Welcome to The International Association for the Study of Popular Music UK and Ireland Branch

“No one listens to Springsteen anymore. He’s history!” (Blinded by the Light): Pop-rock Music and 2000s Cinema

Posted: March 10th, 2020 | Filed under: Calls for Papers | No Comments »

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris CREW, EA 4399

Organisers : Clémentine Tholas and Catherine Girodet

Keynote Speaker: Mark Duffett (University of Chester, UK)

Location: Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle, Maison de la Recherche (Paris, France)

Date : September 18, 2020

Scientific committee : Christophe Chambost (Université Bordeaux Montaigne, France), Catherine Girodet (EMMA, Université Paul Valéry / Université Paris Est Créteil, France), Elsa Grassy (Université de Strasbourg, France), John Mullen (Université de Rouen, France), Karen Randell (Nottingham Trent University, UK), David Roche (Université Paul Valéry),  Antoine Servel (Université Paris Est Créteil, France), Clémentine Tholas (Sorbonne Nouvelle, France).

Please send a 250-word proposal by May 1st, 2020  to :

[email protected] , [email protected]

(Presentations will be preferably conducted in English)

(EN) As Elton John bows off the stage with his final 2020 world tour “Farewell Yellow Brick Road”, the pop singer reminds us of the underlying affinities between cinema and pop music – since the tour name refers to his 1973 hit inspired by the film The Wizard of Oz (1939). This kinship between the two media surfaces in Rocketman (2019), an Elton John biopic co-written by the singer. The film dramatizes the singer’s lifelong oscillation between flamboyance and disaster by borrowing the aesthetic codes of Hollywood’s golden age musicals.

Although it streams into distinct generic strands, popular cinema is a more communal and socially inclusive medium than rock and pop music, and as such it provides a space for projecting and reflecting upon fictionalised reality. Being both universal and universalist, popular cinema thus brings together individuals whose social interactions are otherwise loose or non-existent, (Blistène, 2020, online article). It is noteworthy that D.W. Griffith defines cinema as the laboring man’s university, thereby bringing to light its educational value and its ability to reach across social, cultural, and educational divides (Griffith, 1916). Fictionalising the cultural and the personal, music biopics, biographical films, and music films conflate two popular art forms – cinema and music – that intermingle individual and collective experiences, and therefore they conjure up new collective consciousness and imaginary.

As part of this symposium focusing on the interactions between 2000s cinema and pop-rock, we invite submissions that consider the following issues (but not exclusively):

  • Biopic as “life-writing”: where fictionality meets realism

A recently popularised genre bringing together popular music and cinema, the music biopic relies on a paradox: the music it deals with conjures up imaginary worlds (whether internal or external), and yet the music biopic purports to represent and fictionalise the real world which the spectators and artists inhabit. As a form of life-writing, the music biopic thus focuses on the social and cultural reality surrounding music and its conception. In the process, the biopic turns away from the core experiential charge of music to consider it as a cultural object. In focusing on the genesis of songs and/or the life of musicians, does the transmedial experience of the music biopic attract the featured musician’s fan-base or the wider general public?

Moreover, the film biopic reinforces stardom by providing an insight into the ordinary life of music stars, and as such it re-empowers ordinariness (hence the viewer may aspire to the same extraordinary success as the featured artist) through myth-making (i.e., representing music stars as mythical heroes with an ordinary background). To what extent does this empowerment of the ordinary and the popular constitute the main appeal of the biopic?

When biopics deal with a band, they tend to single out a particular band member and focus on their individual life-story (e.g., Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody [2018], Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy [2014], Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys [2014]), thus conveying the band’s journey through a subjective and personalised lens. Does the fact that most films focus on one particular band member to embody their band testify to a starifying gaze?

As an interpersonal medium, rock affords the viewer multiple imaginary identifications with the song’s protagonists and with the singer themselves.  Moreover, as the locus of intersubjectivity and emotional intensity (Frith, 1996, 211), the rock idiom enables the listener to relocate themselves into “imaginary cultural narratives” (Frith 1996, 275), make sense of the world they live in (Frith, 272) and find their place in it. For instance, in Control (2007), representing Joy Division singer Ian Curtis as a figure of dark Romanticism gives social and formal significance to the emotional nihilism of an individual and their sub-culture, and consolidates the viewer’s sense of individual and collective identity. What are biopic-viewers looking for: a validation of their socio-cultural self-identity? A collective experience that bears social significance?

  • What do films about pop-rock performers bring and to whom?

To what extent does making films about songs and their singer-composers give value or fresh meaning to musical monuments ? Do they widen their appeal to other individuals or new social groups ? Or do they just use music as a conveniently popular fiction trigger that echoes the cultural issues of the day? For instance, the raw decadent aesthetic of Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991) resonates with the cultural reality of the early nineties.

In some films, the emphasis is on the songs instead of the performers, as exemplified in Danny Boyle’s Yesterday (2019) where the Beatles are upstaged by their global hit-songs. In other films, the artist’s life is merely suggested while the protagonist is another character (e.g., Blinded by the Light (2019) about Bruce Springsteen). In both instances, rock and pop music inspires a plotline unrelated to the life and career of the performers where music acts as a stepping-stone for a character to develop new social and cultural aspirations and elevate themselves. Conversely other films focus on the artist’s back-story, even through the eponymous film title foregrounds an emblematic song rather than the band’s or performer’s name (e.g. Walk the Line (2005 / Johnny Cash), Nowhere Boy (2009 / John Lennon – in reference to the Beatles song Nowhere Man), Love and Mercy (Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys), Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen), Rocketman (Elton John)). Music performers are left out in favour of their intemporal songs. Yesterday and Blinded by the Light are inspired by existing songs, while other biopics take the musicians as their subjects (e.g., Ray (2014 / Ray Charles) or Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons)).

Film and pop-rock have been interacting since the 1950s, however in using the film medium to deal with a musical subject, the biopic reverses the original soundtrack tradition whereby music was to meet the requirements of a film. Recent music films seem to rely on a marketing strategy based on nostalgia and fulfil several purposes: remembering, reliving a communal musical, learning more about songs and their creative conception. Bearing in mind the commercial dimension of cinema, with its tendency to borrow from and pay tribute to other film genres (the musical in Rocketman and Blinded by the Light, the mafia film in Jersey Boys). Does the biopic just use other popular conventions as a means to attract a broader audience?

One may also wonder whether retrospectively reinvesting these songs in films may be a way to reignite and transform the collective imaginary by imparting new meaning to celebrated popular pieces. Music biopics are reinventions and rewritings of the story of the music and the artist that take some liberties with reality. For instance, Bohemiam Rhapsodybarely touches upon Freddie Mercury’s sexuality. Some projects, such as the Bowie biopic Stardust (2020) or Nowhere Boy cannot secure the music rights and are thus forced to use period music interpreted by other artists of the time. What type of public do these original-music-free biopics attract? Does the lack of original tracks affect their commercial success and their appeal to the fan community?

  • The place of pop-rock music in our collective imaginary

Should popular songs be approached as “memory sites” as defined by Pierre Nora? Nora conceptualises “memory sites” as material and immaterial objects that crystallise an individual or collective memory, suspend time, and bring together one or several social groups around peculiar values and ideals in order to lay claim to a collective identity (Nora, 1989). The transnational cultural identity pertaining to popular songs is based upon shared interests and therefore  tantamounts to fan culture. Moreover, such songs may be “embodiments of a memory consciousness” (Nora, 1989) and afford an opportunity for like-minded group members to share rituals. Just like any other memory site, the popular songs thus reinforce collective identity.

In establishing “weak ties” (Granovetter, 1973), namely indirect interactions between loosely related individuals, such cultural products as music and films act as social binders enabling viewers to collapse ordinary interpersonal barriers (Gefen and Laugier, 2020). According to Frith, rock affords the listener “an immediate experience of collective identity” through a cultural imaginary (Frith 1996). Cinema and music intersect on this point: both media compel imaginary identification and a momentary collapse of subjective, social and temporal boundaries by means of affective experience. Consequently, music and films conjure up real or fantasy communities with their own semantics (i.e., signature style, language, textual and visual references) and shared experiences (at the concert, at the cinema). The social interaction amongst fans thus acts as a means to define oneself both individually and collectively. Music also conjures up sub-cultures and marginal social groups encouraging their members to engage in self-reflection and emotional expression (Catherine Guesde, 2020). Moreover, insofar as popular films and music do not require any prior intellectual or formal knowledge but rely on the viewer’s lived experience and emotional engagement, what sort of bond does it create among the spectators?


Auslander, Philip. “Musical Persona: the Physical Performance of Popular Music.”  In Derek B. Scott (ed.) The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Musicology. Farnham, UK, and Burlington, US: Ashgate, 2009. 304-315.

Barthes, Roland. “The Grain of the Voice.” Image, Music, Text. Trans. and ed. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana Press, 1997. 179-189.

Blistène, Pauline. « Les séries télévisées, une expérience des « liens faibles » ? » In Alexandre Gefen, Sandra Laugier(ed.). Le pouvoir des liens faibles. CNRS: Paris, 2020. [online version]

Bloomfield, Terry. “Resisting Songs: Negative Dialectic in Pop.” Popular Music 12.1 (1993), 13-31.

Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Gefen, Alexandre, Laugier Sandra  (ed.). Le pouvoir des liens faibles. CNRS: Paris, 2020. [online version]

Granovetter, Mark. “Strength of weak ties.” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 6. (1973), 1360-1830.

Griffith, D.W. “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech In America Why Censor the Motion Picture — the Laboring Man’s University?” Free pamphlet, 1916.

Grossberg, Lawrence. “Another Boring Day in Paradise and the Empowerment of Every Day Life.” Popular Music 4 (1984), 225–258.

Guesde, Catherine. « Attachement à la musique et à l’éducation de l’écoute. Le cas du Metal extrème ». In Alexandre Gefen, Sandra Laugier (ed.). Le pouvoir des liens faibles. CNRS: Paris, 2020. [online version]

James, David E. Rock ‘n’ Film: Cinema’s Dance with Popular Music. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2016

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Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”, Representations, No. 26 (1989), 7-24.

Smith, Sidonie, and JuliaWatson. Reading Autobiography: a Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Schultz, Alfred. “Making Music Together.” Collected Papers, Volume 2. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964.


Behind the Candelabra. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2013.

Blinded by the Light. Directed by Gurinder Chadha, UK/USA, 2019.

Bohemian Rhapsody. Directed by Brian Singer, UK/USA, 2018.

Control, Directed by Anton Corbijn, UK, 2007.

England is Mine. Directed by Mark Gill, UK, 2017.

Get On Up. Directed by Tate Taylor. USA, 2014.

Jersey Boys. Directed by Clint Eastwood, USA, 2014.

Judy. Directed by Rupert Goold, USA, 2020.

Last Days. Directed by Gus Van Sant, USA 2005.

Love and Mercy. Directed by Bill Pohlad, USA, 2014.

Nowhere Boy. Directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, UK, 2009.

Ray. Directed by Taylor Hackford, USA, 2004.

Rocketman. Directed by Dexter Fletcher, UK/USA, 2019.

Stardust. Directed by Gabriel Range, UK, 2020 (?)

Tina. Directed by Brian Gibson, USA, 1993.

The Doors. Directed by Oliver Stone, USA, 1991.

The Runaways. Directed by Floria Sigismondi, USA , 2010.

Walk the Line. Directed by James Mangold, USA, 2005.

Yesterday. Directed by Danny Boyle, UK, 2019.

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