U.S. Arts and Media: Popular Music and Critical Theory

AMST-A 202

illustration of a brown man playing the saxophone
Paul Anderson
Course Description

We often turn to music, movies, and other cultural products in search of a temporary escape from having to think hard about the complex predicaments of our everyday lives and the world at large. Mass-produced commercial cultural forms often work incredibly well as sites of self-fashioning, fantasy, and daydreaming and as safety valves for blowing off steam and anxious worries. After all, that seems to be their main purpose, at least for many consumers. For others, it is about business. For others still, it is about artistic expression. These purposes do not necessarily line up.

At the same time there are some people who just can't help themselves: just as a tongue returns again and again to a loose tooth, they find themselves reflexively analyzing their cultural diet not only in terms of escapism but also in terms of how to map their place and time in the world. We find not only our own concerns, but broader social concerns, anxieties, fantasies and ideologies laced throughout the popular culture products we consume. This kind of intellectual behavior has a history and a name—Critical Theory. If you would enjoy dipping into this kind of intellectual activity by reading a treasure-trove of books and essays about pop music since the 1960s, then this class may be for you.

The intersection between popular pleasures and genres, on the one hand, and critical and historical reflection, on the other hand, is the subject of this American Studies course. The course focuses on theories of mass culture, the centrality of capitalism to pleasures and genres in art and entertainment in the last century, and interpretation of particular works of popular music since the 1960s.