AMS/SEM/SMT 2012 Conference: Mandy Smith

by justindburton on December 4, 2012

This year’s joint meeting of the American Musicological Society, Society for Ethnomusicology, and Society for Music Theory presented a wide array of popular music papers and events, and I often found it difficult to choose between them.  On Friday afternoon, four sessions solely devoted to pop papers, Portia Maultsby’s (Indiana U.) keynote for SEM, and Walt Everett’s (U. Mich.) graduate student workshop on harmony and voice leading in rock and pop all conflicted with one another—what a glorious problem to have in life! The second annual session sponsored by the AMS Popular Music Study Group—chaired by Albin Zak (U. at Albany, SUNY)—was a standing room only affair and featured beneficial Q&A sessions.  Devin Burke (Case Western Reserve U.) had the audience sing American Civil War pop tunes as he looked at how popular music reflected the cultural shift from disability as defect to disability as patriotic symbol during the war.  Jim Davis (SUNY Fredonia) drew on primary source documents including letters, diaries, and memoirs to trace another Civil War tune, “Maryland, My Maryland,” through various stages of reception that included contradictory propagandistic purposes.  Dan Blim (U. Mich) finished out the session with a look at conflicting contemporaneous views of the ballets in Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes, situating them within the WPA’s mission of nationalism. Burke also chaired a session on Music and Disability Studies that featured one paper on Reverend Gary Davis and another on New Orleans Secondline parades (Daniella Santoro, Tulane U.).  I caught the former, in which William Ellis (St. Michael’s College) demonstrated how Davis negotiated the stereotypes faced by blind performers differently in his blues tunes than in his religious music.

Some scholars incorporated aspects of performance into their papers—always a welcome and fruitful tactic.  Michael D’Errico’s (UCLA) lecture-demonstration on the use of the iPad and turntables in the Los Angeles-based Low End Theory revealed some of the techniques used by DJs.  Dave Easley (Oklahoma City U.) plugged in his guitar to show how gestures in early American hardcore punk riffs evolve over time.

Of course, scholars represented a healthy variety of other twentieth-century styles, genres, and performers of popular music.  I counted six papers on the Beatles alone in the program, including an excellent session on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band chaired by Walt Everett that featured papers by Albin Zak, Gordon Thompson (Skidmore College), and Mark Spicer (Hunter College/Graduate Center, CUNY).  Kyle Adams (Indiana U.) explored how articulation adds to affect in rap, while Brad Osborn (Ohio U.) catered to math-heads like myself with his look at Euclidean rhythms and maximally even rhythms in the music of Radiohead.  Jason Hanley (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum) drew upon early unreleased demos of songs from Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine to demonstrate the process by which Trent Reznor and the four producers involved steered the album away from an 80s pop aesthetic and towards an industrial sound. Gathering in New Orleans also afforded conference attendees plenty of opportunities for live music in the evenings.  The French Quarter—particularly Bourbon and Frenchman Streets—was packed shoulder to shoulder on the warm Halloween night as music scholars blended into the crowds to see jazz combos and rock bands in small clubs, enjoying the street performers and costumed masses as they worked their way through the neighborhood.  My friends and I ate a dinner of gumbo, alligator, and praline cheesecake at The Praline Connection before seeing a jazz quartet at a crowded little bar called The Spotted Cat on Frenchman.  The combo played original tunes as many in the crowd danced – some awkwardly, due to oversized costumes.  On the corner of Frenchman and Chartres, we saw a busker playing an instrument that none of us had ever seen before; it was a large string instrument that looked homemade, and was appropriately loud for the occasion. Unfortunately, I am only one person.  Thus, I missed several sessions and individual papers on popular music that I have since heard were fabulous, including the Popular Music and Protest session sponsored by the popular music interest/study groups of all three societies and chaired by Alexander Reed (U. of Florida) and the PMSSEM-sponsored session on Music and Youtube held Sunday morning after I had left.  Finally, I wish I could have seen so many of those conflicting Friday afternoon programs, like the parts of the New Vernaculars and Pop-Rock Production and Aesthetics sessions I missed, the Jazz and Blues session, Everett’s workshop, and Maultsby’s keynote.  [Editor’s Note: If any of you would like to fill in these gaps, contact Justin D Burton at]

Mandy Smith is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Musicology at Case Western Reserve University where she specializes in rock drumming.  She earned a B.A. in Rock History from Indiana University and an M.A. in Musicology from California State University, Long Beach.  Her thesis explored socio-cultural issues in early Beach Boys music, and she has presented research on genre, place, and gender in the music of Rage Against the Machine, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Michael Jackson and Farinelli at local and national conferences.  Mandy is a member of the AMS Popular Music Study Group Planning Committee and the AMS Committee on Cultural Diversity.  

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