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Books and pop music: challenging conventions that define high and low culture

Pop music is ‘low’ culture and literature definitely ‘high’ culture.

For Dr Adam Hansen this thinking is lazy and too conventional. Through his research he is challenging the cultural assumptions that erect barriers between these two art forms. To explore his ideas with a wider audience, Hansen set up Litpop at the Sage Gateshead in 2011. It is a book club with a musical twist: it is intended to appeal to people with musical as much as bookish tastes and the books that are read all have a musical theme.

Hansen is a lecturer in the English department at Northumbria University. He has a longstanding passion for Shakespeare and popular music. His research brings together these passions and explores the adoption of Shakespeare’s words in themes in popular music.

What he discovered when researching his book, entitled Shakespeare and Popular Music, is a general unwillingness, amongst critics as much as ordinary readers and listeners, to accept connections between ‘literary’ writing and popular music. He concluded that underlying this resistance were a set of preconceptions about the relative value of high and low culture.

Litpop was set up as a response to this. Book club members are encouraged to jettison their pre-conceptions and to consider afresh the links, distinctions and barriers between different forms of culture.

As well as regular meetings to discuss books and music, Litpop has spawned spin-off workshops bringing together local musicians and writers to experiment in music and writing. Guided by resources provided by Hansen they worked on a new verbal and musical composition which challenged their creative processes.  One attendee said that following the workshop they will be “experimenting more within my writing – using musical forms.”

Hansen has also given public talks at the Sage Gateshead’s ‘Exploring Music’ series and held a Litpop book club meeting at the Darlington for Culture Festival.

“When we talk about popular music, we are talking about the people who make this music and the people who make it popular: ourselves. This means that when we read and write about popular music, and when popular music invokes or is influenced by what people read and write, we are reading, writing, making and listening to stories about who we are,” explains Hansen.

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