Peter Doyle (Macquarie University, Australia)


Popular music studies, when it deals with performers and performance, tends to focus on highly visible, canonical acts: musicians historically well-established in global imaginaries, or acts that might be regarded as “canonical-in-waiting”. Or acts which are sufficiently scandalous, groundbreaking or transgressive to be of subcultural significance. Or simply too commercially successful to ignore. There are recurring assumptions of excellence, excess or anomalous accomplishment. The underlying default thematic is one of transcendence.

But “pinnacle moments” are by definition outliers. So what of the not-stellar? How might we approach the myriad practices and practitioners of the middle? Although social sciences approaches to popular music admittedly are often interested in quotidian production and reception practice, popular music scholars in general have been less concerned with the everyday lives, the musical and entrepreneurial practices of non-stellar musicians. Meanwhile entire worlds of music practice appear, fade and are lost without any serious investigation or even basic mapping taking place. The recurring topos of the young woman who abandons the career to keep house (while the partner continues his career) is one instance of the large historical category of experience that utterly fails to register in such “pinnacle studies”.  

The paper will map some of the narrative modes in which the chronically un- or semi-successful performer, the abandoned or self-sabotaged musical life, the generally mediocre and the unhip, has been approached. (Most typically, such lives are profiled for comedic value, or presented as figure of pathos, as object lessons in the virtues of resilience, or as “crypto-canonical” figures — the excellence was always there but remained regrettably unrecognised — and so on.) Finally I will attempt to outline some of the opportunities and pitfalls which present to the popular music scholar of a mind to address this category.