Hubbs Rednecks Queers and Country Music









Nadine Hubbs’ Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (University of California Press, 2014) historicizes and challenges dominant narratives in the U.S. that imagine country music as a soundtrack to the supposed bigotry and homophobia of the white working class. Here, Diane Pecknold discusses with Hubbs how class politics relate to discourses around music and sexuality, as well as to the motivations and difficulties surrounding the writing of the book. The Spotify playlists posted here were curated by Hubbs, based on the music discussed in each chapter.

Diane Pecknold: Your first book, The Queer Composition of America’s Sound, was about classical music. What prompted you to write about country?

Nadine Hubbs: In Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (RQCM) I wanted to show the crucial differences between the two life-worlds I had experienced and come to know: the working-class world I had grown up in, and the middle-class world I had worked very hard to get into—but that was still in certain ways foreign to me, even as a tenured professor at the University of Michigan.

In two decades working in the university I had found very little discussion of the different worlds of the American working and middle classes and the different logics that governed them. Instead, there was a perspective in the dominant middle-class culture, where I now lived, that saw reasonable and sensible people and others: tacky people; ill-informed and unintelligent people who voted for all the wrong things, even against their own interests; people of uncontrolled habits (in alcohol, food, drugs). People who deserved what they got—undesirable jobs; low status; shorter, lesser lives. And their cultural tastes and choices—what they ate, drank, bought, smoked—served to justify their low social and economic status. Likewise what they listened to, including (at times) country music.

I knew another, very different perspective, another truth. And I wondered how I might convey it to an academic (and broader) audience, and whether I could somehow show, and convince, middle-class readers that American working-class culture was a distinct culture in its own right—not merely the absence or failure of middle-class culture, and not a monolith.

DP: You’ve emphasized how difficult it was to write this book. Why did it seem like an impossible task, and why were you invested enough to keep working on it for more than a decade?

NH: To start with the most obvious difficulty: I had to learn a whole new field. We often do that with new book projects, and it’s usually wise to carry forward our already established skills and knowledges and areas of expertise when we take up new ones. What was new for me here was class studies, and I went into it thinking of a field that I might call “critical class studies”—which doesn’t really exist and I hope we might bring into existence. This is not traditional Marxist class studies. I am grounded in Bourdieusian discourses, in Bourdieu and scholarship that comes after him like that of the British sociologist and social theorist Bev Skeggs and the American anthropologist Sherry Ortner and an array of other scholars who are informed by and critically engaged with Bourdieu. So taking up a new field, and one that didn’t really exist, was one difficulty.

The other difficulty was that I followed my own advice, just stated: I brought forward my established areas of expertise, which meant gender and queer studies and music would somehow be part of my project on class. That was a tough nut to crack, because I knew that I was somehow going to study country music and gender and sexuality and class, but I did not know how the hell that was gonna work.

DP: Before you go on, did you set out thinking “I want to say something about country music” or did you set out thinking “I want to say something about class and gender and sexuality and country music seems like a good vehicle?”

NH: I think both. I had grown up with country music as a working-class kid in the Great Lakes Midwest, where I’ve lived all my life. I was born in Toledo, and I grew up in the cornfields 20 miles southeast. As the locals know, Toledo, Ann Arbor, and Detroit are all close to each other, so I’ve always been in the same area: my first university teaching job was in Detroit, and I had gone to school in Bowling Green, Ohio, and then in Ann Arbor, and now I’ve been teaching in Ann Arbor a long time. I’m a product of what is now the Rust Belt. My dad drove a freight train. I grew up listening to country music and then, in my journey of climbing into, I hoped, middle-class life and actually winding up in the upper-middle-class elite university world, I had disavowed country music. Specifically I had been a student and performer of classical music, and when I was in school in the 1980s there was still the old class-status-taste cultural regime of exclusivity. You didn’t even admit that you were into popular music, let alone country, if you were to be seen as a serious classical musician. As I discussed in Queer Composition, I resided specifically at the intersection of the queer world and the classical music world. And there, sure, we were into disco and dance music and sometimes shamelessly “frothy,” “superficial,” very gay pop music, and it was part of our queer classical musician identity. But with this project, RQCM, I knew I was going to get back into the country music that I had grown up with. I was thus going to get back into the world of my childhood and adolescence and even my undergraduate years. And so I was going to reclaim country music and reclaim a working-class set of knowledges and perspectives that I had disavowed and distanced myself from in order to pass and enter into elite worlds.

DP: So it was a conscious and performative disavowal rather than an emotional one?

NH: It was a mess, as it is for anyone who does that. It’s all of the above—with conscious awareness at times and blind shame and blame at others—because we don’t have a well-developed class discourse in America. And so anyone who figures out their class journey usually does so through hard struggle on their own. It took me many years to sort out what issues were individual or specific to my family, and what issues and discomfitures belonged to class.

DP: Like a wider class culture . . .

NH: Yeah, a larger social issue. So I was working on that for a couple of decades before I finally got to the place where I had the opportunity and felt the readiness. I was still unsure if I was ready emotionally, and certainly I wasn’t ready intellectually until I spent those 10 years creating a bibliography, a historiography, that I hadn’t been able to find anywhere and that I put into this book.

So some of the difficulties were just about the nature of the project, and some of the difficulties were professional and social, and I talked about these in my Journal of the American Musicological Society (JAMS) “Colloquy” contribution, “Country Music, the Queer and the Redneck”—talked about how worried I was when I started this book. Queer Composition came out in fall 2004, and when that book was in press, in 2003–2004, I had begun to cast about in an attempt to produce my first writings for this new project. So I wrote something on country music. It was about the Tammy Wynette and George Jones song “(We’re Not) The Jet Set,” and I presented it here at the University of Michigan, and Emory & Henry College in Virginia, and a few places. That’s a great song to start with if you want to think about class and country. And it was a song I knew from growing up. My mom’s twin sister and her husband and their five children owned and ran a little beer joint out in the Northwest Ohio cornfields, and they had a great jukebox that was mostly golden age country. I knew “Jet Set” from that jukebox, as a kid. I started to work on the project, then, in 2003, and I didn’t get the book to press until 10 years later, in 2013. And as I said in that JAMS colloquy, once I had gotten into the project, I was really worried that I was going to destroy myself with it—

DP: Because of other people’s responses, you mean?

NH: Yeah, largely. I was not just being a drama queen, and I wasn’t being merely neurotic. I was writing this at a moment when the white upper middle class had discovered racism and were solving and rescuing as they do, and some of those folks seemed quite certain that if you were interested in class and talking in sympathetic or even neutral terms about the white working class, well, obviously you were racist. At the same time, my friends and colleagues of color understood work on class as important. I didn’t get from them this reaction of suspicion, the either/or formulation whereby if you are interested in the white working class or in class as a topic of study it “reveals” you as a racist.

DP: That seems typical of the way that class is regularly pitted against race, and the idea that you can’t possibly talk about both at once. If you’re talking about class then you’re not acknowledging white privilege and therefore it’s inherently racist. Which is crazy to the degree that racism in this country operates so much through class.

NH: Yeah. And in musicology we had already had a strong statement from Guthrie Ramsey on the “skin trade” in musicology, his well-known Musical Quarterly article “Who Hears Here?” in which, among other things, he exhorted white scholars to write about white people.

So that was a really big problem, and I was quite worried, as someone who had come up from the white working class. I was worried that I was destroying all the good will, whatever status, whatever prestige I had managed to build for myself over many years of work. And I think it really could have been disastrous. But then the global economic crisis intervened in 2008 and saved my neck. Because then even the narrating class, the middle class and the upper middle class, were ready to talk about class in America and ready to acknowledge that class difference existed. Before that, there were a lot of authoritative voices saying, “Oh no, we’ve outgrown that category, it’s no longer a valid category of analysis; class is so twentieth century, doesn’t apply here.” So really, if the economic crisis hadn’t happened, this project—it might have served to get me a promotion, but beyond that, my nightmares could well have come true.

DP: You know I’m really struck as you’re talking, on the one hand you’re talking about this sort of alliance between queers and the working class, but in discussing your motivations so far, you’ve been much more focused on class than on sexuality.

NH: You’re absolutely right. This book has queers in the title, but the analysis and story are less about queers than homophobia—which is, obviously, part of queer studies: we’re very often engaged in the study of homophobia, the mechanisms of homophobia, the history of homophobia, the effects of homophobia, et cetera. I do talk about queers here, and I look at queer history, especially in Chapter 4 where I use David Allan Coe’s underground album track “Fuck Aneta Briant” as a window onto certain aspects of sexuality and politics in the middle and working classes up to 1978. I look at histories of working-class–queer alliance, and recall histories of middle-class institutions viewing homosexuality and gender inversion as working-class conditions, pathologies. So yeah, the book’s sexually queer intervention is largely about homophobia—though Chapter 3, using Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” is about the queerness, or deviance, of working-class gender, femininity in particular. My analysis notes that in America today we think of homophobia very much in relation to the working class. That’s not only the white working class, but the African American working class: when California’s Prop 8 banning same-sex marriage passed in 2008, it was blamed on the black church—in other words, the African American working class (by now political science research has proved that accusation false). So it’s not only the white working class but working-class people of color who are strongly connected in contemporary culture with homophobia. You have Matthew Shepard in rural Wyoming, Brandon Teena, the fictional story Brokeback Mountain: all of these stories of fierce working-class and rural homophobia have become naturalized and very believable within contemporary cultural narratives. So the main argument about homophobia that I put forth in RQCM is, first of all, examining contemporary assumptions that link the working class naturally to homophobia. Second, I historicize these and reveal that, although we have a short memory and therefore think things have always been this way, in fact the notion of homophobia as a working-class issue has risen only since the 1970s. For 100 years before that—from about the 1870s, when the homosexual was invented, until the 1970s—the sin of the working class was not that they were queer haters but that they were queer lovers. Queers were seen by the legal system, the criminal justice system, medical authorities, psychiatry, as having a natural habitat in the working class, and the working class’s receptivity to homosexuality was seen as evidence of moral and psychosocial pathology.

DP: Yeah, you think about Deliverance and the way it brings together a particular brand of homophobia and uses it to brand rural white poor people as deviant.

NH: And the novel, with its depraved queer hillbilly, came out in ’70, so you might infer that the cultural shift had not yet happened.

DP: So, speaking of cultural shifts, you used the term “narrating class” a minute ago. Can you explain what that is and why you think it’s particularly powerful at this moment?

NH: I do think it’s particularly powerful at this moment, and part of it is explained by the fact that in the late twentieth century, our (post-) industrial society shifted to become an information society. Some theorists say that we’re now passing out of the information society into something else, but in any case, in our current hypermediatized environment, information and knowledge and discursive authority are more mobilized and more powerful than ever before. The narrating class formerly would have been people like us—scholars, academic “experts”—and journalists, reporters, media people of various kinds. But now there’s an explosion of the different forms the narrative class can take, and if you have a blog and you get a lot of readers, or if you post on Facebook and get a lot of likes, or something goes viral that you write or produce, then at least for that moment, you may occupy a sort of narrating-class position. But even if we look at those really quotidian, impermanent moments of going viral, they don’t tend to happen except for people of our privileged educational level and our level of social and cultural capital.

DP: Unless it’s as a joke meme, like Bed Intruder.

NH: Or Honey Boo Boo and her mama, yeah. And you know, another thing that’s really interesting that I haven’t seen studies of—and maybe they exist—is of the different classes on the Internet. If I dial in to my extended family on the Internet I see a different working-class world, very different kinds of communications that circulate by comparison to the world of my academic friends.

DP: And it sort of creates an echo chamber, so that partly the power of the narrating class—what you’re talking about—is this escalation of mediatization generally, but also the fact that we are now so culturally segregated from one another because we’re reinforced through mechanisms like Facebook so that we never see anything except what’s being bounced around by us and our like-minded friends.

NH: Right. So, I did have colleagues back when I started this project who really objected and thought the language was too harsh when I borrowed James Scott’s term class apartheid. They winced, but I don’t think the term is too strong. We have ample empirical evidence that class separation is only escalating, as you just said, not only through mediatization but geographically. I cite research in RQCM about the class segregation of neighborhoods and how the upper middle class is more geographically isolated than other classes, and more socially isolated than ever before in that they do not marry or associate outside their class or their professional circles, or outside circles of elite education. So it’s not only through mediatization, although I agree with you that it surely exacerbates and amplifies what’s happening, in multiple realms.

DP: You said that your colleagues thought the term class apartheid was too harsh and I’ve seen the book characterized as “acerbic.”[i] I’m wondering what you think about this sort of hesitancy, about whether you’re being strident, and what that might mean and whether there’s anything in the book that you think would counter such a charge. Is it all just a take-down of middle-class culture and middle-class norms and the narrating class’s practices, or is there something else there?

NH: Good question. So actually, to be honest, I am more struck by the near-total absence of that critique. This is the first published instance—this very recent round-up book review in which a colleague characterized RQCM as “acerbic”—the first time, to my knowledge, that anyone has characterized it at all in those terms, and that surprises me. You know, I told you what my fears and my nightmares were, but until then all the other reviewers engaged the book much more substantively. They had not engaged it among a dozen different books or with such a prior axe to grind as that particular critic does—because he has a new book out and his own theory, which he’s primarily promoting through that review. But other reviewers who have reviewed the book on its own merits have been incredibly positive; that has been really satisfying to me. However, as I said, my fears were not simply that people wouldn’t like my book. I feared that I would undo the work I had done—which would be regrettable, because I hoped with RQCM to accomplish things not just for myself but to do some broader good. But I realized that I might end up not even helping the people who I was hoping could get a fairer shake, or the music that I was hoping to reframe and maybe bring into a better light, but that we could all go down in flames together because of my efforts! I could just piss off more people who weren’t even thinking about country music, and now they would remember how much they hate it—and the horse it rode in on! I don’t know if that sounds paranoid to you, but, well, you’ve worked on country music. . . .

DP: But you haven’t gotten that response?

NH: No. I’m really pleased. The critic for TLS, for example, Brian Morton, just gets the book so well. Ian Peddie, the reviewer for Popular Music and Society, does too. Those are two British publications, and the British have long taken class difference and class analysis more seriously. They haven’t been in denial, haven’t assumed “exceptionalism” as Americans have. But other reviewers and critics (like Jewly Hight in Wondering Sound), and my students at Michigan, have also been wonderful and have engaged this material incredibly productively. So I’ve had a lot more positive than negative responses to the book. But I can’t be surprised by a critique in terms of acerbity; after all, the American white middle and upper-middle classes have reason to be thin skinned: they’re not used to criticism. People in the narrating class are used to a lot of Left infighting, but that’s different from class critique. We haven’t had much class critique for decades, and what I’m doing in this book is not the old Marxian class critique. This critique is more granular, and maybe it gets people a bit more where they live. Anyone who knows country music and its reception cannot be surprised that some of our academic colleagues would find this kind of critique, the class critique that I level in my book or that I highlight in anti-bourgeois country songs, that it should make some folks uncomfortable or piss them off.

DP: And part of the frame in which it was called acerbic was a poptimist one that really relies on a conception of all music competing equally in a space of amalgamation and cross-fertilization, which I think your book challenges. Do you think it challenges that position?

NH: I think it challenges any argument that would take that position (though I don’t specifically name poptimism in my book), any argument that imagines a wonderful world of music transcending social difference. People often want to do that with music. We see it with classical music, too, and I engaged critically with some of that in my first book. But I have never subscribed to those notions, in classical or popular music. Sure, music in certain ways is magical; that’s why I dedicated my life to playing and listening to and immersing myself and analyzing it from various angles. I don’t deny that music is magical—but it ain’t that magical!

DP: Right, there are real inequalities out there.

NH: Right: it’s not that music takes us to some happy land beyond social difference and social prejudice where everybody just lays down their burdens and boogies together. So, although I didn’t specifically have poptimism in mind, and I do appreciate the critique of rockist authenticity, I would not subscribe to the sort of theory you described.

DP: One of the things you seem to be doing in the book is positing—especially when you’re talking about David Allan Coe, but I think to some degree when you’re talking about Gretchen Wilson as well—a particularly working-class understanding of queer that goes against middle-class strategies of identity politics or recognition politics. Can you talk a little bit about what you think is unique to the working-class sensibility of queerness and what that sensibility might have to offer the recognition politics upon which most queer activism is based at this point?

NH: Well, it is at loggerheads with recognition politics. Recognition politics, as theorists have pointed out, is based upon and exclusively available to a middle-class subjectivity, by definition a subjectivity of individual distinction. A quick and dirty definition of middle- versus working-class identity is that you become middle class precisely by establishing your distinguished individualism—against the foil of the anonymous working-class masses. Recognition politics, being based on that distinction, is at loggerheads with any politics that would involve the working class in its feminist or queer project. About working-class queer sensibility, I have strong and distinct notions. It’s a sensibility I came up in. I had a sense of myself as queer very young, certainly by age 10, and I was in the working-class world pretty exclusively until I came to graduate school at the University of Michigan, when I was 25. I went to Bowling Green for undergrad, which was such a friendly place for me at that time. It’s a great music school, and there were lots of working-class (and lower-middle-class) Rust Belt kids just like me, so I did not experience culture shock there at all. And some of my professors had come up in the working class or the lower middle class, too. So even though I was in higher education, I was still in a working-class zone, and I was in a queer (social and classical music) world. And at that time I was afraid of middle-class people when it came to being out. I was not afraid of coming out to working-class people. It was because—I’m talking about the beginning of the 1980s, the Reagan years—the middle class had always been the arbiters of moral authority. The working class weren’t arbiters of nothin’. So the people I felt I had to really hide my queerness from, hide my sexual disrespectability from, were those authoritative arbiters of morality in the class above me. It wasn’t just because I was more comfortable around working-class people: although I was, I also knew by then that I wanted to get into the middle class. But one of the scariest things, and indeed the thing I really had to hide when I came to graduate school at Michigan, was my sexual and gender queerness, around those middle-class and upper-middle-class people—if I wanted not to give away that I was not “one of us,” which, I learned, was my principal task. You need to be “one of us,” which is the same problem I’m still writing against throughout this book. The middle class has been a great champion of diversity in recent decades, but class is one kind of diversity they haven’t cared to broach. And this is the same problem that I think anyone who is a country music scholar runs up against. That’s the balancing act that you and I both have dealt with as people who are trying to be legitimate academics, scholars, and people who are somehow advocates of country music: Are you one of us?

The sensibility, though: how did David Allan Coe have the audacity to sing in “Fuck Aneta Briant” about “them goddamn homosexuals,” as he puts it, or to call them “faggots” or “queer” (in ’78, long before that term had been legitimated and re-appropriated by scholars and activists c. 1990)? Where does he come off doing that? Well, my explanation is: he was one disreputable S.O.B., and he knew it. Queers were disreputable people in his world, too, and this was a brotherhood-in-the-margins that he was familiar with from his time in juvie. (David Allan Coe has told a lot of stories in his life, and I don’t know whether or not he was ever in prison per se, but it seems clear he was at least in juvenile detention for some years.) And I grew up familiar with that, too—as a queer and as a working class person I occupied certain neighborhoods, I occupied a certain part of town, the other side of the tracks—in Detroit, it was 8 Mile Road. I caught the tail end of that cultural moment as a young person, the old world where the working class and the queer were in the same boat, marginalized and branded as disrespectable. And I witnessed the transition whereby the middle class increasingly claimed ownership of all things gay, lesbian, and queer and brought them into their realm of moral respectability.

The same is true of middle-class dominance in thinking about feminism. At the close of Chapter 3 on “Redneck Woman,” I cite empirical research by Stewart and Ostrove in which working-class women had by far the clearest, most penetrating perception of gender oppression in heterosexual marriage—working-class, middle-class, and upper-class marriage alike. But we know that the label feminist came from and “belongs to” middle-class, largely white women, and other women have often spurned that label even when they embrace similar politics. Bottom line: there is no working-class approach to queer (or feminist) politics today that is labeled and recognized as such.

DP: You write that part of your goal in the book is to recover “the fast-fading history of queer–working-class alliance.” What is the nature of that alliance? Do you see its history as fading because the alliance itself is dissolving, or because the narrative has been re-written?

NH: That is such a great question. In fact, I’m writing an essay on that now, called “How the White Working Class (Supposedly) Became Homophobic: Anti-Bourgeois Country and the Middle-Classing of the Queer.”[ii] In RQCM I coin the phrase “the middle-classing of the queer.” It’s the process I’m talking about, from the 1970s up to today, where queer becomes more of a middle-class property such that the middle class now claims more and more ownership of the queer. In the book I did not get into the question of whether it’s merely apparent or in fact there has been a shift in the degree to which the U.S. working class is homophobic. I’m still not sure how I might get more information on the question, but I know at the least that I can map out the possibilities. That is, first, as I’ve been saying, the middle class has claimed more ownership of the queer, and in the process has sanitized and euphemized, as it does, and now we’ve reached a state that has been labeled “homonormalized,” in which same-sex marriage and having children have risen to the top of queer politics. As I’ve pointed out, this “homonormal” shift is concurrent with and symptomatic of (what I’m calling) the middle-classing of the queer. But what I’d also point out is that it would be rational for the working class, who are structurally positioned in antagonism to the middle class, to feel at this point more opposition to things queer.

DP: To the degree that queer is represented as middle class, yeah.

NH: Precisely. So first of all, I want to point that out. It would make sense for the working class to become more opposed to this “queer” that has been branded by the middle class, and especially the white upper-middle class. Nevertheless, I’m not at all certain that has happened. I do think, however, that the branding and euphemization themselves are still rejected in working-class contexts. You see this already in David Allan Coe’s song: he’ll be damned if he’s gonna use Anita Bryant’s word. She is a self-avowed queer hater but will never use the word queer; she uses only the proper middle-class clinical term homosexual. She doesn’t even use what was then the everyday term of choice, gay. But David Allan Coe uses his own language, and it’s the disreputable working-class language of “faggot” and “queer,” and that is richly significant. Indeed, I hope at some point in my work to explore questions of euphemism and class more deeply.

DP: Part of what David Allan Coe does so brilliantly is just claim disreputability and decry the kind of suppression of deviance that euphemism accomplishes. Which is why the pairing of redneck and queer makes sense. To some degree redneck is always already queer because it’s non-normative.

NH: Exactly—and abjected. I don’t know if you remember the 1977 song by Johnny Paycheck called “Colorado Kool-Aid,” but I’d say it’s almost an anti-bourgeois fable or allegory. The narrator tells a story of a barroom brawl and makes reference to “my Mexican friend.” His Mexican “buddy” in the bar gets spat on by a huge, drunk, apparently white dude, and the Mexican guy—who is also described as “little”—responds cleverly and wins out. It’s clear if you have any understanding of country music that this is one of those David and Goliath songs. It’s an anti-bourgeois song about the little guy versus the unbeatable big guy (like Alan Jackson’s “Little Man”), packaged here as a barroom brawl. And sometimes when I play the song for my students, in my elite university setting, the fact that Paycheck says “my Mexican friend” and “little Mexican feller” makes them cringe and label it a racist song—until we discuss context and history and word-by-word exegesis, and then they open up interpretively (I love how my undergraduates are open to hearing what’s actually going on). But it’s such a great example of something that’s going on in “Fuck Aneta Briant,” too, which is this alliance-in-the-margins and blatant naming of difference. That linguistic refusal, it’s not just an ignorance of euphemisms, not an ignorance of the officially correct words but an “I’ll be goddamned if I’ll make pretty just to please you.” Of course, talking that way in Coe’s world would be seen as phony. It is precisely an element of class affiliation and formation: to use that euphemistic language is to declare yourself a middle-class person. And to be a working-class person is often, and certainly in much hard country, to disidentify with middle-classness. Now, we know as country music scholars that there are country songs, too, that aspire—often they are soft country songs—to middle-class status and middle-class norms. But that ain’t David Allan Coe.

DP: You talk in the book about the general declaration among your students that they like “anything but country.” Can you talk a little bit about how you read that phrase and what you see as the relationship between a judgment like that, an aesthetic judgment like that, and political marginalization or even violence, which is the word you use?

NH: I’m drawing on Bourdieu when I speak of aesthetic violence. He talked about aesthetic intolerance and underscored the capacity for “terrible violence” in the workings of taste. This is very important. We often see taste in popular music or popular music engagements as a utopic realm, a transcendent happy sphere, as we discussed earlier. But Steph Lawler, building on Bourdieu’s work in Distinction, draws a clear link between the cultural construction of taste and the cultural construction of moral value.[iii] That, of course, is what Bourdieu was talking about, and how taste works in society. Again, think of Honey Boo Boo; think of her mother especially: if that show isn’t inviting moral judgment, whether through laughter or criticism on the part of the viewers . . . of course, it’s all about that. So, as Lawler points out, taste works in tandem with its other, disgust, as part of the project of class formation. As I mentioned, middle-class individuals must distinguish themselves from the working-class masses. How do they do that? In very large part they do that through declarations and demonstrations of middle-class—that is to say “good”—taste. Taste then works to police moral boundaries by establishing who can legitimately claim to be human, because to be disgusting makes it possible to cross over the boundary into abjectness.

This is what we see in Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” when she disavows the label trash:You might think I’m trashy,” she tells her bourgeois critics, and then corrects their outsider perception. “Trash” is a boundary that is policed by working-class people because once you fall over that ledge, nobody gives a damn whether you live or die. As Bourdieu pointed out, the class system compels each of us to police the boundary of the adjacent group below. So the middle class stringently polices the next-door boundary of the working class. And the working class anxiously polices the “trash” boundary, trying to hold on to some moral worth. That boundary is the cliff you can fall over and then be left for dead, because you have no human value. Taste functions centrally in these mechanisms. Debates here are not about individual taste or a harmless realm of popular music. As the minister-theologian and sociologist Tex Sample points out, elitist taste legitimates inequality: y’all deserve the shitty life you’ve got. Forgetting about music for a second, we can see that in terms of other consumption habits. People who are willing to feed themselves or feed their kids that don’t deserve better. If they’re willing to drink this, smoke that, ingest those things, they deserve what they get. So taste is a class-formation business, and a high-stakes proposition.

DP: And the book is a compelling reminder of that. Thanks for talking about it with me.

NH: My pleasure. Thank you for your excellent questions and engagement.

Nadine Hubbs is professor of Women’s Studies and Music, faculty affiliate in American Culture, and director of the Lesbian-Gay-Queer Research Initiative at the University of Michigan. Her first book, The Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity (University of California Press, 2004), won recognition from the American Musicological Society’s Philip Brett Award, the American Historical Association’s John Boswell Prize, and the Society for American Music’s Irving Lowens Award. Her current work builds on the frameworks set forth in Rednecks to pursue further questions of class and gender and sexuality in relation to country music. 

Diane Pecknold is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Louisville. She is the author of Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music (Duke UP, 2013) and The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry (Duke UP, 2007), as well as editor (with Kristine M. McCusker) of A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music (UP of Mississippi, 2004).


[i] Eric Weisbard, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like a Mainstream? Charting the Musical Middle,” American Quarterly 67/1 (2015), 253–65. DOI: 10.1353/aq.2015.0004

[ii] The essay is a proposed chapter in an edited collection on country music currently under review.

[iii] See Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984); and Stephanie Lawler, “Disgusted Subjects: The Making of Middle-Class Identities,” Sociological Review 53/3 (2005): 429–46. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-954X. 2005.00560.x


2015 IASPM-US Conference Video

by Jessica Dilday on April 23, 2015

iaspm microphone

If you have been wanting to relive the 2015 IASPM-US conference in Louisville, here is your chance! Below are full-length video recordings for the following events:

Sounding the Crisis, Sounding Possibility: Critical Dialogues in Popular Music Studies (A Round Table on the work of Stuart Hall)
This session was made possible by generous funding from the Liberal Studies Program, the Department of English, the Commonwealth Center for Humanities and Society, the College of Arts & Sciences, the Women’s and Gender Studies Department, and the Endowed Chair in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville.

Local Histories: Louisville’s Independent Music Scene
This session was made possible by support from the Louisville Underground Music Archive and the University Libraries at the University of Louisville.

“Gimme Gimme This, Gimme Gimme That”: Listening with, to, and through José Muñoz
This session was made possible by support from the LGBT Center, the Latin American and Latino Studies Program, and the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at the University of Louisville.


Michael J. Kramer

Michael J. Kramer’s The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture offers a deft analysis of rock music’s role in mediating questions of community and polity in 1960s San Francisco and Vietnam. Drawing from archival sources and exploring some lesser-known musical and political episodes of the 1960s counterculture, Kramer’s account pushes against popular and clichéd conceptions of “the sixties” and its music. Particularly interesting is Kramer’s conception of “hip militarism” as a correlate of hip capitalism: the concept underlines the links between American economic and military power as realized through mass mediated popular culture. A fruitful work of social history, The Republic of Rock is also a useful text for popular music scholars and those interested in the relationship between politics, media and popular music more generally. 

Republic of Rock

Chloe Coventry: You introduce a concept in relation to the role of rock music in Vietnam that is quite interesting: hip militarism. I was intrigued by the fact that the Armed Forces radio played psychedelic rock as part of morale-boosting endeavors for the troops even while, as you describe, that music also offered soldiers the means to align themselves with the anti-war counterculture and to more generally empathize and critique (neither of which seem like they have a place in the theater of war). Do you think that the Armed Forces would have been so forgiving with any other medium? I can’t imagine, say, anti-war literature being promoted through official channels. What is it that is special about music in this case?

Michael J. Kramer: First, thanks Chloe, for taking the time to engage with the book so thoughtfully. I feel very privileged.

Now to your first question. I think that a key aspect of rock music in the 1960s, when it was a strange hybrid of countercultural and consumer energies all mingled into one, was that it could travel, it could reach, to places that more overt forms of protest could not. Rock music sometimes let its freak flag fly, of course; but just as often its subversiveness was in plain sight, part of consumer culture, yet also somehow speaking on other frequencies, under the radar, as it were. It’s that strange quality that I think historians, sociologists, journalists, musicologists, participants in the counterculture, and countless others have noticed but not quite ever fully understood. The way in which what we clumsily call “criticality”—maybe even, at our most romantic, “resistance” or “revolution”—circulated as part of the very consumer processes that seemed to demand the very opposite of those modes of political consciousness, the ways in which criticality was bundled up within consumer capitalism, how with hip capitalism, criticality itself became commodified (and yet still produced uncommodified levels of questioning)—that very weird mix still eludes our full interpretive comprehension. Of course the investigation of what capitalism is, exactly, and how it relates to other kinds of sociality beyond the logic of commodification alone—that has deep roots in the Western philosophical tradition: Adam Smith, Marx, the Frankfurt School, many others grapple with these dynamics. So we are entering into one of the great puzzles of historical and theoretical analysis here. That’s a way to zoom out on the larger stakes of hip capitalism and hip militarism in relation to the 1960s counterculture and issues of citizenship that I delve into in The Republic of Rock.

Zooming in, in the case of hip militarism, a term that I map onto the Vietnam experience from the parallel development of hip capitalism by US corporations on the home front (in which, as Tom Frank and before him Susan Krieger and before her Daniel Bell have argued, capitalism’s marketers and advertisers figured out how to sell anti-capitalism as a new niche market within capitalism), the urgent need the US military had to address in Vietnam was to boost sagging troop morale, particularly after the Tet Offensive of 1968.

The traditional way the Armed Forces had done this was to import “a taste of home” to GIs (as well as provide the means for GIs to entertain themselves, which we witness with the sponsorship of soldier rock bands by the Entertainment Branch in Vietnam). Rock music slipped in to the Vietnam War, in a sense, through official channels as part of the effort of the Armed Forces to be hip to the “new, mod sounds” emanating from stateside (“new, mod sounds” was a phrase often invoked in US Army in Vietnam Entertainment Branch and Special Services literature). And in many respects the US military did successfully import the music and, as is sometimes claimed, coopt it. It was able to claim that, unlike the communists, it did not need to censor free expression—even when it contained all sorts of anti-authoritarian tones or even outright antiwar dissent.

And yet as historians, we must confront the fact that despite these efforts to raise troop morale, there was also massive disenchantment with the US military intervention in Vietnam, a disenchantment bordering at times on outright mutiny by the later years of the war. There are many reasons for this. To be sure, the injustice, the managerial incompetence, the sheer madness, of the US intervention was crucial to sagging morale. So too, as historians such as Christian Appy and others have documented, were the out-of-whack structures of command and control that had developed within the US military itself: higher echelons of enlisted officers were often older and more middle-class; the “grunts,” or lower-level troops, were often younger and more working-class. Age, class, and, I should add, racial discriminations of various sorts, greatly exacerbated the alienation many felt Americans serving in Vietnam felt. There was also an alienating sense of decadent sprawl in “the rear” (some accounts claim ten military personnel were required for every one soldier in “the field”); it’s worth thinking about the Vietnam War in this respect as an occupation, a war waged abstractly from air-conditioned trailers on huge military bases (think Green Zone in the Iraq War). The sense that something was amiss ran deep for many involved in the Vietnam conflict.

What a scholar of popular music has to ask is how music fit into this context. When rock meant to raise troop morale by bringing a taste of home to the war zone also wound up channeling into Vietnam countercultural and antiwar energies, there is an important historical experience of culture that we should not simplify to cooptation in the conventional sense. Hip militarism was militarism, but the hip part was unruly. It was not ideologically stable, but neither was it meaningless. To address the question of how rock music fit into the specific context of the Vietnam War means looking to sources (oral histories, memoirs, journals, photographs, the material culture of the time such as clothing, jewelry and paraphernalia, and audio recordings from radio broadcast to homemade tapes from the time), or reading against the grain of sources from the official archives, in search of clues about the reception of the genre in Vietnam.

What I found was an important multiplicity to rock’s reception “in-country.” First, rock was an unstable genre at this time. It was in the process of colonizing vast ranges of popular music (by the end of the 1970s, eighty percent of all pop music was being marketed as rock), but it was also still considered a distinctive genre (Armed Forces radio in Vietnam even had an “acid-rock” program called, of course, the Sgt. Pepper Show). Rock intersected with soul, with country, with pop. It was all over the place in terms of how it was marketed, and yet it retained a sense of being the hip, new thing. So questions of genre are one aspect of the complexity to rock and hip militarism in Vietnam. Its shifting genre boundaries were part of the way it arrived within the official military apparatus. Once it circulated within Vietnam, however, the music was not only a taste of home, but also a bludgeoning, loud sound used (like the marijuana or heroin many GIs consumed) to numb oneself to the atrocities one might be committing. And as we know from more recent wars in which soldiers blast heavy metal inside their tanks, it could even be used to pump up adrenaline for going into battle; Air Force and helicopter pilots in particular remember using the music in this manner.

More surprising to me, however, was that rock also often seemed to merit a mention whenever an American soldier (or a Vietnamese teenager for that matter) took a step back to reflect on the war. When socializing with fellow troops, or thinking about home, or reflecting on the Vietnamese, or in other “softer” moments, rock became not just a soundtrack for war, but also a mechanism for contemplation. In particular, it often summoned moments of hesitation about the war effort or longings to be participating in the fast-changing civilian life back in the States. These little moments seemed important to me, and easy to miss. They registered the tensions in the binary of the citizen-soldier identity (and Vietnam was, after all, the last war that maintained manpower through the conscription of male citizens; since then, the Army has switched to an entirely volunteer model, as Beth Bailey chronicles). They suggested how even as rock was coopted, it also had another dimension: it propagated a peculiar kind of public sphere of reflexivity, reflection, debate, discussion, sociality, with its own particular kind of affect. Here are the strands of a counterpublic forming in the belly of the beast, within the war zone itself.

Hip militarism is key to how rock music served as a kind of catalyst for the bubbling up of a counterpublic in Vietnam. It wasn’t really a “community” in the conventional sense, or a “tribe,” though many historians have invoked those terms to try to describe the counterculture. It was way more tentative than that, way more provisional, way more unconfirmed. Its power came, in a way, from its unconfirmability, its deniability (this is what lent rock so much of its conspiratorial, sometimes paranoid edge, I think—what links the innocent magic of connection to the farcical Paul Is Dead rumors to the far more sinister and troubling obsessions with The Beatles’s “White Album” by Charles Manson). Contrary to what historians would typically argue, those qualities of uncanny oddness—how did that sound get here, where does that sound go, something is happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear, etc.—are exactly what gave rock its power. Picture it not as a stable sign, a permanent marker, a definitive gesture, but something more like a press-on decal, a cheap adhesive sticker in the shape of a peace sign, a fake tattoo. Those temporary things have a power too. They can make an imprint that lasts affectively and ideologically even if they get scratched off or fade away.

In this sense, rock within the framework of hip militarism (and hip capitalism) asks us to rethink assumptions about what the cooptation of the counterculture was—exactly, particularly—within the apparatus of a sprawling military machine that was so entwined, as historian Meredith Lair demonstrates, with the logic of consumer capitalism during the 1960s.

Dave Rabbit Radio First Termer Broadcasts (scroll down)

CC: You talk about sexism at various points in the book and note that even while the counterculture offered women alternative roles (jobs as sound engineers in your chapter on the underground San Francisco rock station KMPX) and alternative types of romantic relationships (in the chapter on Ken Kesey’s acid tests) sexism was prevalent. And to generalize, rock music has historically been gendered male and pop female. I’m wondering if the sexism that you describe constituted a kind of structural flaw in the countercultural conceptions of an alternative polity? That is to say, if the republic of rock enabled individuals to envision a new kind of community and civic engagement, what did it mean about this alternative democratic vision that women were still second-class citizens even in this new context?

MJK: Great question. I think we must view the counterculture not as a normative vision of an enlightened gender equality or liberation, but rather as immanent critique within the existing sexist and gendered systems of the 1960s. If it offered a different vision of citizenship, of what a public life might be like, of how private lives would relate to that alternative public life, it only did so in bursts of bent light and psychedelic flares within the existing system. It sought out the promise of equality or liberty or freedom or power—or sometimes terror and trouble—within the system and blasted it into the sonisphere.

I start from the perspective that the counterculture was just as if not more sexist and gendered than mainstream American norms. And yet, as a number of historians and critics (Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, Alice Echols, Ellen Willis, Sheila Whiteley, and others) suggest, it also presented important openings for women to assert new kinds of roles in public and semi-public spaces. What I noticed, for instance, was that on the psychedelic dance floor, the end of a strict kind of couple dancing presented moments for women to seize new forms of pleasure and self-expression on their own. Rock also allowed women to exercise expertise in new ways, to transform the role of fan, typically gendered female, into a more traditionally masculine role, as in the female engineers who were key to the success of KMPX-FM. Again, not that they did not do so within sexist frameworks. Rather, here we see moments of cultural shifts occurring in unexpected places.

In Vietnam, the story gets even more intriguing. For instance, the sisters in the family psychedelic rock group the CBC Band took up countercultural female styles to at once access the potential liberations of modernity for women and, at the same time, because they could dress in more modest dress such as blue jeans and tee shirts, to maintain a certain traditional decorum as well compared to how most women were treated in the seedy wartime nightlife of a city such as Saigon. Being a “hippie chick” in this context was a radical move: both against the place for women in traditional Vietnamese culture and against the exploitative objectification of women by the colonial West. It offered a third path, of hybridity. Again, not in an unproblematic way. Rather, we see women navigating the circumstances of their lives and using rock and countercultural style creatively, as a resource, to make important choices within a mix of constraints and opportunities.

Video CBC Band Live in 1973, performing Grand Funk Railroad’s “People, Let’s Stop the War”

CC: I’m curious about your conception of a “global counterculture” as a hybridized cosmopolitanism that is both part of the spread of American hegemony and a mode through which to resist it, do I have that right? Is it possible for rock to signify in the same ways around the world even in completely different political, economic and social settings? Is that ascribing to it a kind of transcendent element?

MJK: I think you rephrase my argument pretty eloquently. Rock, so far as I could tell in focusing on Vietnam and then surveying the literature written about its presence in places as disparate as Brazil, Mexico, Mali, Czechoslovakia, and even behind the Iron Curtain, offered access to a global countercultural imaginary. I wouldn’t describe this as transcendent, however. I would think of it as something more embedded, adaptable, mutating, viral. It did not resist commodification; rather, it demonstrates how we still do not really understand commodification in relation to the formation of dreams of alternative, even revolutionary, notions of self-making and collective belonging.

I find myself taking a position that is closer to something such as the late Adorno rather than the classic Critique of Enlightenment position. In his radio lecture “Free Time,” delivered in 1969 (no coincidence that it comes from the heart of the countercultural era?), Adorno wonders if, in the slight gap between the way the culture industries deliver commodified goods and the way audiences receive them and consume them, yet always with a slight bit of reservation, even disbelief, there is the possibility of turning what he describes as “free time” into “freedom proper” (I’m stealing this use of Adorno’s “Free Time” from James Cook’s great essay “The Return of the Culture Industry” in the edited collection The Cultural Turn in US History).  It’s that kind of gap that I think shows up around the world with rock among various youth movements.

Participants in these youth cultures take this commodified form that contains uncommodified elements too it and turn it toward their own lives, their own struggles, their own particular situations. For the proponents of Tropicalismo in Brazil, for the Plastic People of the Universe and Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, for the hippi in the USSR, for the youth clubs members of Bamako, Mali, rock was not the sound of American hegemony triumphant; it was, rather, the sound that resonated with the yearning to remake the relationship between private lives and public sociality both locally and globally, in person and across vast expanses of space. It was the sound of people, especially young people, lowering turntable needles, tuning in buzzy radio frequencies, or squeezing guitar strings and beating on drums in efforts to seize a truer freedom than either West or East, capitalism or communism, could offer.

CC: You argue that rock music’s ability to engender political resistance was precisely because it was embedded in the system of mass media and consumer capitalism that it was questioning – I believe that you cast it as having a kind of affective power that “charged” people’s questions about the failures of American democracy and civil society at the time. Of course rock operated as it did in the sixties because of the politics and economics of the time, but I wonder if, in the neoliberal present with the administration of biopolitical power in so many realms of both private and social life, there is any possibility of popular music creating a space of subversion or resistance? Are there forms of rock music or popular music today that you think are operating or could operate in a similar way to rock music in the 1960s?  Is this even a pertinent question?

MJK: I think there are certainly some important differences between the 1960s and now. There is a huge difference between the overarching political context and what we might call political economy. Mid-twentieth century consensus liberalism, informed by the Great Depression, Keynesian economics, stronger unions, and Cold War logics had its own madness (as Dr. Strangelove or any episode of Mad Men demonstrates in evocative fictionalized versions), but those strike me as quite different from the underlying ideologies at work in today’s neoliberalism. In fact, one could say that what puts the “neo” in neo-liberalism is precisely its rejection of twentieth-century modern liberalism and its call for a return to an older, more traditional (and I would argue, rather distorted) mode of liberal thinking. Neoliberalism focuses on stripping the collective down to a certain construction of individuality (the famous Thatcher idea that there is no such thing as society).

What popular music can often do as it did with rock in the 1960s—and here I’m reminded of Barry Shank’s marvelous new book on “the political force of musical beauty” and countless other recent work by popular music studies scholars—is name the loneliness that neoliberalism insists (falsely!) must be the condition for participating in the contemporary world and, at the same time, amplify continual reminders, traces, and tracks that we exist in collective social formations. Pop music, for me, continually reminds us that commodification only works because it draws upon these deeper human bonds and interconnections, these longings to find the proper relationship between individual liberty and collective obligation. Those levels of sociality are not utopian, of course. People were doing all kinds of awful things to each other, often to or with music, long before capitalism came along, and they will continue to hurt each other long after capitalism has bitten the dust. But popular music always, for me, connects to that something else—maybe we call it the search for the good life and the recognition of when it is not present—in which, from which, capitalism functions. And it is from that quality of popular music, which is the ways in which it bottles up these dreams and transmits them through the existing apparatus of business and state power, that its potential for subversion or resistance (if these are even the right words for what I am trying to describe) perhaps still emanates.

Acid Tests 1966 Audio (with Grateful Dead performing)

CC: Your book was a great read even beyond the theoretical issues it raised. I can imagine people outside the academy enjoying it, which isn’t always the case for academic books. I know you also have a blog and have written criticism and journalism and work in digital media…it seems to me that these days it might not be the worst idea for an academic to try and work also as more of a quasi public intellectual – that is to say to have a social media presence, to find outlets for one’s work that sound out in more spaces than just academia. Is this something you consciously decided to do and worked towards? What are your thoughts about the role of the academic in a broader cultural dialogue?

MJK: Thanks! I’m glad you found it a great read. These are such important questions.

For the record, I do not have a conventional tenure-track position. Like many out there, I have had to scrap and struggle on that front. And unlike those who wish to be done with academia, I would gladly welcome the increased economic security and academic status a tenured position would bring; I would even welcome the opportunity to contribute to the stewardship of an institution through what many tenured faculty members bemoan as service! That’s probably largely beside the point here, but I just had to say it because I think it shapes my position on your question to some extent.

In terms of what you ask, I think absolutely: scholars should explore multiple formats for expressing their ideas. We should do so because it forces us not to fall into formulae or rote positions. It guards against the bad aspects of specialization, in which a party line starts to develop. Multiple modes challenge us not merely to publicize our analysis, but to reshape the very ideas themselves. Form does affect content!

One way that this has occurred for me is through trying to connect the ideas in The Republic of Rock to different settings. It’s a book, first and foremost, but I also maintain a blog for further elaborations and dialogues (I plan to do more writing at the blog-level scale about the topic this coming year). I have spoken about the book with audiences at academic conferences and through invited talks at universities, but I also have spoken with groups at local libraries and in more unusual gatherings such as the Grateful Dead Fiftieth Anniversary conference ( in November 2014. I have served as a “talking head” for radio documentary projects (BBC’s Vietnam’s Rock ‘n’ Roll War), consulted on other shows (Australia Broadcasting Company’s “Saigon’s Wartime Beat”), and published a Spotify playlist kind of essay based on the themes in The Republic of Rock. These different media and forms have challenged me to sharpen my ideas in the book, to shift them to different registers and make them count in different contexts.

Perhaps the most weird and adventurous work I’ve done on this count—and something I have written about at the US Intellectual History blog (Dance & Intellectual History)—is my new and unexpected role as dramaturg for the Chicago-based contemporary dance company, The Seldoms. The Seldoms are interested in making dance that uses movement, the body, and multimedia dance theater to speak to social issues. My role began simply as a historical consultant on two projects The Seldoms were working on: a dance that explored the rancorous debate over climate change (Exit Disclaimer: Science and Fiction Ahead) and a dance about power and social change that uses President Lyndon Johnson and his times as a starting point (Power Goes). The Seldoms are now developing a piece based on The Republic of Rock. It is called RockCitizen, and it serves as a kind of companion piece to Power Goes in its use of historical materials from the 1960s to explore larger themes of citizenship, consumerism, culture, and community then and now.

To watch historical ideas take performative and physical form—this has been really profound for my thinking about culture itself. And of course it is pretty thrilling to watch scholarly ideas from the book—some of which are, let’s face it, pretty arcane academic arguments—be seized by a group of virtuosic and inventive dancers and artists. While of course there is the recent, fun fad for turning your Ph.D. into an interpretive dance, not a lot of academics get to have the experience of watching their book serve as a source for a dance work!

So I have wound up reaching out beyond the academy, somewhat out of necessity (no tenure-track position) and somewhat out of my own interests (I wrote a book about rock music after all! And I used to work as an arts journalist). That said, I am not one for dismantling the academy. I think, if anything, there should be expanded support for obscure study that does not seem to have any immediate use or profit. Let a thousand intellectual equivalents of too-long guitar solos bloom! To me the presence of study for its own sake is a sign of a healthy society, a culture that places value on inquiry simply as a core human practice. I just think that something such as the rich intellectual activity rock music sustained in the 1960s counterculture—its mutating dynamism between thinking and feeling, between critical reflection and hedonistic pleasure—gives us but one of many examples that gives the lie to constraints we might place on the circulation of ideas. The boundaries should be, ideally, porous. Our advanced research will be all the better for linking it to broad engagements with a more capacious understanding of public intellectual inquiry; broad engagements with the world improve through their connections to specialized scholarly study.

In fact, one thing scholars have the privilege of developing are the skills and capacities for simultaneously going deep in one area and, at the same time, moving among expertise of all sorts. We should work to expand those privileges to anyone who desires access to them while respecting that not everyone might want to do so. The goal is to foster institutional structures and cultural values that sustain both of these approaches to knowledge: going deep into one area and moving across many domains. We are not doing a great job of that currently. But that does not mean efforts to do so in all sorts of ways are not worth the effort.

What often interests me in trying to think and write across multiple modes are the shifts of scale, the unexpected movements, the surprising circulations that ideas can take: the way a really sophisticated philosophical idea might turn up in a kitschy pop song (think of Joshua Clover’s amazing book on Jesus Jones’s “Right Here, Right Now” and the political events of 1989), or how one can bring poetic or metaphorical language from cultural criticism to bear on archivally-driven historical analysis (what I try to do in The Republic of Rock).

I would say, overall, that I believe the movement between the academic garret and the public square (or even the public gutter!) can be fruitful for thinking overall. Scholars can use platforms ranging from blogs to radio to collaborations with performers, from books to casual conversations on the corner or in the hallway, from institutions of learning to the home to the office to the gallery to the museum to the sidewalk. These can all be put in service of experiencing, extending, and fostering the wonder and power of thinking, of listening, of analyzing, of modifying and elaborating, of comprehending. But it is not a top-down model. Scholars at their best do not bring down commandments from the mountaintop. Rather they can interweave different kinds of knowledge together, across boundaries.

That speaks to what I learned from listening to countercultural participants listening to rock music in the 1960s. The efforts they made (the pleasures they took!) in using music to try to make sense of the world around them occurred in multiple registers, across many different kinds of activities, through many diverse avenues of perception and analysis. One job of a scholar who wishes to contribute to public life can be to participate in multiple modes, to appreciate them, and to take part in the struggle to keep them as wide open as possible for others to access.

Michael J. Kramer teaches history, American studies, digital humanities, and civic engagement at Northwestern University and works as an editor for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. His new book project is “This Machine Kills Fascists: Technology and Culture in the United States Folk Music Revival.” It examines how folkies grappled with the possibilities and problems of modern American technological society. As part of the project, he is developing an exhibition, catalogue, and interactive website about the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, which took place on the Cal campus from 1958 to 1970 and inspired subsequent folk music festivals around the nation. He also serves as the dramaturg for The Seldoms Contemporary Dance Company and is on the steering committee for the Chicago Dance History Project, which documents the rich history of dance in Chicago and the Midwest. His website can be found at

Chloe Coventry received her PhD in Ethnomusicology from the University of California, Los Angeles, where her dissertation was on rock music in India in the post-liberalization period.




Alyn Shipton
Paul McCartney and John Lennon described him as the Beatles’ “favorite group,” he won Grammy awards, wrote and recorded hit songs, and yet no figure in popular music is as much of a paradox, or as underrated, as Harry Nilsson. Until now.

In this first ever full-length biography, Alyn Shipton traces Nilsson’s life from his Brooklyn childhood to his Los Angeles adolescence and his gradual emergence as a uniquely talented singer-songwriter. With interviews from friends, family, and associates, and material drawn from an unfinished autobiography, Shipton probes beneath the enigma to discover the real Harry Nilsson.

Harry Nilsson

Nate Sloan: What was your relationship to the music of Harry Nilsson before you began this book, and as a corollary to that, what made you decide that Nilsson was worthy of a full-length biography?

Alyn Shipton: Okay so I think like everybody else in the world, the two Nilsson songs that I knew were “Without You” and “Everybody’s Talkin“. They’d impinged on my consciousness…they were in the charts. We heard them and they became part of the backdrop to life just like many of the other songs of that era, whether The Beatles or The Beach Boys or whoever. Those two songs I knew about and in 2002, I was commissioned by the BBC to make a biographical series about Richard Perry, the producer.

NS: Right.

AS: I’d met Richard, funnily enough through the McHugh family [Shipton chronicled the life of songwriter Jimmy McHugh in his book “I Feel a Song Coming On”, Illinois UP, 2009]. I didn’t really know too much about what he did. I researched him for the series and then went to L.A. and spent I suppose about four or five days talking to Richard about his life and his work. That’s when I started really taking notice of Nilsson Schmilsson and Son of Schmillson and that got very interesting…I said, you know, the thing that’s really interested me most in all the music that we’ve talked about has been Nilsson because where can I go and find more out about this extraordinary voice and he said, “You can’t.”

NS: What was the research process like for this book? Because the level of detail in the anecdotes that you include are pretty amazing, and very enlightening. I’m curious where you came up with those.

AS: I used the same method that I’ve used a lot for my books. There’s always a lot of mulling around in books and discographies and other things, so I tried to create a backdrop of reasonably concrete facts. Against which I can then start to interview everybody. For example, I wouldn’t walk into an interview with Perry Botkin without knowing quite a lot about what else he’s done as well as just what he’d done with Harry. As a result, most of the people I talked to, and in many cases met several times or e-mailed over a long period of time, including Van Dyke Parks, for instance, became an e-mail buddy. We were swapping emails quite a long way through the process so that when we actually met we sort of felt we knew each other. That helped enormously with trying to get inside the relationships that many of these musicians and others had with Harry.

NS: The cast of characters in this book is pretty extraordinary from beginning to end. I’m curious if you were surprised by any of the collaborators that Nilsson worked with during his career.

AS: Well I suppose I was surprised that after a certain point when he’d taken up a serious hobby of drinking and drug-taking people continued to work with him. I think that the man, the genius, this intangible quality that Harry had that comes across in some of the music — that clearly was there with him as a person.

I knew from Dawn Eden that there had been a draft autobiography of Harry’s, because she mentions it in the liner notes to Personal Best and used quotes from it. What surprised me when I actually made contact with the estate and then got to know John Schienfeld [director of LSL Production’s Who is Harry Nilsson and Why is Everybody Talking about Him?] was that there were not one, but two draft autobiographies. There was one that only ever existed on tape which John had had transcribed for the film, so that was fantastically useful.

NS: Is this the first book on a rock subject that you’ve written?

AS: It’s the first full-length book. I’ve had a lot of contributions to part-works and magazines, and other things on areas of rock and blues and soul, so it’s not alien territory.

NS: You didn’t need to familiarize yourself with rock history and the context in which Nilsson was operating. That was already something you knew.

AS: Having grown up with it, it’s in my psyche. You couldn’t evade the pop music of the sixties and the seventies if that was the era in which you were growing up. Every dance, every disco, every nightclub, you’d hear this music all the time.

NS: I’d like to talk more about Nilsson’s beginnings because these were sections of the book that, for someone familiar with his major albums, were so unexpected. Your pages on his early childhood feel like they could be a movie, or Bildungsroman. Did you know that Nilsson had this sort of picaresque childhood growing up, or was that a surprise to you?

AS: Well, funnily enough, I did discover it very early on because there had been a BBC radio series about him. When I made the Richard Perry series I decided that I had to try and get hold of this and have a look at it, a listen to it rather. Having heard that, one of the interviewees in it was Van Dyke Parks and he’s one of the few people who’d been back to Brooklyn with Harry to see where he’d grown up. Van Dyke’s account of that, in the BBC radio series. It’s heart rending. Van Dyke really couldn’t believe what Harry had come out from in his description of that. And then there were others of Harry’s friends that I encountered later, like Jimmy Webb, who’d also been to see the site of the Brooklyn family and all that. I mean it was, you’re right, it does read like something out of a novel, I mean it could have been invented by Victor Hugo.

NS: I read the first part of this massive Beatles biography, Tune In.

AS: Yes, is that the Lewisohn thing?

NS: Yes, exactly. Something that really struck me in reading Nilsson is that there seem to be many parallels between Nilsson’s childhood and John Lennon’s. In that they both had absentee fathers, mothers who were both incredibly bright and vivacious and also unreliable and infrequently unable to care for their children. I wonder, could that play a role in this, in what you describe as the instant friendship between Lennon and Nilsson when they meet?

AS: Well, of course, there was a fly on the wall for their first conversation because actually, as you’ll remember from that passage, he describes Yoko curled up at Lennon’s feet as they talked through the night. I would love to have been there and heard that conversation because I bet this stuff came out. I know it did with Ringo. I mean I know that, because actually it was a side comment of Ringo’s that led me to discover that Harry’s father had not been a Seabee. He said, “No he was in the Merchant Marines, like me,” and that led me to do some more work. Then I talked to Gary Nilsson, who’s Nilsson’s half brother. He said, “No, Dad was just a regular seaman, he wasn’t a Seabee.” This opened up a whole thing, this other process of discovering the extended family.

NS: The stylistic shifts from one Nilsson album to the next can be extremely abrupt, starting with “Pandemonium Shadow Show.” How can you account for these wild divergences of sound?

AS: I think Harry got bored easily. Plus…he didn’t want to be typecast as that singer who did “Everybody’s Talkin” or “Without you.” Even though “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” is kind of a clone of “Everybody’s Talkin”, there are very few examples in Nilsson’s work of him going back and retracing steps through things he’s done before. Even in those early albums, there’s such a breadth of stuff. On the Harry album, you’ve got beautifully crafted musical songs, and you’ve got really quite new, unusual structures. Both Perry Botkin and Van Dyke said to me that one of the things they loved about Harry is that he didn’t like the thirty two bar conventional popular song structure, so he just didn’t use it. “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore” is one of the very few early Nilsson songs that has a conventional Tin Pan Alley structure. Most of them are quite different. The things that people like The Monkees and Three Dog Night loved about Harry’s songs were the things that made them unlike anybody else’s. He’s writing uneven lines.

NS: A song like “Think About Your Troubles” from The Point — which has a very circuitous form and, as you said, doesn’t go to the places that you’d expect — makes me wonder if he was informed by other musical theater composers; Stephen Sondheim, for instance?

AS: Harry always wanted to write musical shows. I think I wrote about the fact that his idea of “Orville and Wilbur: The Musical” goes way back to the beginning, and a lot of the ideas in that surface in The Point. It was his idea that Orville Wright would have a dog and that he would find his way through the path of life with this dog and so it becomes “Me and My Arrow”. There are ideas from those early shows that he didn’t finish and didn’t produce that then find their way into the later work.

NS: Despite the musical diversity we were just talking about, you do find some convincing threads in Nilsson in terms of his composition. One being his, what you might call an obsession, with numbers and their appearance in and structuring of many of his songs.

AS: Harry clearly had this lifelong ability in and sympathy for number games. Including being able to tell you what day you were born if you gave him your date of birth. If you’d say, “you know I was born on 24th November 1953,” [he’d say] “that was a Tuesday.” I mean, that quickly.

NS: Really? Wow.

AS: He’d be right. Always.

NS: That’s wild.

AS: He also used numerological tricks. Things like every letter in the alphabet has a numerical value. His son’s name had a numerical value and that leads to him being named Nine.

NS: Lyrically he’s also very enticed by the idea of double meaning, whether it’s in the song “Cuddly Toy,” which I was amazed to find became a hit for The Monkees that was received very innocently by listeners. Your analysis of the first line of “One” totally blew my mind (“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do”). Because of that phrasing, you don’t expect the verb “do” at the end of that phrase. You expect that you’ll ever have or know or be.

AS: Yeah, but it’s to do with “doing a number” [i.e. rolling a joint].

NS: I never would have made that connection, and yet I think it’s that surprising verb that really makes the song so indelible at the same time.

AS: It switches it later on, so it’s quite fun because it’s not always “do” in every verse.

NS: Right, then it’s “know” later, I think.

AS: Exactly.

NS: His sense of humor is something that I feel might separate him from a lot of other rock stars of his era. Where did that come from? The playfulness and cheekiness?

AS: I think it’s partly the Irishness of growing up in a family where everybody has to talk and there’s this, what I call the craic going round the table, which is just this Irish thing of everybody competing. One of the things that will happen in those types of conversations is outrageous puns.

NS: I’m curious what you think about Nilsson’s reputation and particularly his place in the canon of rock music or pop music. He seems to be at once the singer or author of a number of iconic songs and yet doesn’t seem to have a firm place in the pantheon of musicians from this late-60s, early-70s moment.

AS: I think that’s probably exactly what I’d have said if you hadn’t said it. When I started working on the book and I mentioned to people, the standard response was “Harry who?”

Because I think he’s probably one of the unknowns… Or, had been, before this book and the RCA collected edition of seventeen CDS. That Nilsson box set has also done a massive amount to bring his music back into the spotlight, and the fact that we were able to coordinate the publication of the two so they appeared at the same time was great. Because it did actually mean that people could read the book and immediately go to the musical sources and hear what I was going on about. Whereas had I written the book and that music had remained unavailable it would have been extremely difficult for people to have recognized whether I was making valid claims for him as an artist. I think there’s an essential dichotomy in Nilsson and I mention it in the introduction and I guess I think I come back to it at the end of the book, which is:

Was he foremost a songwriter who caught the spirit of the age and performed his own songs distinctively but in some cases not as well as other people?

Or was he a great singer, as Richard Perry says, one of the finest white male voices on the planet? Who sadly didn’t leave the same impression with the public in his own songs as he did with those two songs by Fred Neil [Everybody’s Talking at Me] and Badfinger [Without You]. It’s a real knife edge.

That’s why the subtitle of the book became “the life of a singer-songwriter,” because it’s that balance, singer or songwriter.

We’ve put a hyphen in there but actually there could be a space or even an oblique. What was he? Was he a singer, was he a songwriter? Of course he was both, but in some ways his greatest successes in the songwriting field were always due to somebody else performing the work.

NS: If perhaps he’d been more solidly one or the either it would have been easier to identify his legacy.

AS: Yeah, I mean if he’d have been a Randy Newman I think so.

NS: Was his reluctance to perform maybe another element of his uncertain status as in the rock canon?

AS: The people who knew him best tended to say Harry had two things that wanted to do. He wanted to walk around unrecognized. He’d seen on that very first visit to London what happened to John Lennon and the other Beatles that he was hanging out with. That they couldn’t go anywhere and be private individuals and he didn’t want that to happen to him. By not appearing in public, by not being a familiar face, and by changing his appearance dramatically from one album to the next he could live his life, initially in Hollywood, and then in Bel Air, and then later on in London, and then in New York State, without anybody really knowing who he was. He managed to be an anonymous rock star who was still selling millions of albums and that’s an extraordinary feat. I think it’s more to do with that and less to do with this kind of sense of who he is. I think Nilsson always knew who he was. It’s that the rest of the world didn’t necessarily recognize him.

Alyn Shipton is an award-winning author and broadcaster, who has written on jazz for over twenty years for The Times in London, and is a presenter/producer of jazz programmes for BBC Radio. He was Consultant Editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, and has a lifelong interest in oral history, including editing the memoirs of Danny Barker, Doc Cheatham and George Shearing.

Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter won the 2014 ARSC Award for best research in pop music and an ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in November 2014, which was accepted on Alyn’s behalf by Kief O Nilsson.

Nate Sloan is currently a PhD candidate at Stanford University and a Geballe Dissertation Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, writing a dissertation on nightclubs in Harlem during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Nate teaches music history, jazz history and music theory at the California Jazz Conservatory by day Nate co-hosts the music podcast Switched on Pop by night.

Nate is one-half of the guerrilla vaudeville act The Gideon and Hubcap Show (the Hubcap half), which performs exclusively in living rooms. He has written music and lyrics for two original musicals and scored the award-winning short documentary SLOMO, in addition to playing piano and banjo in local jazz and bluegrass outfits.



iaspm typewriter

Recently, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were sentenced to shell out $7.3 million to Marvin Gaye’s family following a determination that their 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” borrowed too much from Gaye’s 1977 hit, “Got To Give It Up.” While Thicke and Williams had simply taken aesthetic cues from “Got To Give It Up,” referencing its aesthetic was considered sufficient to qualify as copyright infringement by the court. This case as well as other music copyright violations have raised vital questions regarding the changing status of ownership in popular music, such as: At what point can a particular sound be sufficiently recognizable such that it can be copyrighted? Where does one draw the line between inspiration and copyright infringement? Can an individual “own” a musical aesthetic?

SoundCloud mixes, remixes, and mashups are being taken down left and right due to alleged copyright infringement, prohibiting DJs from sharing their work with each other and with fans. In fact, our IASPM-US Mixtape Series suffered this fate on Soundcloud, leading us to migrate over to Mixcloud. SoundCloud recently hired Universal Music Group to remove any material they deem as copyright infringement, but do not inform users as to how this decision has been made or what portion of the track or mix is in violation. With no clear line drawn as to what constitutes copyright violation, artists attempting to share their music on SoundCloud now work under systematic fear of censorship by a third party major label. How will these blurred lines affect popular music production in the future and what can be learned from the past, particularly with the development of mixtape culture and musical borrowing in hip hop?

The IASPM-US website seeks 1,000-1,500 word essays, performance reviews, or alternative multimedia submissions (interactive web projects, podcasts, short video documentaries or presentations, etc.), presenting and reflecting on emerging questions and problems in music ownership.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Copyright, intellectual property law, creative commons
  • Sampling, musical borrowing
  • Mixtape culture
  • The removal of copyrighted material on distribution platforms (such as SoundCloud)
  • Pirate radio
  • Theories of music ownership

Regardless of the submission format or topic, including both text and multimedia (audio or video footage, SoundCloud or YouTube examples, images) is highly encouraged.

Deadline for proposals is 25 April 2015 10 May 2015.  Please submit drafts and multimedia files as attachments to Jess Dilday at Accepted submissions will appear on the IASPM-US website during May & June 2015.




“Subversive Sounds from the Women of the Detroit Hip Hop Underground” by Rebekah Farrugia by Iaspm-Us on Mixcloud


“Right now, I hear a whisper echoing: You must go underground.”
(Aisha Durham, 2007)

Detroit’s underground hip hop community is vast and diverse. Like the city itself, it is spread out both geographically and politically. In the 1990s, the groups Slum Village and 5 Ela put Detroit’s socially conscious hip hop scene on the national map. Over the past five years, the women-centered collective known as The Foundation has received national and international attention for its artistic interventions into mainstream representations of women in hip hop. At any given time The Foundation consists of at least a dozen women who rap, sing, perform spoken word, DJ, break, or create visual art. In the quote above, Durham is heading a call for a return to more community based hip hop that speaks out against the commercial rap industry, dominant hegemonic representations of people of color, and other exploitative institutional structures. Through music, dance, and other art forms, Foundation members articulate their experiences of what it means to be women—the majority of whom are women of color—in contemporary Detroit. Their work addresses issues such as body image, love, sexuality, environmental concerns, poverty, and self-empowerment. These artists use hip hop culture and rap music to create spaces of resistance and community in a place that is known for being inundated with environmental ruins, race politics, and social alienation but is also beautiful, resourceful, and imaginative.

In doing so, they destabilize several gendered and racialized notions of what it means to be a contemporary hip hop artist.



All of the tracks included on this mix feature Foundation affiliated artists. Most of them are MCs but I have intentionally chosen to also include singers and spoken word poets because a number of these artists practice more than one craft. That is, many of them not only rap but also sing, produce, and/or DJ in addition to creating visual art, etc. Illustrating the breadth of the sonic hip hop spectrum that these artists cover also challenges the commercial industry’s focus on the MC as a solitary rapper, cut off from a community and hence hip-hop’s history as a socio-political movement. These performers are fixtures in the local hip hop landscape whose artistic endeavors and distinct messages advocating social change have the power to resonate across time and place. They have taken up the call of scholars like Aisha Durham (2007) and Tricia Rose (2008) who advocate for more community based hip hop and public outcry regarding the dehumanization of women in the commercial hip hop industry.

All of the artists included here are part of a larger, ongoing ethnographic project. While engaging in this research I have learned that artists’ access to recording equipment as well as their motivations to record tracks or otherwise archive their work varies a great deal. Since my goal in creating this mix was to showcase the range of voices in conversation in Detroit’s underground hip hop community, I purposefully have not given too much weight to sound quality when choosing what to include. Thus, the mix contains both hi-fi and lo-fi productions to give listeners as accurate a representation as possible of the range of women’s voices and sounds in the city, as well as its DIY sensibility. It is my hope that listeners experience both pleasure and inspiration to act as they listen to the subversive sounds from the women of the Detroit hip hop underground.


Rebekah Farrugia is a popular music scholar whose work explores the politics of gender, technology, and community in contemporary music genres such as electronic dance music and hip hop. She is the author of Beyond the Dance Floor: Female DJs, Technology and Electronic Dance Music Culture and is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Oakland University. She is also an active member of the Detroit based hip hop collective The Foundation.


Durham, Aisha. 2007. Using [Living Hip-Hop] Feminism: Redefining an Answer (to) Rap. In Gwendolyn D. Pough, Elaine Richardson, Aisha Durham, & Rachel Raimist (Eds.), Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology (304-312). Mira Loma, CA: Parker Publishing.

Rose, Tricia. 2008. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—and Why It Matters. New York: Basic Civitas Books.

Track List

  1. “The Foundation”, Ladies of The Foundation
  2. “9 to 5 (Fighter)”, Mahogany Jones featuring Michelle Bonilla
  3. “Looongawaited”, Invicible
  4. “The Riot”, Insite the Riot
  5. “Rise Up (Ft. Geno the Poet)”, ‘Nique LoveRhodes
  6. “Legendary”, Mahogany Jones and ‘Nique LoveRhodes
  7. “Who I Am (ruff mix)”, Miz Korona
  8. “100 Degree”, Jaci Caprice
  9. “Detroit Everything (Live)”, D.S. Sense


Contribute to the IASPM-US Interview Series!

by Victor Szabo on March 13, 2015

We’re always looking for interviewers to contribute to the IASPM-US Interview Series. We’ve recently added the following fabulous authors and books to our list:

If you would like to interview these, or any other authors on our list, email Jess Dilday at Please see our interview series page for further details, including interview guidelines. Full book list below:


“‘Please Listen to My CD-R’: Underground Hip-Hop Music from the Fans” by Anthony Kwame Harrison by Iaspm-Us on Mixcloud

In winter 2001, I served as Assistant Tour Manager for the Ground Control U.S. Tour—sponsored by the now-defunct underground hip-hop label, Nu Guv Alliance. Over the course of thirty-four days, the Ground Control All Stars—comprised of Los Angeles’ Aceyalone, Boston’s Ed O.G., the Bay Area’s Rasco, and New York City’s the Masterminds—put on twenty-seven shows in cities and college towns across America. By the time we returned to San Francisco, I had accumulated eighteen CD(-R)s from aspiring hip-hop musicians or affiliated promoters we had met on the road.1 Some of these were handed to me directly, others were passed on by the touring artists who seemed to have little to no interest in them. The CD(-R)s ranged from three-song promotional singles to twenty-five track albums; a few had high-quality professional packaging complete with barcodes, others were simply marker writing on a CD-R—one even came shrink-wrapped in Saran.


Following the tour, I immediately resumed my job at Amoeba Music. With so many obscure used hip-hop CDs available through Amoeba’s employee loan program, my collection of tour music mementos was soon discarded. Fourteen years later, I’ve unpacked these CD(-R)s in order to reflect on their significance for my 2015 IASPM-US presentation (“‘Please Listen to My CD-R’: Unpacking the Music ‘Momentos’ of a National Hip-Hop Tour”). In the process, I made this mix. With the exception of the one CD-R that would not play, I have selected at least one track from each unit.

Looking back, it’s not surprising these musical offerings were so quickly cast aside. For they arrived in the hands of tour members twice devalued. First, as independent hip-hop music—in some cases coming from out-of-the-way locales like Saratoga Springs, New York—they were vying for legitimacy in a genre still largely governed by record-label name-recognition and established regimes of geographic capital. Second, most of these CD(-R)s were not coveted but rather thrust upon us by show attendees and presumed fans; thus meeting one of Christopher J. Washburne and Maiken Derno’s criteria for “bad music”—that which is unwanted.2

In making this mix, I have sought to re-value this formerly depreciated music. While a track like the Dirty Luggage All-Stars’ “Dirty Luggage/State 2 State” is certainly obscure, claiming any song featuring legendary Project Blowdian Mikah-9 as “devalued,” to some hip-hop fans, may be a stretch. Yet listening to other tracks, like Paradigm’s “Questions”—featuring guest emcees Mr. X & Mr. Sin Que—I’m reminded that some of these songs likely represent one of the few opportunities an aspiring artist has to record. So many hopes and aspirations (w)rapped into one forty-bar verse. I hope listeners appreciate the varied production sounds—ranging from the excess distortion of River Edge, New Jersey’s dälek, to the muffled hisses of Phoenix’s Unconventionalz, to the crisp keys and snares offered by Colorado Springs’ The Procussions. The mix closes with Aceyalone’s “Five Feet.” Ironically, this lead single off the tour headliner’s then-just-released album, critiques the very behavior through which most of these CD(-R)s came to us.


Track List:

  1. Arkitech (Audio Aerosol) – Track 5 [Colorado Springs]
  2. Kabir – Track 1 [Cambridge, MA]
  3. Organic Mind Unit – “Chemically Imbalanced” [Chicago]
  4. HAAS – Track 1 [Phoenix]
  5. Kanser – “My Own Two” [Minneapolis – given to me in Lincoln, NE]
  6. Unconventionalz – Track 10 [Phoenix]
  7. Paradigm – “Leverage” [Somers, NY]
  8. Extreme – “Werk Ya Self” [Minneapolis – given to me in Lincoln, NE]
  9. The Procussions – “All That It Takes” [Colorado Springs]
  10. Dirty Luggage All-Stars (featuring Mikah-9) – “Dirty Luggage/State 2 State” [Los Angeles]
  11. Paradigm (featuring Mr. X & Mr. Sin Que) – “Questions” [Somers, NY]
  12. Drunken Immortals – “1999” [Tempe, AZ]
  13. dälek – “Swollen Tongue Bums” [River Edge, NJ]
  14. Alias (Ellis Bancroft) – Track 1 [?]
  15. Legendary Axe (featuring Mic Stylz) – “Big-N-Nasty” [Boston]
  16. Organic Mind Unit – “The Good Shhh” [Chicago]
  17. The Procussions – “Move Yer Self” [Colorado Springs]
  18. k0ng (featuring Jes Hudak) – “How Can I be” [Saratoga Springs, NY]
  19. Drunken Immortals – “MOB U Philosophy” [Tempe, AZ]
  20. Dirty Luggage All-Stars – “Suicidal Soldiers” [Los Angeles]
  21. Aceyalone – “Five Feet” [Ground Control Records, 2000]
  1. This number is likely higher; I am certain that at least these eighteen CD(-R)s were acquired on the tour. There were a handful of others I am unsure about.
  2. Christopher J. Washburne and Maiken Derno. Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1.


IASPM-US Interview Series: How to Rap 2, by Paul Edwards

by Victor Szabo on February 24, 2015


In How to Rap 2: Advanced Flow and Delivery Techniques (Chicago Review Press 2013), Paul Edwards builds upon his initial book How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC (Chicago Review Press 2009). Edwards gives readers insight on advanced vocal techniques, while also introducing rudiments for MCs. To back up the techniques, the book integrates interviews from over 100 of the best rappers in hip-hop history. Edwards’s How to Rap books are currently being used at the University of Calgary in a linguistics course entitled “Rap Linguistics.” In this interview, Shane Colquhoun discusses with Edwards some of the technical aspects of the book, the current rap music scene, and the value of studying rap music in depth.

Shane Colquhoun: Starting out, I would like to ask, what was your motivation or goal for writing this series of books?

Paul Edwards: My aim originally was just to find out how the art form worked, because it was never really explained anywhere in any detail. If you want to play guitar or sing or learn how to write poetry there are a million books on those subjects, but there was nothing on MCing. I also wanted to catalog all the techniques in the words of as many hip-hop artists as possible, so that there is an historical record of how it’s done.

It would be a shame if nobody collected any of this information while these artists are still around to tell their stories. I felt that the techniques were important and groundbreaking, so they should be preserved just as any other art form is preserved.

SC: What is your musical background? (Are you an avid listener, did you play an instrument, are you an MC yourself)?

PE: I’ve always been an avid listener of music in general, my parents like a lot of different genres so I always heard different types of music. In the past few years though I’ve really been thoroughly going back and listening to as much classic hip-hop as possible, so I haven’t had a chance to really keep up with other forms of music outside of hip-hop or with too much current hip-hop. Also hip-hop today changes so quickly, with most of it not making that much of a permanent mark. Artists that are hyped as the next big thing seem to quickly be forgotten before I even get a chance to listen to them.

For about ten years now I’ve played the doumbek, which is a type of Arabic drum—I grew up in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and I always loved the rhythms and percussion in Arabic music, so that’s how I got into percussion. I’m not a professional, but I can play the main rhythms and I know how they’re put together. That also introduced me to the drum rudiments and that method of learning and practicing rhythms.

Other than the doumbek, I don’t really play any other instruments, though I can get by on a few other percussion instruments, like the bongos. The drumming rhythms also help when I use hip-hop production equipment too, because you can tap out the rhythms when you’re using an MPC sampler/sequencer.

I’ve rapped for fun for a long time and having that personal experience of rapping did help a lot, as it meant I could test out all the techniques and that made them easier to explain. Though I always like to stress that I didn’t come up with any of these techniques myself and I generally don’t like to favor any one set of techniques over another—I’m simply documenting the techniques that already exist with explanations of them from professional MCs.

SC: Do you prefer to use the term “MC” or “rapper”?

PE: I generally use MC rather than rapper, though in most cases I don’t think it makes too big of a difference. Some people use “MC” to mean someone whose music is good and authentic and “rapper” to mean someone whose music is bad and overly commercial, but you can just say that they’re “bad” or “good” anyway, so that doesn’t seem a very useful way to use the terms. However, because some people do use “rapper” as a negative term, I usually avoid it and use “MC” instead, just so there is no confusion and they don’t think I’m dissing someone by calling them a rapper. The only time I think it makes a difference is when you’re talking about performing live, where you might be referring to MCing in its original sense of actually being a “master of ceremonies” and being skillful with an audience.

SC: Do you believe that MCing or rap music in general is viewed as an art and a science by the masses, and more specifically, by scholars and classically trained musicians?

PE: There are a lot of people who do view it as an art and science, but then there are two other groups: those who see it as something that’s not worth their time and then the other extreme, where they think it’s magic and that there are no “techniques” that can be learned.
Though I think most people understand that it’s like learning an instrument or singing—it’s a complex skill like any other.

I think scholars and classically trained musicians have different views from each other. Scholars are often very interested in hip-hop, but usually not from a musical standpoint—it’s usually either studied very, very broadly as a culture, or the focus is entirely on the content as a “text” rather than as anything musical.

Those are interesting ways of looking at it, but I don’t think that many scholars value hip-hop as a form of music. From what I’ve seen, it’s often downplayed and devalued as actual music—I often see phrases such as “hip-hop is a lot more than just music.” The use of words like “just” suggests that the music isn’t a worthwhile thing to study on its own and that it has to be put in a broader context for it to be “important.” So I think there are a lot of scholars that do want to study hip-hop, but only from a certain angle, and to do that they often have to downplay the musical angle.

I haven’t really seen that many classically trained musicians engaging that much with MCing or hip-hop in general, either positively or negatively, so I’m not sure if there is a general view that they have of it. I get the impression that it’s not really viewed as a “serious” form of music by some classically trained people, though I do know that there are music scholars working on hip-hop such as Kyle Adams and Justin Williams, so that’s starting to become more prevalent. I think the lack of serious musical analysis is not necessarily unique to hip-hop though, I know a number of classically trained musicians who don’t consider rock music or electronic music to be worthy of study either.

One problem is that some classical musicians approach other genres with a classical music mindset—expecting every genre to value the same elements that classical music does. When people do that, they invariably find nothing of “value” in the other genres, because they’re looking in the wrong places.

In pop music it’s important to understand different types of choruses and creating a groove, as well as how the songs are produced and mixed and how the performer’s personality comes across in the music. You really have to get into the music to know what’s valued within each genre, so you can start comparing different songs to understand why some songs are acclaimed and some aren’t.

Looking at hip-hop specifically, you can spend hours analyzing how a specific snare sound was EQed in the studio, because that’s important in hip-hop, while in classical music that’s not really valued. There is a lot of complexity in hip-hop and also in pop music, but if people don’t know where to look, or if they’re expecting complexity in the same places as in classical music, then they’ll come away thinking other genres are simplistic.

It’s also down to the way people study music and learn how to play instruments. A lot of that educational infrastructure is built around classical music, so it gives that particular mindset precedence right from the beginning with a lot of people.

It works the other way around though too—people who don’t listen to classical music often don’t know how to listen to it and what to listen for, and so they don’t know what they’re missing. So I think there is an educational gap there in both cases, where people need to learn what different genres value.


SC: As a classically trained percussionist, I was interested with the way you implemented drum terms and really focused on rhythm in Chapters 1 and 3, as well as how you implemented rudiments.

PE: That percussion angle came mainly from the MCs that I interviewed, because so many of them told me that they see themselves as percussionists and that they had either learned the drums or had an interest in the drums, and that they had systems to notate the rhythms of one kind or another. And the MCs who were also beatmakers and producers told me that they would often look at the rapped rhythms as simply another percussion instrument on their beat.

One of the great things with the software that’s used for making beats is that they usually have a visual representation of the rhythms in a grid format (usually called a “step sequencer”), which makes it easy to “see” the rhythms. People who are interested in MCing often make beats too, so it made sense to use a kind of “grid” style with the rhythms.

The percussion angle is really important, though MCing is also a combination of several different disciplines. To represent it accurately I think you have to use bits and pieces from percussion, general music theory, poetry/literature analysis, and linguistics to get the complete picture. I like to approach MCing as its own unique thing and then use the most suitable tools from various disciplines to represent it. I think sometimes scholars try to use just one discipline to explain it (e.g. just poetry analysis, or just music theory), and they end up having to twist MCing to try to get it to fit into that one form, and it gives a skewed view of it.

SC: As simple of an idea as it may be, up until I read your book I never thought of flow and content separately as two elements of the rapping. Can you explain the concept of flow vs content?

PE: That was something I had to do early on in the process of writing the books—I had to untangle the elements of MCing so that they could be broken down and organized. The content includes the topics you’re rapping about, and the literary techniques and structures you’re using such as metaphors, similes, story structure, etc.

The “flow” refers to the rhythms and the rhyme schemes and how they interact. And there is also the “delivery,” which is how you use your voice. Sometimes people refer to both the flow and delivery as just the “flow,” but it’s clearer if you separate them, especially if you want to break down and organize the techniques.

SC: As it pertains to timbre in Chapter 2, what characteristics come naturally, and what characteristics can be developed?

PE: The elements that are part of your normal speaking voice are the most natural and easiest to use on a record. For example if you’ve got a raspy speaking voice, you can easily be raspy on a record.

I think most vocal characteristics can be developed with enough practice. If you look at people who do voice-over work for cartoons and movies, they can usually do some pretty crazy voices just from having experimented so much, regardless of how their normal voice sounds. People like Hank Azaria who does voices on the Simpsons, or Andy Serkis who did Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, they can combine lots of different characteristics and they work a lot on developing those voices. Even without practice I think most people can put on a few different voices.

Obviously there will be some limits, such as how high or low your voice can go, or if you have a lisp then that will probably always be present. However, I think most people have the potential to do a lot of things with their voice, probably more than they think they can.

SC: Punchlines are very important in rapping. What are your thoughts on phrasing?

PE: Phrasing the punchlines correctly is important because there are many different ways to say the same thing, but certain ways will be more memorable. I think MCs like Big Daddy Kane and Jay-Z are particularly good at phrasing—it comes across as playful and witty, while also being conversational and direct. I think some of the more technical MCs can sometimes phrase things in such a complex way that it gets lost or it doesn’t have the same impact as someone who can still be clever, but also direct at the same time.

Lines are sometimes more memorable if they’re phrased in an “odd” way, in a way that is just so unusual that it sticks in your mind. I think Kool Keith and some of the Wu-Tang members are really good at that kind of phrasing.

SC: We all know that music moves in cycles, and like anything else. there are trends. What rhythmic patterns and trends do you find to be trending in MCing today?

PE: Recently there has been something people have been calling the “Migos flow,” which is named after the group Migos, who use it a lot. It’s the same technique I describe in “How to Rap 2” on pg. 26, “Triplets over Four 16ths”, which are sometimes also called, “8th note triplets.” (An illustrative montage of the “Migos flow” can be viewed here.)

The example I use in the book is from a Chubb Rock song from 1989, so it’s clearly not a new technique in rapping. It was used a lot in the 1990s by groups such as Three 6 Mafia and Bone Thugs N Harmony, and I’ve found examples of MCs using it as far back as 1986, but it’s recently surged in popularity with everyone from Drake to Kanye using it heavily.

The other thing that has become very popular again recently is rapping fast using 32nd notes. Again, this was popular as far back as 1992 when Twista made “Mister Tung Twista” and around that time several MCs made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as being the fastest rappers. It’s always been quite popular, but people like Eminem and Tech N9ne have really brought that to the forefront again.

One technique that I don’t really hear much of nowadays is what Shock G calls “lazy tails” (on pg. 33 of “How to Rap 2”). It was a key technique in early ’90s West Coast gangsta rap and it pretty much defined the laid back rapping style by sliding off the beat, but it faded out and hasn’t made a big comeback yet.

SC: If you were building the perfect rapper, based on all the elements mentioned in your books, what artist(s) (past or present) would you combine to pattern your rapper after?

PE: I would probably include the content of someone like Pharoahe Monch or the groups Latyrx and Blackalicious, where they often have strong, unique concepts to tie whole songs together. Then as far as the flow, I like people with constantly changing, unpredictable flows, so someone like Method Man or Lady of Rage or E-40 where they do a lot of different techniques and where it’s difficult to predict where the flow will go next. With the delivery, I like people with distinct voices like B-Real or Mystikal and I also like MCs who half-sing sometimes like the Pharcyde, Shock G, or Del the Funky Homosapien.

Also I think ability to pick good beats is a big part of it. For me personally, I love the golden age style of beats, with lots of samples and a collage of sounds. There are some MCs who I think are really great at MCing, but who often choose lackluster beats and so it makes it hard to get into their music.

SC: Who is on your Mount Rushmore of rappers?

PE: Rakim, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, and KRS-One… I think if you could only ever study four MCs, those would be the four that are able to teach you the vast majority of the techniques through their music.

SC: In the process of your interviews, which interview stuck out to you most? Why?

PE: There were many that stuck out, though I’d probably have to say Kool G Rap, as he was really articulate in explaining his craft and really went into detail about how he did things. To hear some of the explanations behind the records and techniques that influenced so many other MCs was amazing, as he is one of the originators of that style of complex rhyming.

I generally found that the MCs who were more complex and technical in their music talked for longer and in went into more detail. Which makes sense, because if you’ve thought a lot about the science of writing raps, you’re probably going to have a lot more to say and more opinions about it than someone who has a simpler style. Though I do appreciate the simpler styles of MCing as well—they can be very effective and they add to the variety of hip-hop.

SC: In closing, is there anything that you would like to add or comment on that I might have missed?

PE: I just wanted to add that I like where hip-hop books and hip-hop studies in general have started to go recently. They seem to slowly be covering more aspects of hip-hop, especially the musical aspects, and presenting a fuller look at the genre. I think for a while hip-hop studies were obsessed with a very narrow range of concerns and those became the standard approaches for everyone. When looking over the existing literature in the past, it could be intimidating to see so much of a focus on certain subjects and none on others, as it suggested that certain topics were not considered important. So it’s great to see the lines of enquiry broadening and to see different subsections of hip-hop literature becoming more robust.

Here’s a video link that highlights parts of the book.

Paul Edwards is a writer and researcher of hip-hop who has interviewed more than 100 of hip-hop’s most acclaimed and notable rappers, and done extensive research on rappers’ creative processes, musical theories, and lyrics. He has been interviewed by the Chicago Tribune, the New York Amsterdam News, Chuck D’s New York radio show, Australia’s Acclaim Magazine, UK’s Echoes Magazine, Germany’s HHV Magazine, HipHopDX, and Time Out Dubai, and has been referred to as “the Aristotle of Hip-Hop poetics” by internationally acclaimed and award-winning poet Dana Gioia. He holds a Master’s degree in postmodernism, literature, and contemporary culture from University of London. Contact: howtorapbook (at)

Shane Colquhoun is an educator, producer, arranger, and currently serves as the Director of Bands at Loachapoka High School. He received his MMEd from Auburn University, and his research interests include culturally relevant music ensembles, urban/suburban music education, and popular music pedagogy. He can be reached at colquhoun.shane (at)


2015 IASPM-US Conference Program PDF

by Jessica Dilday on February 17, 2015

At last, the 2015 IASPM-US Conference has arrived! Here is the program PDF available for download. Please consult this program for important information about registration and session locations, shuttles, and parking.


CFP: 2015 David Sanjek Memorial Graduate Student Paper Prize

January 27, 2015

The committee for the David Sanjek Graduate Student Paper Prize of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music – US Branch (IASPM-US) invites graduate students who will be presenting at the 2015 IASPM-US annual conference to submit their papers for consideration. Eligibility: Any student who presents, in person, a formal paper at the […]

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IASPM-US Election Ballot

January 26, 2015

The ballot for this year’s IASPM-US election has gone out to all members. The deadline for voting is Tuesday February 3rd. If you are a member of the organization and expected to receive a ballot but did not, please contact Rebekah Farrugia at

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“Resilience & Melancholy–Post-feminist Pop & Its Discontents” by Robin James

January 26, 2015

My new book Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, & neoliberalism is about the politics and aesthetics of post-feminist pop music. Resilience–the practice of extracting surplus value from damage or crisis–is the ideal that informs both contemporary Western ideals about femininity and musical pleasure. As I say on the back cover, “When most people think […]

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Michigan Sound Conference CFP

January 19, 2015

MICHIGAN SOUND CONFERENCE 10 am – 8 pm, Friday May 22, 2015 at the Detroit Public Library. Music, Arts & Literature Department, Third Floor This event is free and open to the public. Please RSVP and / or donate here. Call for Papers The Detroit Sound Conservancy (DSC) will host our second annual conference on Friday, May 22, 2015 at […]

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“black and blue ain’t always a bruise” by Nicole Campbell

January 12, 2015

how many things in the universe are about heartbreak haha.  and how many ways can we make heartbreak an issue of feminism? and it is. it truly is. and at it’s very core it’s also about rejection. it’s about time and space and essence. and it’s about a terrible someone. someone who doesn’t see your […]

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