Conference Round-Up: Popular Music at AMS 2011

by justindburton on November 21, 2011

The American Musicological Society held its annual conference last weekend in San Francisco. David Blake was there and has reported on this year’s popular music presence.

Upon first arriving at the American Musicological Society’s 2011 annual meeting, held last weekend in San Francisco, I went straight to a panel completely devoted to popular music, “Revisiting History from Hip Hop to Honky Tonk.” This panel, held at the unenviable Thursday 2 PM slot, might have signaled the continued marginalization of popular music at AMS. Here were four papers with widely disparate repertoires (honky tonks, mainstream pop/rock, ‘80s hip hop, and 2000s Afro-futurism) united only because they weren’t classical or jazz, and placed where no one would notice. The usual gripes—at least they put this on the program, but wouldn’t it be nice to hear these on, say, Saturday afternoon?

As the meeting progressed, however, it became clear that popular music scholarship maintained an active voice during the conference, conversing (and usually on equal terms) with art music papers. Rather than the feared relegation to the conference’s sparsely-attended temporal edges, numerous popular music papers were delivered in panels alongside art music. A short list of examples should suffice: Joshua Walden discussed Jascha Heifetz’s “Hora Swing-cato” after a paper on Stradivarius violins and sustainability; Sting’s exoticism was compared to Wanda Landowska by David Kjar; and Michael Ethen and Sheryl Kaskowitz explored nationalism in ‘70s arena rockers and Irving Berlin, respectively, following a paper on French mid-twentieth century nationalism. One panel, “Highbrow/Nobrow,” was also particularly effective in complicating the relationship between popular and art. Papers by the entire panel (John Howland, Andre Mount, Sarah F. Williams [delivered by Peter Hoyt] and Tes Slominski, chaired by Robert Fink) combined to interrogate the function of discourse, musical signification, journalism, recording, and print media in forging and contesting class and taste boundaries. More importantly, Q&A cultivated excellent dialogue between scholars focused on both sides of the popular/art divide. This session indicated to me that, if popular music papers still marked a considerable minority at AMS, one can take heart in its reserved seat at the dinner table.

The work on jazz and gender evident in this year’s program must also be commended. The Melba Liston Research Collective and the paper on Ginger Smock by Laura Risk served both to highlight understudied women in jazz, and to explore the social and scholarly mechanisms marginalizing African-American women while always carefully interrogating the politics of their own scholarship. Particularly important, and poignant for this author, was the question of how to conduct research on Liston’s and Smock’s careers and lives without, on one hand, masquerading fandom or benign biography as scholarship, or on the other, allowing methodological wrangling to obfuscate their achievements. Risk’s paper, notably, was part of a panel on swing on Friday afternoon.

One further development at this year’s AMS deserves special mention: the inaugural panel session held by the AMS Popular Music Study Group. The group, founded last year by S. Alex Reed (Florida), advocates for popular musicology by guaranteeing at least one panel entirely devoted to popular music. This year’s panel, chaired by Rob Walser, featured three papers on various popular music activities in, around, and springing out of San Francisco. While the group was forced to debut during the unenviable time slot of 8–11 PM on Thursday (opposite sessions on Ecomusicology, Jewish Studies, and Women and Gender, among others), approximately forty people attended the session. Papers by Jessica Schwartz on the Bay Area punk scene, Lincoln Ballard on the Fillmore brand from Bill Graham and Live Nation, and Michael T. Spencer on jazz radio covered diverse repertories, but were themselves unified by common concerns: the ethics of musical communities, the relationship between authenticity and locality, and the dangers and negotiations of commercialization. The group is looking forward to its second panel next year. All popular musicologists, if not already members, should join the AMS Popular Music Study Group Google listserv ( to keep abreast of happenings in the field. As a member of next year’s planning committee, I would be happy to field your impressions of this year’s session and suggestions for future years.

As we head from the redwood forests of 2011 to the Gulf Stream waters in 2012, I remain confident that popular music studies will continue to grow at AMS, not just due to a number of excellent presentations, but as a thankful by-product of the broadened sociocultural awareness of both popular and classical musicology. It will be interesting to see whether the inundation of this year’s meeting with popular music studies is sustainable, or merely due to specific factors (David Brackett’s role in the program committee, for example). To ensure the former, we as a community of popular musicologists still have much work to do both in advocating for and advancing our field. Having gained visibility, it is even more crucial that we continue to develop critical toolkits while respecting the wonderfully fragmented diversity of musical practices and theories uneasily collected under the concept of “popular musicology.” And, well, a Saturday session can’t hurt.

(NB: I obviously couldn’t make all of the panels and papers on popular music. Please add your own reflections in the comments!)

David Blake is a Ph.D. student in Music History/Theory at SUNY-Stony Brook. He is currently completing a dissertation on popular music and universities in the United States, entitled College Circuits: Cultivating Popular Music in the American University, 1960-2010. He is the winner of the Outstanding Graduate Student Paper Prize at the 2009 annual meeting of IASPM-US for a presentation on Neutral Milk Hotel and Pitchfork Media. More recently, he chaired the planning committee for the American Musicological Society’s inaugural Popular Music Study Group session last November in San Francisco.

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