Popular Music: Selling Rebellion

Course Description: Singer-songwriters, punk headbangers, sharp-tongued rappers: all of them have in common a history of social commitment that defines their musical styles. They also share a complicated relationship with the industry that produces and distributes their music. There is a sense in which popular means commercial success, but sometimes it also means rebellion against the mainstream. The development of musical subcultures transpires with a form of defiance that is worth studying in this regard. This course offers an opportunity to deal with popular music from the standpoint of its relation to both politics and industry. Students explore issues of identity, inequality, and political economy to better understand popular songs in light of current musical trends and cultural theories.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this course, students will:

  • Be familiar with the history and social significance of popular music as a global phenomenon.
  • Discern how popular music affects our cultures, identities and everyday lives.
  • Engage with existing theories about popular music as both a ‘cultural’ and a ‘commercial’ product.
  • Define their own critical position about popular music.

Reading Materials

  • Bennett, A. (2012), Reappraising «Counterculture», Volume!, 9:1. DOI: 10.4000/volume.3499
  • Blanning, L. (2017), Critical sonics: Political voices in electronic music [blog entry].
  • Heti, Sheila (2014), Playlist: Let’s listen to love, in Wilson, C., Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, New York; London: Bloomsbury, pp. 271-277.
  • Jarniewicz, J. (2010), The Beatles – Prophets or fools of the counterculture, in J. Jarniewicz and A. Kwiatkowska (eds.), Fifty Years with The Beatles: The Impact of The Beatles on Contemporary Culture, Lodz: Lodz University Press, pp. 71-78.
  • Maly, I. & Varis, P. (2016), The 21st-century hipster: On micro-populations in times of superdiversity, European Journal of Cultural Studies 19(6), pp. 637–653.
  • Novoselic, K. (2014), With the lights on, it’s less useless, in Wilson, C., Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, New York; London: Bloomsbury, pp. 177-182.
  • Park, A. (2017), Modern Folksong and People’s Song (Minjung Kayo). In Sin, H. and Li, S.-A., (eds.), Made in Korea: Studies in Popular Music, New York; Oxon: Routledge.
  • Scott, J., & Marshall, G. (2009), Subculture, in A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  • ID Playlist: create a 3-song playlist that is representative of diverse aspects of your own identity. When choosing the songs, ask yourself: how do they represent the values and experiences of the communities of which I’m a member? How do they reflect my own personal identity?
  • Presentation: give a short presentation about your relationship with each song in your ID Playlist. The answer to the questions above will be the content of your presentation. TIP: Don’t take your group membership too strictly, remember that the individual’s level of commitment to communities may vary, it need not be a matter of all or nothing! Apart from strictly cultural bonds, you might want to consider other kinds of association. For instance, age and gender are important factors to think about. You can play excerpts of the songs during your talk.
  • Script: this project is a continuation of the ‘ID Playlist’ presentation. Select one song from your ID Playlist and write a short text (300-400 words) about your relationship with it in terms of personal and subcultural identity (based on the content of your presentation).
  • Podcast: produce an audio recording of the script and mix it with the song you chose. Rehearse the voicing of your script before the studio session.
  • Final Paper: this written assignment aims to synthesise what you have learned throughout the course. Answer one of the following questions: (A) Can popular music be a tool for rebellion? (B) What is the role of popular music in our culture today?

Course Schedule

Assignments, activities and subjects to be dealt with. The instructional materials include readings, playlists and videos. They are available through the link in the description for each session. Because some of them are copyrighted, they are password protected. When available, you can listen to the playlists on SoundCloud or Spotify.

January 11, 2022. 15:00-17:00

1. Subcultures. Introduction to the course, contents and evaluation methods. Core concepts in subcultural theory. Case in point: EDM and political engagement. Preparations for the field trip. Instructional materials available here.

January 18, 2022. 15:00-17:00

2. Countercultures. Similarities and differences between the definitions of subculture and counterculture. Case in point: the hippie movement. Instructional materials available here.

January 21, 2022. 15:00-17:00

Field Trip: Eurosonic Noorderslag. This event offers a daytime conference programme featuring panels, keynote speakers, interviews, workshops and meetings covering the latest developments in the European music, media, production and interactive industries (https://esns.nl/).

January 25, 2022. 15:00-17:00

3. ‘Folksongs’ and Youth Cultures. The interplay between cultural and subcultural identities. Case in point: Korean Minjung Kayo. In-class activity: ESNS conference report, round table. Instructional materials available here.

February 1, 2022. 15:00-17:00

4. Countercultural Messages. The complexity of signifying practices in subcultural settings. Case in point: The Beatles. Be prepared to answer the following question about the reading: which point was the clearest? And which one the murkiest? Don’t write anything down, just think about it and share your thoughts in class. Instructional materials available here. Assignment due: submit your ID Playlist here.

February 8, 2022. 15:00-17:00

5. The Grunge Rebellion. Countercultural action from within the industry. In-class activity: Q&A about how to write a podcast script. Instructional materials available here. Assignment due: presentation. See Heti (2014) for an example of how songs and personal experiences can be brought together.

February 15, 2022. 15:00-17:00

6. Hipsters and the Psychedelic Cumbia. Globalised subcultures today. Instructional materials available here. Assignment due: script (300-400 words). Submit your file here. Be prepared to discuss your work in class.

February 18, 2022. 15:00-17:00

Studio Session. Let’s create your podcast! In-class activity: recording the voice track for your ID Playlist podcast at Leiden University’s sound studio. Click here to listen to the podcasts produced by the students of this course in previous years.