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.

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