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Gary Glitter, Rock 'n' Roll Vulgarian

Rock Music and the Concept of Taste


by Philip Auslander

British glam rocker Gary Glitter is one of the few rock performers I’ve ever actually seen described as “tasteless.” Before getting into that, however, I will address rock music’s peculiar relationship to the idea of taste. I will begin with some reflections on that relationship, then work my way through them to a consideration of the critical reception accorded Gary Glitter in the mid-1970s.

In saying that rock music has a peculiar relationship to the idea of taste, I don’t mean that rock fans don’t have tastes—obviously, they do. By reputation, rock fans are among the most opinionated audiences in the world. I recall that, in the mid-60s, you couldn’t be a fan of both the Beatles and the Stones, at least where I grew up. It was one or the other, you had to choose, and woe betide any fan of the Beach Boys. A decade or so later, tee-shirts proclaiming “Disco Sucks” clearly aligned their wearers with what is now called “Rockism” while punk rock aficionados wore anti-Pink Floyd shirts. 

So, rock fans definitely have tastes. In fact, rock culture (in which I include the musicians, their fans, music critics, and the commercial apparatus that defines their interrelations) more or less demands that participants have strong musical preferences and the willingness to declare them. As Simon Frith points out, “This is a necessary part of fandom. A self-proclaimed rock or rap or opera fan who never dismissed anything as bad would be considered as not really a fan at all.” Frith’s choice of words here is significant: the rock fan will often dismiss hated music as bad, but seldom describe it as being “in bad taste.” Although the word “taste” does not occupy a prominent place in the rock lexicon and occurs very rarely in rock criticism, scholarship, or the banter of fans, the acts of judgment that make up the primary discourses of rock culture reflect taste distinctions.

In broad outline, Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological analysis of taste explains the way taste works in rock culture. Bourdieu describes taste as operating primarily through negation and exclusion: “In matters of taste . . . all determination is negation, and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror . . . of the tastes of others.” In other words, we describe what we like primarily by identifying what we don’t like: “Disco Sucks” was a way of saying “I like rock”; being against Pink Floyd indicated that one was in favor of punk. It has long been thus in the realm of popular music. The sociologist David Riesman, one of the field’s earliest investigators, reported in a study of 1950, well before the advent of rock and roll, “respondents generally felt much safer in stating their musical dislikes than their musical likes. . . . Many would reject a whole area: ‘I hate hillbilly,’ or ‘I can’t stand fast music,’ or ‘Negroes are too jumpy.’” 

Bethany Bryson has suggested a socio-political dimension to this effect in her claim that “dislike of a social group is evidenced by dislike of that group’s perceived culture” (an insight already implied by Riesman’s respondents with aversions to hillbillies or jumpy Negroes). She demonstrates through statistical analysis that not liking disco correlates significantly with a dislike for African-Americans and gays and not liking heavy metal correlates with a dislike of working class people. It may well be that we define what we like not only in terms of what we don’t like but also in terms of whom we don’t like.

Bourdieu takes up the issue of using taste to distinguish oneself from others with a somewhat different emphasis when he argues, “Explicit aesthetic choices are in fact often constituted in opposition to the choices of the groups closest in social space, with whom the competition is most direct and immediate.” If I may do conceptual violence to this thought by broadening the idea of a group beyond social classes to include taste groups and substituting cultural space for social space, this idea, too, becomes useful in thinking about the exclusionary operation of taste in rock culture. When one considers that Stones lovers and Beatles lovers were indeed proximate to and in competition with one another in cultural space (as were the groups themselves), the fierceness with which the distinction was policed becomes more explicable. The case of rock and disco may be one in which competition was more important than proximity. Rock and disco did not inhabit proximate cultural milieux. But rock fans saw that some rock artists embraced aspects of the new style and may have taken this to be a sign of a shift in musical priorities. They perceived disco to be in competition with their beloved rock and therefore to be the enemy

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I argue that in rock culture, taste operates only in an internal, relativistic way: tastes are deemed good or bad exclusively from the perspective of competing tastes. There are no quasi-objective values attached to particular artists, pieces, or genres in popular music the way there are in the culture at large. Bourdieu, for example, associates Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” with legitimate taste, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with middlebrow taste, and Strauss’s “Blue Danube” with popular taste. Though we might be tempted to substitute different pieces for each category, we implicitly understand the cultural schema from which these relative values derive: the more “popular” (which also means the less “classical”) the piece, the lower its legitimate taste value.

There is no meaningful way of constructing a similar list for rock music, on which, say, the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” represents legitimate taste, the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” is middlebrow, and any recording of “Louie Louie” exemplifies popular taste.  The reason for this is that the only existing value scales for the assessment of rock music are the subjective evaluations of fans with specific taste commitments that oblige them to disdain other tastes. For example, one can say only that in the mid-1960s the Beatles represented good taste to Beatles’ fans, for whom the Stones represented bad taste, and vice-versa.

By contrast, in the larger cultural sphere to which Bourdieu refers, “serious” classical music serves Western societies as the quasi-objective model for good music, and appreciation of classical music as the model for good musical taste. Even though the vast majority of the music audience listens to popular music, academic musicologists and ethnomusicologists have become more open in recent years to thinking about popular music as a legitimate area of study, music education still generally inculcates a value system in which classical music stands for good taste. Lucy Green reports on the relative status of popular and classical music in schools:


Research in Britain suggested that the treatment of classical music generally focused upon singing and “musical appreciation,” based on the assumption of the music’s transcendent value. . . . By contrast, when teachers began to include popular music in the classroom the aim was not so much to instill appreciation of the music’s transcendent value as to encourage an appreciation of its relative value, or in other words its inferiority; [or] to appeal to pupils’ existing tastes as a stepping-stone toward improving upon it. . . . 

The idea that a music teacher can build on students’ existing knowledge of popular music might be taken to imply a pedagogy which supposes that the competencies involved in understanding popular music can be generalized to classical music. In fact, it implies exactly the opposite: that knowledge of popular music does not constitute musical competency, that one achieves competency only when one appreciates the “higher” form. As Bourdieu puts it, “the legitimate disposition that is acquired by frequent contact with a particular class of works, namely [those] recognized by the academic canon, comes to be extended to other, less legitimate works. . . .” Such legitimacy by extension works in only one direction: from the top down. For this reason, classically trained musicians and musicologists are considered authoritative when they address popular music, while the views of those whose primary musical knowledge is of popular music are not valued when they address classical music. Likewise, classical composers’ uses of elements from folk or popular music are taken much more seriously than, say, heavy metal rock groups’ actually rather extensive incorporation of classical compositional and instrumental techniques into their music.

Music education thus remains oriented toward providing the cultural capital necessary for an appreciation of classical music rather than the specific competencies necessary to appreciate popular music. “Through such processes,” Green concludes, “not only in schools but also from the nursery to the university, music education has been a central mechanism in the establishment and maintenance of the classical canon.” The result is a set of musical values shared even by those whose musical tastes run counter to them. Even if you don’t like the good stuff, you know (because you’ve been taught) what the good stuff is, that you’re supposed to like it, and that if you did like it, you would have indisputably good taste. The fact that classical music is decidedly a minority taste only strengthens this ideology, for the best taste belongs only to the most discriminating (in Bourdieu’s terms, the people who dislike the most).

Perhaps this explains why the discourse of taste is largely absent from rock culture. The casual judgments of good and bad music made all the time within popular music cultures do not seem to invoke Taste, with a capital T. It is noteworthy in this context that there is no entry for the term “taste” in the second edition of Popular Music: The Key Concepts. Instead, there is an entry for “taste cultures/lifestyles” that immediately steers the concept away from the notion of a dominant culture and legitimate taste in favor of a multiplicity of taste cultures. Frith reflects the relativistic operation of taste in rock culture when he suggests, “there is no point in labeling something as bad music except in a context in which someone else thinks it’s good. The label ‘bad music,’ that is to say, is only interesting as part of an argument.” But the educational processes Green describes, through which cultural subjects come to understand what counts as good and bad taste in what I call the quasi-objective sense, do not invite such arguments. The discourse of Taste (capital T) belongs to a cultural system that valorizes classical music and relegates rock and other forms of popular music to the categories of low taste, popular taste, or just plain bad taste. 

The response of rock criticism to its position in this larger scheme has been to embrace rock’s distastefulness by adopting a set of evaluative criteria that constitutes, in the words of John J. Sheinbaum, an “inversion of [traditional] musical values.” Sheinbaum argues, “the very [musical] signs commonly held as sources of value in the reception of Western music [such as complexity, innovation, professionalism, timelessness, etc.] in general have become signs of the very opposite in rock criticism.”

This inversion of values is clearly apparent in the critical reception of Gary Glitter. Here are some choice terms and phrases that appeared in reviews of Glitter in British and American music publications from 1973-74: Neanderthal; grotesque; “like a vaudeville mortician”; rubbish; “he’s got no voice”; spastic; “limbs twitching uncontrollably”; vulgar; “he teeters on his wedgies”; and “devoid of aesthetic interest.” The surprising thing is this: the reviews from which I have taken these expressions are not negative reviews. The very traits that would have caused Glitter to be dismissed as simply terrible or incompetent according to conventional musical and performance values were precisely the things that endeared him to rock critics.

The whole picture is a bit more complicated than simply saying that Glitter was so bad he was good, or that whatever is despised by legitimate taste is prized by rock taste at least where criticism is concerned. Deena Weinstein, the heavy metal-loving sociologist, reminds us that journalistic rock criticism maintains no discursive distance from rock culture. Rock critics “are not free-floating intellectuals but journalists working for businesses that make their profits selling audiences to advertisers; they must satisfy their audience . . . if they want to keep publishing. It helps . . . that they usually come from the audience that they serve and share its taste prejudices.” Weinstein goes on to suggest that rock critics answer to conflicting imperatives: on the one hand, they “dare not challenge their audience’s musical prejudices.” On the other hand, however, they are not entirely happy about their low cultural status: “Rock critics must overcome the prejudice that they are engaged in a trivial pursuit. . . . Since many . . . have been schooled in high culture, they are particularly sensitive to charges that they are simply hyping commercial dross.”

These tensions surfaced in the critical response to Glitter. British critics initially responded negatively, even going so far as to nominate him as the Worst Recording Artist of the year for 1973. But they had to deal with the fact that the audiences they served loved Gary Glitter: from 1972 through 1975, he reached the British Top Ten eleven times and had three Number One records. (This phenomenon, in which critics hold in low esteem a rock artist fans adore, may be called the Grand Funk Syndrome.) Faced with this dilemma, Glitter’s critics typically did two things:

1. They placated the audience by suggesting that, being somewhat older, they were not the right audience for Glitter. As Richard Williams wrote in Melody Maker, in response to the critics’ poll: “People of my generation often think he’s pathetic. . . . But he does it to those kids in just the way they want it done.” Even when expressing qualified enthusiasm for Glitter, critics like Williams stressed that the really important evaluation was that of his young audience, to which they deferred. 

2. Rock critics gestured toward legitimate taste by finding a way of arguing that Glitter’s music really was good after all. This they did by suggesting that the suitability of Glitter’s music for dancing compensated for its lack of conventional sophistication: it engaged the body even if it made no great appeal to the mind. (That this argument is also symptomatic of rock’s inversion of conventional values is evident from a comment by two other critics for Melody Maker: “the sheer repetitiveness of the melody [is] grist to the treadmill of dancing feet.”) Williams argued that Glitter’s records “fulfill a very specialized function” and were “great pop. They’re distinctive, and they make people dance.” Nick Kent, writing in the New Musical Express, similarly conceded that Glitter “made good commercial dance records.” This move protected the critics from the accusation of merely shilling by enabling them to attribute to Glitter’s work a definable musical value (even if a “low,” bodily oriented value rather than a “high,” intellectually oriented one).

I have argued here that although the word taste is not typically part of rock culture’s lexicon, taste is nevertheless crucial to rock culture, where it functions in an exclusionary manner that parallels Bourdieu’s sociological account. Within rock culture, bad taste is defined only as the negation of the taste to which one is committed as a fan. There is no quasi-objective standard of good musical taste in rock culture as there is in the culture at large: rock culture cannot avail itself of the standards of legitimate taste because rock music is devalued by legitimate culture. In negative reaction, rock culture defines its values as an inversion of the values derived from classical music. This creates a dilemma for rock critics, however, who are beholden both to their audiences and to an idea of cultural legitimacy. The critics’ response to Gary Glitter enacts the tensions inherent in serving two such demanding masters.

Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section.