|Does anybody remember (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville? This early REM track, from Reckoning, their immaculate second album in the mid 1980s, was echoed in a good deal of the Law and Popular Culture research I did with valued colleagues in Manchester for over two decades. It became an injunction for us in fact: Don’t Go Back to Rockville! It was used as the title of an essay I wrote in 1989 which Shane Homan duly quotes in The Mayor’s a Square (or, rather misquotes, as Rocksville), a book based on his Macquarie University PhD studying Sydney’s live rock music scenes from the 1950s to the 1990s. Homan, now a lecturer in popular music at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, has been a local rock musician himself and used the connections he gained from his day job to interview many rock musicians and venue promoters in this particular area of Australia for the PhD/book. My misgivings about the project are not its focus – in my view, regulatory regimes in popular culture are extremely important social and cultural formations for us to theorize and analyse. The doubts I have are based in the symbolic theoretical and political shifts hidden in the REM title – Don’t Go Back to Rockville. Pop theory, as opposed to Rock ideology, is an important position to fight for in the study of popular music formations, be they local (as in the case of Homan’s study) or global. In my estimation, Homan’s work is too much embedded in Rock theory.
|Shane Homan’s book delves into very interesting areas of the history of live music in Australia. It has plenty of sustained empirical chapters, covering in detail the fascinating nuances of Australian politics of popular culture. As I learned myself, living and working in Western Australia, itself a hot bed of popular music culture, the label pub rock is given a new dimension in this great southern land. Hotels, or what we would call pubs in Britain, are the venues for much of the rich, myriad popular music trajectory of Australia, hidden from history as it has been until relatively recently when new Australian popular music scholars have excavated it. Homan is very good on licensing (liquor) laws and their application to popular music and its rough noise. He takes us through 50 years of legislation and its local enforcement in the state of New South Wales. Anyone studying “Law and Order Campaigns” and “Moral Panics” in any part of the world will learn from Shane Homan’s valuable portrait of the kind of narrow, reactionary suburban Australia which John Howard has ridden to Prime Ministerial power for over a decade. Neighbours it may look like, but neighbourly it isn’t. Homan’s skilful study is able to trace the subtle connections between this petty bourgeois ideology and the pettiness of regulatory regimes. He deserves congratulations from all those of us interested in the international study of popular music and its social and legal regulation.
|So we are left with the problem of Pop theory and Rock ideology. In the Chapter on Governing Popular Music (chapter 1), I think we are shown, inadvertently, the seeds of the difficulty. Homan reviews, albeit sketchily, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) work on subcultures, our own “Manchester School” interventions on regulation and consumption of popular culture at the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture (MIPC), and so on. But there is no new theoretical framework here in Homan’s book. The problem with those earlier efforts to apply rock theory to rock music culture is that once “dance culture” took off in the late 1980s, in becoming globalised and commodified, it ended once and for all the neat “homology” (or fit) of the innocence of rock ideology (rock will change the world, rock will build the good society or rock will express the feelings of the youth community) built up in the countercultures of hippie in the 1960s or punk in the 1970s. As a result Pop theory came back with a vengeance; not just in theorizing or analyzing dance culture, but in any popular music formation and its regulatory regimes – for instance, live music and law and order in Sydney. In my view, it is impossible now in this new century to avoid these new theoretical battles when writing about popular culture and its histories. It is a major drawback of Shane Homan’s book that we as readers get no sense of these battles having been played out in these pages.