Making Music Methodological

Sunday, Oct 27, 2013, 12:13 PM | Source: The Conversation

Lauren Rosewarne


It’s a Pie. It has a moose on it! Source:

I gravitate to lists. A vegetarian, sure, but I’ll always click on the article about Melbourne’s best pies. Top ten station wagons? Fantastic! Who cares that I don’t have a license and haven’t had any contraceptive mishaps.

David Letterman and Buzzfeed understand this perfectly: lists are the greatest.

David Letterman and Buzzfeed equally get the stupidity, the subjectivity and the complete and utter unscientific-ness of it all.

All lists are not created equally. And the ones involving coffee, roller-coasters and gardens are the very best kind. I don’t drink it, ride them or care even slightly about nature: perfect! Because unlike all those who’ll vent viciously - how could you low-life mongrels forget that Kev’s in Glenroy makes the world’s greatest pie? - for me, there’s no investment. It’s just an exercise in furrowed-brow bewilderment that people care so much about milk temperature.

Queen is Dead, The Smiths (1986)

So what about lists of stuff that I’m actually interested in? Books? TV? Music? Suddenly things get a tad trickier.

My list-addiction meant that I couldn’t not click on an article about NME’s Greatest Albums of All Time list.

As it turns out, it was actually pretty decent. The Smith’s “The Queen is Dead” (1986) “won”. And I love that album. So much so in fact, that I’d listen to it constantly if doing so wouldn’t lead to my sectioning.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Last year’s incarnation of the British Film Institute’s Top 50 was also quite the pleasant surprise. My painstaking protests, petitions and passionate publicity stunts paid off and Citizen Kane (1941) was demoted. About bloody time.

Terrific poster perhaps…

My standard reaction to pop culture lists - even the good ones - follows a pattern:

  1. Bastards!
  2. How thoroughly
  3. Ughh, how exhaustingly conservative!

Five or six minutes later, of course, I’ll remember that my favourites - while usually absent - are also invariably American or British, directed by men and likely connected to a big studio.

So then I’ll sulk a little.

I spend lots of time supervising students’ research projects. “What is the greatest album of all time?” is both an awful and completely fantastic research question. Awful because it’s almost impossible to answer, and fantastic simply because I want to be part of conversations where the methodology is hatched.

One of the highest-selling singles of all time.

Do we go the Logies route? Not a bad guide: if the population consider it good enough, surely they’ll buy it.

Ah, but since when does popularity constitute greatness?

Do we go the Oscars route? Ask the experts to name their favourites and distill a list that way?

So what constitutes an “expert” in a field as gorgeously common as pop culture?

Years ago I was interviewed about a piece of magazine “research” centered on the world’s best lovers. The German efficiency/American too-much-talking/Greek-style racist stereotypes aside, my central problem was the non-existent methodology. Random people were simply asked about their experiences.

Not only would a decent study mean that interview subjects would need to have had sex with a solid sample from each country to know that Backpacker Vlad’s lacklusterness wasn’t just a blip, but more so, a decent sample from every single country would be needed.

Afterall, how could you ever feel confidant that Canada/Uruguay/Pakistan has the most wonderful love-studs if you’ve not romped with a decent sample from Lesotho, Kyrgyzstan or Vatican City too?

Which brings us back to music.

How can you confidently - scientifically and completely separate from personal taste and private swoonin’ - say The Queen is Dead is the greatest ever album if you’ve not heard everything else?

And even if we somehow manage to listen to everything else, is one listen of any one album really enough?

And how do we account for nostalgia? Because list-makers clearly have a propensity to glorify the music of their heyday.

And how do we go about drafting a list of Greatness Indicators?

Because far more interesting than any pop culture list is the arguments and redrafts that follow.

Speaking of pop culture… My new book - American Taboo: The Forbidden Words, Unspoken Rules, and Secret Morality of Popular Culture - is launching in Melbourne on November 12, 2013. Professor Rob Brooks and Joy FM’s Dean Beck will hopefully be saying salacious things. RSVP at:

The Conversation

University of Melbourne Researchers