Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Music Makes You ____________

September 10, 2009 · 3 Comments

Once again, I will attempt to describe my direct encounters with British culture in order to better understand this city we’ve called home for the past several weeks.

“What kind of music do you listen to?”

It’s the question everyone asks me, and it’s among one of the questions I enjoy answering the least. I don’t have a favorite band, hold a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine, or know the title/artist/lyrics/history of any song on demand. I have learned that without this information, your answer to this question quickly turns into a rambling exploration of your taste in music, ultimately ending in “…Well, I guess I kind of like everything.”

Do not misunderstand me – I enjoy music. I love music. I listen to a broad list of genres, have my own taste in music, enjoy certain bands, and could not imagine not having my iPod with me whenever I wanted it. When I came over to Britain, I looked forward to opening my ears to new sounds and listening for the definition of quintessential “British music”. Maybe – just maybe – I could finally find a band in Britain I could use as my answer to the above question.

London did not immediately provide the new sound I was expecting. I often feel as though I have not left the music world of the USA. I walk into a restaurant, and “Snow ((Hey Oh))” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is piped in through the speakers. I wander through Boot’s to pick up some toiletries, and I suddenly find myself humming along to Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” The Tube walls are lined with adverts for Illinois-based Wilco and their upcoming album. What does this lasting presence of American music in London mean?


I did some research into the subject, and my search showed that I am not the only one to write on this subject (Though while I write a small post, they write 400-pg books on the ebb and flow of American and British culture.). The music in the US during the twentieth-century has always been played to some extent in Britain. This influx of American music was so influential that in 1935 the BBC went so far as to ban people from using the word “hot” as a descriptor for popular American jazz music. American musicians needed special authorization in order to play at any venue in Britain (Part of this was due to the era’s inherent racism and prejudice toward many black jazz musicians.) These measures were probably meant, in large part, to bolster the native music population, rid the public from the potential destructive elements of the new American music, and curb a continued domination of American music in the British market.

One can easily pose the question asking why the protectionism of the early twentieth century has not continued to this day. Personally, I point to the truly ‘British’ musicians that have swept up a frenzied fanbase in Britain, Europe, and, most importantly, the US. Anyone ever hear of Elton John? How about the Rolling Stones? Queen? These bands and many, many others have moved Britain to the forefront of the music industry and, in turn, posed a challenge to the flood of American music from across the pond. Accordingly, Britain can rest easy knowing it has held its own in the vast music market.


Back to the initial point of this post – music in Britain and why it’s so…familiar. I have come to the conclusion that music, while inherently localized to some initial extent, will eventually cross borders. If Billy Joel can play to sold-out concerts in Tokyo, he can be popular among the staff in the local Boot’s. If people in Liverpool can be so uncontrollably excited to get their hands on The Beatles: Rockband – a new game allowing people to sing as their favorite member of the Fab Four – you can only imagine how packed the lines will be outside the GameStop in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

I am still trying to listen for a sense of modern British music, for I have only encountered it by chance. Occassionally,I have the happy fortune of sitting next to someone who just happens to be blasting what sounds like a non-American pop song on their iPod.

At the BBC PROMS concert, I found the British works to be extraordinary. This ties back to the sense of music as truly universal. At one point during Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ pre-concert talk, he mentioned his appreciation and eventual love of Aboriginal music, which he in turn used as an inspiration for some of his pieces. This is just one example of the capability of music to blend, to some extent, many local, national, and international boundaries. [I hope this does not come off as a way to skirt the issue by saying “Oh, well, I do not know too much about British music, but look at how wonderful ALL music can be!” This is one of my goals for the next few months, and one I will probably have a better chance of fulfilling once we settle in Norwich.]

For the recording of Tuesday night’s pieces, I encourage you to take a listen here (you’ll find the recording at the bottom of the page, but I am not sure for how much longer).

Feel free to comment, offer some better understanding of British music, or simply type out a list of songs I should be listening to more often. Many people have defined music in different ways, but I think I have yet to create/find my definition. I do not know when I will be happy with my definition of music (or my iTunes library), but I am more than happy to take steps in some general direction.



Kaufman, Will and Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson. Britain and the Americas: culture, politics, and history. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2005. 623-26.

Parsonage, Catherine. The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880-1935. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005. 180-81.

Categories: Brandon
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3 responses so far ↓

  •   hankreas12 // Sep 10th 2009 at 18:56

    Another thing that I find interesting here is that many of the buskers play American music. Today I heard someone playing “Black” by Pearl Jam by Hyde Park Corner. I’ve also heard Metallica, Staind and multiple people playing Bob Dylan. Also take into consideration the number of people playing jazz in the underground. I too am surprised by just how much American influence there is. I came here expecting to hear a ton of Coldplay and Muse and so far i’ve heard neither.

  •   Karl // Sep 11th 2009 at 16:53

    Although I don’t care for most contemporary British music (but the same can be said for American music too), we can’t forget what Britain has done for popular music. I don’t particularly care for the Beattles, but they had some impact. Early rock bands like Cream and the Stones were fundamental in reviving interest in American roots music like the blues. And let’s not forget that there would be no metal without Birmingham, England. It all started with Black Sabbath and then Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is clearly another story.

  •   abarron76 // Sep 13th 2009 at 05:18

    “I have come to the conclusion that music, while inherently localized to some initial extent, will eventually cross borders.” I agree wholeheartedly, especially regarding rock music. Rock has always been globalized, or at least spread indiscriminately through the Western world. The US and the UK have always been the powerhouses. One group spawns another ad infinitum. Take the Beatles, for instance. Most important British band in history? Totally based their name (and, to an extent, their early sound) on Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Then, as Karl mentioned, came the psychedelic 60s and heavy-hitting 70s. Enter bands like Cream, Zeppelin, Sabbath, The Who, and so on who have indefinitely shaped and refined rock music and have influenced a multitude of subsequent bands to a great extent. Then of course the US fires back with significant bands and hits of its own; Australia enters the ring with its own sound, adding an exotic and original Aborigine theme; Africa contributes a group of Malian rebels with guitars and a love for Delta Blues; and the list goes on spanning the globe. So, Brandon, that is why I believe you hear so much American music played all over the place here. We hear tons of British music played in America! Rock music is a global phenomenon.

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