Subcultural Sounds: Micromusics of the West

    -- by Mark Slobin, Hanover: Wesleyan University Press 1993/2000, 127 pages.

“Small musics in big systems” is how Mark Slobin describes micromusics. They are created by people groups and multiethnic societies that are increasingly caught up in the flow of shared global culture.
This study was first published as a lengthy article in Ethnomusicology in 1992, then as a book the following year. This second printing contains an important new preface that marks current trends that “affect the ways that small musical systems adjust to and create their place in larger social arenas.”

These trends include:

Here are brief definitions of the key terms he uses:
    Superculture = an overarching dominant system (with regional and transregional visibility)
    Subculture = an embedded unit (with local visibility)
    Interculture = cross-society links that connect groups of the superculture and subcultures

Each of the three terms is detailed in a separate chapter, and two other chapters present case studies.

“Transregional musical examples” include Anglo-American rock, rap, blues, protest songs with guitar, and polka/polska.

Slobin uses the phrase validation through visibility to describe a process that can be key in the work of applied ethnomusicology. Such validation “happens when a higher profile causes a local or regional population to reconsider its own traditions [in a more positive light]; the occasion for this moment is usually outside prompting.” This “validation of a local music through raising visibility” is an important part of my own work.

Through the interplay of cultural, ideological, and financial forces, musics are far from monolithic. As the author says, “World music looks like a fluid, interlocking set of styles, repertoires, and practices that can expand or contract across wide or narrow stretches of the landscape. It no longer appears to be a catalogue of bounded entities of single, solid historical and geographical origins…. Shifts of profile are very common nowadays; some are self-generated, others just happen. A music can suddenly move beyond all its natural boundaries and take on a new existence, as if it has fallen into the fourth dimension.” As a “glaring example,” he discusses the Bulgarian State Radio Women’s Chorus. Their music was available – but generally ignored – in the west for decades. Then a sudden and huge rise in popularity (and marketing) won them a Grammy award, the “zenith of visibility in the commercial music world. The Bulgarian women went from local to transregional in no time flat.”

The author invokes terms from sociolinguistics to explain his thinking, including codes and code-switching. “Subcultural musicians keep one eye on their in-group audience [subculture] and the other on the superculture, looking out for useful codes and successful strategies, while a third, inner eye seeks personal aesthetic satisfaction.”

Slobin has a fresh writing style filled with intriguing metaphors like this one: “We are all individual music cultures, using patchworks of compiled sounds stitched into a cultural quilt to help us keep warm.”

The book is full of wry observations. At the 1991 Grammy awards, Lennon’s famous song “Imagine” was sung by Tracey Chapman. “Thus a text proposing the possibility of a nonreligious, noncapitalist world was sung in a glittering celebration of commodified music that was punctuated by winner after winner naming God as the first one to thank for his or her success.”

A society’s view of its own music does not remain static. Some musical energies of a subculture are spent in the process of reevaluation. “Over time, new perspectives cause a reordering of group priorities, a changed understanding of what is ‘authentic,’ what represents ‘us’ best to outsiders, what sells best to a new generation of listeners, or what is now ‘ours’ that once was ‘theirs.’”

The genius of the book is that the author takes common terms like “subcultural” and fills them with meaning that reflects the complex interaction of diverse musics. Slobin suggests frameworks, guidelines, and categories that are general enough to be used in a cross-cultural comparative method. He combines interpretive analysis with data from case studies to reach interesting and important conclusions. Whether you work with music primarily at the local level or transregional level, the book provides insights that help clarify the dynamic, shifting interplay between musics of the world.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.3, No.1 of

Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony