IASPM-US 2013 Conference Reflections: Mandy Smith

by justindburton on March 18, 2013

IASPM-US Popular Music Conference

This year’s annual IASPM-US meeting was my first.  I am accustomed to AMS, SMT, and SEM meetings, where I share methodological knowledge with many, but area interests with only a few.  I thought the tables might be turned at this meeting, but I was pleasantly surprised to find many people conceptualizing pop music in similar and overlapping ways, trying to share their ideas with others, and striving to implement an interdisciplinary approach whenever possible.  In addition to the official theme of Liminality and Borderlands, other themes like identity, authenticity, space and place, and interdisciplinarity itself were interwoven throughout the conference.

Eric Weisbard and Brian Jones both took me back to my formative years through their discussions of the 90s alternative scene.  Weisbard explored the intricate relationship between radio stations and the recording industry during this time to parse out their respective roles in the commercialization of alt rock.  Jones investigated the lo-fi aesthetic of magazine ads and Beck songs, demonstrating that both play on expectations and values of the audience in similar ways.

Several scholars centered their papers on identity, authenticity, and space and place.  Ulrich Adelt looked at the Krautrock groups Kraftwerk and Can, showing how they created a new identity for postwar Germans, in part by combining “man-made” and “machine-made” music.  Christa Bentley looked at Carole King’s demos and live recordings to show how staging, marketing, and production combine both to create a personal aesthetic in King’s music and also to contribute to the rhetoric of authenticity that surrounds her as a singer-songwriter.  Jack W. Forbes traced the ways that identity can even follow a performer offstage through his work with marimba orquesta musicians, while James Schneider dealt with conflicting authenticities in the Pacific Northwest’s urban roots music scenes.  Christopher Wells took identity beyond strictly musical terms by discussing tap dancers’ conscious construction of identity as either musician or dancer.  John Sonnett looked at how, where, and for what purposes students at the University of Mississippi listen to blues today, and Steve Waksman traced Tony Pastor’s moves to three different theaters, noting his attempts to balance “respectability” with his desire to cater to the less socially-acceptable tastes of his faithful customers.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum had a large presence at the conference.  Kathryn Metz explored the spaces created by the Rock Hall exhibits, arguing for a consideration of the challenges presented by displaying artifacts meant for strumming and beating as well as the difficult task of curating a living, active tradition meant for dancing and head-banging.  The Rock Hall sponsored a plenary session on Austin City Limits with producer Terry Lickona and VP of Brand Development Ed Bailey.  Jason Hanley moderated the session, and Lauren Onkey led the interview.  This session touched on the theme of place and music, as Lickona discussed the move from the smaller Studio 6A at UT Austin’s Communications Building to the larger Moody Theater.  Decades of footage from the show’s filming will be available at the Rock Hall’s Library and Archives.

Another excellent plenary session focused on the interdisciplinarity of pop music scholarship.  Devon Powers moderated the session, “What Does it Mean to Study Popular Music?” in which four established scholars from different disciplines discussed the current state of our field.  Daphne Brooks, Alice Echols, Mark Katz, and Roberto Avant-Mier represented English, History, Musicology, and Communication/Media Studies, respectively.  Most relevant to me was Katz’s speech, in which he claimed that musicology can bring a “robust discourse on sound” to the table of popular music studies.  I often struggle with how to reconcile two of my biggest desires in studying pop music from a musicological perspective: to discuss musical details and to create more discourse between musicology, other disciplines, and the wider world.  These goals sometimes seem at odds with one another, but the interdisciplinary, discursive nature of IASPM is a good place to start.

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 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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