Dialectic of Pop, 145–150


II. Mediation and Source


When, at the beginning of twentieth century, far from the Balkans and Germanic Europe, the pioneers of American ethnomusicology replay the Romantic quest for the popular, the revival they trigger is different in nature. The technique of recording and a new relationship with this technique transforms the aesthetic meaning of popular expression, including the nostalgia for a bygone past that it brings with it. Recording confers a strange presence upon this past, a presence which then becomes the object of an autonomous aesthetic experience. For it is not at all long before John and Alan Lomax, although working in the service of ethnomusicological institution, cease to see their collections in terms of the mere creation of archives documenting rural practices: they begin instead to present them as the recordings of a repertory of works accompanied by a title and, usually, the name of the performer. Identified, numbered, and above all fixed in a particular recording (making the song inseparable from one particular performance of it), each recording becomes a work, which in turn becomes a singular artistic object for aesthetic listening and not just scientific research. The recordings of folk songs that lie at the origin of American musical culture—which will be turned to continually, referenced and reinterpreted throughout the century—thus functioned not just as a collection of documents upon which a serious art in search of revitalization could draw, conferring the status of art upon that which had no such status: they founded popular music itself as a particular art form, as recorded popular music.…