Books: Of the Devil's party, without knowing it

PERFORMING RITES: On the Value of Popular Music by Simon Frith, OUP pounds 19.99

Because this book's primary application will be as a work of reference for those engaged in the bizarre and unnatural practice of Cultural Studies, some might argue that it has no place being reviewed in a family newspaper. But since the aforementioned field of enquiry is basically an outrageous confidence trick perpetrated on the taxpayer by those cunning enough to build careers out of the stuff that everyone else does for a hobby, a greater measure of public accountability would probably be no bad thing. Furthermore, Simon Frith's position as chairman of the Mercury Awards panel - annually corrupting the venal innocence of the British music industry with alien notions of virtue rewarded - gives his latest work more than mere academic interest.

It would be fun to read a rigorous analysis of what social and cultural forces persuaded Frith and his fellow judges to nominate, say, Mark Morrison's as one of the albums of the year, but the Mercury Prize gets only the briefest of mentions among some intimidatingly scrupulous and in-depth footnotes. Frith does not duck the real question at hand, though: boldly confronting his proper sense of disquiet at having maintained a lofty reputation as a pop scribe for three decades, while rigorously excluding from his parallel academic career (as professor of English at Strathclyde University) the evaluative techniques that are his critical bread and butter.

Since he is convinced that Charles Dickens and Meat Loaf are in some meaningful sense "better" than Barbara Cartland and U2, why should it be improper for Frith to tell his students so? Because cultural theorists are supposed to be above matters of "good" and "bad" - key words, he argues, which "suggest that aesthetic and ethical judgements are tied together: not to like a record is not just a matter of taste, it is also a matter of morality."

Performing Rites skilfully lays bare the ideological assumptions that underlie the supposed objectivity of academic discourse; on the one hand the old Marxist idea of all popular culture as automatically tainted by the inequalities of the social and political systems from which it emerged, on the other, the more recent, subconsciously Thatcherite attitude that makes consumer choice the arbiter of all significance. Frith's own approach lies - in the best college essay-writing tradition - somewhere between the two. "The `difficult' appeals", he explains, "through the traces it carries of another world in which it would be `easy'."

For all the happy blend of erudition and common sense with which he makes this case, Frith is not immune from odd lapses into pseudo-scientific tub-thumping. "I suggest," he claims enticingly at one point, "that if rock does sometimes mean sex, it is for sociological not musicological reasons." We cannot help but sympathise with the exasperated respondent to an American survey of listeners' responses to different musical forms who observes "I just want to enjoy it, I don't want to explain it ... it's not a scientific experiment."

This book is most enjoyable - in quoting from a bizarre 1990 House of Lords debate on the difference between pop and rock, in memorably defining fun as "the time that one doesn't notice happening till afterwards" - when it is least scientific. When focusing earnestly on the intellectual task at hand, the author seems to write with his soul in irons ("Auditions are useful settings," he maintains grimly, "in which to observe musical judgements at work"), but the further he strays from the path of righteousness, the more pertinent and joyful his work becomes. As guilty as he obviously feels about it, Frith's impassioned digression on what it is that upsets him about a group of Scandinavian academics refusing to like the Pet Shop Boys is probably the best thing here.

The reason for this is simple. Pop music needs sociology like a dolphin needs an electric toothbrush: the best thing about it is that it gives us a glimpse of a world where sociology is no longer necessary. The intriguing thing here - as in much of the work of Frith's friend and US counterpart Greil Marcus - is that its author seems simultaneously wholly aware and blissfully oblivious of that fact. Frith defines popular culture as a field wherein "no one needs to be licensed by study or qualification to speak authoritatively", which puts those whose job it is to speak authoritatively in a pretty difficult position. And that can only be a positive development.