Review | Surfing about Music by Timothy J. Cooley

Surfing about Music. By Timothy J. Cooley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014. [240 p. ISBN 9780520276642. Paperback: $29.95; Hardcover: $65; E-Book Version: $29.95.]

Reviewed by Michael J. Roberts / San Diego State University


“Is there any meaningful connection between place, music, surfing and surfers? Can we talk about surfers as a community with a music?” This question (which appears on page 112) seems to be the main issue that guides Timothy J. Cooley’s new and very interesting book, Surfing about Music (2014). The answer seems to be yes and no.  No, if we take that question to refer to something inherently musical about surfing, but yes if we take seriously one of the surfers Cooley interviews for his book, who says, “Surfing without music would be nothing” (117). But then again, if we’re thinking in more technical terms, there is no “surf” music per se, because the music is an appropriation of blues music. And, Cooley demonstrates that the instrumental music that we sometimes call “surf music,” (the Ventures for example) existed prior to its connection with surfing. Although, I find Cooley’s analysis of how the use of reverb in the guitar arrangements of surf music is supposed to give the listener a feeling of being underwater is a very compelling case for a strong connection between music and surfing. Regardless, as Cooley argues, surfers need music, and his book is an exploration of why that is the case.

To be more precise, Cooley begins his book by taking care to ask the correct kinds of questions. Asking whether the connection between so-called “surf music” (like the Beach Boys or Dick Dale for example) and the activity of surfing is real or mythical, is the wrong question. Rather, Cooley suggests that we should instead accept those connections as meaningful “cultural constructions” and then look at how groups of individuals give meaning to both activities by constructing those connections. Constructing those connections also creates the conditions for surfers to develop themselves into what Cooley calls an “affinity group” as an alternative concept to an “ethnic group.” An interesting and very important conceptual move that Cooley makes is to criticize his “discipline’s [ethnomusicology] obsession with the increasingly problematic division of individuals into politically defined ethnic categories” (8). What makes an affinity group distinct from an ethnic group is that the former is based upon voluntary participation of individuals who are connected by desire, whereas in ethnic groups, individuals are bound to the group out of obligation based upon family ties, “religion, place of origin, shared history,” etc. This is a crucial point to make, and it seems Cooley is making an important contribution to the field by using the concept of “affinity” group to ground his empirical investigations.

This line of reasoning is informed, in part, by semiotics, where the starting point of the analysis is Saussure’s claim that the connection between signifier and signified is not inherent, but rather, arbitrary. Indeed, the signified varies between cultures and places as well as across time. This leads me to mention one of my favorite parts of the book; namely, the ways in which Cooley makes good use of the semiology of Charles Sanders Pierce in an analysis of how to make sense of the relationship between musicking and surfing. The best chapter in my view is chapter 3, which is about music in surf movies. Here, Cooley discusses how music in surfing movies should be understood as a “dicent index sign,” where the images of surfing on film influence the music, which in turn comes to “stand in for” the surfing. But again, there’s no necessary or inherent relationship here. According to Cooley, “the power of music lies not in its ability to mimic other sounds or replicate the exact effect of a different experience, but in suggestion and in the associations we make in our minds and bodies. Pairing visual stimuli with music allows for some wonderful things to blossom in one’s mind and body” (71).  Indeed!

But the book is much more than a semiotic analysis of the relationship between music and surfing. Cooley also makes use of ethnography and tells a history of what he calls “new surfing” or surfing post-contact between Hawaiians and Westerners. This is another reason why this book is a valuable contribution to the field as well as making for a good read. Using a mode of analysis that combines history, ethnography and semiotics is not an easy feat, but Cooley does a good job of it. The book has seven chapters (not including the introduction), with the first two being a history of “new” surfing, tracing how surfing was used to promote the tourism industry in Hawaii in the early 20th century, which in turn led to the exportation of surfing to California and beyond. People interested in music, but who don’t know the history of surfing will find these chapters very stimulating. The book then moves to an analysis of the rise of “surf music,” like the Beach Boys, where the author has an interesting analysis of how many famous surfers hated the Beach Boys, although some, like Bruce Brown, have since changed their mind. The next section of the book is on music in surfing movies (the best part of the book) and then Cooley moves into an ethnography, where he writes about his research on festivals that feature surf music. The final sections are a comparison between professional surfers and “soul” surfers who write and perform music. This is also an interesting section as Cooley offers his take on the age-old question of whether or not surfing is a sport, as like football or baseball, or if surfing should be considered a different kind of activity. The last chapter is about why surfers need music, and here Cooley argues that in spite of differences among and between surfer affinity groups, “there is the participatory potential in musicking that provides expressive and community-building possibilities that surfers find significant. With both music and surfing, many of my research subjects emphasized participation and experience (as opposed to achievement)” (173).

The only issue I have with the book is not a short-coming of the work. On the contrary, it’s an indication of why Surfing about Music is a good and significant book in the field. There are some very thought-provoking sections in the text where Cooley discusses surfing as a transgression of norms, and as a counter-hegemonic practice, especially when it comes to the issue of the work-ethic and everyday life. I wanted to read even more about this aspect and how it makes its way into the music. Perhaps I’m imposing my own point of view here, but what makes surfing such an attractive and desirable phenomenon has to do with fantasy, which in my view is about the desire to escape the drudgery of everyday life and experience the thrill and the freedom of surfing. This, it seems to me, is why the images of surfing (including those in the music) are so exciting and interesting from an academic point of view. This is why I enjoyed chapter 3 of Cooley’s book the most.

Overall, this book will have a significant impact on the field, and Cooley’s command over the prose makes for an enjoyable read.

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