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Dans les rouages de la culture populaire américaine
Claire Palmiste, Stéphane Partel and Steve Gadet
Paris: L’Harmattan, 2022
184 pages
ISBN 978-2-14-020877-5


Dans les rouages de la culture populaire américaine [The Machinery of American Popular Culture] written by Claire Palmiste, Stéphane Partel and Steve Gadet and published by L’Harmattan publishing house in 2022 is a collective work of American and Inter-American Studies in French language written with the aim to provide an overview of the interventions by teachers in the Department of Foreign and Regional Languages, Literatures and Civilisations (LLCER) from the University of the Antilles resulted from their university seminars in American popular culture. The intervention-project, aiming at reflecting the complexity and the dynamism of American popular culture abroad, is part of a wider project called “teaching and studying differently.” By offering easily identifiable and accessible topics, this initiative encouraged involvement and active participation on the part of the students and so it quickly gained popularity among them. Moreover, the project invites students to explore various aspects of American popular culture while, at the same time, enables their teachers to delve deeper into their respective areas of research, especially in the topic of urban cultures and indigenous peoples. Compared to its status in the United States, popular culture as a field of study and research enjoys much less visibility and prestige in France overall. Nevertheless, the growing interest in this field justifies the publication of a book produced by researchers specialising in the production and reception of American popular culture from the perspective of marginal cultures, with special regard to the Caribbean region.

The book is divided into two parts, each focusing on one of the two main areas of study of popular culture: its production and its respective reception. The texts in the first part are organised around the music industry, while the second part of the book is devoted to forms of social representations of the margins in American popular culture.

The first chapter, “Music producers et musiques populaires aux États-Unis: dans les coulisses d’une industrie culturelle” [Music Producers and Popular Music in the United States: Behind the Scenes of a Cultural Industry], written by Stéphane Partel begins with a presentation of the economic context of the American record industry, whose evolution has been strongly influenced by the continual development of new technologies. Technological innovations – such as the emergence of new media, the Internet, computer-assisted music software, and so on – have given shape to a new way of creating, recording and producing American popular music, having a direct impact on the economic circuit of the music industry. Nevertheless, the place of music producers remains unchallenged despite the changing factors in the industry. Having a certain mastery of technical skills as well as a valuable knowledge of market expectations, it is practically impossible to make the transition from a local scene to a national or international career without the support of music producers. If their role is considered to be that of a real director – observes Partel – their contribution is more nuanced. Mostly trained musicians, highly qualified technicians, sound engineers or even remix specialists, music producers are often called upon to motivate and inspire artists by establishing a relationship based on confidence with them. Thus, one can observe the presence of an influential producer each time a star has been born since the 1950s, which shows how much is at stake. Partel then looks at how the profession has evolved since the 1950s, by using the examples of some of the most famous producers – Phil Spector, Sam Phillipps, Quincy Jones, Rick Rubin, Baby Face, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Pharell Williams and Chad Hugo – to illustrate its diversity and its influence on the music we have been globally listening to since the 1960s.

The second chapter entitled “Chansons cultes de La musique populaire américaine : entre divertissement et réalité sociale” [Cult Songs of American Popular Music: Between Entertainment and Social Reality] addresses the question of the following cult songs: The Twist by Chubby Checker, I am a Woman by Helen Reddy, Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen, The Message by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Justify my Love by Madonna, Why You Wanna Trip on Me by Michael Jackson, and No Problem by Chance the Rapper. Stéphane Partel examines how American cult songs – sometimes provocative, even subversive – transcend racial, gender, age and social gaps becoming part of a cultural heritage shared not only by the American listeners but also by a wider, international audience. Contextualizing cult songs from the 1950s until today and analyzing the lyrics as well as their reception by the public allow Partel to point out that even if these songs aim primarily at entertaining the public, they also reflect important aspects of a continuously changing social, political and economic reality in the changing American scene.

The next chapter, “Enseigner par le biais de la culture hip-hop aux États-Unis” [Teaching Through Hip-Hop Culture in the United States], focuses on the link between popular culture and education. Steve Gadet explores teaching methods aiming at incorporating urban cultural expressions to meet educational challenges, such as crime, violence, poverty or equal opportunities. Gadet organises his text around two axes and examines the theory behind the innovative movement of “reality pedagogy” and the possible ways of its application, based on the idea, applied with success since the end of the 1990s, of using the learners’ culture in teaching. The academic connections between hip-hop culture, urban cultures in general, and the world of education in particular have been developing ever since. This new approach aims at giving educators – who want to connect with young people in a relevant way and take into account the cultural differences between student and teacher – new tools in order to enable them to adapt their methodology to learners living especially in inner city areas. The second part of Gadet’s analysis is based on Sam Siedel’s Hip-Hop Genius, Remixing High-School Education (2011) and is mainly devoted to the experiences of the High School for Recording Arts in Saint Paul, Minnesota, which uses a curriculum based on hip-hop culture. Here Gadet mentions the example of seminars and courses held in higher education establishments by the prominent figures of the movement enabling him to argue, appropriately, that teaching through hip-hop culture involves rethinking the dominant culture from the perspective of the margins of American society.

The second part of the book deals with questions related to the social representations of the margin. Chapter four is on “Les représentations de l’Ouest sauvage dans la culture populaire américaine” [Representations of the Wild West in American Popular Culture] and emphasizes the contrasting nature of the representation of the Wild West in the work of the painter George Catlin and in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows, while explaining how they were integrated into popular culture studies. In so doing, Claire Palmiste has recourse to the double meaning of the term “representation,” as both the act of staging and the construction of meaning on the basis of a variety of media (paintings, traditional objects and shows). Palmiste explains the ways of the two men’s different experiences of the West and their contrasting relation to indigenous people result in antinomic projections of the Wild West conveyed to the European public. Catlin’s ethnographic approach focusing on people’s way of life and on their cultural practices has left its mark on popular culture mostly through museum exhibitions; while the concept of Buffalo Bill’s attempt to reconstruct episodes of the conquest of the Wild West, emphasizing the role of its heroes and the skills of the cowboys, has been taken up by especially by the American cinema.

The second to last chapter entitled “Les chefs autochtones dans la culture populaire américaine” [Native Chiefs in American Popular Culture] examines the image of Native American leaders conveyed by the dominant culture with the aim to determine whether the use for commercial purposes can lead to their rehabilitation in the collective memory. Claire Palmiste analyses the evolution of what the term “leader” implies over time in order to adequately grasp the nature of the controversies over the use of the image of Native leaders in American popular culture (via commercial products, advertising materials, educational and sporting fields, mascots and logos, etc.) in a way that might undermine Native identity. Palmiste concludes that these controversies shed light on the still disparate perception of chiefs by the dominant culture and by indigenous communities alike, while revealing the gap between the representations conveyed in American popular culture and the identity claims by indigenous communities.

The last chapter, called “Les écrits de prison aux États-Unis: une voix citoyenne” [Prison Writings in the United States: A Citizen’s Voice], is inspired by the voices of those on the very margins of American society: prisoners. While examining the role that writing plays in the lives of men and women incarcerated in the United States, Steve Gadet also points out how the creativity of the incarcerated impacts and transforms popular culture. In the context of this hermetic universe, prison literature serves as a window, argues Gadet, succeeding from time to time in mobilising the imagination and attracting the attention of the world outside, to such an extent that it has become an essential part of American popular culture. After presenting the evolution of prison writing, Gadet focuses on the case of two African American authors – George Jackson and Wahida Clark – in order to show how the creative activity of writing becomes a means of liberating socially condemned speech, breaking with the dominant cultural order and demonstrating that literature is not the sole preserve of a white elite of free citizens. In this sense, it subverts a form of domination becoming a legitimate way of articulating one’s life experience, a way of speaking out, an effective form of communication for those who are otherwise deprived of it.

Overall, Dans les rouages de la culture populaire américain provides readers with a thought-provoking and inspiring exploration of some specific aspects of American popular culture seen from the Caribbean region, inviting us to see this culture globally and in all its complexity, in its capacity to renew itself, often due to those on the margins of mainstream society. This book provides also a good explanation on why the treatment of the margins and its influence on American popular culture have a solid relevance both in and beyond academia. I would recommend its chapters especially for BA and MA students interested in American and Inter-American Studies.