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Researching Modern Music

Alexandra Kolesnik, Junior Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer at HSE’s Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities recently completed her post graduate studies in History and successfully defended her PhD thesis entitled ‘Historical representations in British popular musical culture of the 1960-1980s’. Here, Alexandra talks about her research into modern pop-culture.

Rarely do historians refer to the study of pop culture – this field is generally reserved for culturologists and sociologists. And, if a historian should delve into this area, their work is often linked to cinematography or mainstream literature.

Popular music has been touched upon indirectly before by historians. For example, British rock was regularly included in descriptions of the cultural revolution in the UK in the 1960s, as well as in material dating back to the Soviet underground movement of the 1970s-80s, illustrating the nature of censorship in the USSR and criticism of the regime that was expressed in music. It should be noted that, over the past 5 years, several papers by historians have been published that address popular music as the main theme (in most cases, rock music). However, these papers have only dealt with American and British music.

Alexandra Kolesnik began to examine pop culture and focus on British rock after having studied the history of socialist revolutionaries at the turn of 20th century. This change in the direction of her research was made possible both by Alexandra’s highly motivated approach, as well as by the support of her colleagues at the Poletayev Institute and the Doctoral School of History. Her research now looks at how musicians interpreted national history in their songs and performances, how various audiences reacted to this music, and how and why various historical images became popular at different times in the UK.

A new look at British rock

Researchers in the UK are enthralled by British pop music history and value it highly. Brits themselves consider it to be a part of their cultural legacy. Indeed, starting in the 1980s, many artists were officially recognized as part of the national heritage. However, Alexandra notes, for the most part, rock music is studied by musicologists, cultural researchers (as part of cultural studies) and sociologists. In her opinion, this is why questions around historical representations tended to be left by the wayside.

‘I am not only researching which historical images were used by musicians and how, nor am I not only looking at how these historical images were played out on stage and their manifestations on album covers and in promo companies,’ explains Alexandra. ‘I try to go one step further and consider how we can see and track changes, using the research material, in the relationship between Brits and their own history from 1960 to 1980.’

Looking at these 30 years of British rock music history, we clearly see a change in the national and international identities of Brits, and we also observe the impact of post-imperialism and new social, political and economic post-industrial realities. Alexandra shows, in her thesis, how issues around various socio-political, economical and cultural processes that were current at the time were often reflected in the music, and later, in other cultural media also (mostly in cinema, mainstream literature and television).

This approach to researching British pop music is completely new among British researchers. Alexandra went on student exchange to University College London in 2015 and also attended several conferences in the UK and the USA between 2013 and 2015, where her project was met with a lot of interest and deemed to be novel by her colleagues in the field.

Prepared by Anna Chernyakovskaya

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