Bennett, Andy, and Steve Waksman, eds. 2015. The SAGE Handbook of Popular Music. London: SAGE. ISBN 978-1-4462-1085-7 (hbk). 647 pp.

Reviewed by: Åse Ottosson, University of Sydney

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Keywords: Anglophone countries; handbook; popular music studies

Editors Andy Bennett and Steve Waksman should be applauded for taking on the massive task of compiling the 35 specially commissioned essays for The SAGE Handbook of Popular Music. The authors include scholars in music, ethnomusicology, cultural studies, communication, media, literature, dance and sociology, most of them working in North America, Britain and Australia. Their essays are gathered under nine headings that the editors regard as the major themes in current popular music studies: Theory and Method; The Business of Popular Music; Popular Music History; The Global and the Local; The Star System; Body and Identity; Media; Technology; and Digital Economies. Much like other handbooks on specific scholarly fields, Bennett and Waksman aim to give a sense of the current state and future directions of the field, as well as to introduce the area of study to beginners. Also, much like other handbooks, this dual aim is hard to achieve, and while many chapters in this Handbook provide good overviews for beginners, few develop substantial discussions on theoretical or methodological ‘frontlines’ of their sub-fields.

The strongest of the five chapters in Part 1 on theory and method is Regev’s careful considerations of how sociological theory and popular music studies can better enrich each other, which is a short version of his recent book on pop-rock music as aesthetic cosmopolitanism. Daw’s essay on ethnomusicological approaches to popular music remains focused on what has been done, while a discussion of how ethnographic ways of theorizing have developed would be more interesting. Rodman’s chapter on the advantages of cultural studies approaches tends to oversimplify the depth and complexity of approaches in more established disciplines, and he fails to critically assess the analytical weaknesses of the eclectic use of theories and methods in cultural studies. Lacasse’s overview of the musicological study of popular music becomes most interesting in the concluding part on recent posthumanist musicology, and the essay could have elaborated more on possible future directions instead of mainly describing the past. The final essay by Feldman-Barrett argues for archival popular music research that asks ‘was it really like that?’ instead of focusing on ‘how it really was’ (84), which few would argue against.

Part 2 on the popular music business includes two strong chapters—Powers’ on intermediaries and intermediation, and Taylor’s on music in advertising—because they provide significant ideas on new theoretical questions in relation to case studies, and they chart possible directions for future research. The remaining two chapters provide mainly descriptive historical overviews of the US music industry (Garofalo) and of the wage-earning versus recording musicians in the US (Stahl). Part 3 on popular music history feels somewhat redundant, partly because of the (too) many historical overviews in most other chapters, and partly because the three essays don’t add much weight to historical research and analysis. Keightley writes on the industrial mediation of popular music in US history, Brackett on historical relations between genre and group identity in the US, and Brennan on live music history in the US and the UK. All three tend to simplify, and in Brackett’s case over-theorize, highly complex, uneven and differentiated historical processes.

The Part 4 heading ‘The Global and the Local’ promises a much needed departure from the dominant Anglophone focus in the Handbook. However, while Mitchell’s essay on hip hop touches on non-Anglo music scenes, the focus is on linguistic diversity and a critique of other people’s writings on hip hop. St John’s piece on the electronic dance music psytrance tracks its origins in Indian Goa, but lacks a critical analysis of the fact that it was never Indian in its origins; it was practised by hippie Westerners in Goa who brought it back to Europe, America and Australia. Brown writes on the global influence of heavy metal music and its changing relationship to class formations, and Haenfler outlines the history of diffusion of punk around the world. Both make rather obvious points about the importance of investigating how people perform these musics in particular local contexts, while their own focus remains mainly on the US and UK.

Part 5 includes four chapters on ‘the star system’. Shumway disentangles the historical relationship between stardom and celebrity in the UK and the US, while Auslander applies Goffman’s identity formation model to discuss the performance of real and ‘real’ (as fiction) of stardom. In his US and UK examples, however, he tends to conflate Goffman’s conceptual model of performance with real performers. Warwick takes Keith Richards and Madonna as case studies for an interesting exploration of how stardom contributes to the construction of gender in and through popular music, but her conclusion about the reinforcement of gender stereotypes never contextualizes these stereotypes as particular American and British cultural and socio-political constructions. The final essay by Snorton traces how racial discourses (mainly in the US) shape constructions of stardom, and he also makes some stimulating observations about the collapse of race and class in hip hop.

In Part 6 on body and identity, the most fulfilling chapter is by Strong on the role of music in the shaping and creation of memory, and thus of identity and body in spatial and temporal terms. The review of memory studies is particularly promising for new ways of thinking about music/identity/body formations. Whiteley’s essay is a reflection on her distinguished career in research and teaching in gender and music, which highlights the continued importance of teaching gender in all popular music courses. Stratton provides an overview of race in Anglophone popular music studies and literature but unfortunately doesn’t engage with more recent race theory, such as whiteness studies, while Dodds’s chapter relates popular music dance to the emerging field of research in dance studies in the US and the UK.

The four chapters in Part 7 on media discuss the demise of the press and the compromised quality of popular music journalism with the rise of free online publications (Warner), the need for ethnographic studies of audiences in research on popular music and television (Wall and Long), case studies of music in film and how popular music has become mere ‘part of the everyday aural cacophony of lives that are perpetually soundtracked’ (Henderson: 491), and the normalization of the internet in the everyday shaping of musical practices (Prior). All chapters focus on the US and UK and while thought-provoking when pointing to how media shape everyday music activities, they stop short of suggesting new ways of understanding these processes. In Part 8 on technology, Doyle’s enjoyable essay on the history of amplification is novel in its approach and asks many innovative questions for future research, while Kassabian makes a bit too much of the concept ‘ubiquitous’ in relation to sounds and music, presenting a world of obsessive listening that may in fact only be valid for parts of some age groups in some places.

Because many chapters in other Handbook parts explore the transformations and continuities digital technologies have brought to various aspects of the world of popular music, the final Part 9 on digital economies tends to go over grounds already covered, such as changing modes of production (Anderson) and changing relations of power in the music industry (Sinnreich), while Demers provides some more details on US copyright law and McLeod on digital musical appropriation.

In sum, this Handbook can be very useful for introducing new students to the rich diversity and history of popular music studies, but less so for those interested in emerging and exciting future fields of research. The editors acknowledge that the Handbook enters a market with other collections that also provide interdisciplinary overviews of popular music studies. To their list I would add Western Music and its Others (Born and Hesmondhalgh 2000) and Music and the Racial Imagination (Radano and Bohlman 2000), both of which cover important current directions and fertile areas of global popular music studies that are curiously absent in the Handbook: research into the rich dynamics of popular music’s meanings, scenes, industry, history and technology in non-Anglophone settings. After reading the 600+ pages, I am also left without a sense of having engaged with the activities of real human musician, music workers and others in the industry, largely because most sources used are the products of other scholars or productions of music workers—what us fieldworking anthropologists would call secondary sources. Last, but in no way as an after-thought, it should also be noted that 30 of the 38 contributors in the Handbook are men.


Born, Georgina, and David Hesmondhalgh, eds. 2000. Western Music and its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Radano, Ronald, and Philip V. Bohlman, eds. 2000. Music and the Racial Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.