London Calling: Kari Kallionemi Dissects Englishness and Pop Music

Cultural historian Kari Kallioniemi examines the relationship between pop music and national identity, but only diehard academics will want to wade through his convoluted writing style.

Behold the first sentence of the foreword of Kari Kallioniemi’s book, Englishness, Pop and Post-War Britain:

“As this book will suggest, imagining England from the outside, from the point of view of a foreigner and through pop music is both a strange and familiar feeling of Anglophilia, inviting me to construct such a highly contested subject as pop-Englishness — ambiguously associated with the precious sentiments that ‘only England know.'”

If Kallioniemi intended to say that his love for England inspired him to analyze British identity and “pop-Englishness” through the lens of pop music, he could have just said so. Unfortunately, much of Englishness asks readers to contort their brains to decipher Kallioniemi’s prose. All too often his sentences snake on and on until the reader forgets what their subjects were. Abstractions and vaguely defined “-isms” assail the paragraphs. Note this list of Wikipedia entry-worthy topics: “identity, imaginary Englishness, geography, transnationalism and British music industry entrepreneurialism”.

Kallioniemi frequently cites quotations and song lyrics more transparent than his own writing, but rarely elaborates upon their relevance to his argument, relying instead on the reader to make the necessary cognitive leaps. These limitations reveal an argumentative style founded upon the the worst intellectual vices of academia and the bloated rhetoric that tends to accompany them. Granted, Kallioniemi possesses a formidable vocabulary and clearly demonstrates a vast knowledge of his subject matter, but these impressive attributes make the unintelligibility of his writing all the more frustrating.

One can’t help but wonder who Kallioniemi’s audience is. Partly based on his Ph.D. dissertation, Englishness suffers from an identity crisis: to whom does it cater? Library shelf-skimming intellectuals? High-brow music fans and anglophiles? Historians and professors?

Kallioniemi’s attempt to “tell the history of post-war Britain by looking at it from the point of view of the complex relationship between pop and nationhood” results in esoteric discussions of topics ranging from Britpop to dandyism and “Svengalism”. The casual reader will most likely shy away from this approach, although from time to time glimmers of insight make it through the verbiage.

For example, when examining the relationship between music journalism and pop music, Kallioniemi wryly characterizes music criticism as an activity born from the “middle-class boredom” of male intellectuals. Rock music as well as rock music criticism, lest we forget, is dominated by men, and the binaries floating around discussions of music today — pop vs. rock, commercial vs. fine art, and authentic vs. fabricated — no doubt stem to some degree from the prejudices of those men. Nonetheless, the question remains: which readers will persist in the task of finding these glimmers of insight?

An exploration of ideas such as these would have made for a profound and provocative read — few artifacts express notions of identity, conflict, and displacement like a song can — but Kallioniemi’s writing remains impermeable, stifling his arguments and his analysis. Ironically, in one of the final sections, he writes a particularly lucid sentence that should have been placed much earlier in the book: “Englishness in pop has taken several directions since the heyday of Britpop, reflecting the increasingly atomized and globalized milieu of modern Britain, but also the nature of British society still trapped within its past.”

In the book that Kallioniemi could have written, this characteristically British sense of nostalgia and its effects on British music would have gotten the treatment it deserves. Alas, Englishness disappoints.

RATING 2 / 10
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