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COURSE NAME: "Popular Music and Mass Culture"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Spring 2018

INSTRUCTOR: Peter Sarram
EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: MW 1:30-2:45 PM

From the cylinders to MP3s, from Tin Pan Alley to death metal, this is a general survey course exploring and analyzing the history and meaning of popular recorded music within mass culture and society. It focuses on the historical, aesthetic, social, political-economic and technological developments that have shaped the very definition of the popular in the musical field. The course covers various aspects of recorded music from the history of the recording industry to the concept of the recorded, from rock and other nationally specific styles to the rise of MTV and beyond.

Various historically determined techniques and styles of production, performance, dissemination and re-production are also investigated. Other topics covered are the use of recorded music as a tool of ideological production and as a site of resistance, the idea of commodification and reification of musical experience in the recorded object, the cross-cultural determinations of specific musical forms, the implications for creativity and politics of a global and highly concentrated industry, cultural negotiations, issues of copyright and questions relating to gender, ethnicity and race.


The general conceptual framework –drawing from a variety of theoretical schools, from the Frankfurt School investigation of the culture industry to British Cultural Studies’ valorization of audience activity--will be accompanied by specific investigations of the workings of particular aspects of the field --the music press and the role of criticism, the impact of music videos, the workings of the industry, songs and genres, public performance and participation, fans and subcultures and the nature of the ‘pop star’. Even though the course will necessarily concentrate on Western produced music –specifically that produced in the US and the UK— a variety of non-Western popular music forms such as Jamaican reggae, Algerian rai, Brazilian bossa nova and MPB, Puerto Rican salsa and Nigerian afrobeat among others will be specifically looked at.

By the end of the course students will be able to approach popular recorded music through a highly nuanced and complex set of theoretical frameworks while at the same time be in the position of placing historically –both within the musical field and the wider cultural and social arena—the musical artifacts that they encounter as listeners.

Book TitleAuthorPublisherISBN numberLibrary Call NumberCommentsFormatLocal BookstoreOnline Purchase
Rockin' Out; 6th Edition Reebee GarofaloPearson978-0205956807     

 The course will articulate itself through a series of readings, lectures, class discussion and listening and screening sessions. Students will be encouraged to attend at least one live performance during the semester in order to complete a written assignment. Course grade will be determined by two short written assignments (15% each) a longer final paper (20%) , a midterm (15%) and a final exam (20%). Attendance and participation are also key factors in the course (15%). Unexcused absences will be penalized in accordance with the guidelines specified below. 

AWork of this quality directly addresses the question or problem raised and provides a coherent argument displaying an extensive knowledge of relevant information or content. This type of work demonstrates the ability to critically evaluate concepts and theory and has an element of novelty and originality. There is clear evidence of a significant amount of reading beyond that required for the course
BThis is highly competent level of performance and directly addresses the question or problem raised.There is a demonstration of some ability to critically evaluatetheory and concepts and relate them to practice. Discussions reflect the student’s own arguments and are not simply a repetition of standard lecture andreference material. The work does not suffer from any major errors or omissions and provides evidence of reading beyond the required assignments.
CThis is an acceptable level of performance and provides answers that are clear but limited, reflecting the information offered in the lectures and reference readings.
DThis level of performances demonstrates that the student lacks a coherent grasp of the material.Important information is omitted and irrelevant points included.In effect, the student has barely done enough to persuade the instructor that s/he should not fail.
FThis work fails to show any knowledge or understanding of the issues raised in the question. Most of the material in the answer is irrelevant.


Please note that frequent absences automatically lower your participation grade.

Also consider that three unexcused absences (those not justified by a medical certificate or a note from the administration) will result in your final grade for the course to be dropped by one letter grade. Anything above five unexcused absences will result in failure.

Lateness: Students more than 10 minutes late are marked as absent. Late arrival (less than 10 minutes) is marked as such, and 3 late arrivals are counted as one absence.

Class procedure:   Students are requested to make sure their cell phones are turned off (and not just muted) at the start of class.

As stated in the university catalog, any student who commits an act of academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade on the work in which the dishonesty occurred. In addition, acts of academic dishonesty, irrespective of the weight of the assignment, may result in the student receiving a failing grade in the course. Instances of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Academic Affairs. A student who is reported twice for academic dishonesty is subject to summary dismissal from the University. In such a case, the Academic Council will then make a recommendation to the President, who will make the final decision.
John Cabot University does not discriminate on the basis of disability or handicap. Students with approved accommodations must inform their professors at the beginning of the term. Please see the website for the complete policy.



Week 1: Introduction to Popular Culture and Popular Music

Week 2: Theories of Popular and Mass Culture

Week 3: Histories of Popular Recorded Music I

Week 4: Histories of Popular Recorded Music II

Week 5&6:  Histories of Popular Recorded Music III

Week 7: Identities and Popular Music: Authenticity and Simulacra

                -Case Study: Jamaican Soundsystems: Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae

Week 8: Race, Communities and Subcultures

-Case Study: Disco Dancing, Vogueing and Rave Culture

- The Aural and the Visual: Record Sleeves, Image, and Music Videos

Week 9: Girl Groups, Cock Rock and Riot Girrrrrls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Music

Week 10: Text and Contexts/Texts and Meanings  

-Case Study: Genres of R’n’R Criticism

Week 11: Cultural Imperialism/Cultural Antropophagy

-Case Study: Brazilian Bossa, Nigerian AfroBeat and Algerian Rai

Week 12: Technology and Liberation: Electricity, Electronics and MP3’s

Week 13: Copyright and Copywrong

                    -Case Study: Hip-Hop Culture and Plunderphonics

Week 14: Bringing It All Back Home: Conclusions