To describe pop music in the second half of the twentieth century, the attributes “elitist” and ”popular” quickly led into a thicket of other (supposed) opposing pairs such as mainstream / underground, high culture / subculture or pop music / art music, which are neither clearly antipodal nor parallel to the attributes “elitist” and “popular.” The work of rock legend Lou Reed is paradigmatic for these interwoven levels of meaning.
The many significant events and twists of his story are condensed below in three exemplary stations. Each station represents a different connotation of the attributes “elitist” and “popular.” Here an oscillation between these poles that cannot be resolved into unambiguous definitions becomes clear. It is precisely this field of tension that makes for pop culture, and here in particular pop music, and constantly rediscovers its social potential.
The Velvet Underground & Nico | © Billy Name, Wikipedia, edited, CC0-1.0
1967: The first station marks a form of elite pop culture that positions itself across from dichotomies such as pop and art, and therefore also across from a classical notion of elitist art music and popular pop music. Before Reed started his solo career, he was a member of the band The Velvet Underground, which he shaped unmistakably with his distinctive voice and his uncompromising love of experimentation. The Velvet Underground scored little commercial success in the first decade that Reed was still an active member. They were instead part of the New York avant-garde scene, especially through their collaboration with Andy Warhol, exemplified by the release of their debut album, mainly produced by Warhol, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967). In these circles, pop culture mixed with art in a way that unhinged both the contrast between “popular” and “elitist,” and the compulsive coupling of pop culture with the attribute “popular” in the sense of "suitable for the masses."
1996: Avant-pop acts such as The Velvet Underground shaped the image of subcultures as the germ cells of political opposition and innovative music. Contrary to this but in an equally common reading, pop music is equated with mass culture. Popularity is measured from this perspective with the help of sales figures. Reed is also a dazzling example of this facet of the pop music business. After his influential, but commercially unsuccessful time with The Velvet Underground, he netted platinum with his second solo album Transformer (1972). The sales curve of his other chart placements was varying, but, seen in relation to his entire musical career, steadily rising. He achieved his international breakthrough in 1989 with the album New York. In the end, his cult status as a rock legend was symbolically celebrated with a double admission to the Hall of Fame (in 1996 with The Velvet Underground and posthumously in 2015 as a solo artist).
This extraordinary success also fueled a retrospective revaluation of his early days with The Velvet Underground. Although the band had long been celebrated as pioneering because of its great artistic influence on subsequent generations, the above-average well-selling new edition of The Velvet Underground & Nico
(Super Deluxe Edition including bonus tracks & hardcover book, 2012), released on the twenty-fifth anniversary of its original release, cannot be explained without this wider success. The reissue is also an example of the cycle between authentic production and economic appropriation, which determines the complicated dependency between mainstream and opposition (and the concomitant specific form of the word pair “popular” and “elitist”).
Lou Reed 1977 | © Arista Records/Photo by Mick Rock, Wikipedia, edited, CC0-1.0
2000: The reissue of Reed's most controversial record Metal Machine Music
(1975) was also stimulated by this mainstream success. To the horror of his then-record label RCA, and to the irritation of most of his fans, in 1975 Reed released a record whose tracks consisted of pure guitar feedback. After only three weeks, Metal Machine Music
was pulled from the shelves to lead a shadowy existence as a bootleg album for more than twenty years. With this provocation, Reed almost destroyed his career. Twenty-five years later, in 2000, the record was re-mastered by Bob Ludwig and reissued by Buddha Records. All at once (at a time when music-historical developments had produced categories such as Noise and Drone), the re-release was a complete success – and not in the category of pop music but in that of contemporary art music. The ensemble Zeitkratzer transcribed the record in a 34-page score for eleven instruments and performed it live, sometimes with Reed in person. In experimental avant-garde music scenes, Metal Machine Music
came to be celebrated as a visionary pioneering record of the subsequent Noise generation; it thus became popular in an elitist context and a symbol of the popularization tendencies of contemporary music.
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