The (Sometimes) Political Machinations of Popular Music (Deadline: 9/7)

by justindburton on August 1, 2012

Popular Music IASPM-US Writing

The fall of 2012 will be, if nothing else, political. It is, of course, an election year in the United States, a time when substance is often forsaken for slander. Fortunately, the AMS (American Musicological Society) popular music special interest group should help pick up the slack on the substance front. AMS-pop is directly involved in two politically-minded panels at this fall’s AMS/Society for Ethnomusicology/Society for Music Theory joint conference in New Orleans: 1). Popular Music and War and 2). Popular Music and Protest.

With a nod to both the political season and the doings of our colleagues in AMS/SEM/SMT, the IASPM-US website ( solicits essays on the (sometimes) political machinations of popular music. Instead of focusing our attention on the overtly political, we’d like to explore the ways in which pop music can become political or, perhaps, ways in which the political can become pop music. Some possible routes of inquiry could include the following, a list that is certainly not exhaustive but hopefully suggestive.

-Authenticity within a genre is often built around being political (folk, hip hop) or apolitical (bubblegum). But important exceptions exist within these strictures. How do artists navigate and sometimes frustrate these expectations?

-Some songs or musicians appear to most listeners to be entirely devoid of political import, but with deep readings we may sometimes find ourselves in unlikely political territory. Does a political statement require intent, or can content remain locked away even from the artist who created it?

-Sometimes popular music can gain new political connotations when presented in fresh contexts. The Etta James classic “At Last,” for instance, was famously sung by Beyonce at one of the many 2009 inaugural balls. Once a song is reimagined in a political context, does it ever shed its new meaning? Do we read an interpretation backward into history, allowing more recent political context to color previous iterations of the song?

-How does one account for political speech that is (possibly) depoliticized through popular music? baracksdubs is a series of videos on youtube featuring stitch-ups of President Obama’s speeches so that they form current Top 40 hits. The result is a virtual greatest hits cover album performed by the PotUS. Is there an underlying political message in this musical practice, or has baracksdubs pushed the political to the margins in favor of surreal delight?

The deadline for submission is Friday, September 7. Essays should be between 1000 and 1500 words and submitted to Justin D Burton at as a .doc or .docx file. Please consider any images or media (audio or video) that can be included in the post, as well as any useful hyperlinks that can be embedded in the text. Essays will run on the IASPM-US website during the month of October 2012. Questions or queries may also be directed to

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