Raymond Williams: Popular Music and Subculture – conference report (10/6/16)

As a response to the significant revival of interest in the diverse legacy of Raymond Williams, this day conference sought to consider productive but little explored connections between Williams and the study of subcultures, popular music and social change.

A lively and productive day, with 31 attendees and 9 speakers, the event at Friends’ Meeting House in central Manchester was attended by a mixture of academics, students and cultural producers. There was also a representative of Social Science Centre Manchester, a new initiative that aims to provide free, co-operative higher education evening classes open to all.


RWS report
Speakers (L to R) – Rhian E. Jones, Pete Dale (chairing), David Wilkinson and Steve Hanson.


Conference delegates at Raymond Williams: Popular Music and Subculture.

Across three panels, speakers focused on how Williams’ distinctive approach might be developed to address pressing issues in popular musical and subcultural studies, with a scope that stretched from the local to the global. In the first panel, on emergent cultures, Pete Dale (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Nick Stevenson (Nottingham University) prompted a fascinating discussion on ‘the politics of modernism’ in relation to popular music. Meanwhile Dominic Deane (University of Manchester) discussed his ethnographic research into the roots of contemporary ‘Do It Yourself’ musical initiatives in West Yorkshire, drawing on theories of the residual and the emergent.

In the second panel, on cultural materialism, David Wilkinson (Manchester Metropolitan University) showed how a cultural materialist framework allows for a much-needed reassessment of the politics of British post-punk as a potential ‘resource of hope’, whilst Rhian E. Jones brought a comparable approach to 1990s Britpop and class. Steve Hanson’s presentation bridged Williams’ work and Hegelian dialectics, demonstrating how famous pieces of music like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ accrete meanings historically.

The final panel focused on structures of feeling, with Anne Robinson (University of the Arts London) examining the turn of the 1980s by using post-punk aesthetics to open up a world of feminism, art school and radical grassroots initiatives during the rise of Thatcherism. Li Zhongwei (London School of Economics) gave an eye-opening paper on the structure of feeling of China’s 1990s ‘cut-out’ generation, who developed subcultural identities around Western pop music sold on the black market – excess records and tapes that had originally been shipped to China for recycling. David Alderson (University of Manchester) departed from the popular musical theme to consider LGBT subcultures, brilliantly examining the transgressive structures of feeling of queer culture in relation to a ‘diversified dominant’ that has partially incorporated sexual dissidence.

Afterwards delegates decamped to the Sandbar to continue discussion more informally and were entertained by a street performance from Manchester Samba Band (featuring one of our speakers!).


Conference poster