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Critical Theory and Popular Music


Admission requirements

Admitted to an MA in the humanities. Other fields please contact the lecturer.


Popular Music has (at least) two faces. On the one hand, it is a product of culture industries. It entertains, gives pleasure, and provides the soundtrack of our everyday lives. Yet popular music can also have a subversive angle. It has been a driving force behind countercultural movements and has played a central role in the expression of socio-political critique. It has given a voice to utopian fantasies as well as dystopian fears, and has explored new forms of understanding (post)modernity, (sub)cultural identity, corporeality and sexuality.

This course explores the different ways in which popular music can become an object of cultural analysis, and focuses on the interplay between popular culture and theory. How do we ‘read’ popular music? How do we conceptualize its critical potential? In what ways does popular music invite us to rethink notions such as ‘meaning,’ ‘form,’ ‘enjoyment,’ ‘identity,’ ‘persona,’ ‘performativity’ and ‘affect’? To what extent have analyses of popular music played a role in the coming about of theoretical frameworks?

Special attention will be paid to philosophers and theorists whose works have been informed by a close reading of specific artists or genres. Examples include Theodor W. Adorno (on Jazz and The Beatles), Rita Felski and Zadie Smith (on Joni Mitchell), Friedrich Kittler (on Pink Floyd), Slavoj Žižek (on Laibach), Paul Gilroy (on Bob Marley), Benjamin Noys (on Black Metal), Jack Halberstam (on Lady Gaga), Simon Critchley (on David Bowie), Kathy Acker (on Punk) and Devon R. Johnson (on Hip Hop) and to critics who have introduced new theoretical concepts, such as ‘subcultural capital’ (Sarah Thornton), ‘Afrofuturism’ (Kodwo Eshun) and ‘popular modernism’ (Mark Fisher). Furthermore, we will explore the ways in which popular music employs various forms of transtextuality and transmediality (examples being the virtual band Gorillaz or K-Pop bands like BTS and Aespa).

The course proceeds as a series of readings of classic essays on popular music, combined with close ‘readings’ of a selection of tracks, as well as a series of informal conversations with practitioners. It concludes with a mini-symposium on Popular Music and Critical Theory. In addition, participants are asked to contribute to our collective blog and to try their hands at writing a (theoretically informed) review of an album.

Course objectives

At the completion of the course students:

  • Have developed an understanding of the different critical and theoretical approaches to popular music;

  • Understand the relations between popular culture, media and society;

  • Know how to do a ‘close reading’ of popular songs, focusing on their formal, thematic and affective dimensions;

  • Know how to develop a theoretically-informed analysis of a specific genre of pop music;

  • Can write about the relation between popular music and critical theory in both an academic and a popular format.


The timetables are available through MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Assessment method


  • Final paper

  • Contribution to a blog on popular music

  • Non-academic music review aimed at the general public


  • Final paper (100%)

  • Contribution to blog (pass/fail)

  • Review (pass/fail)

  • Active participation in class will not be graded but is requisite to complete the course.


The resit will consist of the same subtests as the first opportunity.

Inspection and feedback

Feedback will be given in a written and oral form.

Reading list

Readings will be made available on BrightSpace


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.
General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website.

Registration À la carte education, Contract teaching and Exchange

For the registration of exchange students contact Humanities International Office. À la carte and contract teaching not applicable.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Arsenaal.


Not applicable