Skip to main content

Notes on troubling ‘the popular’

  • Ross Cole (a1)

This article throws new light on the troublesome question ‘what is popular music?’ by pursuing a genealogy of discourse in Britain during a crucial period from 1860 to 1920 in which modernity is increasingly characterised by an antagonistic relationship between intellectual elites and consumer entertainment. Focusing on London music halls, social reformism and ragtime, I argue that the term fell into two broad categories of use: first, to identify and/or denigrate mass culture; and second, to establish a pathway for edification and to champion ideals of respectability. Although implicated in the construction of binary oppositions and frequently associated with impropriety, the popular was not always associated with lowness. The idea, however, was shot through with contradictions deriving from a view of ‘the people’ as being simultaneously docile and seditious. Ultimately, I demonstrate that the popular is a floating signifier with the potential to reference mutually opposing ideas.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Notes on troubling ‘the popular’
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Notes on troubling ‘the popular’
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Notes on troubling ‘the popular’
      Available formats
Hide All
Adorno, T.W. 1976. Introduction to the Sociology of Music. Translated by Ashton, E.B. (New York, Seabury Press)
Adorno, T.W. [with the assistance of G. Simpson]. 2002. ‘On popular music’, in Essays on Music, ed. Leppert, R. (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press), pp. 437–69
Adorno, T. W., and Horkheimer, M. 1997. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by Cumming, J. (London, Verso)
Anon. 1861. ‘A popular entertainment’, Cornhill Magazine, 4/24, pp. 713–14
Anon. 1862. ‘Monday popular concerts’, Saturday Review, 13 December, pp. 710–12
Anon. 1865. ‘Popular entertainments’, Reader, 16 September, pp. 327–8
Anon. 1871. ‘“Popular” music’, Musical Standard, 28 January, pp. 37–8
Anon. 1880. ‘Modern popular songs’, Saturday Review, 12 June, pp. 755–6
Anon. 1894a. ‘The popular music hall’, National Observer, 6 October, pp. 536–7
Anon. 1894b. ‘The music hall’, Saturday Review, 17 November, p. 534
Anon. 1900. ‘Ragtime is dying out: coon songs not so popular as they once were’, Washington Post, 18 February, p. 17
Anon. 1906. ‘The making of a popular song’, Musical Standard, 21 April, pp. 247–8
Anon. 1918. ‘Why “jazz” sends us back to the jungle’, Current Opinion, 65/3, p. 165
Anon. 1921. ‘What is popular music?’, Manchester Guardian, 18 April, p. 4
Archer, W. 1916. ‘The music-hall, past and future’, Fortnightly Review, 100/596, pp. 253–62
Atkinson, D. 2004. ‘Folk songs in print: text and tradition’, Folk Music Journal, 8/4, pp. 456–83
Bailey, P. 1978. Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830–1885 (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul)
Bailey, P. 1998. Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)
Bashford, A., and Levin, P. (eds.). 2010. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (Oxford, Oxford University Press)
Baxendale, J. 1995. ‘“… into another kind of life in which anything might happen … ”: popular music and late modernity, 1910–1930’, Popular Music, 14/2, pp. 137–54
Bergeron, K. 1992. ‘Prologue: Disciplining Music’, in Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, ed. K. Bergeron and P. V. Bohlman (Chicago, University of Chicago Press), pp. 19
Berlin, E. A. 1980. Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press)
Biagini, E. F., and Reid, A. J. (eds.) 1991. Currents of Radicalism: Popular Radicalism, Organised Labour, and Party Politics in Britain, 1850–1914 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)
Bloomfield, T. 1993. ‘Resisting songs: Negative dialectics in pop’, Popular Music, 12/1, pp. 1331
Bohlman, P. V. 1993. ‘Musicology as a political act’, Journal of Musicology, 11/4, pp. 411–36
Boyes, G. 1993. The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival (Manchester, Manchester University Press)
Butler, C. 1994. Early Modernism: Literature, Music, and Painting in Europe, 1900–1916 (Oxford, Oxford University Press)
Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London, Routledge)
Carey, J. 1992. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939 (London, Faber and Faber)
de Certeau, M. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Rendall, S. (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press)
Chase, M. 2007. Chartism: A New History (Manchester, Manchester University Press)
Cloonan, M. 2005. ‘What is popular music studies? Some observations’, British Journal of Music Education, 22/1, pp. 7793
Cole, R. 2019. ‘On the politics of folksong theory in Edwardian England’, Ethnomusicology, 63/1, in press
Curwen, J. S. 1887. ‘The progress of popular music’, Contemporary Review, 52, pp. 236–48
Danto, A. 1964. ‘The artworld’, Journal of Philosophy, 61/19, pp. 571–84
Dworkin, D. 1997. Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies (Durham, NC, Duke University Press)
Fabbri, F. 2013. ‘Is there popular music out there?’, Journal of European Popular Culture, 4/1, pp. 918
Faulk, B. J. 2004. Music Hall & Modernity: The Late-Victorian Discovery of Popular Culture (Athens, OH, Ohio University Press)
F. G. A. 1913. ‘Popular music’, Academy, 27 September, p. 403
Fink, R. 1998. ‘Elvis everywhere: Musicology and popular music studies at the twilight of the canon’, American Music, 16/2, pp. 135–79
Fletcher, A. 1732. The Political Works of Andrew Fletcher, Esq. (London, re-printed and sold by A. Bettesworth and C. Hitch, in Pater-noster-Row; and J. Clarke, under the Royal-Exchange)
Foucault, M. 1984. ‘Nietzsche, genealogy, history’, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Rabinow, P. (London, Penguin), pp. 76100
Fox, A. 2000. Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500–1700 (Oxford, Oxford University Press)
Frith, S. 1978. The Sociology of Rock (London, Constable)
Frith, S. 1996. Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music (Oxford, Oxford University Press)
Garratt, J. 2010. Music, Culture and Social Reform in the Age of Wagner (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)
Gelbart, M. 2007. The Invention of ‘Folk Music’ and ‘Art Music’: Emerging Concepts from Ossian to Wagner (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)
Gendron, B. 1986. ‘Theodor Adorno meets the Cadillacs’, in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, ed. Modleski, T. (Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press), pp. 1836
Gilroy, P. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London, Verso)
Goldmark, D. 2015. ‘“Making songs pay”: Tin Pan Alley's formula for success’, Musical Quarterly, 98/1–2, pp. 328
Hall, S. 1981. ‘Notes on deconstructing “the popular”’, in People's History and Socialist Theory, ed. Samuel, R. (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul), pp. 277–39
Hall, S., and Jefferson, T. (eds.) 2006. Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, 2nd edn (Abingdon, Routledge)
Harker, D. 1985. Fakesong: The Manufacture of British ‘folksong’ 1700 to the Present Day (Milton Keynes, Open University Press)
Haweis, H. R. 1871. Music and Morals (London, Strahan & Co.)
Hawkins, M. 1997. Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860–1945: Nature as Model and Nature as Threat (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)
Hopper, G. 1898. ‘Music as a popular art’, Musical Opinion & Trade Review, 21/251, p. 746
Huq, R. 2006. Beyond Subculture: Pop, Youth and Identity in a Postcolonial World (Abingdon, Routledge)
Huyssen, A. 1988. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism (Basingstoke, Macmillan)
Editors, International Advisory. 2005. ‘Can we get rid of the “popular” in popular music? A virtual symposium with contributions from the International Advisory Editors of Popular Music’, Popular Music, 24/1, pp. 133–45
Jameson, F. 1979. ‘Reification and utopia in mass culture’, Social Text, 1, pp. 130–48
Jameson, F. 1981. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London, Methuen)
Jevons, W. S. 1878. ‘Methods of social reform: I. – Amusements of the people’, Contemporary Review, 33, pp. 498513
Joyce, P. 1991. Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class, 1848–1914 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)
Keightley, K. 2012. ‘Tin Pan allegory’, Modernism/modernity, 19/4, pp. 717–36
Korsyn, K. 2003. Decentering Music: a Critique of Contemporary Musical Research (Oxford, Oxford University Press)
Leppert, R., and McClary, S. (eds.) 1989. Music and Society: the Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)
Levine, L. W. 1988. Highbrow/Lowbrow: the Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press)
Lott, E. 1993. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York, Oxford University Press)
Lunn, H. C. 1878. ‘Popular Music’, Musical Times, 1 December, pp. 660–61
Marsh, C. 2010. Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press)
Middleton, R. 1981. ‘Editor's introduction’, Popular Music 1, pp. 37
Middleton, R. 1990. Studying Popular Music (Milton Keynes, Open University Press)
Middleton, R. 2006. Voicing the Popular: on the Subjects of Popular Music (Abingdon, Routledge)
Middleton, R., and Horn, D. 1981. ‘Preface’, Popular Music, 1, pp. 12
Paddison, M. 1982. ‘The critique criticised: Adorno and popular music’, Popular Music, 2, pp. 201–18
Parker, H. N. 2011. ‘Toward a definition of popular culture’, History and Theory, 50, pp. 147–70
Parry, H. 1899. ‘Inaugural address’, Journal of the Folk-Song Society, 1/1, pp. 13
Parsonage, C. 2003. ‘A critical reassessment of the reception of early jazz in Britain’, Popular Music, 22/3, pp. 315–36
Pickering, M. 2000. ‘Eugene Stratton and early ragtime in Britain’, Black Music Research Journal, 20/2, pp. 151–80
Pickering, M. 2008. Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain (Aldershot, Ashgate)
Randel, D. M. 1992. The Canons in the musicological toolbox’, in Disciplining Music: Musicology and its Canons (Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press), pp. 1022
Russell, D. 1997. Popular Music in England, 1840–1914, 2nd edn (Manchester, Manchester University Press)
Saler, M. (ed.) 2015. The Fin-de-Siècle World (Abingdon, Routledge)
Scott, D. B. 2002. ‘Music and social class in Victorian London’, Urban History, 29/1, pp. 6073
Scott, D. B. 2008. Sounds of the Metropolis: the Nineteenth-century Popular Music Revolution in London, New York, Paris, and Vienna (New York, Oxford University Press)
Searle, G. R. 2004. A New England? Peace and War, 1886–1918 (Oxford, Oxford University Press)
Sharp, C. J. 1907. English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions (London, Simpkin & Co., Novello & Co.)
Shiach, M. 1989. Discourse on Popular Culture: Class, Gender and History in Cultural Analysis, 1730 to the Present (Cambridge, Polity Press)
Silver, A., and Bruce, R. 1939. How to Write and Sell a Song Hit (New York, Prentice-Hall)
Sotiropoulos, K. 2006. Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press)
Stedman Jones, G. 2013. Outcast London: a Study in the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society, 2nd edn (London, Verso)
Sternhell, Z. 1986. Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France. Translated by Maisel, David (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press)
Storey, J. 2018. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: an Introduction, 8th edn (Abingdon, Routledge)
Stratton, J. 1983. ‘What is “Popular music”?Sociological Review, 31/2, pp. 293309
T. D. 1907. ‘The scientific study of popular music’, Musical Standard, 23 February, p. 122
Thornton, S. 1995. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital (Cambridge, Polity)
Till, N. 2004. ‘“First-Class Evening Entertainments”: spectacle and social control in a mid-Victorian music hall’, New Theatre Quarterly, 20/1, pp. 318
Tompkins, G. 1902. ‘The making of a popular song’, Munsey's Magazine, 27/5, pp. 745–8
Toye, F. 1913. ‘Ragtime: the new Tarantism’, English Review, March, pp. 654–8
Weatherly, F. E. 1880. Dresden China, and Other Songs (London, Diprose and Bateman)
Wilde, O. 2001. The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Selected Critical Prose (London, Penguin)
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Popular Music
  • ISSN: 0261-1430
  • EISSN: 1474-0095
  • URL: /core/journals/popular-music
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed