics of 1989: “more mature, more wistful perspectives on her common theme of romantic relationships” (Wikipedia 2019). The ‘more’ Adams heard was related to fulfilling the promise of authenticity or realness connected with the rock idiom. Many critics certified the success of his attempt: some heard “more depth” (McCormick 2015) in Swift’s songs, others found Adam’s version “more earnest and, in its way, sincere and sentimental than the original,” and – all in all “more authentic, raw, or genuine” (Crouch 2015). The list exemplifies how semantic components, in this case those related to the problem of authenticity, stabilize each other (Luhmann, 1980, 47). 

Adams was quick to add: “Not that there was anything missing … It wasn’t like I wanted to change them because they needed changing.” (Browne 2015) Phrased paradoxically, there was nothing missing because Swift’s music does not require authenticity to be authentic. Which is why Adams made it clear that he was not concerned with a re-imagining or re-construction of the music, a correction of Taylor’s ‘mistake’ to invest in a pop production (Browne 2015). “But I knew that if I sang them from my perspective and in my voice, they would transform. I thought, ‘Let me record 1989 like it was Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.’” 

Springsteen had referred to the songs on Nebraska as ‘demos’ (Springsteen, 2016, 299). In other words, these songs demonstrated their potential rather than executing it, as a way to approximate his ideas about them – something that he saw in them, but that others did not necessarily already hear; sketches, done ‚extempore;’ rapidly executed recordings that were not intended as a finished work, but to find out whether “my new material was record-worthy” (ibid.). Recorded for later recording, so to say, and in this capacity intended for limited circulation or reference and not general public release. This is also indicated by the four-track recording device, the production costs (Springsteen: “a grand”), and by the fact that two of the songs were recorded only once (ibid.). As intended, Springsteen recorded the songs a second time, but was dissatisfied with the result: “On listening, I realized I’d succeeded in doing nothing but damaging what I’d created. We got it to sound cleaner, more hi-fi, but not nearly as atmospheric, as authentic.” (Springsteen, 2016, 300, italics by me, M.H.) 

It is this low-fi authenticity that Adam tried to wrestle from Taylor Swift’s hi-fi album, “sandblasting” (Crouch 2015) the tracks produced by a team that had aimed for an overall 1980s-style, “clearing away … the dance-pop flourishes and general polish that Swift settled on” (ibid.). With reference to the song title “Clean,” one could also say that Adam was in search of the dirt or the blood that he suspected under the blank-produced surface. Taylor Swift herself felt honored by the project and – picking up his blood metaphor – described it as ‘bleeding aching vulnerability’ into it (Goodman 2015). 

It is safe to assume that all these intentions did not inform the sound encoding of Swift’s album. It may also be taken for granted that she or her producers did not draw inspiration from John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson, like Springsteen did for Nebraska. Instead, she found herself “gravitating toward pop sensibilities, pop hooks, pop production styles” (Light 2014). 

But the 1989-version of Adams not only tried to transform pop into the realness of rock – for instance by “turning a Phil Collins-era Genesis drum reverb track into a waltz with an extended instrumental outro that would never fly in a pop single” (McFarland 2015), or by replacing Swift’s “posh, sexy provocation” (in “Blank Space”, M.H.) about the thrills of being a wild woman with “a hushed, whispery lamentation of troubled love” (Crouch 2015) –, it also aimed at minimizing the blockade of reflection that Swift had succeeded to create by her use of dance rhythms. She expresses her intentions with regard to “Shake it Off” as follows: “I really wanted it to be a song that made people want to get up and dance at a wedding reception from the first drum beat.” (Light 2014) One critic wondered how the song can even exist “with neither sound of nor mention of ‘this sick beat’ (clap clap clap)”  (Kornhaber 2015). The version of Adams ensures that people stay seated – the bright wedding lights are being dimmed, so that the owl of Minerva can spread its wings and fly into the song.

A similar style transfer was witnessed by American TV viewers in a 1960 tv show that offered a duet by Elvis Presley and former rock’n’roll scoffer Frank Sinatra, with Elvis singing “Witchcraft” and Sinatra “Love Me Tender”. “I wonder if it made any difference,” says Sinatra shortly before they start to perform (“I think it would about 2 million records less,” snaps the moderator.) The difference was mainly heard on the vocal level, as the musical arrangement was restricted to the swing idiom processed by Nelson Riddle’s orchestra. It is their style of singing – Sinatra’s cool crooning against the ‘sexy’ performance of Presley – that marks the affiliation to one or the other program. The duet can be seen as a kind of peace treaty between two previous hostile camps. From the perspective of the subversionists, the duet appears as part of the appropriation process that turned the once subversive rock’n’roll into a stabilizing force of capitalism. (The show welcomes Presley back home after his release from military service.)

Was Adam’s version of 1989 an inversion of that process, did the singer turn cultural appropriation against itself? Some observers went down that road and witnessed a “cheeky act of cultural appropriation” (McCormick 2015), others even speculated about “some kind of subversive repurposing” (Browne 2015). The proponents of authenticity would have had every reason to reproach Adam abuse, as his versions detailed the conditions of constructing authenticity or realness and thereby devalued it, profanizing a performance style that is licensed ‘believable.’ In the words of a critic: “This might seem like insincerity, like pathos conjured out of thin air in a kind of musical magic trick.” (Crouch 2015) The tone of these songs does not inform any longer about what is ‘inside,’ as this inside is imported from the outside of a music considered inauthentic, commercial, and fake: “Ryan Adams’s 1989 by traditional standards sounds like ‘real music’ while the original sounds ‘fake,’ but how real can it be when it’s all material written by Taylor Swift and the same folks who created Britney Spears’s career?” (Kornhaber 2015)  

Interestingly, this time it was the pop fans who protested against this appropriation. Whereas the Taylor Swift ‘superfans’ (represented by Jordan Crucchiola and K. M. McFarland) did not really mind his versions, only missing the “anthemic” quality of the originals or a bridge here and there, others considered his cover inappropriate. For them, Adams did not realize a more, but a less, “stripping away all the joy from the album, replacing it with dirge and disappointment” (Cragg 2015) and “the kind of emotion we heard in rock ballads for decades” (Kornhaber 2015). It is Adam’s version that lacks something: “The original (“Out of the Woods,” M.H.) … was truly weird: booming gated drums, stentorian backup chanting, Swift’s jumbled, repetitious chorus, all of which conveyed a blend of hope and neuroticism – the feeling that bliss is so close yet so elusive that you can’t stop thinking about it. Next to that, Adam’s campfire profundity feels generic.” (Kornhaber 2015)

This signals a significant semantic shift away from the craving for approval that marked the early stages of pop when “bedazzled college students like myself were helplessly dumping quotes from Plato on Beatle hits and Dylan albums, attempting to make sense of the emotions the music was provoking, trying to talk about the world the music” (Greil Marcus in Meltzer, 1987, xvii). In this situation, the legitimization or „second order objectivation“ (Berger/Luckmann, 1991, 110) supposed to give pop a normative dignity was imported from the outside, especially from the arsenal of aesthetics that provided concepts about authorship and ‘artistic integrity’: “In August 1966, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ came out …, and that seemed to prove that they could write real lyrics. The music, once again, was a development, using classical instruments and harmonies.” (Davies 2009) Davies, the first Beatles biographer, points out that he went to see Paul McCartney to “seriously” ask him how he composed: “The popular newspapers were obsessed by the money and the crowd mania, while the fan  mags wanted to know their favorite colour and favorite film stars.” (ibid.) Davies wanted “to let the ignorant see how good they (the Beatles, M.H.) were”, but his superiors were against it: “They didn’t want so much space wasted on humdrum pop songs.” (ibid.) Today, the fundamental ‘explanation’  of pop gives normative dignity to its function (i.e., its “practical imperatives,” Berger/Luckmann, 1991, 111). Pop fans today don’t want pop to be something else, they don’t feel the pressure to justify their preference for rancid-smelling/humdrum forms of musical expression as previous generations did, and in the case of Ryan Adams, they even reject the “patronising assumption … that the pop listener can’t feel an emotional connection to a song if it doesn’t have guitars on it … that a pop song’s brilliant longing can’t be communicated unless the voice delivering it is grizzled and has been recorded using two tin cans and a bit of string” (Kheraj 2015). For Kheraj, Adam’s version of 1989 “stinks of authenticity” and music snobbery: “The assumption that pop music somehow needs to be altered or changed so that it can be considered ‘authentic’ and critically applauded is bullsh*t.” (Kheraj 2015)

This rejection of authenticity reflects the outdifferentiation of pop – the evolution of ideas (“Ideenevolution”) is no longer tied to the knowledge available in its environment (Luhmann, 1980, 48). It can be understood as a self-conscious appraisal of pop’s own selection criteria, which are determined by the hit/flop schematism, and thus as an attestation of the decoupling process of pop from other social functions. These criteria are defended against the attempts of nobilitization and improvement undertaken by the so-called “authenticity warriors,” and it is no coincidence that this self-defense refers to the charts: “What makes 1989 so joyous and near-perfect isn’t just Taylor’s songwriting ability, but the bells, whistles and radio-ready structure that dominates the Top 40.” (Kheraj 2015) According to Kheraj, Adams’ cover of 1989 ridicules and deprives a “truly triumphant moment of pop history”: “Taylor’s record should be given its place in pop history without the banal phone calls from the authenticity police about how ‘Adams‘ was, like, way better’.” But Kheraj goes even further and accuses Adams’ cover of being politically incorrect: “What this does is legitimizing and prioritizing the emotions of an adult white man over those of a young woman.” (Kheraj 2015) His cover appears as a form a harassment, as behavior that demeans and humiliates an album, as a kind of unwanted musical advance. Understandably, Adams was not amused: “Thanks but not gonna cover an album again … 1000 jabs later what we’ve done has become somethin’ else … ” (Stutz 2016)

The debate illustrates the importance of semantic factors which distinguish certain pop forms as worth preserving, as opposed to those that can be forgotten. As mentioned above, such condensations that identify and elaborate pop meaning were first borrowed from the outside, until the first crisis of the system led to an appreciation of its own function (Heidingsfelder, 2016, 13ff.). The lyrics of It’s Only Rock’n’Roll mark this shift, and they do it by mocking the authenticity ideal:

“If I could stick a knife in my heart

Suicide right on stage

Would it be enough for your teenage lust

Would it help to ease the pain?” 

Which is why, on the one hand, Ryan Adams’ cover of 1989 is business as usual: “There is, after all, a long and rich history of the ironic cover song, with independent, or iconoclastic, or niche artists covering Top Forty hits, often live in concert, and mostly to the screaming delight of their audience. Punk groups covering songs by boy bands, white rock groups singing hip-hop, heavy-metal versions of Britney Spears.” (Crouch 2015) On the other hand, thanks to the system’s history, rock covers are still observed as if they had a “Mehrwert” (surplus value), as if they are looking down on the pop originals, providing shallow pop with depth, dirt, authenticity, or irony: “The stunt is mostly understood as a self-juxtaposition of the artists they are covering.” (Crouch 2015) In such reviews and also in Adams’ self-description we find implicit references to the distinction of avant-garde/kitsch Clement Greenberg (1939) had established in his eponymous essay, where he associated the avant-garde with poetry (“a poem by TS Eliot”) and kitsch with popular music (“a Tin Pan Alley song”, Greenberg, 1939, 3). Adams’ intention to make Swift’s music “move like poetry” (Browne 2015) – instead of making it move like music – echoes this understanding of avant-garde, as if he confronted the formulaic character of pop with the self-conscious strategic character of art. Adams’ assurance that he was not being ironic and that Taylor’s songs are perfect in their own way, i.e., as pop, could not “neutralize … the notion that musical worthiness depends on authorship, or that songs pieced together by computers are fraudulent, or that Max Martin (Swifts main producer, M.H.) is the devil” (Kornhaber 2015). From the perspective of pop fans, his version is an attempt to distance himself from pop, as if he was seeking the absolute in a “mechanical, debased simulation of real culture, operating by a formula” (Greenberg, 1932, 10), or in the words of an Adams fan: evoking “the ghosts in Swift’s pop machine” (McCormick 2015). The reference to Arthur Koestler’s eponymous book (1967) – which in turn refers to a phrase coined by Gilbert Ryle – is in itself an evocation of a ghost, in this case the ghost of early pop semantics.

The reviews point at what can be considered a power imbalance between the semantics of rock, associated with artistic integrity, authenticity, and pain, and the semantics of joy, playfulness, and simplicity associated with ‘pop’. Nietzsche had championed the pop semantics by confronting the bold and braceful music of Bizet with the “life-negating” one of Wagner – as he emphasizes: certainly with polemical intent, but not merely out of pure malice.

“This music seems perfect to me. It approaches lightly, supplely, politely. It is pleasant, it does not sweat. ‘What is good is light; whatever is godly moves on tender feet’: first principle of my aesthetics.” (Nietzsche, 1911, 157)

Nietzsche questions the negativity that the widely-thought definition of the popular invokes, being well aware of the dominant discourse; a negativity that is also resonating in some of the positive reviews of Adam’s version of 1989. “Yet, for Nietzsche, it is this very negativity invoked at the level of style which potentially leads to a philosophical positivity, a partial aesthetic reversal of the high-low opposition which marks so much thinking about music in the last two centuries.” (Sweeney-Turner 1997

We find this aesthetic reversal in the praise of Swift’s original at the expense of Adams’ cover – it is pop itself that makes this reversal plausible. For Nietzsche, to turn his back on Wagner was a fate, and a triumph; for the Swift fans, to turn their back on ‘real music’ and “the lie of the great style” (Nietzsche, 1911, 157) in favor of “100% pop perfection” (Kheraj 2017) seems to be an act of self-defense. From their perspective, Swift is a victim and Adams a perpetrator who succeeded in doing nothing but damaging what Taylor Swift had created. He got it to sound dirtier, more lo-fi, but not nearly as weird, as blissful, and appealing.

But what is true for Taylor Swift’s pop is also true for the authentic rock music represented through Ryan Adams: both are ultimately specialized in the first code, only the associated semantics vary. They “operate in different spheres” (Kheraj 2017), or to paraphrase Sinatra’s statement during his duet with Elvis: Adams and Swift work in the same way, but in different areas. From our perspective though, it seems more as if they work in the same area (pop), but use different programs. We can confidently leave the question of program superiority to hierarchy advocates. In the end, Adams’ authenticity succeeded as pop: “While Adams may have taken some jabs for dipping into pop music as he did, his 1989 album impressively peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 chart, with 56,000 equivalent album units earned in its first week alone, according to Nielsen Music.” (Stutz 2016)

Paper references

Bangs, L. (1991), Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung. Literature as Rock ’n’ Roll, Rock ’n’ Roll as Literature, London, Minerva.

Berger, T. , Luckmann, (1991), The Social Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, London, Penguin. 

Cohn, N. (1989), Ball the Wall, London, Pan Books.

Davies, H. (2009), The Beatles: The Authorised Biography, New York, Random House.

Erlewine M., Bogdanov, V., Woodstra, C., Erlewine, S.T., Unterberger, R. (1997), All Music Guide to Rock. The Expert’s Guide to the Best Rock, Pop, Soul, R&B  and Rap, 2nd edition, San Francisco, Miller Freeman.

Frith, S., McRobbie, A. (1978), “Rock and Sexuality”, in Frith, S., Goodwin, A. (Eds), On Record. Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, London, Routledge, pp. 371-389.

Fuchs, P., Heidingsfelder, M. (2004), “Music No Music Music – Zur Unhörbarkeit von Pop”, Soziale Systeme Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 292-324

Greenberg, C. (1997), “Avantgarde und Kitsch”, in Lüdeking, K. (ed.), Die Essenz der Moderne. Ausgewählte Essays und Kritiken, Dresden, Verlag der Kunst, pp. 29−55

Heidingsfelder, M. (2012), System Pop, Berlin, Kadmos.

Herman, G. (2008), Rock’n’Roll Babylon, Medford, Plexus.

Ice-T,  Siegmund, H. (1994), The Ice Opinion: Who Gives a Fuck? New York, St. Martin’s Press.

Lena, J. C., Peterson, R. A. (2008), “Classification as Culture: Types and Trajectories of Music”, American Sociological Review Vol. 73, No. 5, pp. 697-718. 

Luhmann, N. (1980), Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik. Studien zur Wissenssoziologie der modernen Gesellschaft, Vol. 1, Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp.

Meltzer, R. (1970), The Aesthetics of Rock, New York, Something Else Press.

Posener, A., Posener, M. (1993), Elvis Presley, Reinbek bei Hamburg, Rowohlt.