Eric Weisbard, 2015 Woody Guthrie Award Winner

by Greg Weinstein on June 30, 2016

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The 2015 Woody Guthrie Award goes to Eric Weisbard for Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music (University of Chicago Press). Top 40 Democracy is the first comprehensive history of commercial radio formats, and a retelling of American popular music history through formats. Weisbard’s wide-ranging book explains how AOR, Country, Rhythm & Blues, and Adult Contemporary formats crystallized in the mid-1970s, while tracing the concept of the format back to antebellum minstrel shows and forward to the “we’ll play anything” “Jack” stations of the 2000s. Weisbard tells this story through long-overdue profiles of the Isley Brothers, Dolly Parton, and Elton John, all artists who achieved commercial success and career longevity by navigating the changing “multiple mainstreams” of their respective formats. Other chapters contain complete histories of A&M Records and Cleveland’s WMMS, in which Weisbard emphasizes the sometimes-neglected perspectives of A&R men, DJs, promoters, and other industry players. Weisbard’s readable prose and encyclopedic knowledge of pop music history make each story engrossing.

Weisbard challenges popular music scholars and fans to re-examine our preoccupation with genres, and our tendency to dismiss “the mainstream.” If genres are exclusive clubs, formats are pluralist societies with few membership restrictions. Contrary to rockist notions of Top 40 as diluted, inauthentic, and featureless, Weisbard portrays it as eclectic, sometimes bizarre, and often beautifully inclusive. By attending to formats, Weisbard writes that we can “rediscover the middle of American culture as a place at least as complicated, diverse, and surprising as the margins.” Top 40 Democracy is an alternative to narratives that have ignored the middle of the road.

Weisbard’s work rose to the top of an impressive field of books. The committee reviewed twelve eligible titles in all, and agreed that 2014 was a particularly strong year for popular music studies. We selected two additional titles for honorable mention:

In Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (University of California Press), Nadine Hubbs uses country music to uncover longstanding alliances between white working class and queer subcultures. Such alliances have been obscured by stereotypes of low-status whites, or “rednecks,” as uniformly bigoted and homophobic, and of “middle America” as homogenous and provincial. Hubbs trenchantly critiques middle-class disavowals of working class culture (exemplified by the phrase “I’ll listen to anything but country”), and meticulously analyzes songs by the Foo Fighters, Gretchen Wilson, David Allen Coe, and others. Hubbs writes that “To hear country on its own terms, we must seek out the particular values and devalued culture of the working class.”

The second book we’d like to honor is The Political Force of Musical Beauty (Duke University Press) by beloved past president of the IASPM-US Barry Shank. In one of the most challenging and ambitious books about popular music in recent memory, Shank explores how music can inspire experiences of community and belonging despite the particularity of individual perception. His diverse case studies (which range from post-war Japanese classical composition to Hardcore punk to Tuareg rock) illustrate how music can produce a sense of unity without hardening that unity into stable and oppositional national, ethnic, or cultural identities. Shank argues that music can be an agent of change, not simply a vehicle for delivering political messages. The collective experience of recognizing a collection of sounds as music (and, by extension, as beautiful) is politically powerful. In Shank’s inspiring words, “the experience of beauty is the recognition of the way things could be, the way things should be. The ability to produce beauty, therefore, is an index of the ability to imagine a better future.”

The 2015 prize committee included Elizabeth Lindau, Robert Fink, and Loren Kajikawa. The award was presented at the business meeting of the IASPM-US at its joint conference with IASPM-Canada at the University of Calgary on May 29, 2016.

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