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Transposition n°10 (2021) - “Flops in music”

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Transposition. Musique et sciences sociales

Transposition is an interdisciplinary peer-reviewed journal, supported and co-published by the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) and the Cité de la musique-Philharmonie de Paris. Transposition considers music and sound research at the intersection of the humanities and social sciences, in particular through the exploration of cross-disciplinary themes. Addressing the significance of music in the understanding of human societies, the journal seeks to examine how societies conceive, establish and stage their musical, sonic and listening practices. Transposition promotes open research, publishing original articles, commentaries and reviews in open access under a Creative Commons license. As member of OpenEdition Journals, Transposition is indexed in the Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM) and the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). For its tenth issue, Transposition will explore the theme of “flops” in music.

Call for papers No. 10 (2021):
“Flops in music”

Editors: Sarah Benhaïm and Lambert Dousson

  • 1 According to search results on the frequency of the word “flop” using the language analysis tool Ng (...)

While an in-depth study of linguistic usages of the term “flop” would, at this stage, be useful to shed light on the historical evolution of this vernacular expression, the corpora of digitised works already reveal increasing usage of the word “flop” throughout the twentieth century, particularly from the 1960s onward, not only in English-speaking spheres, but also in the French- and German-speaking domains.1 While “flop” is widely used in artistic sectors such as film, the performing arts and literature, here we specifically examine its meanings in music.

  • 2 In the first pages of L’Idiotie, Jean-Yves Jouannais notes that the word “fiasco” was imported from (...)
  • 3 Among the few existing references, see: Altenmüller Eckart, Schürmann Kristian, Klim Vanessa, Parli (...)
  • 4 Seabrook John, The Song Machine. Inside the Hit Factory, New York, W. W. Norton, 2015.

The English word “flop” has various meanings, including “drop” or “collapse”; as a noun, it is commonly used, especially in pop culture, to mean a failure, a “fiasco2”, a “bust” or non-event—like a highly-anticipated album release that falls flat, a well-known artist’s latest work failing to live up to the expectations—and it is largely in this sense that it is borrowed in other languages. The expression’s infrequency in dictionaries and encyclopaedias contrasts with its popularity, particularly in journalistic contexts, and, curiously, it seems that until now studies on music have largely overlooked this topic.3 Like the “hit factory” analysed by United States journalist John Seabrook in The Song Machine,4 might there be a “flop factory” driven by opposite aesthetic, social and economic factors, i.e. its “flip side” or negation?

Proposed themes and focuses

1.   A broad historical overview, looking at musical traditions from the most institutional to the most singular or amateur, would surely reveal the effects of cycles in the critical reception of musical productions (plays, concerts, performances, opuses, etc.), vacillating between enthusiastic and scathing. Indeed, studying flops in music calls for examining the fundaments of aesthetic judgement: who decides what is a flop and on what criteria is their criticism based?

2.   Examining these musical failures also involves looking closely at the course of musicians’ artistic careers. Does rate of production (regularity, frequency) appear as a factor? What about music careers marked by repeated ups and downs, or careers aborted after a flop? Looking beyond murky periods from public-private life, it would be interesting to place individual career paths in perspective within the historical, political and social context, as well as in terms of technological developments and shifts. For example, could the use of specific instrumentations or production techniques have been the reason for artists’ negative reception by the public? Also, does the study of the career paths in question show recurrences that could reveal generational or discriminatory dynamics (physical appearance, attitude, genre, age, race) among the criteria that determine a flop?

3.   Examining flops from every angle also requires looking at the nature and consequences of these critical and commercial failures, both for the groups and artists concerned, and on the intermediaries in the market and the record industry. Record labels, for example, appear to be central in this phenomenon: as a flop is usually determined by an elaborate ranking according to popularity criteria based primarily on the number of sales and plays, it is also the consequence of a failed commercial production strategy. Can the influence of flops be measured in the history of record labels and agents? What strategies are used for an artist to get back to the forefront? More broadly, how involved are agents in the decision-making around a flop, and particularly, what is their interaction with the media? In addition to the repercussions for the music industry, institutional “sanctions” are another key aspect to examine in the “post-flop” evolution of a music act.

4.   While a flop usually comes as a major blow to a musician’s career, it can be an opportunity for comebacks in some communities. Viewed as an aesthetic and commercial judgement, a flop can be fiercely debated and contested, challenged, for example, by factions of fans who find fault with the dominant systems of rankings. Moreover, and a particularly relevant aspect to study, a flop can lead to delayed redemption, as with the exhumation of works said to have been misunderstood in their own time. At what point is a flop rehabilitated as a trailblazer for a new genre or stylistic movement? Revealing the phenomena that support outcomes of redemption or new legitimacy for artists who have suffered flops will be particularly appreciated, in order to provide greater perspective on the social and cultural representations associated with these artistic models and figures.

5.   Considering that experimentation or breaking with stylistic codes has, in the past, often involved a form of singularisation (after all, among other criteria, a work’s aesthetic is often appraised with regard to other productions from a given period), how can a stylistic flop be defined? Are there aesthetics that are doomed “to flop”? Beyond aesthetic issues, proposals on the use of certain types of music and melodic motifs to indicate failure and misfortune will be met with particular interest, i.e. an aesthetics or poetics of loser-ness and/or (by, with, for) losers.

6.   Last, a flop cannot be viewed only as a negative outcome. There seem to be cases, as in avant-garde music genres and underground cultures, that lay claim to a sort of “flop aesthetics” according to various resources and motivations. As such, a “clannish”, ironic stance in response to forms of success seen as fundamentally “mainstream” can prompt the use of atypical sonorities, often associated by the public with “bad taste” and the kitsch. A musical flop can also be a source of inspiration for parodical productions: what are the mechanisms by which “errors” in taste are reclaimed and sometimes adulated after the fact? What degree of irony is used? These questions provide new insight on musical trends and, in some cases, on the legitimization processes underlying new forms of broad audience success.

From the legend of tomatoes tossed at classical music performers, to concerts in a vacant supermarket parking lot on the outskirts of a mid-sized French town, this issue of Transposition seeks to bring forth stories and analyses of works, recordings, concerts and even failed comebacks, clarifying what distinguishes a flop from other more widely-studied phenomena, like scandals. It aims to offer new perspectives on how failure holds keys to understanding music and its aesthetic dynamics, while at the same time being a vector and result of commercial stakes and social and cultural representations.

Articles proposals, either in French or English (~1500-2500 characters including spaces, not counting the bibliography), should be sent by 15 March 2020 to: transposition.submission@gmail.com

Full articles will be required by 1st November 2020. In addition to the contributions for the thematic section, Transposition is accepting submissions for the Varia section.

Notes

1 According to search results on the frequency of the word “flop” using the language analysis tool Ngram Viewer.

2 In the first pages of L’Idiotie, Jean-Yves Jouannais notes that the word “fiasco” was imported from Italy by Stendhal in one of the chapters added posthumously to the 1853 edition of Love (De l’amour), where he used it to mean not so much debacle as premature ejaculation. See also:

3 Among the few existing references, see: Altenmüller Eckart, Schürmann Kristian, Klim Vanessa, Parlitz Dietrich, “Hits to the Left, Flops to the Right: Different Emotions during Listening to Music are Reflected in Cortical Lateralisation Patterns”, Neuropsychologia, Vol. 40, no. 13, 2002, p. 2242-2256, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0028-3932(02)00107-0 ; Priest Eldritch, Boring Formless Nonsense: Experimental Music and the Aesthetics of Failure, New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013,  http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=1115365 ; Wright Adrian, Must Close Saturday: The Decline and Fall of the British Musical Flop, Woodbridge UK, Boydell Press, 2017 ; Brittan Francesca, “Cultures of Musical Failures”, Crangle Sara and Nicholls Peter, On Bathos: Literature, Art, Music, London, Continuum, 2010 ; Mandelbaum Ken, Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1998 ; Salem Joseph, “The Integrity of Boulez’s Integral Serialism: Polyphonie X and Musical Failure as Compositional Success”, Contemporary Music Review, vol. 36, no. 5, 2017 p. 337-361, DOI: 10.1080/07494467.2017.1401366.

4 Seabrook John, The Song Machine. Inside the Hit Factory, New York, W. W. Norton, 2015.

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