Whose culture is global? Listening to Anglo-American pop music in Italy

Whose culture is global? Listening to Anglo-American pop music in Italy

Simone Varriale

I spent my adolescence and most of my twenties listening exclusively to American and British pop music, or to Italian bands which were influenced by Anglo-American rock, soul and hip hop. For me this was an obvious and uncontested fact: good music came from the UK and the US. If you think it must be an individual or Italian oddity, it isn’t.

As recently documented by sociologist Motti Regev, the globalization of the music industry has significantly transformed the music cultures of many European, Asian, African and South-American countries during the last fifty years. The recording industries of such countries increasingly imported British and American products, while British and American labels progressively opened sub-divisions abroad. In the 1980s this was called cultural imperialism. According to this argument, Anglo-American labels had the economic power to impose their products abroad, erasing local music tastes and becoming the dominant, transnational conglomerates they are today.

However, from the 1990s an alternative argument developed. Some scholars contended that media audiences were not passive, but were able to appropriate cultural products in innovative ways. Globalization was not only about Americanization, it was also about creativity and new hybrid identities. As I show in my research on Italian popular music, this more optimistic account underestimates differences in class, gender and race within national and local contexts, and how these differences affect the appropriation of foreign musical products. My work reveals that while the UK and US had the power to define what counts as global culture (in Italy as elsewhere), national elites maintained the power to distinguish between good and bad music, high and low culture.

The boundaries between classical music and ‘light music’ (musica leggera) are still important in Italy, especially in educational curricula and the organisation of arts funding. Nonetheless, a new distinction between light and pop music (musica pop) progressively emerged from the early 1960s. Musica pop indicated recently imported pop-rock from the US and UK and Italian acts drawing on these influences. By contrast, musica leggera became associated with a different kind of popular music, one drawing on national traditions, such as bel canto, and promoted by public radio and television. For the musicians and fans involved with musica pop, the distinction between pop and light was also a distinction between avant-garde and mainstream culture, and between young, sophisticated music listeners and passive consumers. The latter included older generations but also, as I expand below, young people deemed to be ‘ignorant’.

This generational divide was further consolidated from the early 1970s, when specialist music magazines dedicated to Anglo-American and Italian pop first appeared. This is an important turn in our story. Indeed, the rise of critical expertise signals that the status of a cultural form is changing: pop music was slowly becoming considered as art, at least by a group of young music enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. To better understand this transformation, I conducted extensive archival research on the pop music press: I studied the social biography of critics and their readers, how music magazines were produced and consumed and how they established new cultural hierarchies.

Pop music criticism was the product of long-term social transformations, which include the expansion of secondary education from the early 1960s, the commercial growth of consumer culture and the rise of products specifically tailored to the youth. In a sense, it was conceivable only in a country where the cultural industries had become fairly established, and where young people were sufficiently literate to make and appreciate new cultural distinctions.

However, critics were not simply young, and it would be misleading to believe that this is just a story about generational change. With few exceptions, critics had upper or middle class origins, significant knowledge of the traditional arts – especially literature and classical music – and familiarity with popular arts like jazz and film. Being university students and graduates of Italian elite schools (licei), they had educational qualifications above the majority of their peers and the Italian population. They were also predominantly male and born in the country’s North-Centre urban areas, especially Rome. These were people who could apply their artistic knowledge to a cultural context that had rarely been considered in such terms, and who could invest in a professional activity that was still poorly established.

To be sure, a similar process was taking place in the US and UK. Here educated, white and largely male young people played a key role in establishing a new distinction between aesthetically and politically relevant rock music and commercially-oriented, shallow pop. However, since Italy was a periphery in the increasingly Anglo-centric recording industry, the pop-rock divide assumed a different meaning. It became a distinction between cosmopolitan, modern young people and provincial, conservative youth.

Italian critics were well aware that this distinction could hide inequalities of education and class background, but they believed that ‘educating’ music fans could benefit even the least privileged of their readers. In the highly politicised context of the 1970s, some could even argue that the role of critics was ‘to give to the oppressed the means to make a new culture for themselves’.(1) The contradictions of such a position manifested as soon as critics realised that not all readers agreed with their normative musical choices. Moreover, these choices revealed hierarchies of gender and race.

As part of my research I analysed the letters that readers regularly sent to music magazines, and how critics selected and replied to such letters. Discussions between critics and readers reveal how aesthetic judgements could exacerbate social divisions. For instance, ‘bad’ popular music was not only associated with ‘ignorant and narrow-minded’ young people,(2) but also with girls. Among a predominantly male readership, girls became the symbol of poor musical taste and low-status cultural activities. As one (male) reader lamented in a letter to the weekly Ciao 2001: ‘Find me a single girl who is able to start or sustain a serious discussion, or simply a girl who can talk about music. … [T]he girls here in Milan are interested only in boyfriends, motorcycles … dancing or going to the movies’.(3) To be sure, critics discouraged the idea that all girls had poor musical taste, partly because they didn’t want to alienate some of their readers. However, because they endorsed strong aesthetic distinctions, girls uninterested in avant-garde pop remained unwelcome and were occasionally ridiculed, along with readers with an open interest in ‘too commercial’ music styles like hard rock, disco or – the bottom line – Italian light music.

Divisions of gender and race are also important to understand how critics evaluated different Anglo-American trends, as women and black musicians were reviewed in markedly different ways than male and white acts. Women tended to be evaluated both for their music and for their sexuality and femininity. It was not infrequent to read reviews in which the look of female musicians was openly judged, and music’s pleasure could assume an overly sexual meaning when a song was written or performed by a woman. Consider the following line about Grace Slick, member of the band Jefferson Airplane: ‘[The song Sketches of China] represents Grace as a woman and her burning fire, which makes her the prototype of sexuality despite the way she looks.’(4)

Similarly, reviews of African American acts showed an exotic understanding of black culture. Black musicians were depicted as naturally predisposed towards music and rhythm, and their work, be it jazz or soul, was seen as an expression of quasi-biological difference. A more sophisticated version of this argument was developed by the monthlies Muzak and Gong, two publications with strong links with 1970s political and counter-cultural movements. These magazines saw black popular music, particularly free jazz, as an expression of socio-political and anti-racist protest. Nonetheless, their admiration for the struggles of African American musicians revealed an essentialist understanding of black culture. A critic reviewing a concert of Sam Rivers, for example, could argue that: ‘When he [Sam Rivers] plays with energetic irrationality, we get back the ghosts of the black rage and sensuality; the blood and not just the colour of an archaic origin.’(5)

Overall, the introduction of American and British popular music in Italy did not simply create new hybrid identities, but new cultural hierarchies which could mask deep-seated social divisions. Anglo-American pop was certainly appropriated in innovative ways, but by young people with different sets of privileges and unequal cultural and economic resources. Moreover, their musical taste rarely ventured beyond the US and UK (and occasionally France and Germany), as it was conditioned by the spacial inequalities of the ‘global’ recording industry.

1.  Pintor, G. Reply to A. Piras, ‘Giornalisti e Popolo’ (letter), Muzak, n. 10, February 1976, pp. 6-8.
2.  Angelozzi, A. ‘Grave lacuna’ (letter), Ciao 2001, n. 37, 21 September 1975, pp. 5-6.
3.  Ranzini, G. ‘A Milano’ (letter), Ciao 2001, n. 28, 14 July 1974, pp. 5-6.
4.  Branco, A. ‘The fire woman’, Muzak, n. 12, October 1974, pp. 56-58.
5.  Delconte, P. ‘Riflessi sul nuovo mito Sam Rivers. L’urlo sommerso’, Gong, n. 10, October 1976, pp. 12-13.


Simone Varriale is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick. His work on Italian popular music has been published in the book Globalization, Music and Cultures of Distinction: The Rise of Pop Music Criticism in Italy (Palgrave Macmillan) and in journals such as Poetics, Cultural Sociology, American Behavioral Scientist and Rassegna Italiana di Sociologia.


Image: Pixabay CC0

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