Musical taste at school is dynamic. The popularity of any band or any genre can go from being cool to being embarrassing; woe betide any student who doesn’t keep up with what is in and what is out. There are shifts in taste in each school year. There also differences in the ways that each school year uses its music. But are these differences caused by psychology, aesthetics or political economy? And do they hold true at different periods in time?
In 1972 Simon Frith surveyed a school in West Yorkshire. He found that, as pupils grew older, they moved away from the mainstream towards the underground, and away from group consensus towards greater individuality of taste. Fourth formers had ‘maximum involvement in youth groups’; fifth formers ‘emphasised beat and sound in their tastes rather than meaning’; sixth formers scorned ‘“commercial” tastes’.
In general, this remained true at my own school in the late 1970s/early 1980s. We were the punk generation. At first, there was mass consensus that all punk was a good thing. Then, in later school years, there was greater discernment: some bands were in (the Fall) other bands were out (the Boomtown Rats). There was a shift from chart punk released by major record companies (the Clash, the Stranglers), to more obscure punk released by independent labels (Discharge, Crass). By the time I left school I was ordering albums from America so that I could get hold of records that no other students owned.
Two of my nieces are currently at high school and their taste is just as nuanced and distinct. A couple of years ago they were into One Direction. They were displaying their ‘maximum involvement’ by following Britain’s biggest boy band. This year One Direction are out. My nieces are now fans of K-pop. Although their musical taste might seem far removed from the punk that dominated my school, their reasoning is not so different. My nieces are not into Psy; what they like is the more obscure K-pop. They told me they like it because it is not written about in the mainstream press. They are displaying excellent scorn for commercial taste.
And yet I’m not sure that it’s quite so easy to wrap up the tastes of school years and put them into boxes. There are factors that make these groupings unstable. One is the role of other family members. When I was at school there were fourth formers who already displayed refined taste. The common factor amongst them was that they had older brothers or sisters. These siblings gave them advanced warning of the rules of their own school years. While I’m sure this dynamic remains in place, there is now further family intrusion. The taste of parents used to be something to rebel against, but this is no longer always the case. Some ‘cooler’ parents insist on taking up the role of older siblings; they advise their children about what is and what is not to like. From what I have seen, it is as children get older that they are coming into closer alignment with their parents’ tastes. Fourth formers are still winding up their mums and dads by insisting that chart pop is amazing; but today’s sixth formers are asking their parents if they can borrow their old vinyl LPs.
Music also plays apart. There are always acts and genres that are aimed specifically at school kids, but this music varies in both quantity and quality. Some of this comes down to demographics: when there are lots school kids around the music industry aims a lot of music at them. Some of it comes down to luck. Bliss was it to be young in the late 1970s when punk held sway. This music was aimed at children, but it was also complex. It felt important at the time and still feels important today; it informed the philosophy by which I live. While I’m an arch populist and an out-and-out lover of hits, I struggle to find similar significance in One Direction.
The media infrastructure also changes from generation to generation. When I was at school the move away from the mainstream was largely a game of one-upmanship. It also wasn’t that hard to escape mass media. Although there was a greater presence of popular music on terrestrial television in those days (Top of the Pops was being broadcast to 15 million viewers each week), the music was hardly touched upon in the daily papers (it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that both the tabloids and the broadsheets gave it greater coverage). As such, it wasn’t difficult to access ‘obscure’ music (listening to John Peel’s radio show or buying Sounds would do the trick).
Things are different today. My nieces aren’t just turning away from chart pop out of a desire to refuse mainstream taste; they are also turning away from it because its depressing to be confronted with the antics of today’s pop stars in the mass media. It’s simply not safe to be a fan of Rihanna, Rita Ora, Justin Bieber or the other performers who receive media saturation. Who knows what they’ll do next? Their disrobing is embarrassing and their antics are stupid. And so instead my nieces are putting their faith in K-pop acts about whom we know nothing and who chose to say nothing in the press. Although there is wisdom in this, I’m not sure that it’s a design for life.