Investigating Audience Responses to Popular Music in Contemporary Romantic Comedy Films

  • Lauren Anderson

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Despite the rapidly growing body of critical academic writing around sound and music on screen, and studies of the increasing role of popular music within contemporary films, there has to date been little empirical exploration of audience responses to popular music in film. This thesis investigates how audiences hear and relate to popular music in romantic comedy soundtracks, specifically those of Love Actually (2003, dir. Richard Curtis), What Women Want (2000, dir. Nancy Meyer), and 10 Things I Hate About You (1999, dir. Gil Junger). Building upon a detailed critique of existing theoretical approaches to audiences’ engagements with popular music soundtracks, the findings in this study are based on two rounds of semi-structured interviews. Initially, the selected films were discussed in four focus group interviews, recruited according to age and gender (under-25-year-old men and women, and over-45-year-old men and women). Four subsequent individual interviews with one participant from each focus group concentrated on one particular sequence from Love Actually. A key assumption underlying theorised audience responses within literature on film music is a dichotomy between knowing and not-knowing pre-existing pop music in films: ‘knowing’ the music is seen to result in a more complex reading of a scene, as well as a more critical, distanced mode of engagement with the film; ‘not-knowing’, on the other hand, means the viewer is more immersed in the film and more likely to adopt its ideological messages uncritically (see for example Kassabian, 2001; J. Smith, 1998). The present research challenges this position: interview analyses indicate that patterns of talk are not as unified or consistent as these existing theoretical models suggest. Participants drew on several different modes of engagement in making sense of popular music in film, including: evaluating the music according to a diverse range of criteria and categorisations; relating the music to life stages and personal memories; and managing perceived involvement with the films and their soundtracks. These findings do not easily fall within any singular model of proposed audience responses to film music, but instead suggest that a new way of thinking about film audiences must account for taste processes, accommodate audiences’ vernacular categorisations, and incorporate a broader conception of ‘knowledge’ and ‘ways of knowing’.
Date of Award30 Sept 2009
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorMartin Barker (Supervisor) & Jamie Sexton (Supervisor)


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