Ross Cole on ‘The Threat of the Popular’

We live in an era of resurgent populism. Whether it’s grassroots Labour (with a web address ‘’), the nationalist demagoguery of Trump and Orbán, or the tabloid rhetoric of Brexit, ‘the people’ seem to have taken centre stage in a way not seen since the 1930s – the era of Roosevelt’s New Deal, an international Popular Front, and the establishment of fascist regimes.

What this cursory list indicates is that populism does not have a stable identity, but rather manifests itself across the political spectrum from left to right. Populism, in short, is a political project driven by or answerable to a vision of ‘the people’; but it’s precisely the impossibility of pinning down just who these people are that lends populism its mercurial – and hence disquieting – character. At times the people seem to be the smiling archetypes of socialist realism, at others an atavistic mob, faces at the barricades, middle England, or disciplined blackshirts. Populism represents a fight over who ‘the people’ are.

So what has music got to do with all this? Popular music studies was established as an academic field dedicated to asking why the study of music should be restricted to canonical scores written by a handful of European men. The possibilities it opened up were boundless: looking at how music was received, the imbrications of music and identity, music as a multimedia practice, recording technology, postcolonialism, feminism, race, the music industry, and so on.

We all have some idea of what ‘popular music’ is, but when pressed it becomes difficult to decide how to define or delineate it: is it down to the sheer quantifiable number of something (sheet music, records, downloads, clicks), or is it more about the habits and tastes of that enigmatic assembly ‘the people’? What happens as practices change over time? What about music across the globe?

These questions were at the heart of a Masters seminar I ran a couple of years ago. During our discussions we came to the conclusion that no coherent definition of popular music exists. This led me towards a new approach: what if, instead of formulating a theoretical definition, we trace how and why the term was employed? The result, an article entitled ‘Notes on Troubling “the Popular”’, has recently been published in the journal Popular Music – an affectionate nod to Stuart Hall’s classic essay ‘Notes on Deconstructing “the Popular”’.*


‘The Monday Evening Popular Concerts: The Instrumentalists’, Illustrated London News, 25 April 1863, p. 465. Figures depicted: Julius Benedict, Samuel Arthur Chappell, Arabella Goddard, Charles Hallé, Joseph Joachim, Carlo Alfredo Piatti, Louis Ries, Prosper Sainton, Lindsay Sloper, Henry Webb.

Focusing on a crucial period from 1860 to 1920 in Britain, I show 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. Rather than representing one facet of what Andreas Huyssen has termed the ‘Great Divide’ between high art and mass culture, popular music cuts across this discourse. The term, in other words, was not only employed to dismiss London’s music halls as ‘a desert of semi-lunatic trash’, but also to position the music of Beethoven, Handel, and Haydn as ‘a recreation and a solace’ in the face of industrialized modernity. These discourses, however, represent two sides of the same coin. The popular, I suggest, is thus a floating signifier with the potential to reference mutually opposing ideas.

Taking the popular seriously in the academy has always been a revisionist gesture, whether in the form of ‘history from below’, Birmingham school cultural studies, or popular music studies. In an ideal world we wouldn’t need the modifier ‘popular’ as an adjunct to the study of music, just as we wouldn’t need Stormzy’s Scholarship for Black UK Students as a corrective to generations of social and ethnic inequality. Just as ‘white’ disappears as an adjective because of its very normativity, pervasiveness, and power, so music as a subject has managed to silence the words that still haunt it: Western classical.

Now more than ever, as the phrase ‘the people’ is used to bolster undemocratic processes and tacitly exclude those who fall outside its remit, it is necessary to look again at our understanding of the popular, whatever guise it appears in.

*please email the author if you would like a copy (contact details via the biographical links below).

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Ross Cole is a Research Fellow at Homerton College Cambridge, where he works on music from the fin de siècle to the 21st-century. He studied at Cambridge, York, and Oxford, where he graduated with the Gibbs Prize. Before taking up his Fellowship in 2017 he held a Temporary Lectureship at Cambridge and received the Faculty of Music’s Teaching Prize. 

Featured image: Photo credit Melany Rochester.







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