AMS/SMT Milwaukee 2014 Conference Reflection: Mandy Smith

by Jessica Dilday on November 20, 2014


Photo courtesy of VISIT Milwaukee

 When I arrived at this year’s joint meeting of the When I arrived at this year’s joint meeting of the American Musicological Societyand the Society for Music Theory—held in Milwaukee November 6-9—the “polka button” already dominated the hallway chatter.“What’s a polka button,” you might ask? It is an irresistible button located at both the top and bottom of the escalator in the Wisconsin Center. It activates loudspeakers to serenade escalator riders with the sounds of polka. Needless to say, I pushed it every ride!

The polka button only scratched the surface of the popular music heard at the conference. The Friday night AMS/SMT Dance drew quite the crowd. John Covach (Eastman) and his band donated their time and instruments and played a danceable array of classic rock tunes, during which several musicologists and music theorists sat in and showed some mean chops as performers. After the band, DJs The Attic Bat (AKA Mike D’Errico, UCLA) and Bit Faker (AKA Tiffany Naiman, UCLA) bounced records and beats back and forth until the allotted time ended and the lights were turned on, much to the chagrin of many inebriated dancers.

Some presenters likewise incorporated performance into their talks. Robin Attas (Elon U.) busted out some backbeat-induced dance moves during her paper “Meter and Motion in Pop/Rock Backbeats” to highlight the bodily experience of popular music. During Erin Smith’s (Case Western Reserve U.) paper on the New Woman in Tin Pan Alley-era sheet music, the audience spontaneously burst into song during the chorus of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

On the intense side of this year’s conference, Tamara Levitz (UCLA) traced the white supremacist foundations of the AMS society in her paper, after which she questioned whether or not we have changed enough in this regard since the 1930s. During the Q&A, Stephan Pennington (Tufts U.) offered a solution to this crisis, arguing that our pedagogical values and our average music school curricula perpetuate the problem. He pointed out that until we place tangible value on non-canonical musics of all types by requiring students to take them—or at the very least by allowing such classes to fulfill degree requirements vs. electives—our actions speak louder than our words. Of course, it will take time to solve this systemic problem, but a bit of news made public at the AMS business meeting takes an important step toward the goal of increased diversity and inclusion in the AMS. President Christopher Reynolds (UC Davis) announced that the AMS allocated $100,000 of its funds to an endowment to permanently support the Eileen Southern Travel Fund, which allows the Committee on Cultural Diversity to host minority undergraduate and terminal master’s degree students at the annual conference.

Those troopers who stuck around until Sunday were rewarded with at least two excellent pop presentations. Eric Smialek (McGill U.) argued that extreme metal fans negotiate genre boundaries through a rejection of adolescent culture. Stephanie Vander Wel’s (U. at Buffalo, SUNY) paper on Rose Maddox demonstrated how the singer’s stage presence and vocal style fit into the contexts of dance hall and the emergence of female performers in LA. This thread of the “voice” wove throughout several sessions this year, and Dave Easley (Oklahoma City U.) exemplified the theme with his Saturday morning paper on vocal meanings in American hardcore punk. Easley drew from paralinguistics to create an analytical model of different affective categories of vocal production.

Other paper highlights include the Thursday night “Pop Without Tech” session, sponsored by the AMS Popular Music Study Group (PMSG) and chaired by Mitchell Morris (UCLA). Nicholas Johnson (Butler U.) looked at modern string bands’ rejection of technology and its effects on the genre’s marketing. Next, Matthew Richardson (Northwestern U.) demonstrated that vocal processing of the Japanese idol pop group Perfume heightens the affective subjectivity of the group members in order to mark them as unusually vulnerable. (Morris remarked to me later—and I agree—that the Perfume tunes score high on the danceability scale!) Then, Mike D’Errico delved into the musical techniques and rhythmic complexities of Chicago footwork—a style of EDM—to show how DJs mask their use of technology to different affective ends. Mimi Haddon (McGill U.) delivered her paper at the end of a long day of travel for conference attendees; those who stayed were again rewarded. She discussed the role of the melodica in post-punk, uncovering the musical aspects of the problematic cultural link between post-punk and dub-reggae.

At the business meeting of the AMS PMSG—perhaps our best-attended meeting to date—the body enthusiastically reelected Eric Hung (Rider U.) as chair. The latter half of the meeting featured a productive dialogue about programming committees. David Brackett (McGill U.), Elizabeth Lindau (Earlham College), Mark Katz (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Robert Fink (UCLA) kicked off the conversation by riffing on their recent programming experiences. Good news also abounded at the SMT Popular Music Interest Group meeting. Members reviewed their original goals in forming the group back in 1998: to correct music societies’ disciplinary biases against popular music studies, to legitimize the field within the realm of SMT, and to promote scholarship on pop topics at conferences and in journals. They realized this year that they had completed their mission. Kudos! They then spent the remainder of the meeting brainstorming new goals, which I am sure they will also meet.

Of course, fun receptions, parties, and events overflowed into the wee hours of the night. I caught several of these, but I also missed a lot of them (as well as many papers) that subsequent reports deemed as excellent. Many attendees ventured beyond the Hilton and conference center to experience the wonderful food of the city; I hear the brats were excellent, but personally, the cheese curds rocked my world. At the end of the day, though, while Milwaukee has plenty to offer its visitors, nothing quite beat the polka button.

Mandy Smith is currently pursuing a Musicology PhD at Case Western Reserve University. Her dissertation investigates tensions between the rock drum kit’s ability to signify simultaneously the virtuosic and the primitive. She earned a Rock History BA from Indiana University and a Musicology MA from California State University, Long Beach. Mandy has presented research in various venues, most notably at IASPM and SEM national meetings on Charley Patton and Rage Against the Machine, respectively.


IASPM-US Website CFP: The Return of the Mixtape Series

by Jessica Dilday on October 29, 2014

iaspm typewriter

It’s no question, life’s been good to me/ Cause life ain’t nothing but a good groove/ A good mixtape to put you in the right mood

-The Beastie Boys, “Professor Booty”

Our mixtape series is back! Mixtapes are phonographic anthologies capable of telling stories through ideas and emotions, coded in the selection and sequence of featured musical selections. These sonic anthologies also act as media through which mixtape composers express social and collective identities. The IASPM-US website seeks 30-45 minute-long mixes for our mixtape series. The mix can feature any genre(s) of music and style of production, and should be accompanied by a short explanation that speaks to the motivation and vision behind its creation, and/or a critical reflection on the place of the music in a given social, political, or cultural context (250-500 words). For some ideas and inspiration, check out our featured posts below, and also The Mixtape Museum blog, which includes a list of resources and bibliography on mixtape-related projects.

The audio mix itself can be submitted in AIFF, WAVE, FLAC, OGG, MP2, MP3, AAC, AMR or WMA formats, which will be uploaded to the IASPM-US SoundCloud account. The accompanying material may include both text and multimedia (audio/video footage or YouTube clips, for example).

The deadline for submissions is December 1, 2014. Please submit drafts and multimedia files as attachments to both Jess Dilday ( and Victor Szabo (

Featured Posts

“Resurrect the Cassette: Revaluing Bay Area Underground Hip Hop Tapes,” by Anthony Kwame Harrison

“Hearing Raggamuffin Hip-hop: Musical Records as Historical Record,” by Wayne Marshall and Pacey Foster

“elegy (for extraordinary black boys and girls),” by Jalylah Burrell

“PRISMatic,” by Victor Szabo

“World War IV Techno,” by Ryan Diduck


Garage_band_book_coverHP Roller2012tight Peter Roller’s Milwaukee Garage Bands: Generations of Grassroots Rock (The History Press, 2013) is an intergenerational study of amateur rock musicians from the Milwaukee area. Interviewing dozens of musicians active between the 1950s and 1990s, Roller reclaims the lived experience of garage bands in an average American city and uses that experience to overturn common assumptions about amateur rock music-making. Theorizing the “garage” as a space, Roller follows these bands from formation and rehearsal through to performance in order to better understand the garage band experience and ultimately answer the questions: Why do people continue to form garage bands? What is the value of the garage band for its participants? And, how can we better understand and represent amateurs in academic and critical discourse? Below, Peter and I discuss the book and its implications for the study of amateur rock musicians. 

Brian F. Wright: I wanted to start with what I think is sort of a historiographical question: It seems that one of the primary goals of your book is to overturn some of the common assumptions that popular music scholars have concerning garage rock. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how you see previous scholarship on garage rock and contrast it with what you are trying to do? What are the stories we are missing? What kind of stories are you trying to tell that aren’t normally told?

Peter Roller: Well, there hasn’t been much written about amateur rock bands compared to all the “star” literature. And so, a goal for me was to represent “anybodies” who were in amateur rock bands of various eras and to find out what it was like and what it meant to them, to hopefully answer the question: Why do people keep forming these bands even though they don’t become stars, they may not care about becoming stars, and they don’t all “get chicks”? (Even though those are the main stereotypes that are out there). So, first, I just wanted to represent their voices. And, second, I wanted to not just represent the mid-‘60s. I wanted to show continuity (if there was continuity) by having stories from the ‘50s through the ‘90s. I wanted to try and document what real participants thought and cared about and felt like when they were amateurs playing in the basement. So, those were my most basic goals.

BW: I think that’s great. I write a lot about amateur musicians myself and one of the most difficult things for me is that we only focus on the people who make it, the people who get out.

PR: Right.

BW: And I think that a vast majority… the vast majority of rock music being made since the beginning has been in garages with people we’ve never heard of. It’s only a very very small few that get through.

PR: Or in basements when you’re in the cold climate of the upper Midwest. So you do have to explain to people that it doesn’t have to be a literal garage, but that “garage” is a metaphor for amateur rockers going into average spaces in their own homes.

BW: That actually brings up an interesting point, because in the book you theorize the garage as a space in many different ways. You talk about it as a safe place for amateur musicians across a wide spectrum, and I was wondering if you might talk about how you envision the “garage” as a space in and of itself.

PR: So, when I’m saying the word “garage” as sort of an umbrella term, I’m often thinking of a basement recreation room, because that was my experience when I started out and that’s what the majority of people I talked to in the Milwaukee area would describe to me. And so, one example that comes to mind, just to show that garage bands exist outside the mid-‘60s stereotype of post-Beatles bands, is a guy I talked to named Paul Terrien. He met his bandmates in a private school called Marquette University High School in the early 1980s. One of the kids in the band’s parents were professors at Marquette and they would go down to his basement and that was their safe space. And eventually they put up an inflatable Godzilla down there and they were really into shooting silly string all over the ceiling and all over the walls. To me, that all sort of visually symbolized that it was their space and that it was a safe space for them to let loose and have freedom with their low-level music-making.

BW: Going back to the question about the way garage bands are usually presented, the narratives in your book seem at odds with the standard narrative of garage rock as a kind of ’60s proto-punk, Lenny Kaye Nuggets phenomenon, where it’s often presented as this rebellious, almost dangerous activity. In your book the garage is actually more often described as a space of safety. It’s a space for expression, but one that is eventually sanctioned by parents and schools etc.

PR: True. But I do think there can still be rebellion. I think one of the reasons why people have continually formed these amateur rock bands is that they can have both danger and transgressive action or they can kind of be safe and in a “cocoon,” as I say in the book. For example, some of my favorite stories in the book are the first-person testimonies describing going out for the first time with your garage band and immediately getting static from people, basically for just playing rock music. And I see that as feeling like your music is making you a little bit of a rebel. So, yes they’re safe down in the basement and that’s what a majority of the time I think is spent doing, but there can still be opportunity for feeling like a rebel in first bands.

BW: I love that “cocooning” metaphor. Do you want to give a brief description of it for people who haven’t read the book yet?

PR: So this “cocoon” metaphor that I eventually work with a lot, came out of one of my interviews with these average garage band participants. He [Richard Regner] said that in the upper Midwest during the winter in his suburb of Whitefish Bay, he and his bandmates would “go down in the basement come the cold weather and cocoon together” (p. 85), and after that “cocooning” they would play the end-of-the-year talent show at their school and show what they’ve got. And so that was his own butterfly-like metaphor for a garage band and I ran with it and started to say that, overall, I think there’s something about being in a garage rock band that has to do with valuing being in a cocoon of loud music and social interaction together.

BW: And, because you’ve structured the book as a series of ever expanding circles, the “cocoon” actually becomes the focal point of the book. You move from formation, to the rehearsal, to composition, to performance, and it’s really not until the second-to-last chapter that they actually get out of the “cocoon” and are performing.

PR: I bet that probably drove some people crazy [laughs].

BW: There’s so much time spent talking about the experience of the garage, to the point that performance almost doesn’t matter… Not only are they not doing it to become famous, they’re also not really in it for the “gig” either, that’s not where the joy comes from.

PR: Well, as we all know, there are awkward gigs. But I didn’t want to disparage performing, it’s just that there was so little work that discussed the experience of the rehearsal space that I wanted to do all I could with that and then, as you say, move into the outer circles.

BW: What I guess I’m getting at is that playing in a garage rock band seems to give them a sense of fulfillment, it gives them a sense of rebellion, a place to be transgressive, a place to try on different identities. All of this happens within the garage. It almost seems that even if they never played a gig, they could experience all these things on some level just in their own cocoon.

PR: But they also bring their friends into the “garage” too, and that makes it more comfortable to do transgressive things. For example, there is that picture in my book [on Pg. 155] of this band in a Shorewood basement during the ’90s and the guy’s wearing a woman’s slip, pink bunny slippers, a rainbow wig, and he and his sister have made angel wings that he wears while playing the electric bass. There’s an image of never leaving the cocoon but doing some pretty wild stuff.

BW: And this goes back to the idea of the garage as both a place of safety and of danger, right? They can be rebellious, they can be transgressive, but they can do it in a space where they aren’t going to get too much flack.

PR: Yes. And that’s part of garage bands becoming more mainstream: kids want to be able to be rebellious and parents are happy if they do it within the safety of their home or another parent’s home. And I think that’s worked really well in middle class suburban America since the mid-’60s.

BW: Which again brings up this idea of continuity. You begin the book pre-British Invasion, and your earliest respondents actually began in the mid-’50s or so…

PR: Yeah. I really needed to prove that point because there are people who repeatedly claim that garage bands were just these one-hit wonders or that they only existed for a five-year period from 1964 to 1969 and all this other nonsense. So before I could talk about continuity I had to show that garage bands existed before the ‘60s and they were meaningful and I had to show that they existed after the mid-’60s and they were also meaningful. And this goes back to that notion of rebellion. The first guy in my book, Sam McCue, is kind of a hero for people who grew up in Milwaukee in the late ‘50s. And when he told that very Milwaukee story [in Ch. 5] about going to one of those Catholic youth dances, the CYO dance, and it was one of the very first times they left their basement practice space to perform in public, right away a nun got upset by one of their songs.

BW: Because they were playing a little too “bluesy,” a little too sexual…

PR: To me, that story is priceless because it has that low-level rebellion going on and yet it is so very Milwaukee and so very ‘50s. There’s something he says, “[W]e did a song called ‘Henrietta’ with a real simple, bluesy figure and the nun came running through this crowd of dancers. She’s grabbing the habit [on her head] and yelling, ‘No, no, no!’ She couldn’t handle it. We’re singing, ‘Henrietta, baby what you do to me; Henrietta, it’s only you I wanna see; You got me all shook up, never ever wanna be free” with that bluesy rhythm… she didn’t like that. So we finished the song, and I said, ‘Ok, we won’t do that anymore…’” (pg. 137). So, you see, he’s exploring the possibilities of little bits of rebellion and little bits of getting along with people the very first time he’s going out into public.

BW: I think what is really remarkable about Sam McCue and the other early respondents is that they all cite a distinct lack of models. They didn’t have anyone to model themselves on, there was no template for how to be a garage band in that first generation. And, speaking of the importance of models (or lack thereof), you really emphasize the importance of seeing live music, that these bands—even into the ’90s—were far more moved by going and seeing someone their own age playing in a band than they ever were by simply listening to recordings.

PR: I really wanted to show the neighborhood level in a number of dimensions, so there’s the “cocooning” in the basement that we’ve already mentioned, but there’s also this sense of going out just a little further and seeing that other teen band within your social universe. And this is something Bobby Friedman described: “The songs we picked, a lot of them were from hearing other kids playing them… [T]hat was how I was exposed to those songs… That is as important a point as I can make about this whole thing: hearing those songs live, either played by another band in their rehearsal space or hearing them at a party, was unbelievably inspiring. It’s so much more exciting to hear those songs live” (pg. 104-5). And he goes on to say that he liked that this live music was more mistake-prone, he liked that it was more human and more fallible. He said that was “real rock ‘n’ roll” because they could mess up, they didn’t have to perfectly sound like the record…

BW: And, although you don’t get too much into it, later in the book you do bring up Charles Keil and the concept of “participatory discrepancies,” which I think really aligns with what Friedman is saying.

PR: Yeah and Keil is such a rebel within ethnomusicology as you probably know. But he was one of the first to really examine average jam sessions where people are human and get out of groove and get back into groove as one of the beauties of human music-making. And even with the low-level musicianship of these garage bands, as Bobby Friedman was saying, it’s just so much more real to witness these other teens who don’t exactly know what they’re doing somehow manage to play some of these rockin’ songs.

BW: This might be a good time to discuss your background as an ethnomusicologist and how it informed this project, especially because the people your work is in conversation with tend not to be ethnomusicologists. Can you talk a bit about how your training shaped your interests and the kinds of questions you are asking?

PR: For the record, the book that got published, Milwaukee Garage Bands: Generations of Grassroots Rock, comes out of my PhD dissertation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and that dissertation has a lot more arguing with academic ideas, some with ethnomusicologists and some with pop scholars. So, what does my background have to do with it? Well, I have been studying bits of ethnomusicology ever since my first undergraduate studies in the ‘70s at Grinnell College, which was a very small liberal arts college with just one ethnomusicologist. Back then, the model was basically to learn about every traditional world music instrument, listen to endless reel-to-reel tapes with ragas, etc. And I don’t discount that, but that sent up some antennae for me that never went away, where I wondered if this field is truly open to everybody’s culture and everybody’s experience? And when I came all the way back around to my PhD work many years later, I felt that there was a lot more popular music being written about in ethnomusicology, but that it was still mostly Western, often middle class, academics writing about world music popular music, say from Ghana, or Nigeria, or wherever. And I think that left a blind spot when it came to participant-observation in our own culture. And I didn’t think we should leave anybody out, including white, middle class folks in the American suburbs, because, as I’m hoping that my book shows, there wouldn’t be a large part of rock music if there wasn’t this “continual pathway” (which I get from Ruth Finnegan) of garage bands that has allowed generations and generations to comfortably take up playing rock music. I just wanted that conversation to be part of the whole patchwork of things [in ethnomusicology] and I didn’t feel like the humblest part of middle class suburban American music-making was really part of that patchwork. And it isn’t about Milwaukee being some special center either, really it could have been any city, any urban area (although I did think it was better for it not to be a major recording center like New York or LA or Nashville because that changes the stakes for a lot of people in their early bands). I wanted to focus on just an average city, where kids join garage bands and some carry on and go further and others do it for a while just for the joy of doing it.

BW: Milwaukee is also an interesting choice because unlike some other smaller cities (like Seattle or Minneapolis or Athens, etc.), Milwaukee’s music scene has never really had the same kind of national recognition.

PR: Well, there were the Violent Femmes, and I’m happy that I could have a “star” [Femmes’ bassist Brian Ritchie] give so much testimony in my book, and that is sort of the flipside. We talk about stars too much, but we don’t let stars talk about how they were just average Joes…

BW: …and Ritchie’s testimony is great for that, but what I’m getting at is that part of what makes Milwaukeee, as you say, a nice Anytown, USA is that it never had that same kind national visibility.

PR: Yes. I agree with that. I wouldn’t have been comfortable writing about the Seattle grunge scene or the Minneapolis pop-rock explosion of the 80s.

BW: I think Milwaukee is also an interesting test case because it’s one of those cities that has undergone a lot of change over the years. And I’m specifically thinking about racial diversity here, and I was wondering if you ran into that with your work with respondents, some sense of how the racial divide has shifted over the last 50 years.

PR: If Milwaukee is an average, medium-sized, Anytown, USA, one thing that isn’t universal is that it’s in the top 5 most hyper-segregated cities in America, which means when I say “middle class, suburban,” sadly, I’m pretty much describing white folks in middle class suburban garage bands, and I really hope that is not true in many many other parts of the country. When I was talking with Brian Ritchie he even criticized his hometown by saying, “Sadly, my little interracial garage band that I had in the ‘70s doesn’t even seem like it could exist now.” Currently, Milwaukee is struggling with the same kind of hyper-segregation that Detroit has, that Chicago has, that St. Louis has, but I’m hoping that there’s a lot more racial and cultural diversity in garage bands in other places.

BW: We’re also talking about garage bands now as sort of a “rock” phenomenon, but in a sense you could argue that all bands (regardless of genre) start as garage bands. You could argue that early R&B, funk, any of these bands, many of them get started in a similar way. Why did you decide to specifically home in on a suburban, middle class, white rock aesthetic?

PR: I think that Milwaukee did, for better or worse, put people into a more homogenized kind of racial class category, and I recognize that, but I also really concentrated on the self-training component of know-nothings in a rock band to differentiate them from the kind of virtuosity you’re working on, for instance, as a jazz musician in a jazz combo. And I do think there are things that are distinctively “rock” about it, and I discuss things such as the sound of electric instruments and the rawness of it and how there’s a taste for that. I was trying to make it have, without stretching the truth, genre characteristics even though rock is a fairly diverse thing.

BW: And in Chapter 2 you go through every one of your respondents and talk about how each of them formed their first garage band, and from there extrapolate some of their shared characteristics. And I think that, as a theoretical frame, is really useful.

PR: And that goes back to what we discussed in the beginning, that there is so much written about stars and the bands that were one-hit wonders, that we just need to have a sense of some common characteristics in order to even talk about what amateur rock bands are.

BW: We have to begin the conversation.

PR: Yes. And then theories can be built, hopefully, from those materials.

BW: And I think that many of those more theoretical characteristics would resonate with anyone who has played in a garage rock band. How does your experience as a working guitarist mesh with how you describe amateur music-making?

PR: Well, because I was trying so hard to not be stuck in any one generation, a few times I used fellow musicians of my age who I do gigs with and they had kids who were in the prime of their garage band days. And I remember one time, during a party, I went down and the teens were in the basement and I plugged in a guitar and we tried to cooperate together, musically, and cross the generations. I really don’t want to lose what made me love playing guitar that first or second year, which was that joy of just playing a really simple groove with a couple of other people. And, for me, the first person I played with was my older brother, and that’s a powerful thing to be playing with your sibling and making those loud noises, and I didn’t want to lose the joy and all that juiciness of playing real basic music with others, and that’s what I did with this intergenerational jam session. We weren’t going to play something really complex, I showed them the Rolling Stones’ version of “It’s All Over Now” and they showed me one of their generation’s simple songs.

BW: So, then, could you talk a bit about how you found the respondents for the book? Because they are such an eclectic, intergenerational group of musicians.

PR: Well the multiplicity of garage bands in every city means that you can only do a sampling, and that sampling is going to have its own path to finding those people. So I’ve had people in Milwaukee say to me, “Why didn’t you cover this band? Why didn’t you cover that band?” And I have to say, thankfully, that there have been hundreds and hundreds of garage bands in Milwaukee. And so as a working musician as well as a college professor, I did use a lot of my fellow working-musician guitar player connections to either get their story about their teenage years or get someone they know’s story or get their own kid’s story.

BW: So, a lot of your respondents also happen to be guitarists as well.

PR: Yeah, so I’ve got to admit that, that the network of guitar players in a city is a powerful thing. You being a bass player, though, let’s admit that there is a very thin line between electric bass playing and electric guitar playing, and so a lot of the people I talked to wouldn’t differentiate a whole lot between bass and guitar and would say, “Well I played bass for a while then I wanted to switch to guitar,” or “We didn’t have a bass player, so they ‘encouraged’ me to move to the 4-string area.” There’s a lot of movement back and forth between bass and guitar.

BW: It is a very common story. And you bring this up in the book, that when you first start a band, the instrument you end on is not always the instrument you begin on. And the garage as a safe site of experimentation let’s you switch.

PR: And that’s not true in other forms. I’m not making a value judgment, but you’ve got to work on tenor sax your whole career to be a Sonny Rollins and you have to work on classical violin since you’re a Suzuki student if you’re going to be in that world. But in the garage rock world, it’s basic enough that you can switch and you can try it out. The garage band is a very basic thing that allows any of us to try it out; I really try to honor that. For instance, Jim Eanelli tells this story in the book about being in a garage band and not knowing what you’re doing, but really getting into it “by playing this moody minor key chord progression for hours on end” (Pg. 125). And that’s really an amazing kind of basicness, where this very simple musical thing transformed his whole inner being. And as he said, “[I]t felt like all your little troubles from the day just went away!” (Pg. 125).  So it’s “basic” but it’s also profound, especially when you’re thirteen years old.

Peter Roller, PhD in Ethnomusicology from University of Wisconsin-Madison, is Associate Professor and Chair of the Music Department at Alverno College in Milwaukee. Roller earned an M.A. in Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, his Thesis analyzed the country blues mandolin style of Yank Rachell—with whom he performed and recorded in the 1980s.

Brian F. Wright is a PhD Student in musicology at Case Western Reserve University and former research assistant at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. His research primarily focuses on amateur music-making and the early history of the electric bass in rock, jazz, and rhythm & blues.




Conference Update: “Pink Floyd: Sound, Sight and Structure”

by Jessica Dilday on September 23, 2014

Princeton University hosted an interdisciplinary conference celebrating the music, art, and culture of Pink Floyd at Princeton University in April 2014. We would like to share that the website for this conference is now completely updated with video clips of talks and live music from the conference, as well as pictures and press reviews.

Gilad Cohen and Dave Molk
Organizers, Pink Floyd Conference
Princeton University Department of Music


barry shank

The Political Force of Musical Beauty (Duke University Press, 2014) both describes and demonstrates how popular music scholars might think the relation between precarious experiences of musical beauty and the ability to change subjective positions within the world. Both a set of case studies and theoretical toolbox, The Political Force of Musical Beauty challenges readers to re-think what politics looks like in popular music – how do we encounter difference through music, and how can we understand the political power of these encounters? Barry Shank begins with an axiom that is as elegant as it is complex – “The experience of beauty is the recognition of the way things could be, the way things should be” (p.3) – and proceeds to follow the complicated strands that result. Drawing musical evidence from a wide range of artists, including Moby, Sam Cooke, Yoko Ono, the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Bad Brains, Alarm Will Sound, Tinariwen, and many more, Shank engages specific musical details with a group of theorists and philosophers as diverse as his musical models. Below, Barry and I explore some of the nuances of his claims and discuss how The Political Force of Musical Beauty might be of use to those of us invested in the political stakes of popular music.

political force of musical beauty

Benjamin Court: There is an implicit strand throughout The Political Force of Musical Beauty that seems influenced by classical aesthetics. It is not only important that beauty has a political force, but you also seem to argue for certain standards for the judgment musical beauty. For example, you argue that Moby’s evocation of Nancy’s sens in his sample of Vera Hall’s voice in “Natural Blues” makes that song beautiful. How significant is your particular model of musical beauty to your larger argument about politics, or would other standards of judgment work just as well?

Barry Shank: I want to step back a bit in response to this initial question. I’m not at all sure what you mean by classical aesthetics. So I want to retrace quickly the aesthetic frame that I meant to evoke in The Political Force of Musical Beauty. The question of the aesthetic emerged as I began to think about the gap in Pierre Bourdieu’s theorization of fields of cultural production. Where Bourdieu is extraordinarily lucid about the moves that actors make in a particular field and the means whereby those moves are legitimated or not, his theory has a major hole in the middle.

Bourdieu was primarily interested in critiquing the Kantian idea of a disinterested “pure” aesthetic. Indeed, the “Postcript” to Distinction is subtitled “Towards a ‘Vulgar’ Critique of ‘Pure’ Critiques.” I agree absolutely with Bourdieu’s dismissal of the idea of some kind of pure or disinterested judgment. But something has to be working in the center of a field of cultural production that distinguishes it from mere power games. Fields of cultural production are distinguished from the field of power by a founding illusio, a belief in a core value around which the field coheres and that is appealed to by legitimating actors as they make their judgments about the relative value produced by a move in the field. This illusio is necessary for the field not to descend into mere power grabs. When a field loses the sense of its central value, it can no longer be distinguished from the field of power. (See, for example, recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court, which have severely weakened the Court’s founding in any sense of justice apart from sheer politics.) We all know that there are power games in any cultural field, and Bourdieu’s unveiling of the fundamental self-interest at the heart of these games has become common sense. But there would be no point in playing the game of good music or visual representation or literary production if there were no central illusio that all the players maintain a commitment to (even though the precise content of that commitment remains up for grabs). Why struggle to produce good music if all one wants is the extrinsic reward of attention or money or power? It just doesn’t make sense. There are much more direct ways to approach those goals. So the central value must be important enough to exert a gravitational pull on the judgments of the actors who play the game.

Another questionable aspect of Bourdieu’s theories is that he uses the rather weak concept of homology to explain how the relatively autonomous fields of cultural production can have effects outside the fields themselves and in the field of power. Bourdieu was enough of an empiricist to see the political effects of actions that take place in a cultural field, but he could not explain how that worked, given that fields of production are based on an illusion. All he could say was that the alliances that develop in a cultural field have a shape similar to the alliances in the world of power. Bourdieu has essentially said that the actual products created in field of musical production are irrelevant to the relationship between that field and the world outside it. All that matters are the sets of relationships created inside the field and the ways those relationships have a structural similarity to relationships outside the field. What can I say but, he’s wrong.

I think that the way out of this problem is to recognize the power of the founding llusio in cultural production. How is it that the illusio holds its power? In fields of cultural production, the illusio enables the experience of beauty, the felt experience of right relations. The commitment to this central value is the force that holds together the relationships that constitute the field and, furthermore, the experience of that value, however it is contingently produced in any particular instance, is the central existential fact that connects experience inside the field to the world of power.

I think that is something like what Adorno was trying to get at in his late masterwork, Aesthetic Theory, where he struggles with the legacy of Kant’s aesthetics. Many of Adorno’s cryptic statements in that book capture this irreducible aspect of the experience of beauty and the political significance of that experience. For me, the key statements come early, on page 6–“The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form. This, not the insertion of objective elements, defines the relation of art to society.” And on pages 50-1, “The definition of aesthetics as the theory of the beautiful is so unfruitful because the formal character of the concept of beauty is inadequate to the full content of the aesthetic. If aesthetics were nothing but a systematic catalogue of whatever is called beautiful, it would give no idea of the life that transpires in the concept of beauty…The idea of beauty draws attention to something essential to art without, however, articulating it directly.” And then, this nearly perfect Adornian statement on page 77, “The being-in-itself to which artworks are devoted is not the imitation of something real but rather the anticipation of a being-in-itself that does not yet exist, of an unknown that—by way of the subject—is self-determining. Artworks say that something exists in itself, without predicating anything about it.”

I take all of this to mean that the experience of beauty is essential but the concept of beauty does not capture the fullness of that experience. Instead, what matters for Kant’s understanding of the beautiful is that it is fundamentally a judgment about the sense of right relations. The experience of the beautiful object is a subjective experience that feels objective about the way the world ought to be. We know that this feeling is a judgment that compels us as subjects, but we also know that aesthetic feeling is produced through the experience of a beautiful object. In this way, aesthetic judgment enables us to connect the subjective and the objective in a fleeting sensual comprehension of the way the world might be. And the intensity of that experience is precisely what lends it power outside any particular field of cultural production.

All of that, all of that abstract gesturing, is why I found Nancy and Rancière to be so helpful. Rancière also looks to Kant, but also to Schiller and his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. For Rancière, the aesthetic judgments that Kant identifies are not disinterested but undeniably socially and politically located. Rancière’s version of way that the aesthetic links the subjective and the objective works through the concept of the sensible. Here is the way he defines the problem of the relationship between art and politics: (from Aesthetics and its Discontents, p.23) “Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent society’s structures, or social groups, their conflicts or identities. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time and peoples this space.” Art is political because of its capacity to redistribute the sensible, to shift the senses of time and space that organize the legitimated and recognizable ways of knowing and being in the world.

Nancy’s beautiful book, Listening, captures exactly that moment of musical experience where such redistribution is possible. From page 7, “To be listening is always to be on the edge of meaning, or in an edgy meaning of extremity, and as if the sound were precisely nothing else than this edge, this fringe, this margin—at least the sound that is musically listened to, that is gathered and scrutinized for itself, not, however as an acoustic phenomenon (or not merely as one) but as a resonant meaning, a meaning whose sense [a not quite correct translation of the French sens.] is supposed to be found in resonance, and only in resonance.”That being on the edge of meaning is the experience of beautiful music. In Nancy’s view, this alertness to sens is an apperception of possibility beyond the immediately given social. The experience of musical beauty is a felt momentary crystallization of those possibilities. The key point is that this experience is always socially and politically determined and it also makes possible the redistribution of those determinations.

That possibility is what I hear in the central moment of Moby’s “Natural Blues.” The drop that sets off Vera Hall’s evocation of Emmett Till, “brother was dead,” focuses the listener’s attention to sens as it evokes the redistribution of the sensible. Your question suggests that I mean to imply some absolute standard of musical beauty. Seriously, I mean no such thing. I mean that the beauty of “Natural Blues” is an effect of the formal relations generated in and by Moby’s decision to place the drop where he did and by the musical, historical and political context in which that decision took place. In this way, the drop refocuses the attention of dancing listeners on the gap that still remains between the promise of the Civil Rights Movement and the realities we continue to live in. That crystallization of a political aesthetic is the generation of a community to come, an aesthetic experience of what does not yet exist in the world. So to return to Bourdieu, all experiences of musical beauty are socially situated and politically interested; the experience of musical beauty is a felt resonance with a set of not yet existent possibilities. Hence, the political force of musical beauty.

BC: This gap, problem, or illusio that you identify in your musical examples provides a strong model for other scholars to think through the notoriously tricky relationship between music and politics. And your focus on music’s formal ability to demonstrate social/political possibilities affords a material usefulness to this politics. But to narrow in on my first question, the simultaneous necessity and inadequacy of beauty that you reference from Adorno has me wondering about the multitude of subjective relations to beautiful objects. For instance, drawing on your example of Moby and Vera Hall from Chapter 1, “The sens of the song is opened up by this gap – the sudden silence that embraces that line and forces the listener to ask, ‘what?’” (p. 36). How can we account, politically speaking, for listening subjects that hear no sens in this moment, or the blogger you reference that heard this as a musical moment of white supremacy?

BS: Great questions, Ben. They really hit at the heart of the issue. There are a multitude of subjective relations to beautiful objects—and even significant dispute about what objects are beautiful. It is not possible to account for them in advance. What matters for me is that experience of the beautiful. There are always going to be persons for whom that Moby track doesn’t work—it doesn’t sound beautiful to them. There could be uncountable reasons for that, ranging from responses to the musical choices made to any of the political or social associations conjured by those choices. My sense is that many listeners who have a strong negative reaction to any of those factors have to be captured first by the music. After all, the political force of musical beauty does not produce agreement or consensus, but the legitimate grounds for dissensus. It is, therefore, necessary to talk about specific examples, specific relations. Which is why I’m really glad you brought up Luxnigra’s response to Moby’s work. Luxnigra isn’t wrong. The analysis that points out the complicity between Moby’s use of Vera Hall’s voice and the history of white supremacy is necessary. I also think it is incomplete. What I’m trying to outline in this and other examples is how the experience of musical beauty can capture the alertness of a listener as it reaches beyond itself to construct a sense of the world. Remember that the experience of musical beauty is a judgment by a subject about an object. It feels objective, even when we know it is not. It can contain contradictory complexities. It often produces significant disagreement about political choices as it distributes and reinforces a shared orientation towards what and who matters, what and who counts, what and who are political objects and subjects.

BC: Speaking of dissensus, lately there has been a revived interest in issues of difference and sameness in musicology. You place these issues right up front by stating, “Political community is not characterized by sameness,” (p. 3) and make a convincing case in part through the use of theoretical precedents set by Carl Schmitt and Chantel Mouffe. I was wondering if you could expand on your understanding of ostensible sameness in musical communities, particularly the “being-in-common” that marks the cultural environment of rock music.

BS: I’m not fully sure what you mean by “ostensible sameness in musical communities.” But I’ll take a shot at answering in this way. I think you might mean the way that a musical community might be thought of as having some particular qualities in common. Sure it can, in a reductive sense. But I’m interested in contesting those reductions. Communities are always sites of contestation. Some concepts of political community try to ground their legitimacy in something outside this contestation, often through an asserted identity. Specifying that identity, enumerating its qualities, is always an essentializing move. (Mouffe identifies all the problems with Schmitt’s efforts to purge any community of meaningful difference. Another important reference point here is Tommie Shelby’s We Who Are Dark: The Political Foundations of Black Solidarity.) Throughout The Political Force of Musical Beauty I try to eschew not only essentialism, but also any preformed concept of identity. Identities are contingently and temporarily constructed. Identity, therefore, is no less tenuous than any other ground for community. The two terms are mutually constitutive; neither term can be the ground of the other.

That said, I assume that the “ostensible sameness in musical communities” in reference to rock can point in two directions. It can point to the musical conventions that stabilize rock as a genre, and it can point towards the way that rock as a genre has been racialized and gendered. But the gendering and racializing of the musical conventions of rock do not define the “being-in-common” that the experience of musical beauty in rock can evoke. Being-in-common is an emergent process. You cannot know what that common is until after it has developed from the relations of those interacting. Here it is important to reintroduce the flow of history. Rock’s musical conventions solidified in the late sixties and early seventies. That solidification was self-consciously distilled in much of the punk rock of the later seventies into the hardcore of the eighties. The sense of right relations generated by the experience of musical beauty in rock is always related to the orientation towards the world that was lived by its producers and fans at that historical moment. I cannot take the time here to fully identify all those relations. But a certain sense of the rightness of particular hierarchies was encoded in rock. In the book, I argue that Patti Smith’s articulation of the primary rock value of freedom with an ever-receding imaginary blackness was central to the genre’s conventions. But there are many different ways to live that value. Furthermore, the being-in-common generated by the shared experience in our own time of the musical beauty of rock is not indelibly shaped by those historically lived hierarchies, even though it can never really escape that legacy. For example, recent recordings by an act like Wussy along with almost all 21st century indie rock, articulate the declining slope of those hierarchies, a shrinking of the horizon of the old forms of domination. What seems to set apart Wussy right now is the force with which they use those old musical signs of domination to reveal their current attenuation.

BC: Sorry for the vagueness – you make it very clear in The Political Force of Musical Beauty that your political model is not one based on identity. I am glad you mentioned your argument about Patti Smith (from Chapter 5) because that section stuck out for its reference to the experience of the common: “Rock generates an experience of the common that parcels out a commitment to freedom only for those who can sense the freedom that constantly recedes from the center of rock’s productions – a freedom coded as disappearing blackness” (p. 166). If, as you state, political community is characterized by difference, then is this experience of the common one of an imagined future? In other words, do you see this politics of possibility, via Rancière, Nancy, and others, as “utopian?”

BS: I don’t think you were vague, Ben. It’s just that we’re struggling to find a common vocabulary. So defining terms becomes part of the conversation. For example, what is this “common” that I draw from Nancy (and suggest is related to Rancière’s sensible)? This is another crucially specific question. In places, I clearly imply that the common is constructed in and through the shared experience of musical beauty. In that sense, it is projective. But in my discussion of Patti Smith’s version of “Hey Joe” I seem to be talking about a pre-existing tradition of the extra-musical significance of particular generic conventions. I meant this passage to identify some of the more regressive aspects of rock’s beauty. There is nothing utopian in this example. Because of the historical conditions under which it developed, many of rock’s conventions attempt to contain and control the source from which they were taken. As in so much of American culture, rock’s expression of freedom was incumbent upon imagined limits placed on others. One of the things I love about Patti Smith’s earlier interviews is the unselfconscious way that she talks about this. It can produce a really uncomfortable reaction among today’s readers. It’s painful (for me at least) to see rock’s roots in minstrelsy so blatantly revealed. Any future common that can be imagined to emerge from the musical beauty generated by rock has to deal with this legacy. Regardless of the identity of the musician or the listener. It is built into the ways the conventions work. Which is not to say that no politically progressive common can emerge at this moment from the shared experience of rock’s beauty. Just that for it to do so, it must not deny its history. I think that’s a general point about all genres, by the way.

BC: I absolutely agree that this racial history is a necessity when studying the history of genres. Race is an unavoidable topic in popular music studies and almost every chapter of The Political Force of Musical Beauty deals with race in one way or another. While your overall argument is not based on identity, how would you say that race seems to necessarily overlap with issues of musical beauty?

BS: You cannot talk about the political force of musical beauty without talking about race. As Ronald Radano and Philip Bohlman state in the introduction to their important collection, Music and the Racial Imagination, “Race lives on in the house of music because it is so saturated with racial stuff…. As a key signifier of difference, music for America—in its wonder, in its transcendence, in its affective danger—historically conjures racial meaning” (p. 1). Race is a fundamental fracture point and integral component of musical production in the Western world. It has played a central role in the development of secular popular music in the United States for longer than there has been a United States. The history of musical production in the US is inextricably intertwined with the historical context of colonialism, genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, and (in Michelle Alexander’s words) The New Jim Crow. As so many scholars have shown, (e.g. Toll, Lott, Cockrell, Lhamon, Miller) commercial secular popular music in the US developed out of blackface minstrelsy, that fundamentally deconstructive performative practice that simultaneously asserted its authenticity and its falseness. The experience of musical beauty cannot escape this legacy. Race structures the experience of musical beauty in two ways—as an ineradicable component of the social and political situatedness of every aesthetic experience, and through the historical processes whereby musical genres and the conventions that construct them have been racialized. These are really two aspects of the same process—every listener is shaped by racial discourses, every musical sound is shaped by racial discourses. But no necessary consequences follow from this fact. Musicians have creatively played with and fought musical wars with the racialization of sounds for hundreds of years. Race is an instrument, a resource, a tool, and a weapon. One of the key strategies I can think of for the creation of musical beauty is to challenge the existing racialization of musical sounds—in the process perhaps generating a new being-in-common.

BC: You make an excellent point that the racial discourses of that shape listening have no necessary or specified consequences. This point is most clear in Chapter 2 with your discussion of how musical anthems function politically. While you use several anthems from the Civil Rights Movement to demonstrate how music has fostered political community, you also describe a striking complication: “Rather than producing an intimate public, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ most often constructs a docile one, one normalized not by an equality of singing but rather by the consuming equality of spectatorship” (p. 52). I’d like to seize upon this relatively small example to ask a much broader question. What do you identify as the dangers of the musical beauty?

BS: Before I address that powerful last question, I want to specify quickly the context of that quotation about “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It comes from a larger discussion that differentiates between being part of a group failing to sing the song “properly” and being part of a group listening to a virtuoso performance of the song. I was kind of making a classic cultural studies distinction between spectatorship and participation, but in a particular context of anthemic performance. I do believe that when we all sing that song and when we all hear how impossible it is to achieve a full beautiful performance of it, we can sense the utopian nature of the nation’s claims to equality and freedom and experience something of the demand that utopian desire places on all of us. But when we sit back comfortably and listen to a masterful performance by someone else, we find ourselves pacifically expecting someone else to do the work of democracy for us.

That said, yes, the experience of musical beauty is fraught with danger. It can reinforce complicity with all kinds of horrors. It can confirm the inner fascist in each of us. This has nothing to do with the overt content of any lyrics or the social or political stereotypes associated with a genre. It has to do with the way that listening to comfortable music with easy pleasures can comfort us in the rightness of the world as we know it. Musical beauty can confirm in us not only the sense of our belonging in an unjust and oppressive world but also the sense that this is the way the world ought to be. For example, in “On Popular Music,” Adorno (and Simpson) famously say that the meaning of the second theme in Beethoven’s 7th Symphony comes only from its deep contextualization and that nothing like this can happen in popular music. In that statement, they expose their inability to comprehend the full contextual complexity of popular music. Implicitly, they insist that the contextual aspects of which they are ignorant are not important. That’s the bad side of loving Beethoven. On the other hand, the beautiful articulation of all that is horrible in the world can have a critically progressive force. Adorno also says when he is talking about “Late Style in Beethoven,” “Objective is the fractured landscape, subjective is the light in which—alone—it glows into life. He [Beethoven] does not bring about their harmonious synthesis…. He tears them apart in time…” That’s the good side of loving Beethoven. These contradictions are not really all that dramatic. They happen all the time.

BC: In my reading, the most daring points of The Political Force of Musical Beauty come when you reevaluate (and reinvigorate) musical concepts that scholars have dismissed in recent decades (including musical beauty). Your academic defense of authenticity at the 2011 EMP Conference has been major influence on my own work and your dedication to the topic here has unsettled the go-to critiques of authenticity. But you are clearly still critical of the gender and race biases that authenticity judgments often enact. What new uses do you see for the concept of authenticity in pop music studies?

BS: The issue of authenticity emerged with the coming of modernity. In The Political Force of Musical Beauty, I trace some of the history of the term relying on the work of scholars like Marshall Berman, Regina Bendix and Karl Hagstrom Miller. Berman provides a pretty clear discussion of the irresolvable contradictions that emerge from the modern habit of self-questioning. Bendix and Miller show how the quest for authenticity has shaped folklore studies and how the paradigm that developed in folklore exerted a determining role on the marketing and reception of popular music in the US, resulting in various forms of essentialism. In that framework, authenticity became a question of the relationship of particular musical sounds to a specific social ground. It quickly became a rigid trap: “Can a blue man play the whites?” and all that. The stakes in that question become more intense when musical sounds enter the marketplace. Pygmy music should only be played by Pygmy peoples; it should not provide the introduction to a Herbie Hancock hit. But such judgments are rarely straightforward. In The Political Force of Musical Beauty, I argue that the judgment of authenticity is important because of music’s power. We want to know if we can trust the feelings that it produces in us. We want to know if our sense of the social and political real generated by a set of sounds will have some extramusical traction. That’s why the judgment of authenticity remains important.

It should not be fetishized, however. Adorno had a lot of fun ripping into the existentialist hypostatization of authenticity. But in The Jargon of Authenticity, he was critiquing the misuse of the concept, not the concept itself. Misused, authenticity is an almost nostalgic longing for a previous hegemony, “an allegedly hale life…far from all social considerations.” But with music, we care deeply about the social considerations. No popular music genre holds the title to authenticity; every musical sound can be used to lie. All performers have to be able to fake it. No listener’s pleasure should be limited to the sounds they grew up with. But the concept of authenticity remains important insofar as it functions as a judgment about the relationship between the musical and the extramusical. Here’s how I put it in that 2011 Pop Con paper: “The judgment of authenticity is simply the effort to identify music that feels real, that seems grounded in something more significant than the vibrations from which it is shaped, so that the feelings that are articulated in and through musical performance can be trusted.” We even judge the slickest most sophisticated pop performers in terms of this relationship to the real. That’s what authenticity is; that’s why it matters.

BC: A relatively small, but well-made, point in your chapter about the Velvet Underground about “fun” implies that the enjoyment of music-making can be both a way out of avant-garde seriousness and the commercial trappings of pop. With all of the recent attention on affect, have you considered further work on the feeling of musical fun?

BS: However native to the field of popular music it is, the concept of fun is not a simple one. Fun is not the answer to why we have a relationship of enjoyment to particular sounds. It is simply a statement of the problem to be analyzed. Where there is fun, the popular music scholar must ask why this set of people finds fun in this set of sounds. Fun implies a certain intensity of enjoyment that feels like it is natural. In fun, one has lost (for only a little moment) that self-questioning self-doubting tenor that has become an intimate aspect of daily life. Which means that in fun, the problematics of social contradiction have been momentarily forgotten. And that means that a social and political problem has found an imaginary solution. (The bibliography for the answer to this question comes mostly from Fred Jameson—The Political Unconscious and “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture.”) Because the solutions are imaginary, they are lacking an important connection to the real. But when fun feels authentic, then it has some connection—the solutions that generate fun are never totally false. There is a utopian moment of possibility hidden inside all popular music. In a post I wrote for Sounding Out! a year and a half ago, I talked about the fun that is embedded in Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” There I called it “the demand for purposeless pleasure,” which now sounds to me to be disturbingly similar to Kant’s purposeless purpose. But just like Kant’s disinterestedness really hides the interests that are reproduced and reaffirmed in every moment of beauty, the purposeless pleasure of fun contains a kernel of connection to a desired for image of the real. When Psy dances in all the places where he officially does not belong, he is dancing for the erasure of those official boundaries. When we dance along, we imagine something of the same disappearance and the same freedom.

BC: Your analysis of rock imperfections and “participatory discrepancies” made me wonder how your model of musical politics relates to structuralism. You are very careful to warn that your readings depend upon contexts and are not simply inherent to the music. As you planned each of these chapters, how important was the ability to analyze musical structure for your arguments?

BS: I assume that you are referring to the “readings” I produce of songs like “Heroin,” or “Gloria.” I want PFMB to contribute to a project of developing a specific popular musicology. I’m committed to detailed careful listening to popular music. Because close listening enables the auditor to hear subtle patterns of interaction that generate moments of musical beauty that then crystallize a sens for extramusical relations. My goal in my discussion of these songs and others is to lead listeners through the sounds that are the constitutive elements of those moments of beauty. In the process, I hope to demonstrate their aesthetic complexity and show how moments in the experience of that complexity generate a sensibility that shapes an orientation towards the extramusical. When traditional musicologists talk about musical structure, they often leave out what are the most important components of popular music. The terms of their analyses do not fit. Don’t get me wrong: melodies matter; harmonies matter. But what matters more are the textures of the sounds, the ways that sounds wash over each other, the force that rhythms exert on skin cells and blood vessels, the spaces that are conjured by slightly out of tune guitar strings, scattered handclaps and splashing cymbals. Embracing the structure of permanent desire and temporary release produced by the tangle of guitars, the throbbing of the kick drum, and the shriek-drone of the viola in “Heroin” forces the listener to recognize the commodity desire at the heart of the popular. Listening carefully to the interplay of piano, guitars, drums and voice in “Gloria” reveals an opportunity to experience a wide-focused longing, an invitation to join that experience and to revel in its delayed satisfaction. I want my readers to hear how the beauty of these songs is produced and feel how that beauty shapes their world.

BC: To follow-up on the issue of musical structure, I am fascinated by how you approach musical structures and their ability to affect those other important components of popular music: the ways sounds wash over each other, the force that rhythms exert on skin cells and blood vessels, and so forth. For example, your analysis of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” describes how John Cale’s viola provides a uniquely forefronted drone, in contrast to the tension and release repetition of Sterling Morrison’s guitar and Maureen Tucker’s drums. As you demonstrate, Cale’s drone does not provide consistent sameness, but rather a continuous “oscillation of difference” (p. 141). In your conclusion to Chapter 4, you state,

“In ‘Heroin’ a droning viola captured the sense that something lay just out of reach…The fans of this music experienced that sense of beauty equally as the felt sense of rightness of these formal relations: simplicity amid monotony, freedom amid tight generic constraints, beauty above all created out of the sheer intelligent manipulation of limited resources, and, finally, over and over the aching echoing understanding that the human production of value escapes every effort to coin it, every effort to concretize it. Thus, a redistribution of the sensible occurred” (p. 145-6).

This quote brings us back to your earlier point about the relationship between musical form and social/political form. With “Heroin,” listeners are able to reshape their world according to principles that can be culled from musical structure. Thus, the link between musical structure and politics is, as you say, through listening. Does a politicized experience of musical beauty imply a specific type of listening, though? In other words, does the listener understand this redistribution of the sensible as a conscious experience of musical form?

BS: Wow, another great question. Whenever one embarks on a project like the one I pursue in The Political Force of Musical Beauty, one risks the implication that all “real listening” is the listening that I do. You, all of you, must listen in the way that I do, in the way that college professors and intense music fans do. I hope that I do not insist on that. Instead, I think I am showing how close listening can reveal the ways that the music works as music in the production of its beauty. I had a lot of fun writing those long interpretive descriptions of individual songs. I believe that in that writing lie some truthful comments about those songs and the connections they concretize between musical beauty and extra-musical form. I do not think that every listener is aware of these connections in the moment of listening fun. Nor do I think that every listener should. I think I should be aware of this. It is my job. I hope that I have done that job well and that readers who listen along with me are convinced by what I wrote. If that is true, if readers agree with my interpretations, then I think that I have shown something important about those songs and the political force of their musical beauty. In the particular case of “Heroin,” one central point of my argument is that in the classic recording of this song, the Velvets force us to re-feel the meaning of a commodity, the unceasing demand for more, and the possibility of reimagining a place outside that demand—while remaining inside the system that continually reproduces that demand. The Velvets wanted a hit. They thought “Heroin” would be a hit. On the radio. When I listen to it and hear that desire, I hear the impossibility of substance being contained within the commodity form and the musical beauty produced by the form’s evacuation. If you think that too, after reading what I wrote about it, then I will be a very happy boy.

BC: Finally, I was especially intrigued by your analyses that argue for the experience of musical beauty as locally world-changing. How literally or materially do you take interpret the political force of musical beauty, and what would you hope to see in future scholarship about music and politics?

BS: The political force of musical beauty derives from music’s ability to make us feel the rightness of particular combinations of relations. The orientation towards the world that results from this sense of rightness finds its extramusical expression through subtle transformations in the ways that sounds and textures and gestures and inflections move from strangeness to familiarity, from frighteningly other to engagingly and differently common. Your world is changed by the aesthetic experience of musical beauty. When you interact with differences that reverberate disturbances you don’t quite understand but whose sense you can feel, you recognize those inflections, gestures, textures, and sounds as intentional and politically meaningful—they are the sounds and gestures that constitute a political community of difference. I intend all of this quite literally, quite materially. The commons that is constructed through musical beauty (and countless other types of aesthetic affect) sets the terms of possibility for political action. The political organization of humans can only take place when a felt understanding of the commons exists. Extending the reach of our ability to experience musical beauty extends the complex of relations that can be experienced as a shared world. All of these sounds, textures, gestures and inflections come with extramusical associations. They are never “purely musical.” In fact, the purely musical does not exist. I would like to see a lot more work that confronts the reality of the need for an aesthetically constructed commons as a condition of possibility for any traditional political action to take place.

That said, I feel like I must repeat some of the caveats that are stated fully in The Political Force of Musical Beauty. The political force of musical beauty is a limited one. It establishes the possibility for a shared felt sense of the world. This shared felt sense does not directly determine any political actions or beliefs. There are no direct connections between musical taste and political positions. A shared sense of musical beauty is an index of a shared orientation towards the world, which enables a political community to emerge. This political community is not a community of right-thinking progressives. It has no necessary politics in that sense. What it does have is an ability to comprehend the differences that are included within it and through that comprehension carry on the real work of politics. New political communities can be formed when new experiences of musical beauty are shared. The political force of musical beauty is limited, but it is also fundamental.

Barry Shank is professor and chair of the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University where he teaches courses in interdisciplinary methods, cultural theory, and popular culture. A founding member of the Long Ryders, he is also past president of IASPM-US and the author of Dissonant Identities: The Rock ‘n’ Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Wesleyan 1994), A Token of My Affection: Greeting Cards and American Business Culture (Columbia, 2004), and The Political Force of Musical Beauty (Duke, 2014), as well as numerous essays on cultural theory, American studies, and popular music.

Benjamin Court is PhD candidate in Musicology at UCLA. His dissertation, tentatively titled “Not Knowing: Musical Amateurism in the 1970s,” studies constructions of musical knowledge, specifically how and why punk and experimental musicians during the 1970s framed themselves as amateurs by purporting a lack of musical knowledge. He is the current graduate student representative of IASPM-US and has presented scholarship at EMP/IASPM-US, the AMS Pacific-Southwest Chapter Meeting, and several graduate student conferences.



Announcing the New IASPM-US Web Editor Team

by Mike D'Errico on August 29, 2014

After two years as executive editor, I am now officially stepping down from the position. Thank you to everyone I have had the pleasure of working with in the past two years, and a special thanks to Justin Burton for creating a strong and sustainable foundation for both the website, and the public face of IASPM-US in general. That being said, I am pleased to announce the new IASPM-US Web Team: executive editor Jess Dilday and assistant editor Victor Szabo. Together, Jess and Victor bring the combined expertise of professional DJing, radio hosting, and social media management, as well as academic research and scholarship across disciplines. It has been great to hear their innovative and exciting plans for both the website and the online presence of IASPM-US as a whole, and I look forward to seeing where they take it in the coming months.

Jess Dilday is a recent graduate of the MA program in Sociology at University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Her interests include local music scenes, dance floor dynamics, queer theory, nostalgia and musical activism. She also DJs, plans and promotes dance parties under the moniker DJ PlayPlay.

Victor Szabo is a PhD candidate in the Critical & Comparative Studies program at the University of Virginia’s Music Department. His dissertation, “Ambient Music as Popular Genre: Historiography, Interpretation, Critique,” investigates the aesthetics of the Ambient genre through a cultural history of electronic Ambient recordings. He has an article in the Journal of Popular Music Studies on the queer performativity of Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, and also works on issues of gender, race, and class in U.S. American popular music, as well as questions of musical value and taste. You can stream his weekly electronic music radio show, Toxic Shocks, on

Mike D’Errico
PhD Candidate
UCLA Musicology


IASPM-US Interview Series: Roll With It, by Matt Sakakeeny

by Jessica Dilday on August 18, 2014

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Roll With It is a firsthand account of the precarious lives of brass band musicians in New Orleans. These young men are celebrated as cultural icons for upholding the proud traditions of the jazz funeral and the second line parade, yet they remain subject to the perils of poverty, racial marginalization, and urban violence that characterize life for many black Americans. The gripping narrative follows members of the Rebirth, Soul Rebels, and Hot 8 brass bands from back street to backstage, before and after Hurricane Katrina, always in step with the tap of the snare drum, the thud of the bass drum, and the boom of the tuba.

Steven Feld: Let’s start where you end the book, in conversation with Willie Birch about words and images, representation and evocation, about working together to create a rhythm from ostinatos to riffs, from grooves to surprise accents. So: there have been several photographic accounts and responses to the world of brass bands in New Orleans, and there have been literary, documentary, and historical writings. But nothing like what the two of you do here: combine a layered multiplicity of academic and local voices with the angularity of modernist art registers that distinctly place us in the now, with nods to the visual genealogy of Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and others. This is a bold move, particularly in the way it locates a very contemporary story of the streets, the struggles, the sounds, in the longer and larger historical duree of race and place, of reputation and memory. Tell us more about the kind of representational work you hoped to do through your collaboration with Willie Birch, and about how it has been received now by New Orleans locals and aficionados, as well as an audience of newcomers and passersby.

Matt Sakakeeny: Collaborating with Willie Birch was a dream I had, a creative germ of an idea that nestled in my imagination after first seeing a painting of his in 2006. It was a life size rendering of a brass band parade, and because of the scale of the work and the specific techniques he used I felt swept up in the image. Willie can erase the boundary between art and spectator, which is also what happens when you attend one of these parades and there is no separation between musicians and club members and everyone else. I was writing my dissertation and trying to figure out how to do that with another two-dimensional medium, words on a page, and it wasn’t working. I remember presenting on a panel at the ethnomusicology conference with our friend Andy Eisenberg, and I was explaining afterwards how I was trying to model my presentation on the rhythm of the parade, and he casually responded that I wasn’t there yet. When I saw Willie’s painting something clicked: He’s not just representing or depicting a multisensory experience, he’s using it as a model, a method. How can I do with words what he did with visuals?

For the dissertation I could only begin to play with narrative and poetics and pacing, but after starting at Tulane I decided to rewrite everything top-to-bottom for the book, and while I was working on it I brought Robin Kelley in for a campus lecture and Willie was there. We began a relationship that is paternal, fraternal, and professional, meaning he is my friend and he is also one of the most insightful critics of my work. When I told him my dream of collaboration, he said only if he read my manuscript and approved, so I gave him a printout of the first draft and he brought it back to me with the margins filled with suggestions in red ink, and said let’s get to work. The full story is in the afterword of the book, which we wrote together, but essentially we created an ethnographic monograph that is also an “art book,” as Willie calls it. (He compares it to The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Langston Hughes and photographer Roy Decarava, which of course I would never do, and he teases me that years from now our names will have to be reversed on the cover so his is first, which is more plausible.)

Willie and I are almost 30 years apart in age, and he is a black New Orleanian with an established international career while I am a white northerner who moved to New Orleans 17 years ago and just wrote my first book. We come from different social locations, but each of us is attempting to model our work off of local cultural formations and we both do so explicitly from our relative subject positions. Maybe most importantly we assess ourselves as both cultural critics and creative artists, the latter of which continues to be marginalized as “radical” or “experimental” in academia decades after Foucault, the reflexive turn in anthropology, and the system wide deconstruction of objective research. Trying to model writing or visual art after another cultural formation takes creativity in translating methods from one medium to another, and then combining words and visuals was a thrilling artistic process hashed out in Willie’s studio using photocopies, scissors and tape to create a syncopated rhythm. The painting technique (grisaille) is literally layers of paint and enamel that creates the depth that draws the viewer in, and the text is a purposeful layering of musicians’ voices, scholars’ voices, and my voice, and they work together to replicate the dense layering of polyphony and polyrhythm that is the hallmark of the New Orleans style, especially in the street parades where audience participation and environmental resonance create added layers.

The response locally has been beyond gratifying, with the highlight being the book release party, which we had at Sweet Lorraine’s bar near Willie’s studio with the Hot 8 Brass Band. And New Orleanians and fans of the music are SO invested in it, I’ve had some great exchanges with readers, but the text is very critical of structures of power in New Orleans so ideally there will be some backlash that inspires public dialog. It will also be interesting to see the response from my colleagues. The only scholarly review I’ve seen was very dismissive, and it sent me into spells of laughter because the reviewer just absolutely nailed what I was trying to do, except he hated it! “Adding to the vagueness is the absence of photos… Instead the book has only line drawings by artist Willie Birch.” That line is a keeper, but my favorite criticism was about the organization of the writing: “finding specific kinds of information [is] nearly impossible, requiring readers to immerse themselves in the players’ lives. In other words, one must read the book cover to cover.” So maybe we’re on to something.

SF: As engaged ethnography, Roll With It is one of the first books about music to deal deeply and consistently with what is now widely called “precarity,” surely one of the hottest buzzwords in contemporary anthropological discourse and debate. Much ink has been spilled to argue why “precarity” is so much about the current moment in histories of power and position, and is a concept that can take us well beyond other familiar analytics (like resistance and accommodation, structure and agency, labor and materialism, ethics and care, etc.) Tell us about the significance of “precarity” as a means for discussing the scene, the music, the musicians, the moment, the aspirations, the troubles, the post-Katrina anxiety-scape presented in Roll With It.

MS: The book is organized around the experiences of a handful of musicians from three brass bands in New Orleans. These bands propel the movements of large crowds in jazz funerals and neighborhood parades called second lines, and the musicians have marched off the streets and onto the stages of festivals, concert halls, and clubs. These young men are ambassadors of the city, and yet they remain vulnerable to the racial pathologization and curtailed citizenship facing many others in urban enclaves across the U.S. They are alternately celebrated as culture-bearers and marginalized as secondary citizens in richest and most powerful country in the world. So the term “precarity” is definitely applicable, just as it is in the many so-called third- and fourth-world sites that fill the anthropological record, and the most significant studies of post-Katrina New Orleans have taught us much about the vulnerabilities produced by market-based governance (Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith by Vincanne Adams, Driven from New Orleans by Jay Arena, and The Neoliberal Deluge edited by Cedric Johnson). The city has been restructured as a neoliberal laboratory for experiments in charter education, public housing, flexible service labor, and privatized health care, and poor black New Orleanians – Americans – are the primary lab rats.

But the allure of precarity as a shiny new analytical category can be blinding, obscuring longstanding patterns of marginalization that began during plain-old “capitalism” and have adapted extremely well of late. Precarity and neoliberalism are hawked as the cause and the effect of the new world order, whereby the borderless transnational expansion of capitalism and market-based strategies of governance (“neoliberalism”) produce unprecedented disparity and insecurity (“precarity”). Yet capitalism has been based on the transnational mobility and exploitation of labor, in the form of objectified and commodified bodies, for over 400 years. That’s some precarious shit right there. In the U.S., the slave system was replaced immediately by a police state of enforced segregation, ensuring disempowerment by legal means (Jim Crow rule) as well as within the supposedly free market (“redlining”). Were the people subject to these curtailments of citizenship not “precariats”? If the era of civil rights and Great Society were a fleeting attempt to legally redress these uninterrupted histories of peril, then the subsequent rise of market-based solutions is not so much a new ordering as a re-ordering, a flexible adaptation that allows for the retention of prior patterns of marginalization. I’m on board with calling this precarity if it helps readers relate these particular conditions of insecurity to others, but I situate contemporary conditions within what Benjamin called the “state of emergency.” Precarity is not the historical exception but the rule.

For me, the book is about power. The original title was “Instruments of Power,” and while our wonderful editor Ken Wissoker ultimately convinced me not to hitch my cart directly to Foucault’s horse, I do miss the bluntness of that pairing. Picking up a musical instrument is an assertion of power, a form of agency, and my primary goal was to contextualize that microlevel act within the macrolevel of an imbalanced power structure. That meant furthering “structure and agency” studies that defined the social sciences for decades, while attending to critiques of “resistance and accommodation” that recast all social relations as relations of power, moving beyond the false dichotomy of powerful/powerless and the false consciousness of “hegemony.” Can you imagine if I had organized my study around structure/agency, resistance/accommodation, or hegemony/complicity today? When precarity loses its luster like these concepts have, I hope the claims made in the book about the persistence of marginalization across historical epochs will remain relevant.

SF: I was impressed, in Chapter 3, by your nuanced ways of wrestling with “tradition,” particularly how it signifies very differently to differently positioned actors, histories, generations, and narratives in New Orleans, and how it can discursively and practically operate simultaneously as a deep site/signifier of pride and a very moldy Trojan horse. How do you respond to the classic larger question provoked by this kind of analysis of “tradition?” Namely: Does modernity produce more difference than effaces? Always? Never? Sometimes? Often? Maybe? Is there something new this New Orleans brass band site and tale tells us about either/both the social productivity or potential paralysis of “nostalgia”?

MS: That chapter is absolutely the most resonant with classic topics of ethnomusicology and folklore, but I actually had no intention of contributing to that intellectual lineage; the discourse of “tradition” arose during my fieldwork among the musicians themselves, as a defining schism between older and younger musicians, and they led me into that area. I knew I wanted to focus on relatively young people, and I think that allowed me to stake out an underrepresented stance towards tradition, the study of which has historically been dominated by research on elders as tradition-bearers. I realized I could make a contribution to a much smaller and more contemporary body of literature on how new generations balance innovation with adherence to tradition, the weight of which can be a real burden for them. More than anything it was an ethnographic imperative: if it’s important to my subjects than it’s important period.

So you’re right that I only dealt in passing with folklore’s paradigmatic question of the preservation vs. transformation of tradition in relation to modernity, even if the entire chapter implicitly extends critiques of both the structuralist “tradition-as-inertia” school and the poststructuralist “invented tradition” school by Richard Bauman, Greg Urban, and others. My take is outlined a bit more explicitly in the historiographic essay “New Orleans Music as a Circulatory System,” which essentially builds off the productive friction between two intellectual lineages: the massive body of literature on African retentions of tradition that defined the field of African American studies, and recent research on circulation by Ronald Radano, Karl Hagstrom Miller and a cluster of scholars working on the blues. In this work, “tradition” is the glue that binds together a sprawling network of actors with diverse intentions, including cultural innovators who are attuned to a plethora of sounds and styles, and folklorists and industry professionals who are attempting to constrict their identities and performances to those that align with their expectations of what is “traditional.” One effect is that the feedback loop adds surplus value to tradition and bestows cultural capital on those deemed tradition bearers, and another is that boundaries of what is and what is not traditional are demarcated.

In the article, I went all the way back to the slave dances at Congo Square, the bedrock of New Orleans music if not African American music more broadly, and approached the ring shout not only as the source of tradition but also as a site of performance (of music, of bodily engagement, of race, of power), and sketched a genealogy of the circulating accounts of the dances that now provide our only documentation of them. The book, which is historically grounded but predominantly focused on the contemporary, is the other terminus: I am trying to account for all the dynamics that arise when tradition has been saturated by centuries of investment into the very idea of what constitutes tradition. As in many other cases, New Orleans traditions have become enhanced by recognition, especially through festivals and other staged cultural exhibitions for tourists, making them even more bulky and cumbersome for young people charged with upholding it in particular ways. And the short answer is, most of them don’t. They innovate, they express themselves, they mobilize rather than strictly preserve. This is what every generation going back to the slaves in Congo Square has done, and cultural vitality and longevity depends on it, because inertia and formulaic adherence is a recipe for mummification. Just compare the audiences for blues and jazz with those of brass band music in New Orleans, maybe the only place in the U.S. where young black people dancing to live music is completely routine.

SF: The words and images of Roll With It roll and rock, and are often visually evocative beyond the black and white artwork, and sonically evocative beyond voices edited into the printed word. Have you thought more since publication about ways to develop, extend, or connect the book project more to film and radio/recording or internet media? Did you think at all about making this a more image/sound enriched Ebook? As someone whose resume includes being a New Orleans resident, a journalist, a media producer, a performer, and a scholar, what are your current thoughts on bringing the project to the largest public audience through and across multiple media?

MS: I would have loved to create a more developed Ebook, but the demands of time and the path to tenure derailed that possibility, so I created a website with my photographs, videos, radio stories, and profiles of bands and musicians, including a reading guide with media relevant to each chapter. Willie and I are also planning a traveling gallery exhibition of his paintings paired with my audio recordings of brass band parades to create a kind of installation piece. The paintings are massive and really need to be experienced in person to get the full effect of his approach, which situates the subject in the artwork on the same plane as the viewer and sort of forces the spectator to enter into the space that the subject governs. The added context of the soundscape will create another dimension, so we’re fishing around for the resources of time and money to make it happen.

SF: How do you simultaneously stay tuned, keep current, and move on from a project of the ethnographic and theoretical depth and scope of Roll With It?  What are you doing now to keep the local conversations going, as well as to develop new trajectories for your research? Have your interlocutors asked for any particular kind of follow-up? Once you’ve worked with such a compelling cast of characters what comes next?

MS: I have the incredible luxury of living in the place where I conduct my research, of doing anthropology at home. And it just happens to be New Orleans! I really couldn’t be more grateful. That relationship with the city and the people shaped my whole methodology for research and writing. I moved here in 1997, and worked in public radio for six years before going away to New York for grad school, and when I returned in 2006 to do my year of fieldwork a job came up at Tulane and I got it. So the whole time I was “in the field” I was also “at home,” and that really directed the way I approached people. It gave me lots of freedom to observe and interact with people on an informal level, to create friendships with the people I was drawn to the most, and to learn about them by just hanging out in addition to more formal interview settings. Assuming you consider Accra one of your “homes,” I would venture that you assess your relations with the musicians in your movies, recordings, and writings comparably. And as with your Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra, when I turned to writing my book I saw the potential in adopting a first-person narrative frame of storytelling, where a small group of people become the hub of the book and their experiences become the spokes that connect to larger structural patterns.

I would never suggest that I see myself as integral to these musicians’ lives, or that they are pillars of my social life. Musicians are public figures who navigate within a very rich public sphere, and I see myself as part of that sphere and my “data” is mostly derived from the informal interactions and observances I made out in this world. When I finished the book I shared relevant sections with the musicians, which brought about some “dialogic editing” at a much more modest level than what you detailed in your second revised edition of Sound and Sentiment. I was honored when Tyrus Chapman’s response was “it sounds like me,” and nothing could make me happier than having every musician in the book say that, but of course reality is more complicated. For instance, there are hundreds of brass band musicians who don’t appear in the book, and to those who don’t know me (and perhaps to others that do) I may be just an interloper profiting off of their cultural labor. Racial politics and histories of exploitation and appropriation run very deep, no one gets a free pass, and my response was to write openly from a reflexive narrative position about those sticky engagements.

But anthropology at home doesn’t end with publication. In the best instances, I curate public programs with the musicians. Locally, if someone asks me to lecture, I instead request a collaborative presentation with musicians, inviting them to speak and perform. Last year I traveled to Norway with the Hot 8 Brass Band and I had a conversation with Bennie Pete onstage before their performances, and I’m doing the same with Rebirth Brass Band for the 25th Anniversary of the Southern Folklife Connection at UNC. However, my future encounters with brass band musicians will not all be fueled by the spirit of collaboration; there will be other motivations, people will be wary of me or worse, and ideally that will lead to more dialog and more collaboration.

As for my future research, I am writing a theoretical essay on sounded communication in the jazz funeral, drawing upon the anthropology of the voice and linguistics to interpret the capacity of instruments to communicate to the dead and among the living. I have begun a new research project with the congregation of the Church of the Living God in Toccopola, Mississippi, charting the sounds of their services on a continuum of sounded communication ranging from the sermon to shouting to singing to the instrumental articulations of the steel guitar. Eventually I will bring together this research in a book about “voice,” broadly conceived, and interwoven together with reflexive analysis of my own multiple voices (musician, author, radio narrator, etc.). That’s where my publications are going to be directed. In my ongoing engagement with New Orleans, my intention is to enter more directly into cultural policy, to advocate for musicians with those in the public sector and the culture industry. That’s where the rubber hits the road.


Matt Sakakeeny is an ethnomusicologist and journalist, New Orleans resident and musician. An Associate Professor of Music at Tulane University, he initially moved to New Orleans to work as a co-producer of the public radio program American Routes. Sakakeeny has written for publications including The Oxford American, Mojo, and Wax Poetics. He plays guitar in the band Los Po-Boy-Citos.

Steven Feld is a musician, filmmaker, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Music at the University of New Mexico. His books include Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana, also published by Duke University Press. He is a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.



As the director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham, Stuart Hall (1932-2014) called for a groundbreaking critical practice that takes seriously the political heart of popular culture, “one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged: it is the stake to be won or lost in that struggle…” From the contours of digital video’s gendered representation, to the politics of ethnicity in the recording studio, to the affect of co-movement on the dancefloor, the sounds and styles of popular music both reproduce and trouble the cultural status quo. Popular music studies itself also unfolds on contested political terrain, as we struggle to transform–rather than reproduce–pop’s place in the discourses and practices of dominant world systems.

Hall outlines a popular cultural studies that offers an intervention into established regimes of representation, and the 2015 IASPM-US conference takes up his mandate for “the deadly seriousness of intellectual work” on popular culture. In a neoliberal age in which the substance of political struggle organizes around unequal flows of global capital and the elusive politics of everyday empowerment and disempowerment, popular music studies becomes an amplifier by which the radically contested and otherwise fugitive strains of musical practice become audible. Here, the study of Black aesthetics, youth culture, disability, socioeconomic class, postcoloniality, queer identities, and Third World feminisms, among others, hangs together with attention to the textures of musical composition as well as the patterns of global media markets.

Hall locates the struggles of power in the realm of aesthetics and politics. Central to this work is a nuanced consideration of the ways in which media (for McLuhan, “any technology by which the human body is extended”) serve both to reproduce established discourses and to generate new possibilities for artistic liberation, decolonization, self-authorship, and the imagination of alternative futures. Popular music studies mobilizes an inclusive concept of media studies that acknowledges dominant global digitalities alongside subcultural, stylistic, and other “off-label” engagements with media technologies. In order to account for the breadth and depth of musical practice, the field binds together an engagement with aesthetics, the textures of technology, and the politics of difference.

The 2015 IASPM-US conference will revisit the genealogies of critique that shape popular music studies’ longstanding intervention into discourses on culture, media, and power. An approach that takes into account the radical contexts of musicmaking is key to documenting processes of empowerment and disempowerment in pop. It calls for an understanding of, in Hall’s words, “the effect of the unseen ‘work’—that which takes place out of consciousness, in the relationship between creative practice and deep currents of change.” The field honors Hall’s legacy by practicing popular music studies while simultaneously reflecting on its theoretical and critical arcs. We enthusiastically welcome proposals that creatively engage both popular music and the broader field of cultural and media studies, particularly through these key discourses:

1. Roots and Routes
While popular music studies continues to critically mine the genealogies of genres, lyrics, styles, and sounds in pop, we ask how the field can also better foster a complex, multilinear engagement with globalization, diaspora, and the mobility of musical practices. Reflexively, what continuities does pop music studies have with other modes of engaging music, culture, politics, and history, and how can attention to these strengthen critical work? Who are we as a body of scholars who converge at IASPM-US, whom does the field currently include and exclude, and who do we hope to be?

2. Defining the Struggle
What populations exist on the periphery of or fully outside dominant world systems that control the flow of money, availability of vital resources, and ease of mobility? When these populations make popular music, what does it sound like, how does it circulate, and what interventions become possible through these sounds? How has/does this music fit into the field of popular music studies? In what ways might popular music studies take up the political work of contributing to the empowerment of the subaltern?

3. A Detour through Theory
What happens when we apply Hall’s mode of conjunctural analysis–a mode of studying culture that takes into account the intersecting histories, polyvalent meanings, cultural genealogies, media technologies, politics of place and time, and other radical contexts that reverberate in a given pop genre/scene/style? How can the field of popular music studies, which so often draws from theories generated in literary studies, sound studies, gender and sexuality studies, ethno/musicology, anthropology, sociology, multicultural studies, philosophy, science and technology studies, and communication and media studies, articulate a theoretical legacy from within?

4. Pedagogy and Intervention
The demands of work in the academy and contemporary media challenge pop music scholars to balance theoretical rigor and readability that, like popular music itself, reaches wide audiences. How can intellectual work about popular music circulate in formalized, institutional settings as well as in public venues? What are the opportunities and pitfalls of the growing acceptance of popular music studies within academia? What role do popular music scholars play in light of widespread de-funding of higher education and the increasingly corporate model of university administration?

5. Digital Media and Representation
How can popular music studies engage new developments in technology and globalization both in terms of the increasing speed and thickness of their networks, and in terms of their contested, polyvalent, and problematic work in perpetuating global inequality? How do complex forms of musical communication and representation shoot up through the established regimes of representation and make space for new musical possibilities?

Please submit proposals via Word document [last name_first name.docx] to by 15 October 2014. Individual presenters should submit a paper title, 250-word abstract, and author information including full name, institutional affiliation, email address, and a 50-word bio. Panel proposals, specifying either 90 minutes (three presenters) or 120 (four), should include both 125-word overview and 250-word individual proposals (plus author information), or 250-word overview and 50-word bios (plus names, affiliations, and email addresses) for roundtable discussions. Please indicate any audio, visual, or other needs for the presentation; each room will have sound, projector, and an RGB hookup. We also welcome unorthodox proposals that do not meet the above criteria, including ideas for workshops, film screenings, and other non-traditional formats. All conference participants must be registered IASPM-US members (it’s okay to register after one’s proposal is accepted). For membership information visit: For more information about the conference, go to or send email inquiries to

Program co-chairs: Justin D. Burton (Rider University) and Ali Colleen Neff (College of William and Mary).
Program committee: Rebekah Farrugia (Oakland University), Luis-Manuel Garcia (Freie Universität Berlin), Anthony Kwame Harrison (Virginia Tech), Nadine Hubbs (University of Michigan), Elizabeth Lindau (Earlham College), Larisa Mann (New York University), Shana Redmond (University of Southern California), and Barry Shank (Ohio State University).


Call for Nominations: The 2014 Woody Guthrie Award

by Jessica Dilday on June 30, 2014

The International Association for the Study of Popular Music-US Branch (IASPM-US) requests your nominations for the most distinguished English language monograph in popular music studies published during 2013. Books may be nominated by any member in good standing of IASPM, by members of the prize committee, by their authors, or by publishers.  Copyrights must state 2013.

CHANGE:  The deadline for nominations is August 1, 2014. Nominations should be sent electronically to, and should include the author’s name, book title, and publisher’s information including ISBN. The society will announce the winner at the spring 2015 IASPM-US meeting.


IASPM-US: Call for Web Editor

by Mike D'Errico on June 20, 2014

IASPM-US Banner 2014

The executive committee of IASPM-US is currently seeking applicants to fill the position of Assistant Web Editor.

The Assistant Web Editor commits to an 18-month position. In the first six months, primary responsibilities include managing social media networks for IASPM-US (Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud), as well as assisting the current Executive Web Editor, Jessica Dilday, in generating content for the website. In the next year, the Assistant Web Editor will take on the position of Executive Web Editor, becoming the primary point person for website related tasks, including: maintaining and generating content for the website; working closely with the executive committee and program committee to keep the organization updated about elections, annual conference details, and other IASPM-US related business; addressing the executive committee and broader membership with an annual report at the IASPM-US conference; and training the incoming Assistant Web Editor. The executive committee is particularly interested in applicants who are adept at social media networking, blogging, and content curation. While there are no technical prerequisites to the position, a working knowledge of WordPress is desired.

To apply for the position, please send a 300-500 word personal statement to, including a brief biography, list of accomplishments, and what skills and ideas you would contribute to the organization. Applications must be received by July 14, 2014.

Please direct any questions to current web editor Jessica Dilday, or outgoing web editor Mike D’Errico, at


2015 IASPM-US Conference

May 14, 2014

IASPM-US is pleased to announce that its 2015 annual conference will take place in Louisville February 19-22, hosted jointly by the University of Louisville and Bellarmine University. Theme and CFP Call for Proposals (Abstracts Due October 15, 2014) Notes on Deconstructing Popular Music (Studies): Global Media and Critical Interventions International Association for the Study of Popular […]

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IASPM-US Interview Series: “Rhymin and Stealin: Musical Borrowing in Hip-Hop,” by Justin Williams

April 21, 2014

In Rhymin and Stealin: Musical Borrowing in Hip-Hop (University of Michigan Press, 2013), Justin Williams turns his ear to the re-use of pre-existing musical material in hip hop, primarily focusing his attention on rap. Williams theorizes hip hop as a genre that holds borrowing as a core principle, and he explores the way pre-existing music […]

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“Sound and Affect: Voice, Music, World”: Stony Brook University, April 18-19

April 10, 2014

Sound and Affect: Voice, Music, World Stony Brook University, April 18 and 19, 2014 Keynote speakers will include Lydia Goehr, Robin James, Tamara Levitz, and Gary Tomlinson. A full list of our speakers (including scholars in musicology, music theory, ethnomusicology, philosophy, art history, media studies, and literary studies) is included below. This conference is co-sponsored […]

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IASPM-US Interview Series: The Amazing Bud Powell, by Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr.

April 9, 2014

Bud Powell was not only one of the greatest bebop pianists of all time, he stands as one of the twentieth century’s most dynamic and fiercely adventurous musical minds. His expansive musicianship, riveting performances, and inventive compositions expanded the bebop idiom and pushed jazz musicians of all stripes to higher standards of performance. Yet Powell […]

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Putting the Ass in IASPM: A Review of the 2nd Annual IASPM-US DJ Night

March 31, 2014

*This review was co-authored by Jess Dilday and Mike D’Errico The IASPM-US conference’s DJ night this year was definitely one to remember. We had a diverse group of DJ/scholars dropping a variety of beats, and enthusiastic crowd participation created the perfect storm on the dance floor, which didn’t let up until the bar closed at […]

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