Interview: Karen Tongson and Gustavus Stadler (Editors, Journal of Popular Music Studies)

by justindburton on September 12, 2011

The most recent issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies (23:2, June 2011), the journal with which IASPM-US is affiliated, is what editors Karen Tongson and Gustavus Stadler call a “reboot.” The journal has a fresh look and is printing album reviews for the first time, and this particular issue features a lengthy “Amplifier” section where the majority of the editorial board (plus Joanna Demers) sounds off on the current state of popular music studies. I’ve mentioned the issue and a couple of specific articles in it in this space before, and now we’re happy to be able to run the following relatively brief interview with Tongson and Stadler.

Justin Burton: The first question is the broadest: why reboot the journal? Why now? How did the discussions of a reboot generate, and how long has this been in the works?

Karen Tongson*: With most journals, every editorial transition brings some changes to the vision and direction of the publication. From the beginning of our term as editors-in-chief, Gus and I hoped to make some substantial changes that would update the content, as well as the look of the journal, since we both come from a very interdisciplinary background and we wanted to highlight a broad array of methodological, theoretical and writerly approaches to popular music. Of course, the journal has always included inter and transdisciplinary considerations of pop music, but having both come from backgrounds in literary, cultural studies, and critical theory, we wanted to include more voices from these worlds in the conversation.

Gus Stadler: Karen mentions our desire for more “writerly” approaches. Part of this is for some stylistic variation and adventurousness (see 2). But another part of it is that we both see good writing as inextricable from good “content”–good argument, good research, good reading, good listening. We’re not expecting people to write like Proust. But we want people to think about how writing shapes what they’re doing–regardless of disciplinary approach. Because it inevitably does, and if you think that’s just an “English” concern, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

JB: The “Amplifier” section is the most obvious special feature of this issue. Is there a place for the short, 5-7 page essays that make up the “Amplifier” section in future issues? Since popular music studies is still relatively new, still finding its place(s), and itself concerned with practice, might it benefit the field if JPMS offered an ongoing, somewhat informal practice of discussing what we’re doing, how, and why, as has been established by the editors in this issue?

KT: “Amplifier” was actually a feature inaugurated by the journal’s previous editor, Kevin Dettmar. We liked the idea of “Amplifier,” more broadly speaking, as a space for shorter pieces that not only consider the state of the field, or new approaches to the study of pop music, but also as a venue for more speculative, experimental and writerly efforts to explore what pop music does. As you’ll see in our next couple of issues, sometimes only an essay or two–unrelated–will appear in the “Amplifier” section. At other moments, we will conduct special forums as we did with the “reboot” issue on a particular topic. All of these efforts, we feel, benefit the field, and encourage more scholars and writers to participate in the conversation, because it leavens the anxiety that may sometimes come with submitting a formal, full-length, scholarly essay.

GS: Also, we hope having a vibrant Amplifier section will attract some non-academic critics and scholars to write for the journal. Since we can’t pay them, they’re not likely to write full-length essays, understandably.

JB: As for recording and concert reviews, are there any specific parameters? Because of the lag time experienced in academic journal publication, is it feasible to publish reviews of well-known recent releases? At the other end of the spectrum, do you envision the possibility of publishing a review of a concert that happened decades ago? In general, does JPMS have a particular niche in mind with these new reviews, or is the expectation that the format will remain open?

KT: One of the major changes we enacted as editors-in-chief, was to have a performance, event and recording reviews editor. Alexandra Vazquez has been remarkable at soliciting and vetting pieces that are at once timely, and yet gesture to the larger historical contexts that inform contemporary pop and performance. No specific parameters for reviews have been established for when an event or concert has taken place. We welcome reviews that reflect on significant (or even forgotten) events in pop music’s past. A reflection on something like “Live Aid” or Wham!’s concert in China in the late 80s might be interesting, for example (at least to me!). Though we certainly can’t publish “up to the minute” reviews of recent releases, one of the advantages of working on an academic journal’s timeline is that our recording reviews can take into account the albums that have made the most impact in a given stretch of time. It also affords the opportunity to share music from other cultural contexts and other times that might not be as familiar to the journal’s readership (I’m thinking of Van Truong’s review on “Saigon Rock and Soul”). So in essence, yes, the format will remain open.

GS: Certainly in the case of certain rereleases, like Saigon Rock and Soul, a recording has a chance to have impact on a field in a scholarly way. It changes how we think about a genre, or a listening audience, or what have you. And many such releases are accompanied by scholarly essays. On the whole, Alex’s position is meant to rethink what counts as “scholarly” in relation to popular music studies.

JB: Beyond the new look and the special “Amplifier” section, is JPMS looking for anything new or different in the essays that are submitted and considered for publication? I suspect answering this may be tricky – as editors, you probably are better off recognizing good scholarship rather than prescribing it – but to the extent that you have an idea about the future content of the journal, it would be interesting to hear you discuss it.

KT: I think the best way to answer this question is simply to share the new description and call for papers Gus and I wrote together when we took over the journal last year (below). We hope what we crafted keeps things open, and encourages as many people as possible, with as many different theoretical and methodological orientations as possible, to submit to the journal. Again, as scholars who were trained in literary studies, I think both of us are committed to encouraging and cultivating a lively, writerly style to the materials we feature in the journal; but it’s certainly not a proscription.

Journal of Popular Music Studies features work on popular music in its historical, cultural, aesthetic, and political registers. Its purview encompasses all genres of music that have been dubbed popular. The journal is also concerned with such issues as popular music’s intersections with other arts, its relationships with old and new media, and its status as a field of research and critical writing. We welcome and encourage unconventional approaches (i.e. different from the standard scholarly essay) to these areas of inquiry. Each number of JPMS features book reviews, as well as occasional reviews of performances and recordings. We also regularly publish special issues oriented around a particular topic, co-ordinated by a guest editor or editors.

GS: I hope we see more special issue proposals, and I urge people to consider sending them. I think readers enjoy them. Also, they’re a great way to cultivate relationships with people working on material that relates to yours–like organizing a conference panel, but bigger and more in depth.

*The interview was conducted via email. Tongson replied first, then Stadler added his comments afterward.

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