Thursday, 29 May 2014

First MA essay: On Music and Identity


So I've started an MA in Music at Goldsmiths College, London. Here's my first essay, covering some thoughts on music and identity:

“Identity comes from the outside not the inside; it is something we put or try on, not something we reveal or discover.” [1] What does Simon Frith mean and is he right?
Refer to musical examples in your answer.

Contents
1. Introduction
2. The ‘Self’ and Identity
3. Frith – Linking Music and Identity
4. Is Frith right?
5. Case Study
6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

In this essay I will broadly agree with Frith’s view up to a point, but go on to explore its limitations and various related issues, particularly in terms of how Frith links music with identity formation. I suggest that his perspective, whilst insightful and important, is too narrow and optimistic - arguing for a broader and more balanced approach.
The Frith quote in the title of this essay comes from the chapter entitled ‘Music and Identity’ in the book ‘Questions of Cultural Identity’ [2], edited by Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay. In his introductory chapter (‘Who Needs Identity?’ [3]), Hall sets out a constructivist approach to identity, which underpins Frith’s approach. Some general background and a summary of Hall’s definition of identity will therefore be helpful in understanding what Frith means, and how it might apply to music. I will then explore Frith’s perspective itself, as he develops this constructivism into a ‘reverse-homology’, which shows how music can be a significant tool for identity formation via the embodiment of a collective identity in a musical aesthetic which then shapes the listener.
I do not critique his basic constructivism, but I do raise several issues which Frith does not address; including the implications of the fact that identity formation is not always a conscious process, or the product of free choice as he seems to assume, and consequently that this may involve some potentially negative elements. I also briefly explore a question raised by Negus and Velázquez regarding the ‘reverse-homology’ [4] as potentially containing its own form of musical essentialism, and offer my own perspective on this.
Finally I offer a musicological reflection on a case study, which illustrates these issues as they appear ‘on the ground’. All of this leads me to a conclusion, which, as mentioned, calls for a balanced approach that considers the sheer complexity of just how identity is formed and how music can be involved in this process.

[1] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[2] Stuart Hall et al., Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[3] Stuart Hall, “Who Needs Identity?,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[4] Keith Negus and Patria Román Velázquez, “Belonging and Detachment: musical experience and the limits of identity,” Poetics 30 (2002) 133-145


2. The ‘Self’ and Identity

Firstly, in order to ground our definition of the self which experiences this identity I am choosing to sidestep a philosophical debate, which is outside of the scope of this essay, and simply quote Galen Strawson’s broad proposal for an outline of the mental self as it is “ordinarily conceived or experienced” [5] . I would like to establish that it is this self – this ‘thing’ that I am referring to which experiences the psychological phenomenon of identity as a mind inside a body (though I should note that where points 3 and 4 assume a ‘single’ thing this is term held loosely as discussed later in the essay).
‘The Self’ :
(1) a thing, in some robust sense
(2) a mental thing, in some sense
(3,4) a single thing that is single both synchronically considered and diachronically considered
(5) ontically distinct from all other things
(6) a subject of experience, a conscious feeler and thinker
(7) an agent
(8) a thing that has a certain character or personality [6]


To be clear about the word ‘identity’ itself I am talking about self-identity – the agent-relative [7], subjective and reflexive self-definition or self-categorization that one gives to one’s own person. I am not referring to date of birth, passport number or dental records (though those things may have special significance for you for whatever reason), but (to use John Perry’s phrase) to “that set of attributes that a person attaches to himself or herself most firmly, the attributes that the person finds it difficult or impossible to imagine himself or herself without”[8].

[5] Galen Strawson, “The Self,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 (1997): p. 405-28.
[6] Ibid.
[7] John Perry, “The Self,” (1995), Available from: http://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/453/PerrySelf.pdf
[8] Ibid.

An in-depth philosophical debate around the notion of essentialism and its pervasive ongoing popularity (both generally and in regard to identity) is more than I have space for here [9] [10] [11] [12] but as Hall notes, many philosophers (from Heidegger onwards) have thoroughly critiqued the Cartesian subject, latterly in favour of a more ‘ecological’ self, embedded and integrated into an environment within which it dynamically evolves, and along with which a self-identity develops.
A proper exploration of this is, as mentioned, beyond the confines of this essay, but few would argue with the basic starting point that material and social context - gender, sex, race, upbringing et cetera has an immense, if not total, bearing on the self and one’s subjective identity. Hall also points out that cultural criticism (Hall, Badiou and others) and feminism (Kristeva, Butler and others) have explored and advanced notions of subjectivity, influenced by psychoanalytic theory. I have limited space to outline much of this in any meaningful way, given the breadth of these ideas and the mass of literature that has developed them, but Hall’s understanding of identity being defined by ‘the Other’ has its roots here. [13] [14]

[9] David S. Oderberg, Real Essentialism. (Routledge 2008).
[10] L.A. Paul, “In Defense of Essentialism,” Metaphysics, Noûs, Supplement: Philosophical Perspectives, 40 (2006): p. 333-372
[11] F. Xu and R. Mijke, “In Defense of Psychological Essentialism,” (in 27th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 2005). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
[12] S.A. Gelman, and H.A. Lawrence, “How Biological Is Essentialism?”, Folkbiology, 1999.
[13] Stuart Hall, “Who Needs Identity?,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[14] D. Nobus, Key Concepts of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, (LLC Press, 1999)

It is worth briefly mentioning the long ranging influence of Marxist thought (Adorno, Benjamin, Gramsci and others) and the ripple effect it had on the psychology of personality and cultural criticism, which Frith draws upon in his essay. [15]
Hall also reminds us that postmodernism has developed many angles on the “endlessly performative self” [16], and that a unified, essentialist notion of identity has been largely rejected across a range of intellectual spheres in the post-modern era. To conclude my remarks on Hall’s view of identity, which forms the backdrop to discussion of Frith, the concept of narrative is also an important point – a “narrativization of the self” [17] is to be understood as “the process of becoming rather than being: not `who we are' or `where we came from', so much as what we might become.” [18] This leads to two other important elements of this process – 1) the imaginary element (“necessarily fictional… partly constructed in fantasy, or at least within a fantasmatic field” [19]) and 2) the social element (“constructed within, not outside, discourse… above all, and directly contrary to the form in which they are constantly invoked, identities are constructed through, not outside, difference.” [20]) All of which brings us to Hall’s most clear-cut definition of identity:
“I use `identity' to refer to the meeting point, the point of suture, between on the one hand the discourses and practices which attempt to `interpellate', speak to us or hail us into place as the social subjects of particular discourses, and on the other hand, the processes which produce subjectivities, which construct us as subjects which can be `spoken'. Identities are thus points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us.” [21]

[15] L. Sève, Man in Marxist Theory: and psychology of personality, (Harvester Press, 1978)
[16] Stuart Hall, “Who Needs Identity?,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.

To simplify that, the experience of identity happens, or becomes relevant, where social forces interact with us as individuals with evolving subjective characteristics. Identity is thus, for Hall, an ongoing project to define or design what makes us ‘different’ in the process of engaging or integrating with the world around us. It is a necessarily interactive and comparative experience of being conscious and social.
It is this idea that Frith has in mind when he says “Identity comes from the outside not the inside; it is something we put or try on, not something we reveal or discover.” [22] In Frith’s own very clear words: “identity is mobile, a process not a thing, a becoming not a being” [23], “the self is always an imagined self”[24], and “in talking about identity we are talking about a particular kind of experience, or a way of dealing with a particular kind of experience.” [25] He also emphasizes narrative as the ‘structure’ of identity: “The concept of narrative… is not so much a justification of the idea of personal identity, as an elucidation of its structure as an inescapable piece of make-believe.” [26]
He gives further examples of this view, all of which are very much in line with Hall’s approach to identity, and whilst I could quote some in isolation, most of Frith’s points are directly interwoven with his efforts to show how music can be connected to identity - so it is to music I now turn.

[22] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.


3. Frith – Linking Music and Identity

“Making music isn't a way of expressing ideas; it is a way of living them.” [27]

The overall direction Frith is trying to take is the opposite one to “the usual academic and critical argument” [28] which, he says, is homological and ideologically interpreted ex post. He wants to reverse this approach and consider how music “creates and constructs an experience - a musical experience, an aesthetic experience - that we can only make sense of by taking on both a subjective and a collective identity.” [29]
It is this narrative, social, aesthetic experience/performance that makes music a unique form of self-making (as opposed to “even passionate activities like gardening or dog-raising”[30]): “our experience of music - of music making and music listening - is best understood as an experience of this self-in-process”. [31]
Central to this argument is the connection between aesthetics and ethics: “Music, like identity, is both performance and story, describes the social in the individual and the individual in the social, the mind in the body and the body in the mind; identity, like music, is a matter of both ethics and aesthetics.” [32]
Frith asserts that ethics are embodied in aesthetics: “[M]usic, an aesthetic practice, articulates in itself an understanding of both group relations and individuality, on the basis of which ethical codes and social ideologies are understood.” [33]

[27] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.

Frith also develops the idea of ‘truth’ value and authenticity, which plays a role in how music shapes identity ‘from the outside’. Authentic music should contain within its aesthetic the parameters of the subjective and collective identity (the ‘ethic’) which you are required to take on in order to experience it’s ‘truth’ value (identifying with the ‘ethic’) - relative to your subjective contingencies (and interpretation). [34]
He links anti-essentialism with music directly, as a “necessary consequence of music's failure to register the separations of body and mind on which such ‘essential’ differences (between black and white, female and male, gay and straight, nation and nation) depend.” [35] Thus whatever your particular subjectivities are, music as a social practice offers a unique experience of identifying with, or against, wider discourses that relate to those subjectivities. For Frith, the interesting question is how the aesthetic shapes, actualizes and interacts with the values that inform and stimulate those discourses with all their human complexities.
Frith then summarises his view:

Music constructs our sense of identity through the direct experiences it offers of the body, time and sociability, experiences which enable us to place ourselves in imaginative cultural narratives. Such a fusion of imaginative fantasy and bodily practice marks also the integration of aesthetics and ethics. [36]

[34] I say ‘relative’ because as Frith memorably describes, one can identify with music which is most strongly associated with a group you cannot directly be part of but whose aesthetic resonates with your vision of identity for whatever reason: “in taking pleasure from black or gay or female music I don't thus identify as black or gay or female (I don't actually experience these sounds as `black music' or `gay music' or `women's voices') but, rather, participate in imagined forms of democracy and desire.” [37] Indeed, enjoying black music could conceivably have been the first introduction to or decisive persuader of those ideals, markedly shaping the identity Frith ‘took on’ at that point.
[35] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid.

4. Is Frith Right?

As stated, I am not going to challenge Frith with arguments about essentialist views of identity – I broadly agree with his constructivist approach, and believe his insight into how aesthetics can relate to ethics and thus shape identity is an important consideration; but in this section of my essay I will explore a few lines of critique that I think expose some of the general limitations of his view – or at least the way he has presented his view. Music may well be able to construct identities in the way that Frith describes, but he neglects to discuss the following issues:

1) Identity is not always experienced as a narrative, and therefore music cannot always interact with identity in this way.

2) Identity is not always formed consciously and proactively – in fact there is much that is both unconscious and beyond our control, including elements of the relationship between music and identity formation.

3) Given the above, the process of shaping identity is likely to involve social dynamics that are not always coherent, positive, or healthy. Frith does not address this point, so his perspective seems too optimistic, and lacks balance.

4) As Negus and Velázquez have shown [38], Frith’s ‘reverse-homology’ can be challenged as potentially containing its own form of musical essentialism – between the music and the collective identity it constructs. I suggest the tension here may be resolved by a composite approach that considers:
i) How elements of an aesthetic come to be associated with a collective identity via (often arbitrary) environmental, historical and homological factors.
ii) How aesthetic and thus ethical meaning are established in that collective.
iii) How homology and Frith’s ‘reverse-homology’ are both relevant.
iv) How an aesthetic must be ‘read’ if it is to ‘shape’ identity, and therefore must be learned to be ‘read’ or else risk being ‘mis-read’ (or just not ‘read’ at all).

5) Given all of the above, the process of identity formation, and the interaction of music in this process, is more complex than Frith allows for.

Beginning with narrativity, Strawson raises some relevant questions about its role in the experience of self and identity [39]. He makes a distinction between the ‘psychological Narrativity thesis’ – “a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings actually experience their lives.” [40] (Frith seems to concur with this idea); and the ‘ethical Narrativity thesis’ – the idea that “experiencing or conceiving one’s life as a narrative is a good thing; a richly Narrative outlook is essential to a well-lived life” [41]. He also describes two types of self-experience - the ‘Diachronic’ and the ‘Episodic’:
The Diachronic…
[D] one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future – something that has relatively long-term diachronic continuity… …[the] Episodic, by contrast,
[E] one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future. [42]

Strawson rejects both Narrativity theses - the psychological and the ethical - drawing on some evidence from various others’ experience of themselves but mainly his own experience. He considers himself an ‘Episodic’ person, with no particular sense or experience of a narrative of his life and identity. This is relevant to Frith in two ways – one simple, and one with more complex implications. Firstly that whilst it may be defensibly established that identity is non-essential and therefore constructed, the narrative aspect is, apparently, not universally experienced. As Eakin points out:
“Narrative identity, then, is only one, albeit extremely important, mode of self-experience” [43] - therefore the narrative aspect of music may well function as an ‘identity-shaping tool’ but not universally so.
Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, for people of a more ‘Episodic’ nature, the experience of identity is contingent on ‘the outside’ in an arguably more immediate sense, so a consideration of this process leads to a further debate about Frith’s view of identity being something we “put or try on” [44] – with its connotation of positive, conscious and willing free choice; and music has a special relevance here.
Strawson states that for Episodics “the past can be alive – arguably more genuinely alive – in the present simply in so far as it has helped to shape the way one is in the present, just as musicians’ playing can incorporate and body forth their past practice without being mediated by any explicit memory of it.” [45] This is strikingly relevant both as an analogy for the constructed experience of identity and directly for the relationship of music to that experience – how music might function as a tool for ‘self-making’.

[38] Keith Negus and Patria Román Velázquez, “Belonging and Detachment: musical experience and the limits of identity,” Poetics 30 (2002) 133-145
[39] Galen Strawson, “Against Narrativity,” Ratio, 17 (2004): p. 428-452.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Paul John Eakin, “Narrative Identity and Narrative Imperialism: A Response to Galen Strawson and James Phelan”, Narrative, 14 (2006): p. 180-187.
[44] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[45] Galen Strawson, “Against Narrativity,” Ratio, 17 (2004): p. 428-452.

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has written about the growth and development of children’s understanding of music, and musical taste [46]. Drawing on several studies he shows how musical perception and memory begins in the womb, preference for music of one’s own culture begins by age two, we internalize rules about harmony and typical chord progressions around age five, with increased understanding and a taste for greater complexity progressing into the teen years, which are “the turning point for musical preference” [47], when much neural pruning occurs, and peer dynamics are at their most formative. No matter what musical training and tastes are subsequently acquired, in general musical perceptions and preferences are largely set for life before the average person turns twenty - neural structures and general concepts relating to music being well established by this point. This journey is clearly both neurological and psychological – a collaboration of biological, social and historical factors – which illustrates how ecological factors largely beyond our control have a huge impact on our experience of music as a ‘technology of self’ [48], in terms of how we habitually use it as such, but also our capability to potentially use music in this way, which will vary dramatically from age to age, culture to culture, person to person.
To extend Strawson’s analogy – all of our experiences of music “body forth” [49] our musical pasts (non-musicians included), shaping each particular musical ‘episode’ and any consequent identity formation, all of which illuminates a wider issue – that ecological factors largely beyond our control also hugely influence our identities whether we are conscious of it or not. As adults we might become more active agents in the process, but the limitations we contend with start in our own neurological and biological history – in our own brains and bodies – and clearly do not end there.

[46] Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, (Dutton, 2006)
[47] Ibid.
[48] Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988) p18. (See also: DeNora, T., Music in Everyday Life, Chapter 3 - ‘Music as a Technology of Self’, for a further application of this term to music).
[49] Galen Strawson, “Against Narrativity,” Ratio, 17 (2004): p. 428-452.

At the beginning of his essay Frith quotes Anthony Storr: “Becoming what one is is a creative act comparable with creating a work of art” [50]. Elsewhere in the essay Frith says “invented histories, invented biologies, invented cultural affinities come with every identity” [51] – but the question is who does the inventing, and how? How free are we really, to creatively construct and ‘put on’ the identity of our choice?
David Hesmondhalgh develops this question, claiming there is a “dominant conception” [52] in academia that is too celebratory and positive with respect to music as a “resource for active self-making” [53]). This view “implicitly sees music as highly independent of negative social and historical processes” [54]. He cites Frith along with music sociologist Tia DeNora and anthropologist Ruth Finnegan as prominent examples. Hesmondhalgh suggests that:
1) Music is now bound up with the incorporation of authenticity and creativity into capitalism, and with intensified consumption habits.
2) Emotional self-realisation through music is now linked to status competition. [55]
In the West (and under globalization arguably throughout the world now), where the average person’s access to music is in the form of music as a consumer commodity, there is an inevitable “social conditioning and commercial manipulation” [56] of what becomes the available resource - the music within reach, the music that comes to us, shaping us for the ‘good’ or otherwise, throughout childhood and teens - that “places us in the social world in a particular way.” [57]
Hesmondhalgh uses cases studies as well as research by various sociologists and social theorists to explore various angles of how self-identity comes under negative pressure under modern capitalism, and how music is implicated or exploited in this process, leading him to claim that “music’s power to enable self-making is constrained, limited and damaged”. [58]
There is no space to properly explore these issues here, but Hesmondhalgh shows that where it seems Frith is assuming free choice and positive idealism in music’s ‘self-making’ potential via the aesthetic/ethic model, this power is clearly not always positive and consciously formed, and is certainly open to manipulation by wider social forces.
Asher and Merrill concur: “The discourse of ethics and aesthetics from a post-modern position cannot be separated from the discourse of power, excess, oppression, careerism, media exploitation, genocide, capitalism, migrations, schizophrenia – all of which constitute in this period of late modernism the technologies and practices for the aestheticization of the self.” [59]

[50] Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind. (Harper Collins, 1992).
[51] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[52] David Hesmondhalgh, “Towards a critical understanding of music, emotion and self?identity,” Consumption Markets & Culture, 11 (2008): p. 329-343.
[53] Ibid.
[54] Ibid.
[55] David Hesmondhalgh, “Towards a critical understanding of music, emotion and self?identity,” Consumption Markets & Culture, 11 (2008): p. 329-343.
[56] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[57] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[58] David Hesmondhalgh, “Towards a critical understanding of music, emotion and self?identity,” Consumption Markets & Culture, 11 (2008): p. 329-343.
[59] Lyell Asher and Robert Merrill, Ethics/Aesthetics: A Post-Modern Position, (Maisonneuve Press, 1988).

Connecting all this theory to some real-world examples, MacDonald, Hargreaves & Miell use Social Identity Theory to describe ‘Music In Identities’ [60], and they discuss the powerful role of music in forming youth culture identities (which links to Levitin’s work as mentioned, as well as to consumer culture of course), as well as the role of music in enacting other cultural/ethnic/national identities (from traditional dances to national anthems), with both arenas being vastly influenced by various economic and political stakeholders.
Links between ethics and aesthetics have also been explored by various sociological studies of sub-cultures – for example punk has been well documented, with the anti-authoritarian, anti-elitist, DIY ethic being embodied in a raw, accessible, DIY aesthetic [61]. These links can also can be found elsewhere for example in the aggressive extroverted aesthetic of the Lambeg drum on militaristic Orange Order Marches in Northern Ireland [62] or the peaceful, meditative aesthetics of Japanese shakuhachi suizen [63] and ecumenical Christian chants in Taizé, France [64].
A key issue remains though - Frith’s approach of ‘reverse-homology’, raises the question of exactly how the music embodies or comes to embody the identity it forms – is he guilty of an unfounded ‘musical essentialism’ here? Negus and Velázquez explore this problem in some depth, pointing out:
[W]e surely have to assume that it’s ‘‘folk’’ music, or ‘‘Irish’’ music, or ‘‘Latin’’ music, to be able to argue that it’s constructing us with a particular ‘‘folk’’, ‘‘Latin’’ or ‘‘Irish’’ identity… [I]f both sides of this equation were to be equally non-essentialist, then we would have to accept that any type of musical sound (however categorised) could ‘‘construct’’ us any type of social identity. [65]

[60] Raymond A. R. MacDonald, David J. Hargreaves and Dorothy Miell, Musical Identities, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002).
[61] Roger Sabin, Lucy OBrien, Andy Medhurst, Mark Sinker et al., Punk Rock: So What? (Routledge 2002)
[62] D. Bryan, Orange Parades: The Politics of Ritual, Tradition and Control. (Pluto Press, 2000)
[63] R. Brooks, Blowing Zen: Finding an Authentic Life. (Sentient Publications, 2011)
[64] Judith Marie Kubicki and Jacques Berthier, Liturgical Music as Ritual Symbol: A Case Study of Jacques Berthier's Taizé Music, (Peeters Publishers, 1999)
[65] Keith Negus and Patria Román Velázquez, “Belonging and Detachment: musical experience and the limits of identity,” Poetics 30 (2002) 133-145

My view is that whilst some elements of a musical aesthetic may arguably have basic or ‘essential’ properties (psychoacoustics, linguistic or speech-like mimetics, structural characteristics - fast/slow, loud/quiet, etc), the way they become semiotically linked to a given collective identity is often complex and arbitrary (though potentially traceable either environmentally, historically, homologically or otherwise), and always socially constructed (though often not consciously so). Consequently aesthetic meaning within that collective is contingent upon these multiple factors, so the ability to ‘read’ and interpret the aesthetic (in a truly emic rather than etic sense) must be culturally learned, which impacts greatly on the individual identity ‘produced’ by engaging with the music. It defines exactly what they are ‘taking on’ in the process, consciously or not.
‘Mis-reading’ by outsiders could therefore shape their own identities in unpredictable ways (we are in a postmodern age after all), or simply result in a ‘non-identification’, apathy, ambivalence, or to use Negus and Velázquez’s word – detachment [66]. ‘Correct’ readings could also result in the same, where the listener’s difference, non-belonging, or disagreement is accentuated by the music. Also perhaps where a person lacks the ability to read the aesthetic altogether it will simply not be read, so the music (and all thoughts of identity) will be ignored as irrelevant.
All of which leads us to see the logical, if slightly disheartening reality: given the unique properties of a person’s subjective experience, all responses to music - its aesthetics, ethics, and potential connected identity - will be particular to that person at that moment, no matter how ‘correct’, leaving us with a much more complicated jigsaw than Frith seems to suggest.

[66] Keith Negus and Patria Román Velázquez, “Belonging and Detachment: musical experience and the limits of identity,” Poetics 30 (2002) 133-145

5. Case study: ‘Man Bieau P’tit Jèrri’

What follows is a brief case study and musicological reflection, highlighting some of the issues I have just discussed. As we will see, these issues show that whilst music does offer the potential to be an important tool for identity formation and maintenance, there are significant limitations even in a context such as this where music is being actively employed to enact and engender collective identity - in this case cultural identity on the island of Jersey.
The 9th May is a public holiday in Jersey, known as ‘Liberation Day’, celebrating the long-awaited official surrender of the occupying Nazi forces on that day in 1945. There is always a large-scale formal celebration in the capital, St. Helier, and live music always forms a part of this. ‘Man Bieau P’tit Jèrri’ is a song which is performed every year in a ‘traditional’ style [67] - as a genre it would be characterized as an early 1900s ‘music hall’ ballad - the style is slow, sentimental and nostalgic, usually arranged for brass band and solo vocal, with the audience encouraged to ‘sing-along’ on the chorus. The melody is very long and meandering, falling into three sections – a verse and ‘pre-chorus’ in 4/4 time, and a chorus in 3/4. A slight tension is built with the pre-chorus moving to the relative minor and making use of a III major chord instead of the natural median (to the original diatonic root that is - dominant 7th chord to the relative minor i.e. E7 in the key of C), drawing out the emotional ardour and yearning with a rallentando just prior to the the chorus, now in 3/4 time, which peaks in pitch at the word ‘Oh!’, and resolves naturally. The song is very popular and has achieved particular cultural significance as an ‘unofficial anthem’ of the island partly because of its increased poignancy during the war years (for example it was one of the highlights of a certain morale-boosting charity concert given before the end of the Nazi occupation [68]) because it is sung in the language of Jèrriais (a dialect of Norman French native to Jersey, which the German soldiers could not understand), and because the lyrics are explicitly patriotic [see appendix 1], sung in a rousing, overtly emotive vocal style typical of the era - extroverted, rhythmically ‘straight’ and employing a certain amount of vibrato.
Given all of this, the aesthetic is clearly embodying a sentimental form of conservative patriotic cultural identity and community solidarity, articulated through musical and lyrical conventions of the pre-war era. There is also a ceremonial aspect of repeated annual re-enactment with the clear intention to pass this on from generation to generation, with the hope possibly being that this performance will help shape the cultural identity of the young people present, as well as galvanize the strongly held feelings of the older generations.

[67] “Beautiful Jersey”, 2006; Accessed January 12, 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/jersey/content/articles/2006/05/09/lib61_beautiful_jersey_feature.shtml
[68] “1944: Patriotic songs under Occupation”, 2013; Accessed January 12, 2014. http://officedujerriais.blogspot.com/2013/04/1944-patriotic-songs-under-occupation.html

Cassie is a 9 year-old Jersey-born girl who attended the Liberation Day celebration as a member of the Girl Guides. She lives with her Mum, who is from Newcastle, and younger brother. I conducted a short interview with her about her memory of the 9th May [see appendix 2], which shows how all five ‘issues’ I’ve described above seem to be at play, and how this particular performance failed to positively contribute to her cultural identity.
Clearly, there is a wider context here. Jèrriais was already a moderately endangered language in 1945, Jersey having become increasingly anglicised in the decades prior to World War Two, and since 1945 it has been in what many see as terminal decline. Not all schools even teach Jèrriais to a basic level and it is rarely heard in public now. There is also a specific context to consider – leaving aside whether or not Cassie is an ‘Episodic’ or ‘Diachronic’ person (‘issue 1’), or whether she was attending voluntarily, or enjoying having to “stand in a line” – she found the event itself “quite boring”. Cassie has obviously not been taught Jèrriais (‘issue 2’), is not exposed to it at home, and apparently at no point did anyone explain to the Girl Guides anything about the song and its significance on the day. The basic language barrier would also contribute to her lack of engagement not only because she couldn’t understand the words, but because the unintelligible sounds would have been likely to make her ‘switch off’ – which brings me to the music. It is tempting to explain away Cassie’s apathy and lack of identification by the context almost irrespective of the music (though if her favourite boy band were to sing it that might have helped), but clearly the fact that it sounded “old-fashioned” contributed to her lack of engagement: “It’s not really my music so I didn’t concentrate on it”. Context is of course crucial to gaining access to the ‘truth value’ of any given aesthetic, but the specifically musical part of that context is that the musical structures, form, timbre, harmonic symbolism, melodic length and vocal style make the music almost as unintelligible to Cassie as the lyrics. This is in part because she has never been specifically shown how to ‘read’ this particular aesthetic (‘issues 2 and 4’), but also, I would argue, potentially because her musical ‘palette’ has been limited by the irresistible power of the dominant (and musically narrow) celebrity pop culture that is her only musical resource – “whatever’s on the telly. You know – what’s in the charts.” (‘issue 2’, and arguably, ‘issue 3’). This being the case, she has most likely ‘been shaped’ to expect to respond to what has become known in musicological academia as “Black Atlantic Rhythm” [69] with its inherent “structural and psychological” effects [70] . Anything else is not ‘her music’. Is it possible that a broader musical ‘vocabulary’ would have given her more of a chance of identifying with unfamiliar sounds? Far from increasing Cassie’s sense of cultural identity as a Jersey-born young person, could it be that this experience would actually alienate and distance her from that possibility (‘issue 3’), partly because of the ambivalence created by the musical disjuncture?

[69] Jeff Pressing, “Black Atlantic Rhythm: Its Computational and Transcultural Foundations.” Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 19 (2002): p. 285-310.
[70] Ibid.

6. Conclusion

As the case study shows, the overall picture is complex (‘issue 5’), but that is exactly my point – Frith’s model seems both too simplistic and too optimistic in my view - as I hope I have shown. Identity comes “from the outside” [71] in a wider sense than Frith seems to appreciate. Music can certainly express, enact, and shape the process of identity, however this capability is not only limited in the positive sense in terms of the manifold contingencies of context, but because it is so wholly dependent on powerful external dynamics (social, economic, historical, geographical etc) there is a negative aspect to this potential which must be considered. The fact that in some contexts music may not be involved with identity at all, may sometimes be totally extraneous, or may even provide a “retreat from identities” [72] is also worth consideration.
As Negus and Velazquez have argued, we would do well to adopt “approaches that are able to embrace more nuanced and less reductionist notions of how music may connect with, become part of, or be totally irrelevant to our sense of self and collectivity” [73], suggesting that musicological discussion should “retain a sense of musical experience as simultaneously involving expression/reflection and construction, belonging and disaffiliation, fixedness and temporality, the corporeal and incorporeal.” [74] The tapestry of identity is intricate, as is its relationship with music, which will always involve many extra-musical threads - so a careful discussion and analysis of all the interwoven contributory factors will always be necessary to really understand how music may or may not influence the process of constructing an identity. A musicologist who can truly interpret all of those factors would be doing very well.

[71] Simon Frith, “Music and Identity,” in Questions of Cultural Identity, ed. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay (SAGE Publications, 1996).
[72] Keith Negus and Patria Román Velázquez, “Belonging and Detachment: musical experience and the limits of identity,” Poetics 30 (2002) 133-145
[73] Ibid.
[74] Ibid.


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Appendix 1

‘Man Bieau P'tit Jèrri’ (chorus lyrics):

Man bieau p'tit Jèrri, la reine des îles –
Lieu dé ma naissance,
tu m'pâsse bein près du tchoeu;
Ô, tchi doux souv'nîn
du bouôn temps qu'j'ai ieu
Quand j'pense à Jèrri, la reine des îles!
My beautiful Jersey, the queen of the islands
Place of my birth, you’re close to my heart;
Oh what a sweet memory of the good times I’ve had
When I think of Jersey, the queen of the islands!

Appendix 2
Transcript of short interview with Cassie:

What do you remember about Liberation day?

We were all dressed in our Girl Guide uniforms and had to stand in a line. There was a big crowd and it was quite boring.

Can you remember anything about the music you heard?

It was all old-fashioned – I didn’t know any of it. There were lots of musicians – a whole massive orchestra I remember.

How did you feel about the music – did you like it?

It’s not really my music so I didn’t concentrate on it. It was… alright.

Do you remember hearing a song called ‘Man Bieau P’tit Jerri’?

No, not at all.

Do you remember hearing any singing in Jèrriais?


That’s another language isn’t it? I do remember them singing in another language but I didn’t understand it… and I don’t remember anything else about it really.

What kind of music do you like?

Just… whatever’s on the telly. You know – what’s in the charts.

1 comment:

  1. amazing essay. i'm trying to do a review of literature (beginning with frith) and i came across this while looking for a pdf of his chapter on music and identity. you touched on several writers i need to synthesise eventually.

    i'm impressed by this essay!!! i'm citing you in my proposal (dissertation) and i'm embarrassed to admit... that you are far more deserving of the phd than i am!!!

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