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 GuthrieAward@iaspm-us.net, 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.
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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 is used to define subgenres, evoke space, lament or celebrate martyrs, and bond artists from one generation to the next in a complex web of influence and lineage. Below, Justin and I delve into the topic of musical borrowing as related to the book and beyond.
Justin D Burton: Hip hop studies is a broadly interdisciplinary field, and I find it helpful to think about how our varying backgrounds inform our work on the genre. Early in the book, you mention that you are a musicologist and that Rhymin and Stealin is a product of your musicological training. How does this shape the book? Or, the same question from a different angle—how do you think the book might have turned out differently if you weren’t approaching the material from a musicological perspective?
Justin Williams: One of the things that draws me back time and time again to hip hop studies is that so many people from diverse disciplines engage with it. Hip hop becomes the common ground and gives me insight into the concerns of other fields. At the same time, it makes me think about what I am doing as a musicologist and why I think that is important. I’m finishing up work on editing a Cambridge Companion to Hip Hop which includes scholars from anthropology, ethnomusicology, music theory, art, music production, linguistics, politics, dance studies, etc. and it really does show how vast the network is.
My background in musicology helps me to a) work with different methods in which to talk about sound and b) acknowledge historical links with other musics which perhaps have been given more scholarly attention in my field. Now this is not to elevate hip hop to some greater, legitimate topic (I hope we don’t need to keep convincing people hip hop deserves scholarly inquiry), but to look at real links between practices in other cultures and eras. If I find a lamenting musical figure in songs that mourn Tupac and Biggie, for example, that cultural code of the descending minor chord progression still holds true for me and others. Or: can the strategic formation of lineage between Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven be compared to Dr. Dre, Eminem and 50 Cent in their own respective worlds? Since the subject of the book is “musical borrowing,” a musicological subfield, it also makes sense to adopt these perspectives in their historical context. Other fields can talk about sound as well as about music history quite competently, but I found that the musical borrowing perspectives had not really been discussed in hip hop studies, so I wanted to try and follow those arguments through, work through them, and provide case studies that would help to demonstrate the varied intertextual practices in hip hop and what they might say about our times.
JDB: This, I think, is a perfect explanation of what interdisciplinarity can do—it not only brings us into others’ fields of study but also helps each of us better understand and explore how our own training informs our work. As for those case studies, I notice that the book can be broken into a couple of sections. The first two chapters after the introduction look back, with you exploring the roots of borrowing in hip hop and then hip hop’s own engagement with jazz. Then the final three chapters trace parallel groups of rappers, focusing on Dre/Eminem/50 Cent alongside Tupac/Biggie. How did you settle on these as your case studies? Obviously, you only have enough space to cover a few examples, so I wonder if there was something particularly representative or evocative about these case studies that drew you to them?
JW: I haven’t really thought about the book like that, but you are right, and that’s really interesting. In a way, I see Chs. 4 and 5 (on Tupac/Biggie and Dre/Eminem/50 Cent) as companions, and Ch. 3 as an exploration of music and geography (of space, the automobile, and place, Los Angeles). I’ve deliberately chosen mainstream examples, and many which represent a mainstream West Coast gangsta ethos. This has worked from a musicological perspective since Dre and others had similar production techniques so it was a way to develop and discuss their “sonic signatures” in a way that had not been done before. I’d extend that further to The Game (whom I am writing an article on as we speak) and Kendrick Lamar though Kendrick turns it on its head, in my opinion. As for jazz rap, I am a jazz musician so I felt comfortable talking about that genre, and it provides a useful case study for talking about genre, semiotics, and the meanings that certain sounds and genres can bring to the table, so to speak. The list of case studies is endless to be honest, so I did have to stop somewhere!
JDB: This is something you cover in the book, but, before moving on, could you say a few words about how “musical borrowing” is not simply “sampling”?
JW: Thanks for this question, as it is an important one. Sampling refers to the specific process of digital sampling—taking a sound in binary form so that it replicates exactly what was originally heard. It was originally a studio technique for replicating sounds (i.e. using horns when a horn section wasn’t available or one couldn’t afford them). The practice was made cheaper and popularized in the mid-80s by samplers like the E-mu SP-12 and hip hop artists who extended DJ practices in more efficient and complex ways (not to say one is better than the other, of course). We now associate samplers with the construction of “beats” or perhaps electronic dance music but one could also sample a voice of a person for a hip hop track.
But what about when Sugar Hill Gang uses a backup band to re-perform Chic’s “Good Times” for “Rapper’s Delight”? That’s not sampling, and it’s not DJing. It’s a disco cover with rap over it, but falls under practices of musical borrowing. So does mentioning classic rap lines in a rapper’s flow. In other words, there are all these non-digital-sampling practices which occur within hip hop that warrant discussion and often derive from the same intertextual impulses as previous African-American art forms but aren’t strictly sampling, and I wanted to give them some attention as well.
I can’t tell you the amount of times when I talked about my book topic, people responded “Oh, so like sampling?” Well, yes, but it’s more than that. Graffiti is all about taking something with one purpose (spray paint) and using it for something else, or breakdancing. Auto-tune is essentially borrowing a technology and using it to different ends.
The reason to focus on “musical borrowing” (a term not everyone embraces) is twofold: one, to align myself with a musicological discipline founded by J. Peter Burkholder which I believe has been neglected in the past two decades (shout out to Phil Ford for first showing me his work); and second, simply to assert that the vast intertextuality in the hip hop world includes not only digital sampling, but is one of many techniques used to reference the past, or to use the past as raw material for the construction of new sounds and identities. I argue this at length in the introduction to my book.
I could have called the book many things and could have used many terms: intertextuality, musical theft, musical promiscuity (as Jason King once suggested to me), quotation, etc. But I felt comfortable with borrowing given that I wanted to align my story with a history of using previous musical materials to new ends.
JDB: Burkholder’s whole goal with that 1995 essay was to open up a field of study focused entirely on musical borrowing as you’ve defined it here. The idea was to cross genre/era/musician in the interest of hearing the way musical borrowing is employed over time and in different places, connecting unlikely analogs in the hopes that—in his case—Renaissance practices could enlighten Ives scholarship. His vision for a field of musical borrowing hasn’t exactly come to fruition. Why do you think that is, and what draws you to it? Burkholder includes hip hop as a part of the field but mostly as a gesture, focusing more explicitly on his area of expertise, Western art music. As a hip hop scholar, can you articulate the value of plugging into a field that studies musical borrowing across such sub-disciplinary divides? How might this intersect with other approaches to musical borrowing, like Joe Schloss’s ethnographic focus, Amanda Sewell’s taxonomic analysis of the Beastie Boys and PE, or Stanyek and Piekut’s notion of intermundane collaborations?
JW: There’s probably a few reasons why Burkholder’s “Musical Borrowing as a Field” has not really been embraced wholeheartedly by music academics at large, or at least not used more. As an article, the taxonomy works really well for Ives, but needs to be tweaked for other repertoire. Additionally, borrowing is problematic as a term because it almost suggests the object being borrowed can be returned. I think many just don’t like the term. And I think there is just a general skepticism in looking at things across time and place. We become specialist in one or two fields for various reasons, not least because of time restraints and job marketability. Philip Tagg looks at pop by often acknowledging the history of musical sounds and gestures, but he is skeptical of musicological terminology and wants us to adopt his terms, terms which some musicologists may not want to adopt.
But in another sense, borrowing has been embraced by many scholars, it is just that those people who are interested in borrowing (whether they call it parody, quotation, homage, allusion, intertextuality, modelling, etc.) don’t really talk to each other very much. Burkholder’s bibliography of borrowing attests to the fact that there are hundreds of people working on this field, they just might not know it, or they might use different terminology. I’m also to blame here, but another reason this hasn’t been pushed forward is because musicology is not terribly collaborative compared to other fields. And even when two or more people collaborate, they may all be “Medievalists” or “jazz scholars” or “pop scholars” etc. etc. How could we get 8-10 musicologists around a table, all trained in completely different subfields and repertoire, to create a working document that addresses musical borrowing as a field from a real variety of disciplines? It would take some determination, but it might be possible. Nor would I want that document to become a ‘my way or the highway’ set of tools, terms, tricks and methods that then dominate the discussion.
David Metzer’s first book is probably the closest I’ve come to seeing a single person looking at a wide variety of eras and genres. I’ve always liked what that book was trying to do, and I hope more things like that come out. My book focused only on hip hop, so in a way it was trying to add hip hop to this discourse of books by Burkholder, (Chris) Reynolds, Metzer, (Honey) Meconi, Stilwell and Powrie (ed) and many others.
In relation to Schloss, Sewell, Stanyek and Piekut, yes, they are all part of this conversation. In a way, Schloss’s Making Beats and its concern with compositional process is more aligned with old school musicology than we’d think at first glance. I hope that doesn’t sound like I am being unfair to Joe, as that book is still the best book on sampling out there (!) But I can see a link between some producers who wish to hide their sample sources by transforming them and Reynolds’ book about how 19th century composers tried to hide their influences to sound original. Sewell is taking it in a really positive direction, to really get into the analytical details of these techniques as well as many of the legal issues. Stanyek and Piekut’s article on the intermundane involves some fascinating comments about dead labor and the studio processes of “Unforgettable” which very much add to my writings on post-mortem sampling in Ch. 4 of the book, and I’m still trying to think through some of the issues they brought to the table with that article.
So yeah, we’re all here doing this work, and I guess the question is: do we try and use the same terminology and try and push things forward, or is it simply a case of having it grow organically through responding to each others’ books and articles? Maybe we need an edited collection on musical borrowing, or on intertextuality, but one which does not feel like a set of discrete articles, but something which has come about through a symposium/workshop, something that feels like a real productive conversation. Maybe this is already happening and I just didn’t get the memo.
JDB: I guess part of the subtext is the question of whether a field needs to define itself as such. Certainly the work is being done, and bibliographies—including Burkholder’s impressive catalog as well as those found in books and articles by scholars working on musical borrowing/intertextuality/sampling—provide connective tissue.
As for the term “borrowing,” you mention here and in the book that one problem the term faces goes something like this: to borrow something implies the ability to return it, and borrowed music can’t be returned. I’ve been having trouble getting with this line of reasoning, though, as I think we often use the term “borrow” to refer to things that can’t be strictly returned. A few weeks ago, my neighbor borrowed sidewalk salt from me during a snow storm. Three days later, he knocked on the door and gave me a new bag of salt. He didn’t bring back the exact salt I gave him—nor would I have wanted him to—but he brought back something very similar to what I gave him. I hope this isn’t reductive, but it seems musical borrowing works in much the same way. Dre borrows through reperformance “Swing low, sweet chariot/Stop and let me ride” and returns to PFunk (and the rest of us) something very much like what he took.
There are a few problems with this analogy, namely that salt has a finite use; once my neighbor drops salt on his sidewalk, those granules are used up. A musical idea can be endlessly recycled without using up the original source, so what Dre returns is a new bag of salt but also the old bag, which remains available to other musicians to “borrow.” What the analogy perhaps highlights, though, is the value of what is returned—Dre has reworked PFunk’s musical material in imaginative new ways and in the process generated more material for others to borrow.
I wonder whether some reluctance about this term is bound up in issues of ownership, copyright, and control. Certainly, Queen and David Bowie weren’t particularly thrilled with the return on “Under Pressure” that Vanilla Ice offered. And famous, rich producers borrow/take from unknown artists without asking or willingly sharing the profits, which crosses some ethical lines most of us would like to preserve. How does a term like “musical borrowing” fit into this complex web of activities, and how do you think cultural practices of capital shape our understanding of both musical borrowing and the terms we use to name it?
JW: I like what you are saying about the value of what is returned after it has been re-worked, and I do think it brings up important issues of ownership. What I perhaps should say is that the music can be returned, but never in its earlier form—it is transformation of the “original” through re-contextualization. Can we really hear The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” the same way post-Puffy?
Musical borrowing, as I see it, is a framework that attempts to start a conversation about the different ways that hip hop music references the past and other things around them. The legality of doing such things, or the value of it (in both senses of the term) was not a huge part of the conversation within the book. This was both in the interest of pushing the “not all borrowing is the same” agenda and that I had other things to say about what such practices tell us about hip hop and the times we are living in.
Of course, the legality of sampling, ownership, value and control tells us things about the times we are living in and influence the musical poetics of the tracks. My mind is certainly starting to think more about labour and practices of production which do use older labour and materials to sell or update products. So I think some of the next work I do will address these issues from the standpoint of labour and ownership.
JDB: Alright, so let’s get back to those other things you had to say about the practices of borrowing in hip hop. I don’t want you to give away an entire chapter of the book, but you explore the intersection of borrowed sounds and their spatiality in relation to Dr. Dre and his focus on car sound systems (and I know you also explore automobility further in the recently published Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies). Could you say a bit about how borrowed sounds can evoke space and also follow up on what you mentioned earlier, that The Game and Kendrick Lamar extend (and in the latter’s case, “turns on its head”) the sonic signature of the West Coast that Dre was so instrumental in helping popularize?
JW: Yes, in the Oxford Handbook (of which you are in as well) I talk about a longer history of car audio and use Dre as a case study. That was a great experience as it helped me to think about music and mobility, which could be considered one arm of mobility studies (and one of the book launches will be at the EMP conference coming up at the end of April). I’d love to write an even longer history of music and automobility someday, but that feels like a life-long project to me and someone may beat me to it!
My chapter on Dr. Dre in the book takes a similar perspective, but emphasises this idea of borrowing and tailoring sounds for certain spaces, in this case, the automobile. But as you say, sounds can signify both space and place, and the whiny “Funky Worm”-esque synth has become representative of the West Coast sound of a certain era, and a signifier of Compton. If you listen to Lamar’s “M.A.A.D. City” (feat. MC Eiht), the track uses that synth style at the end, but I read it completely different in that context given the lyrical content of the song. For Dre, it was about celebrating Compton. For Lamar, it is a leitmotiv which in his context feels very different, certainly not a celebration in the G-Funk sense. It almost makes you feel ashamed for celebrating it in the early 90s. It is actually a very powerful track as I hear it. And with borrowing, so much hinges on a person’s knowledge of the “original” material, so I think if you grew up with G-Funk, or know it well, then that is what makes the Lamar track especially poignant.
JDB: One of Lamar’s gifts seems to be his ability to evoke mixed emotions about hip hop and its tropes in general, and listening through to “M.A.A.D. City,” I can hear how that GFunk sound resonates in new ways. The last chapter of your book covers the idea of lineage and the way rappers/producers use musical borrowing to establish themselves in specific hip hop traditions. This theme runs through the book, really—jazz samples mark off one subset of hip hop while Dre’s synthesizers map the West Coast and Pac/Biggie samples apotheosize these larger-than-life figures from the mid-90s—but the last chapter considers the strategic ways Pac and Biggie samples can be deployed to play up Eminem and 50 Cent as carrying the gangsta rap torch into the 21st century. This brings to mind a couple other examples, one recent and one not, of rappers/producers positioning themselves in Biggie’s wake. Puff Daddy, of course, achieved an impressive level of national notoriety just after B.I.G.’s death, and his use of samples stands out as different from what most of his peers and predecessors were doing—do you see Diddy as a significant game changer when it comes to musical borrowing in hip hop? Just this year, Rick Ross released his Mastermind album, which features the track “Nobody,” whose hook is pulled from Biggie’s “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Kills You.” Jon Caramanica recently reviewed a Ross performance for theNew York Times, and ends with some loose thoughts about the way Rick Ross is calling on Biggie at a time when the rapper is shrinking back from his image just a bit—Caramanica describes the album as attempting some introspection as Ross himself appears and sounds smaller than before. Caramanica’s review called to mind your chapter and has me thinking about whether the sampling of Biggie (or Pac or other hip hop icons) can be employed not just to establish careers like Eminem’s and 50′s but also to shift gears, if indeed that’s what Ross is doing. How would Diddy and Ross intersect with your work on lineage and borrowing in hip hop?
JW: Good question. First of all, I picked Eminem and 50 Cent to discuss sampling and lineage because I also had things to say about Eminem’s production, his “sonic signature” which helped in providing a study of hip hop beats which is a big focus of the book. Not only do I want to nuance and widen the discussion on borrowing and intertextuality, but I want to provide case studies in the musical analysis of hip hop. That example worked well and I am now expanding some of those ideas to The Game and Kendrick Lamar. In terms of Rick Ross, I certainly see this both as a “rap cover” as well as using the social capital of B.I.G., and the personal detail that Ross was the target of a drive by shooting in 2013. Diddy is also using Ross as social capital as well, I think, to stay relevant. To answer the question, though, it may be part of a larger “changing gears” as you say in this context, but rappers can often either utilize laments or more introspective tracks as part of their overall output (largely popularized by 2Pac, and extended by Eminem). The fact that Ross is doing this in 2014 demonstrates there is still more to talk about, lots more (and don’t get me started on Yeezus!)
As to Diddy, I think his way of operating did reflect a shift. This is something I want to write more about: producers The Trackmasters and The Hitmen doing production for Diddy and Will Smith and others which were closer to rap covers than pieces transformed through sampling. A song like “Come with Me,” I think, reflects the Clinton-era economic prosperity of the late 1990s, and these covers in a way also update the previous product in a particular way. This is something I’ll talk more about at EMP and hopefully more in print soon.
JDB: The relationship between Diddy and Clinton-era prosperity is an intriguing one—I’ve been talking to my students about him in the context of so-called luxury rap. The Police and Led Zeppelin are the Audemars and Bugatti of the licensing world. You mention The Game and Kendrick Lamar as your current focus of study, and Kanye and Yeezus as fruitful possibilities, too. Were there any studies planned for the book that didn’t make the final cut? And is there anything else you’re working on now?
JW: We had J. Griffith Rollefson give a research seminar in Bristol the other day, and he talked a bit about Watch the Throne (2011) as “luxury rap” (and it’s great to have another hip hop musicologist out in the UK now!). So I think my original list of case studies for the book was extremely long, and I am now wondering if I have that lying around as a document or notes somewhere as it would be interesting to re-visit. Some of those ideas extended the genre conversation, like the use of Bollywood samples and exoticism (and pop exoticism has been discussed in lots of places like Glenn Pillsbury’s book on Metallica and Tim Taylor’s work), but I didn’t have time to do anything with that. I also was toying with the use of rock and metal in Run D.M.C., but I think Loren (Kajikawa) has done some work on it since. I think I initially had a lot of ideas for case studies, but they haven’t been pursued yet, but may well be extended in future.
Other things I’m working on include a chapter on crowdfunding for the Oxford Handbook to Music and Virtuality (with Ross Wilson), a chapter on Soweto Kinch for an edited collection on Black British Jazz (ed. Tackley, Doffman, Toynbee), and editing the Cambridge Companion to Hip hop which has been a very personal journey for me. First of all, it will be dedicated to the memory of Adam Krims (my former PhD supervisor), such a pioneer, but it also is a testament to my navigation of hip hop studies, which largely thanks to IASPM-US has allowed me to meet all sorts of people interested in hip hop from other disciplines. Case studies also include a lot of hip hop outside the US, and make me realize that we need either a book series on hip hop outside the US, or 50 edited collections on the topic, or both. I think that the Companion will be informative for students, fans, and others, and that’s one purpose, but it is a celebration of one of the most interdisciplinary fields I can think of. It is turning into an important snapshot of the next generation of hip hop scholarship which is going in amazing directions. After this, my attention moves to co-editing a Companion to the Singer-Songwriter (with Katherine Williams), which surprisingly has little in print beyond biographies and autobiographies (with a few exceptions; we’re presenting a singer-songwriter panel at IASPM-UK in Cork). Lastly, my attention increasingly is moving to the contributions of the UK to hip hop culture, where US influences morph into unique and innovative styles in terms of breakbeat-based dance musics and street art, to name but two things.
JDB: We have a lot to look forward to, then. I’ve been especially excited to see the Companion, and it will be particularly rewarding for the field to have such a hefty contribution in Adam Krims’ memory. Thanks for taking the time to discuss the book for this interview series.
Justin A. Williams is Lecturer in Music at the University of Bristol. He received his BA in music from Stanford University, master’s degree in music from King’s College London, and a PhD from the University of Nottingham. As a professional trumpet and piano player in California, he ran a successful jazz piano trio and played with the band Bucho! which won a number of Sacramento Area Music Awards and were signed to two record labels. Research interests include: popular music studies (especially hip-hop),musical borrowing, film music, jazz, digital patronage, music and geography, mobility and sound studies, and the analysis of record production. He is currently finishing editing the Cambridge Companion to Hip-hop.
Justin D Burtonis Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University and serves on the IASPM-US Executive Board. His research interests include hip hop studies, posthumanity, and critical race theory. Recent and forthcoming publications can be found in the Journal of Popular Culture 46:3, the Journal of the Society for American Music 7:3, the Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, and Sounding Out! . He is co-editing with Ali Colleen Neff a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies titled “Sounding Global Southernness.”
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 by Stony Brook’s Departments of Music and Philosophy. It has been organized in collaboration with the Music and Philosophy Study Group of the AMS and with the assistance of the Music and Philosophy Study Group of the RMA.
The event is free and open to the public. If you have any questions, please contact Stephen Decatur Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anthony Abiragi, UC Boulder
James Currie, University at Buffalo
Murray Dineen, University of Ottawa
Ryan Dohoney, Northwestern
Benjamin Downs, Stony Brook
Denise Elif Gill, Washington University, St. Louis
Lydia Goehr, Columbia University
Ted Gordon, University of Chicago
Roger Mathew Grant, University of Oregon
Mack Hagood, Miami University, Ohio
Robert Harvey, Stony Brook
Christopher Haworth, University of Calgary
Aaron Hayes, Stony Brook
Berthold Hoeckner, University of Chicago
Don Ihde, Stony Brook
Robin James, UNC, Charlotte
Adam Knowles, New School
Sophie Landres, Stony Brook
Tamara Levitz, UCLA
Sara Marcus, Princeton
Eduardo Mendieta, Stony Brook
John Melillo, University of Arizona
Julie Beth Napolin, New School
Tony Perman, Grinnell
Deniz Peters, Music and Performing Arts, Graz
Emily Richmond Pollock, MIT
Michael Birenbaum Quintero, Bowdoin
André Redwood, Notre Dame
Martin Scherzinger, NYU
Lorenzo Simpson, Stony Brook
Chris Stover, New School
Kris Trujillo, UC Berkeley
Gary Tomlinson, Yale
Daniel Villegas Vélez, University of Pennsylvania
Dan Wang, University of Chicago
Emily Wilbourne, Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
Peter Winkler, Stony Brook
Jessica Wiskus, Duquesne
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 remains one of American music’s most misunderstood figures, and the story of his exceptional talent is often overshadowed by his history of alcohol abuse, mental instability, and brutalization at the hands of white authorities. In this first extended study of the social significance of Powell’s place in the American musical landscape, Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. shows how the pianist expanded his own artistic horizons and moved his chosen idiom into new realms. Illuminating and multi-layered, The Amazing Bud Powell centralizes Powell’s contributions as it details the collision of two vibrant political economies: the discourses of art and the practice of blackness.
Nate Sloan: This book began as your dissertation. What drew you to Powell at that time?
Guthrie Ramsey: I had had an interest in Bud Powell as a performing pianist. You come up with your list of musicians that you want to emulate, and Powell was one of them. When I matriculated to the University of Michigan and began this life as a scholar I really didn’t know what I wanted to work on, but at that time jazz was a viable subject for a dissertation at Michigan because of an eminent scholar of American music, Richard Crawford, and at that point he had advised the dissertation of Mark Tucker on Duke Ellington, Jeffrey Magee on Fletcher Henderson, Jeff Taylor on Earl “Fatha” Hines; [laughs] and I guess I was continuing in that tradition of jazz pianists being examined under Rich Crawford.
NS: What made you feel like this was the time now, in 2014, to turn this into a book?
GR: I wrote another book before this one, Race Music: Black Culture from Bebop to Hip Hop, and that is more expansive than jazz; it takes blues, rhythm and blues, gospel and hip hop, and I wanted to produce that book first because as a young scholar I wanted to build a reputation on a breadth of popular music styles instead of one. When I moved back to Bud Powell I believe I had learned a lot more about what would make it a stronger book by that time and so when I returned to him l I just felt like I had more chops to deal with all the issues that his life entails.
NS: I find it refreshing that your book is not just a chronology, but an assessment of who this figure was and what his importance was. One thing that’s powerful about your writing is that it doesn’t avoid Powell’s mental illness, a significant part of his career. Did you have any precedents for writing about jazz and mental illness?
GR: I relied on the research of other people who had written about mental illness more generally in the African American male population. What I learned from dealing with Powell is that you have to approach the subject both realistically and sensitively. You have to think about what it means for a person who happens to be young and black at midcentury, what it means to be both somewhat disabled psychologically and yet, at the same time, to believe that the music you play and write was your main mode of communicating what that meant. I tried to treat him not only as a working musician, as a laborer in the culture industry, but to think about the fact that he had a family, he had personal relationships, he had colleagues. I wanted to show how he interacted with them in the context of being a hugely talented musician, and someone who had to live a life being somewhat impaired.
NS: Reading your book got me thinking: do you hear references to his mental instability in his musical output, whether in the music itself, or even in the song titles, like “Un Poco Loco,” or “Dance of the Infidels,” or “Wail.” I wonder if you read those as references to his condition.
GR: Well, I’m not sure who titled pieces. Sometimes the titles come from other people. I think they were meant to signify that [Powell's mental illness], but I typically tried to think about what the music is doing structurally and how that signifies in the world, and using the titles of songs only as a departure or some useful reference for listeners who are reviving the music. I don’t see it necessarily all the time or unilaterally as a prompt from the musician him or herself.
NS: Could those titles be interpreted as a marketing tool? Because some of his song titles are strikingly different from those of his colleagues.
GR: I think about it as more of an introspection, and as someone who was perhaps deeply philosophical. That’s what I personally get from the music, and I certainly wrote from my own interpretive stance: I think is he is person who had to learn how to think because to he had to interact with a world that was not always kind to him, not always understanding or patient with him.
NS: It’s shocking to read about his treatment at the hands of psychiatric institutions. I couldn’t help but think as I was reading: if he hadn’t been black, would his treatment have been different? Would the reception of his fractured genius have been different?
GR: I think once you look at the social evidence and the fact that he was living under Jim Crow; this was at a moment when things were taking a change. But, it is what it was [laughs]. In terms of whether a non-black person would have been treated differently, I had to depend on others’ research; who talked about the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia among white middle class women. The diagnoses tended to move around to different demographics, different populations at different historical moments. So not taking the term schizophrenic as being a stable one, but one that means different things at different times for different people.
NS: There’s an aspect of the book that I found very interesting, which was learning of Powell’s classical education and his abiding interest in classical music. I wonder if you hear a classical influence on his compositions, or his improvisatory technique?
GR: Yes, I do. I think that while there are lots of ways to gain technical facility on a instrument, the musicians like Powell who did study Western art music and piano literature, I personally hear—even in his articulation, the sweeping grandeur of some of his statements—much derived from that training. Not only from that training, but also how he was able to couple with, and play with, the popular styles of the time. I really see it as being an amalgamation of trainings, let’s call it.
NS: Can you expand on his friendship with, and his mentorship by, Thelonius Monk? I wonder if you detect an influence of Monk on Powell, or maybe even vice versa.
GR: I certainly hear the influence join from Monk to Powell, because I think of Thelonius Monk as being a master of harmony, and that he was able to take the language of popular music of his moment and infuse it with an air of experimentalism. I look at Monk as the same thing with blues based culture as was Powell with the bebop language: that he had to a certain degree inherited, and to a certain degree helped codify. I definitely hear it on the level of harmonic expression, the influence on Powell from Monk.
NS: I totally see that. It’s fascinating to read this book and see him not only interacting with Monk but with Tatum himself, and there’s that amazing anecdote about him and Tatum getting into a cutting contest and Powell proving he can use his left hand by only playing with it the next night, and even maiming his right. I mean, this sense of competition and one-upmanship is kind of stunning, and you describe it as Powell taking it further than anyone else.
GR: [Laughs]. I’ll say.
NS: To the point that he’s disturbing his friends and manager.
GR: Well, what I think we can concentrate on is that this shows where this heroic, masculinist, virtuosic display, if left unchecked, where it can go. And particularly in the hands of someone who has a proven track record of having some emotional and psychological instability.
NS: One thing I find really compelling about Powell’s trio records is his interplay with his drummers, especially, and I’m curious if in your research you found that there was one drummer in particular that he really liked working with, was there a whole stable of drummers who he enjoyed playing with?
GR: There are not many records of Bud Powell’s words out there, that I know of. I know that there were musicians who were particularly sensitive to him, like Max Roach, first and foremost, and throughout his life there was an empathy between them, not just musically but interpersonally. I think that tends to be true with musicians who knew Bud Powell before he had all his struggles and developed all of these issues, and I sense from them some kind of perfection around him, that he was—and this is what I really wanted to come across in the book—is how much his colleagues really cared about him, and how hard it was on him and all his family members when he started having all these issues and troubles, and I look at whatever they were doing on the bandstand as how they felt about him when they weren’t playing music. I also know that there were musicians who claimed—for instance, George Duvivier—that he did not know Bud Powell at all but just had an extended gig with him. That he was unknowable. That, in fact, his personal demeanor was not interactive with everybody.
NS: Thinking about the larger continuum of this music, I wonder how you see Powell’s influence on 21st-century jazz musicians. Is he someone who is still studied in jazz institutions? Are there specific pianists working today who are directly inspired by his craft?
GR: I hear at least 99% percent of the realm of what we call jazz piano today as influenced by Bud Powell’s centering of the pianist in this avant-garde experimental musical culture of the mid-20th-century, and how he’s on par with what would be expected of a saxophonist or a trumpeter in the context of those small bebop ensembles. And I feel that influence even today.
NS: In the first few chapters of your book you paint a narrative of bebop that beautifully complicates the narrative sometimes put forth in a very facile and reductive way in textbooks. I’d love to hear you talk for a second about how your understanding of Powell’s life and work helps give us a better understanding of the bebop movement.
GR: I think the movement—since we’re calling it that, I kind of inherited that word—I’d like to have more nuanced pictures of the musicians who contributed to this style of music. They led complex personal and professional lives, they were individuals. Some had longer lives than others; some were able to successfully deal with the underside of the jazz life, able to craft a living in an industry that was stacked against your well-being, able to deal with the challenges of trying to be an artist in a Jim Crow society that would have preferred you be a shoeshiner. A lot of different discourses that I’m hoping to illuminate in the book are about who these musicians were, what their aspirations were, how many obstacles there were to them in creating the creative life that they wanted to have. And then, ultimately, I want to talk about it as a story of victory, of creative victory, among harsh circumstances. We want to have our masterpieces without the messiness of the everyday lives that those masterpieces represent, and I suppose what I wanted to achieve in this book is to show how we can be both enamored of what they created but then also respect the process they went through to create it.
Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania. A widely published writer, he is the author of Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (University of California Press, 2003). It was named outstanding book of the year by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. His next book, Who Hears Here?: Essays on Black Music History and Society, a mid-career collection of his essays is also forthcoming. He was recipient of the Lowens Award from the Society for American Music for best article on an American music topic in 2001.
Nate Sloan is a PhD candidate in musicology at Stanford University, writing a dissertation on the Cotton Club. His research interests include jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and urban geography. He is an Associate Professor at the California Jazz Conservatory. As a composer, he has written music and lyrics for two musicals. Recently, he scored the film Slomo, which won Best Short Documentary at SXSW 2013 and was shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination. He is also one-half of the guerrilla theater production, The Gideon and Hubcap Show, which performs exclusively in living rooms.
*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 2 AM. We even had an MC.
The event was held at the Station—the bar section of Southern Rail, a restaurant, bar, and music venue built to pay homage to the historical train station in Carrboro, North Carolina. The vintage feel of the creaky wooden dance floor lent an eclectic air to the night’s festivities, with broken records sitting alongside a stuffed deer head lining the wall behind the DJ booth. Early in the night, the IASPM crowd filled the floor, only to be later flooded with a diverse mix of UNC students and Carrboro townies strolling in to celebrate both St. Patrick’s Day and the start of Spring Break in the research triangle.
The event was hosted by resident DJ PlayPlay—North Carolina native, key player in the Durham club scene, and assistant web editor for IASPM-US. As she was setting up, a man following the moniker “Chocolate Drop” approached her and requested she play some “old school.” As a sound check, she dropped The Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache,” and the party popped from there. The IASPM crowd, already eager for the music to begin, began to dance, while PlayPlay handed the mic to Chocolate Drop, who proceeded to rock it with a brilliant freestyle to successfully hype the crowd early on.
With the energy created by Chocolate Drop, IASPM-US graduate student representative Benjamin Court—a.k.a. Supreme Court—started out the night with his first foray into DJing, dropping the Talking Heads, ESG, and numerous gems from the New Wave, to win over the crowd’s mix of intellectuals and weekenders alike. It was a solid entrée into the DJ booth for Court—a child of the Rochester punk scene, most often seen performing shock and awe noise sets in LA art galleries and dive bars with shirtless compatriot John Horner.
Next up was Bit Faker, the alias of UCLA PhD student and film producer Tiffany Naiman. Rocking a Native Instruments S2 digital setup, she rolled out an immaculate selection of late 80s/early 90s industrial and EBM, including “The Most Wonderful Girl” by Lords of Acid, among other 303 house favorites. Her set was certainly a highlight for the organization’s president, Robert Fink, who was drenched in sweat and grinning in delight at this point. Meanwhile, other conference attendees captured the moment on their phones, snapping picks, tweeting, and shooting Vines of the event.
When Mike D’Errico—a.k.a. The Attic Bat a.k.a. The Los Angeles Grime Sniper a.k.a. Bat God—hopped behind the booth and dropped back-to-back trap music via Beyonce and Miley, everyone who wasn’t already dancing rushed the floor. Trap music is the genre most of the Station regulars are familiar with, as most of the resident DJs play at least some half-time instrumentals during their four-hour sets.
Luis-Manuel Garcia (LMGM) transitioned with an all-vinyl, classic turntable setup, packing the floor with a disco and house set that did not disappoint. Having carried a crate of records from Berlin while rocking a faulty house mixer at the Station, LMGM’s set represented the “vinyl is final” aesthetic well, with every blend hyping the Station even further.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the night was the 90-minute dub-for-dub vinyl battle by former DJ trio in the research triangle—DJ PlayPlay, Doctor Dakar (Ali Colleen Neff) and Fifi Hi-fi (Sarah Honer). Especially impressive were the smooth and consistent blends between tracks reflecting widely disparate tempos and stylistic feels, as well as the sense of play and experimentation imbued in the crate digging sensibilities of all three DJs. With each mix, the self-proclaimed “Red Wine Society” challenged each other further, lending an interactive and spontaneous feel to the already exciting night.
To close out the night, PlayPlay transitioned to a vinyl Serato set up for a juke, footwork, and jungle set. As was the case during the vinyl battle, it was the improvisatory character combined with a penchant for taking risks that defined (and continues to define) PlayPlay’s style. Earlier on that day, The Attic Bat asked her what she was planning on spinning that night, and she told him that she hadn’t even worked on it yet, and that she would probably just spend some time scouring Soundcloud for some “surprises” before the gig. The result was a jittery apex of mashed up classics combined with lo-fi Soundcloud demos and remixes, constantly pushing the intensity upwards of 180 BPM. An expert crowd-reader with a solid skillset in both “analog” and “digital” techniques, PlayPlay was the perfect host for the second installment of what proves to be an exciting and enduring tradition for the IASPM-US annual conference.
Edited by Mark Pedelty and Kristine Weglarz, Political Rock (Ashgate, 2013) examines how—through their careers and oeuvre—a diverse group of musicians have expressed political statements, invoked messages of protest, supported social movements, and commented on issues related to class, gender, environmentalism, imperialism, and war. The collection’s editors and authors incorporate autobiographical reflection, song analysis, live performance interpretation, and critical theory to address the contributions of such “political rockers” as Peter Gabriel, Pearl Jam, The Clash, and Ani DiFranco. In this interview, Mark Pedelty and Kristine Weglarz discuss the book’s inspirations, intentions, and contributions.
Daniel Simmons: First off, how did you decide on the photograph of Patti Smith for the front cover of this book?
Mark Pedelty: We wanted to find either a good photo of a musician featured in one of the essays or something else that would capture the idea of political rock visually. A few years ago I performed with a drummer, Randy Jezierski, whose partner, Lorraine Mikolon (Lori), had traveled with bands in the 70’s and 80’s as a photographer. Her archive includes photos of the The Clash, Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick, and others. Really amazing backstage pictures and onstage images. We thought that the photo of Patti Smith performing in front of an American flag was visually stunning, and that it might quickly orient the reader to the topic.
Daniel: From the perspective of editors seeking to define and exemplify the wide range of “political rock,” which artists not written about in this anthology’s chapters do you wish you could have included, and why?
Mark: Great question regarding omission and commission. We came up with a very extensive list of rock acts, those that have the reputation of being “political,” so as to avoid the more typical “all music is political” move. Some music is coded and interpreted as being more immediately relevant to power, justice, inequality, and human stakes in general, so we created the list with those parameters in mind. Then we put out calls for authors to join us and to choose an artist that has mattered greatly to them in some form or fashion. We took the scholar-fan vantage point very seriously. We let potential authors know that if they had someone in mind that was not on the list, but fit the basic criteria (political rock), that we’d be very open to expanding it.
There is also the matter of page length. The publisher asked us to limit the book to about 200 pages and 10 chapters, give or take. We ended up with 223 pages and 11 chapters.
Hopefully, the Introduction speaks to the question of omission. We tried to fill in some blanks via the Intro, but also asked forgiveness for leaving out some very obvious acts. For example, if this were an extensive history vs. a set of biographical case studies, Bruce Springsteen would be an essential addition. Fortunately, most political rock luminaries have been covered elsewhere, so we have attempted to cite the most influential works on the topic, such as Ray Pratt’s Rhythm and Resistance. Pratt does an excellent job with Springsteen, for example.
Kristine Weglarz: I would have loved to include a chapter on System of a Down. Even though Rage Against the Machine have had a few small reunion shows, and Tom Morello still tours, for me, no other band but System of a Down embodies the same spirited use of music videos, lyrics, and the creation of means for fans to productively engage in political and social causes.
Daniel: Your introduction argues that “life, lyric, sound and movement are integrally connected” (15). The majority of these chapters provide cogent analyses of political rock lyrics, along with musicians’ actions and affiliations with political groups, organizations, and movements; however, minimal attention is given to how the music actually sounds. With that being said, Kristine’s chapter on Pearl Jam analyzes the band’s theatrical performance of “Bushleaguer,” while Michael LeVan’s commentary on Rage Against the Machine briefly interprets Tom Morello’s guitar noises. Why have scholars of political rock, folk, and especially, rap, focused so much on lyrics instead of on tropes of protest and social statement embedded within instrumental sounds and musical techniques? Free Jazz criticism, particularly Frank Kofsky’s Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (written at the very end of the 1960s), focused strictly on musical tropes, techniques, and sounds (though of course, by examining Free Jazz, Kofsky analyzed a genre largely devoid of lyrics).
Mark: I think there are several reasons for the lyrical emphasis in political rock analysis and the greater attention to other sonic qualities in jazz. Of course, much of the writing in rock studies is focused on sonic matters like timbre and rhythm, using descriptors and analytical frameworks borrowed from the discourse of rock itself. However, as I found when surveying activists several years ago (2009), lyrical content is one of the things that defines political rock as a subgenre. Pardon me for providing a few cites of my other published work; I am providing them for context, because I deal less with these issues in this book. My thinking on these issues has been influenced heavily by a few subprojects and I am uncomfortable speaking for the other authors, each of whom has very different views on the same topics, which is what makes it a worthwhile read, I think. As much as popular music scholars adhere to Simon Frith’s admonition regarding lyrics (and have overreacted to that reasonable caution), their centrality is harder to avoid in political rock. Two of the qualities that make rock songs “political” in the minds of listeners are (1) topicality and (2) lyrical denotation. In fact, the same is true of explicitly political jazz. For example, Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics are easily accessible, and heavily accessed, online. That is somewhat unusual for a jazz artist, but not for explicitly political musician-activists like those we have emphasized in Political Rock. Political rock songs tend to be defined in contradistinction to typical rock, including the emphasis on topicality and lyrical denotation. In much of rock, lyrics are ancillary or, perhaps, just part of the overall sonic gestalt. However, when Peter Gabriel sings about “Biko,” he makes that clear through lyrical performance in addition to signifying it through funereal drums, chants, and bagpipes (and, by the way, according to his assistant, Gabriel read my essay while on a flight and found my interpretation accurate enough to warrant permission to use his lyrics in the essay). When Bruce Springsteen sings “41 Shots,” he echoes Billie Holiday’s exhortations to her club audiences to really listen to the words of “Strange Fruit.” Springsteen tells his festive audience to quiet down and listen differently, to pay attention to the words.
However, I hear these same critiques over and over again when talking about political rock: (1) the canard that “all music is political” (a way of relativizing away and flattening out politically committed musical examples) and your question concerning sound, which is an excellent point. Personally, I’ll admit that I have become somewhat less interested in writing and reading about musical qualities that are better expressed in other media. As numerous persons, including Martin Mull and Elvis Costello, have famously stated, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Personally, I tend not to write as much about deeply connotative aural elements because it is what I, and every musician (i.e., every human being), communicates through musical performance itself. My music studies colleagues might vehemently disagree on this point, but I feel that text is a very good place to write about text, but a less interesting or effective place to communicate timbre, rhythm, harmonics, etc. If you want to understand what it meant and means when Jimi Hendrix performed the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, you are probably better off watching the video and listening to the recording than reading an analytical description of his emotive sound qualities as signified by a masterful balance of distortion and reverberating echo. Having said that, there is too little by way of “instrumental sound and musical technique” in the book. One reason for that might be that, per the goals of the book, these essays were not just written by musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and popular music studies scholars, but by scholar-fans from multiple humanities and social science disciplines. Not everything can be accomplished in one book; and we were more interested in giving earnest attention to what most have ignored, including explicitly political musicianship in movement-related performance contexts.
Kristine: I think it’s important to consider that what we’re seeing in terms of published products (journals, books, etc.) are reflections not just of larger patterns of music scholarship, but more importantly, patterns in how journal and music scholarship publishers interpret what constitutes “fair use” of lyrics. We ran into this issue a few times with a number of chapters and could probably write an article on this exercise alone. This combines with what Mark identified as the waxing and waning of attitudes towards Frith’s anti-lyric stance. I’ve personally tried to stay away from doing lyrical analysis not just for the reasons Frith puts forth, but also because I approach popular music studies more from a performance studies perspective. Additionally, I’m not particularly persuaded by traditional musicology arguments about the meaning, for example, behind parallel fifths, the inclusion of a cadence here rather than there, the melodic structure of the reprise and/or bridge and so forth, as so much of the theory linking these to politics is ahistorical, and really doesn’t address affect as a motivator.
Daniel: Mark’s comment about Peter Gabriel’s interest in Mark’s interpretation of “Biko” reminds me that one common theme addressed throughout this anthology is the shared ideological connection between political musicians and their audiences. From the now-antiquated MySpace to Pandora, the musician’s ability to grant access to potential listeners has exponentially multiplied. How might these technological advances affect musicians like Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, or even Kim Gordon, whose work first spread via “DIY” networks and/or independent labels?
Mark: Good question. I have not thought enough about the ways new technologies have changed the production, distribution, and reception of political rock in comparison to other types of rock. Other than a passing reference to tape sharing, I don’t really deal with it in the book chapter either. Linda Keefe and I completed a quantitative content analysis of fan blogs (2010) that does deal with the issue indirectly. We found evidence that fans of political rock acts write about overtly political topics much more often than do fans of other pop and rock artists. However, we did not compare blogs with other media. Yet, as you indicate, it is important to consider how technology might influence politics. I’ve been doing that lately in my work concerning environmental activism among musicians.
One vantage point of Political Rock is autoethnographic. At some point in their essays each scholar-fan was asked to reflect on his/her individual relationship to the chosen artist, especially in terms of political thought and action. Therefore, perhaps I should mainly speak to my own idiosyncratic experience and chapter as it relates to tech. Because it did not receive radio play, I might not have encountered Gabriel’s “Biko” if it were not for the mix tapes my brother sent to me in college. I say that because my main entry to politicized rock, like many of my generation, came about through listening to punk rather than more mainstream musics. That is one reason why, especially with age, I came to appreciate Gabriel more and more. Also, in the anti-apartheid and anti-interventionist movements—especially in relation to U.S. imperialism in Central America—you heard new music and exchanged it as well, so those were my main sources of information about political rock artists as a young activist. I am sure that social media and online distribution has changed the way in which activists exchange musical ideas, with peer-to-peer sharing becoming all the more important, and exposure to diverse and distant music increasing. My relationship to movements has changed with age, as per usual, so I don’t have much insight into that question other than to note that in the survey of activists almost all of them focused on examples from their college-age years, no matter how old they were when filling out the survey. I’ve done the same in my chapter and so have several of the other authors.
Given the changes in tech, I am always a bit surprised by the fact that most of my students listen to a shared set of intersecting artists, depending on their genre of choice. Perhaps the ease of acquiring music outside of industrial distribution channels has produced more of a theoretical than practical opening for critically challenging music. The echo-chamber effect might have increased the insularity of some listeners. I know in my case that I am no more or less likely to encounter politically engaged music now than I was when music was exchanged via tapes and face-to-face conversations with other activists. Pandora-ish algorithms might do more to make the listener feel cosmopolitan and distinct in their musical tastes than they do to truly diversify listeners’ actual tastes.
The big question that I have been working on in this regard is why more people don’t make their own music and, for those who do, why more don’t make it in relation to the local places and communities they inhabit. I’ve been resistant to Sherry Turkle’s idea of Alone Together, but think she has something there. Deterritorialized mindsets and the hyper-mediatization of daily life have had both positive and negative ramifications for political rock and, more importantly, political movements, but I have not thought enough about the topic. Thanks for planting the seed.
Pedelty, Mark. “Musical News: Popular Music in Political Movements.” In The Anthropology of News and Journalism: Global Perspectives, edited by Elizabeth Bird, 215-237. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009.
Pedelty, Mark and Linda Keefe. “Political Pop, Political Fans?: A Content Analysis of Music Fan Blogs.” Music and Politics 4, no. 1 (2010): 1-11.
Kristine: I think one of the larger questions this issue raises is about access. I’m skeptical, for issues related to political economy reasons, of the liberatory power of the Internet and file sharing in terms of its equalizing potential. If anything, I believe it exasperates existing differences in power and access. I think this is a challenge that DIY artists face when dealing with new media-centric means for producing and distributing music. The other issue that remains a problem is touring. Even if we accept that music recording and production can and has been decentralized, the industry of touring is still largely centralized and controlled by a very small group of players, who in turn have exclusivity contracts with both venues and labels. This does not bode well for many independent artists looking to find paths of reaching audiences without “plugging in” to a larger traditional network of labels, promoters and eventually, producers.
Daniel: One distinct contribution of your collection is its invitation for readers to engage in ongoing discourse about political rock at “the Political Rock blog on WordPress.com” (xv). How is that going?
Kristine: I wish I could have better timed my own website to better promote the political rock blog, but alas, I have just managed over the short winter break to get mine up and going, with a link to both the book as well as the Political Rock WordPress blog. My hope is that it provides some needed traffic.
Mark: The book is too new to know yet. Political Rock was written as a conversation starter, so we hope to see part of the conversation happen at http://politicalrock.wordpress.com/. Our hope is that initial library sales and course discounts will get the book out there (and in paperback) so that teachers and instructors might assign a short submission to http://politicalrock.wordpress.com/ as part of using the book in their classes. However, as Kristine points out, it is up to us to get out there and promote it. I hope that everyone reading this interview considers submitting a short story about his or her experience with rock and politics, a favorite political rock artist, etc. There is so little written in terms of the intertextual relationship between rock performance, texts, and lives in relation to politics, and we want to hear from everyone that feels like sharing their experiences and insights. Thanks for helping us get that going. Hopefully we will have a number of submissions to feature by this time next year.
Daniel: Could you elaborate more on a point addressed in your introduction: while it is true that not all political rockers have affiliated themselves with liberal or even leftist causes, much of the scholarship surrounding political rock (including your anthology itself) has somewhat ignored the work of right wing musicians (xvi). Why?
Mark: I would let the explanation in the Introduction stand as is. Most rock explicitly defined as political—whether by fans or critics—has been articulated with liberal politics and/or left movements. Granted, as Lawrence Grossberg explained so effectively in the 90’s, there is nothing intrinsically left, right, or otherwise about rock music as a genre. However, the very fact that he felt compelled to launch an argument against that popular thesis (that rock is tendentiously left) demonstrates the centrality of that popular discourse. As Grossberg demonstrates, it is fallacious to think of rock as intrinsically rebellious, but it is equally undeniable that most of the rock music explicitly coded and decoded as “political” has been articulated with liberal and left movements and ideologies.
Nevertheless, what I often refer to as the “Joe Hill tradition” very clearly articulates “political” folk and rock music to Left politics. Once again, I am only talking about that relatively rare, yet important, subgenre of popular music coded by fans and critics alike as “political.” Whether it is right wing critics [such as Laura Ingraham] asking rock musicians to “shut up and sing” or fans voicing an interest in political rock, let’s face it: few have Ted Nugent in mind. Instead, most mention names that role off the tongue and onto surveys, from Bob Dylan to Ani DiFranco.
Having said that, someone needs to write the book on right wing rockers. Pat Long’s article for the New Statesman (March 8, 2012), “Why are there so few right-wing rock stars?” does a nice job of restarting that conversation. In the 90’s, Mark Hamm crafted an excellent chapter on racist skinhead Oi music in American Skinheads. In fact, I found that a frightening and enlightening read. It made me realize what a fine line there is between critical punk parody and less ironic renderings of fascism. It made me think about bands like Fear in a very different way.
Also, as I mentioned above, Political Rock recruited fan-scholars to write about musicians that have greatly influenced them in their thinking and political action. Good luck finding an academic who exhibits that kind of relationship towards a right wing musician.
However, the main point stands: if explicitly political liberal and left rock musicians are rare, explicitly right-wing rock musicians are a very endangered species (once again, I am thinking here in terms of more explicit political articulations and evocations, not a pop musician who evades taxes or a critical reading of Ke$ha). In fact, libraries are chock full of books about what we do not cover in Political Rock. When taking on political topics in rock I am often reminded of Philip Tagg’s concern over inertia in music studies, a powerful poststructural norming that threatens to relativize away and flattens political meaning (everything is political; therefore, nothing is political). Political Rock is purposely crafted to get at a subgenre of music that, despite its importance among politically engaged fans, is largely ignored in mainstream music studies. In fact, music journalists and critics have much more to say on the topic than have popular music scholars. However, that simply adds to your point. Studies of right-wing rock are rarer yet and worthy of a book. Someone should write that book.
Daniel: What were you hoping to learn about the intersection between music and politics when you first chose this project? How has your understanding of political rock music’s historical and contemporary relationship to politics changed due to either your own personal findings or those of the chapters’ individual authors? I am particularly intrigued by Michael LeVan’s idea of Rage Against the Machine’s “guerilla use of corporate media” to further anti-corporate, anti-imperialist aims from within the body of the corporate, imperialist system itself (202).
Mark: Frankly, the idea for the book originally came from Doug McLeod at Wisconsin. We were sitting in a bar in Madison and he suggested that we recruit fellow scholars to write about their favorite political rock musicians. He mentioned Michael Franti as a contemporary example. I loved the idea, having been a fan of several punk bands and artists mentioned in the book. However, in undertaking the project I learned a lot about what made rock resonate politically for others, or at least for the scholar-fan-activists involved in the project.
There was a great deal of commonality as well as distinct experiences and voices. For example, although Ani DiFranco, Joan Baez, Julieta Venegas and other women rockers have had a major impact in my own life as a fan and activist, I was not sure if that was true for those who would take up our call for essays. Thanks to great chapters by Marcy Chvasta, Norma Coates, and Nancy Love, women rockers were featured as well as the men who so often dominate these books on the cultural history of rock.
However, despite co-editing the project, I had a hard time choosing a rock artist to write about. I would have naturally turned to The Clash, Billy Bragg, or maybe even Bob Geldof (The Boomtown Rats’ The Fine Art of Surfacing was the first album I memorized). However, after contemplating figures that were influential in movements that I have been a part of over the years (decreasingly with age), Peter Gabriel jumped out, despite the fact that he had only written one explicitly political song that fit all of the requirements of the book (e.g., part of my own past or present as an activist-scholar), “Biko.” I have always been a fan of Gabriel’s music, but was neither part of the mega-benefit phenomenon he helped to invent nor active in Amnesty International and the organizations he supported. However, the moment I wrote about at the end of the essay made such an impression in my mind, and I became so impressed with Gabriel’s backstage organizing over the years, that I felt compelled to write about him. His combination of character-driven maskwork on stage and backstage organizing of peer rock stars is unique and impressive from the standpoint of merging art and politics. As I mention in the essay, as opposed to Bono, Sting, etc., Gabriel made a point of separating his musical characters (onstage) and political persona (offstage), using creative maskwork to create music that had a surprisingly autonomous power. Rather than Bono as deadly serious stage personality preaching about X (a fine and effective orientation as well), Gabriel the artist has always been a performer behind the compelling musical mask, while Gabriel the human being works backstage to foment change. Although I make the point about explicit political articulations in the Introduction, I was intrigued by Gabriel’s powerful, purposeful, and highly selective employment of political themes in music to do political work that reaches far beyond the concert stage and stadium. To answer your second question, that is what changed for me as a result of this research and writing. Writing the essay made me appreciate Gabriel the person, the artist, and activist even more, but really brought home to me how much work goes into making music do something more than selling beer or providing a soundtrack for romance. There is a fear among many Western musicians and scholars alike that thinking about social effects might profane art. However, for some artists and activists, it is just the opposite; not thinking about wider and deeper connections can restrict art to “text,” culture to performance, and people to playthings. That is perhaps what I enjoyed exploring most, the clever ways some musicians break out of the cage of cool that keeps so many other rock artists and fans in check. “Shut up and sing” seems to be lobbed at musicians from all angles, but some find ways to compose, perform, and sing about more than the usual fare despite checkbook exigencies, disciplining critiques, and mainstream genre expectations.
I imagine each author learned something new in writing his or her essay and I hope that these essays inform and even inspire readers to explore their own musical histories (and then share them with us at http://politicalrock.wordpress.com/). I’d like to think that our N of 11 is just the start of a wider conversation.
Kristine: I was working on my dissertation and prospectus when Mark approached me with the idea of doing an edited collection. Although I was initially somewhat nervous about including an edited collection on top of the work I had to complete to earn my doctorate, my dissertation was already evolving into a piece on rock and politics, in a broader sense. The process of writing for the book, reading the chapters, and editing really helped to strengthen my own dissertation arguments, rather than drawing out the writing process of both; and for that, I’m thankful and fortunate.
For better or worse, my dissertation wandered more into the waters of political economy, rather than politics, where I originally thought it would be in terms of subject matter. The book served as a really worthwhile means to look more deeply at the specifics of political and social movements within rock away from my analysis of touring and rock ecologies.
The Pearl Jam chapter really represents, to me, all of the motivations for studying political science, going to graduate school and pursuing doctoral work. Thinking of LeVan’s observation with Rage Against the Machine, there was a moment during a live performance of Pearl Jam’s “Bushleaguer” where it just felt as though the “game” had changed. The actual act of attending shows felt different. Bands had been playing in politics for years, but never a band I had known so well, or followed so closely. I wanted to figure out what, specifically, was happening in terms of the fan base, in terms of their rhetorical tropes, and the response. For better or worse for fans, but thankfully for my work, the band kept that political edge long since “Bushleager” was ill-received.
Daniel: Once thanking you for this interview, I’d like to ask two final questions: what understanding or definition of “political rock” do you hope readers will obtain from this collection? Also, what do you think is Political Rock’s most definitive contribution to the secondary literature on rock’s intersection with politics?
Mark: Most activist-fan readers will immediately get what the book is about, and it is in large part written for them. In fact, although scholars have remained somewhat uninterested in explicitly political popular music, rock fans seem to have an appetite for it. I’ve noticed that musicians with political reputations seem to be over-represented on the bookshelves relative to other indicators, such as record sales. There is a lasting sense of gravitas there.
For students, I’d hope that they learn about political traditions in rock that are not always apparent in VH1/MTV-style retrospectives on rock. Hopefully, if and when the book becomes an affordable paperback and eBook (ask Ashgate for the course and student discounts), the book will reach both of those primary audiences.
As for fellow scholars, I’d hope to further forestall the fairly knee-jerk reaction experienced in so many music studies contexts, the tendency to act as if there is no useful political distinction to be made. As mentioned earlier, there is a strong, mainstream tendency to dismiss explicitly political rock as lacking in art and/or to relativize away its very existence. Speaking for myself, I think of the book as trying to create a space for explicitly political art and forestall the “Isn’t all music political?” critique. Yep, all music is political, but at a more nuanced level we see that there are many ways of being political and one of them is represented in explicit, topical, movement-oriented rock. That is why we draw a distinction between the “politics of rock” and “political rock” in the Introduction. Yes, it is interesting to think about how ostensibly non-ideological rock is also politically meaningful, especially once the critic considers intertextual connections, interpretive frameworks, institutional links, etc. I am as much a sucker for political readings of Ke$ha and Justin Bieber as the next person. My courses are filled with such articles. However, this book is about rock that artists, fans, and critics think of as “political,” music whose internal discourse is purposefully and artfully political, music that does not have to be unmasked and interpreted by scholars in order for its political charge to become evident. That does not mean there is nothing left for scholars and critics to do with political rock, but rather that it presents distinct avenues for understanding that mark it as a meaningful subgenre. In my experience, fans, activists, and critics listen to and use Neil Young very differently than they do Huey Lewis, and part of the difference is in the artists’ political intentions, as inscribed within the music itself. I guess that’s one of the missions of the book, to urge music studies to take that musical tradition more seriously, in rock and other popular genres.
However, to end where I started, I would say that the book’s main mission is to impart new understandings of the biographical trajectories and movement connections of influential political rock icons.
Kristine: I’d echo what Mark said regarding what we’d hope to have other scholars and academics get out of reading the book, without a wholesale dive into lyrical analysis. There’s an amazing amount of discussion of political musicians, particularly around election time, and most of it is dismissive, negative, or really lacking any substance. What always surprises me is how shocked journalists and the general public act when musicians do jump into electoral politics. This is especially the case with musicians who’ve had a track record of doing so, and yet, the surprise, backlash, and overall dismissal of these artists’ efforts continues. At the same time, we wanted readers to understand that we weren’t trying to limit our discussion of political rock to tangible connection between parties, NGOs, and the musicians themselves. Political rock, in this sense, has a history, weaves between artists, and often repeats itself.
Mark Pedelty is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. His website is Ecomusicology.net.
Kristine Weglarz is an Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at the University of West Florida. Her website is http://subpoprockcity.tk.
Daniel Simmons recently completed his Ph.D. in Modern American History at the University of Connecticut. His dissertation was titled “Must Be the Season of the Witch”: The Repression and Harassment of Rock and Folk Music during the Long Sixties. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
The committee for the David Sanjek Graduate Student Paper Prize of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music – US Branch (IASPM-US) invites graduate students who will be presenting at the 2014 IASPM-US annual conference to submit their papers for consideration.
Eligibility: Any student who presents, in person, a formal paper at the IASPM-US annual meeting is eligible for the prize. A student shall be defined as a person pursuing an active course of studies in a degree program. This includes persons who are engaged in writing the doctoral dissertation but not those who are teaching full-time while doing so. Student applicants must be members of IASPM-US.
Application Process: To apply for the prize, candidates must electronically submit a copy of their paper to firstname.lastname@example.org along with a brief bio (75 words) and copy of their conference registration receipt. The deadline for submissions is Thursday, March 6 at 11:59 pm. The paper deposited is to be the version that is read at the conference and may not exceed twelve double-spaced pages (roughly 3,900 words).
The winner will be announced at the general business meeting at the annual conference and the award includes a cash prize of $350.
Please feel free to email the chair of the committee, Ed Comentale (email@example.com), if you have any questions.
Committee: Ed Comentale, Charles McGovern, Katherine Meizel
The Association for Popular Music Education (APME) will host its 2014 Conference, “Innovation in Music Education,” at the USC Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles, CA on June 19th-21st, 2014. This conference aims to delve into a variety of topics centered on the following four areas: 1. Innovations in Music Education 2. Individuals looking […]
MA in Popular Music and Culture (London, Ontario) Jointly offered by the Don Wright Faculty of Music and the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at Western University. What is it? A pioneering, innovative, and interdisciplinary MA degree program for students who want to explore any and all facets of popular music by combining cultural […]
A Riot of Our Own: A Symposium on The Clash University of Ulster, Belfast Campus, Northern Ireland (June 20-21, 2014) There are few bands that have enjoyed as much adoration or endured as much controversy as The Clash. Emerging originally as a principal voice in the burgeoning mid 1970s London punk scene, The Clash would […]
Pink Floyd: Sound, Sight and Structure Interdisciplinary Conference, Princeton University, 13 April 2014 Princeton University will be hosting an interdisciplinary conference celebrating the music, art, and culture of Pink Floyd, one of the most successful bands of all times. The first-ever academic conference to focus entirely on the band will feature Grammy-award-winner and Pink Floyd […]
Voting for the positions of IASPM-US treasurer and secretary has opened. IASPM-US members who have not received a ballot via e-mail should contact firstname.lastname@example.org to verify their membership and obtain one. This election will close on February 11th at 5pm, PST. Any responses received after that time will not be counted.