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Journal of Popular Music Studies, Volume 23, Issue 2, Pages 207211

Talking Popular Music in the Field and off the Field


Eric Weisbard

University of Alabama
For four semesters now, as a beginning teacher at the University of Alabama,
I have been presenting to roughly thirty students at a time an American
Pop Music survey course, at the 300 level, within my American Studies
department, that starts with blackface minstrelsy (I come from Alabama
with a banjo on my knee) and extends to a present that was American Idol in
fall 2009, Lady Gaga in fall 2010, Ke$ha this term, and who knows what will
dominate next. Graduate students slash into the course in small numbers,
doing additional readings and meeting separately biweekly. The course is
also cross-listed with African American Studies, a program at UA that sits
within the Department of Gender & Race Studies. As of last semester, my
survey carries a W, meaning it meets the core curriculum requirement
that students (save for engineers) take a 300- to 400-level course where
students write coherent, logical, and carefully edited prose in a minimum
of two papers. Next year, I will experiment with offering a two-semester
version of the course, to fit more topics inand perhaps keep more Public
Relations majors out. Cant they find a W in their own department?
What does this have to do with the topic of emergent conversations
in popular music? Simple. Over the years, passing between disparate jobs
and apprenticeships, each shifting the nature of my quotidian immersions,
it has become clear to me that what you talk about has a lot to do with who
you regularly talk to. The conversations that inform academic me might
be broken down (from high to low) as the following: scholarly exchanges
through research, service, and plates of noodles with colleagues in the field;
mentoring exchanges with graduate students learning the field; and efforts
to translate the material so it sparks undergraduate minds. Only, the lived
version isnt nearly so Aristotelian in form, since popular music studies isnt
exactly Germanic as a discipline. It is something that a lot of people, myself
included, squeeze into existing academic boxes, one way or another, because
despite nothing resembling a supportive formal network of programs and
granting institutions there is broad interest in the topic, which addresses
huge questions that have relevance all over the place.

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2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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Eric Weisbard

This is why our numbers are growing in academia, but also why
our bios are so eclectic. My Crimson Tide ranks include a documentary
filmmaker who shares membership in the Crunk Feminist Collective with
a Gender & Race professor. A second documentary filmmaker chronicles
the indie rock band Dexateens but also his efforts to only eat locally grown
food for a year. The TV scholar hosts a folk music program on the campus
NPR station. I am still not sure what the religion professor who teaches the
songwriting class plans to write about the MC5; well have to have lunch.
Someone on hiatus from a tenured Music Industry gig at Belmont University
is teaching a similar class here while she finishes up her doctorate. Married
ethnomusicologists nest in New College, an interdisciplinary program for
arty/political if perhaps unfocused undergraduates; the director wrote a book
about African-American culture and the 1960s named after a Marvin Gaye
song and has talked about getting a popular music minor up and running,
given all our presences.
My own arrival within American Studies represents a new
conversation of sorts, since the person whose retirement opened a slot,
James Salem, was a 1950s rock and roller (check out his fine book on
Johnny Ace) and 1960s hippieno small feat in the Alabama of George
Wallaces dominionwho regularly closed our team-taught departmental
intro class with an explication of American Pie (1971). My spin on Jims
rock disposition means fewer Beatles courses and more willful eclecticism. I
got to Tuscaloosa, declared American Pop Music a survey topic, affixed the
bragging subtitle New Histories and Interpretations, and set about seeing
what all of my Pop Conference friends would read like packed into one
syllabus. Carl Wilson glossing Celine Dion and taste to get our poptimism on.
Eric Lott on minstrelsy to seek cultural studies nuance. Jody Rosen on Irving
Berlin and how the Jews stole Christmas. Anthony Macas on mambos and
a Selena/J-lo day to hear beyond black and white. Country impuritans from
William Shakespeare Hays to Patsy Cline revivalists and Liberty Records. I
knew how far revisionism had thrown me when I assigned excerpts of Alex
Rosss The Rest Is Noise (2007), then scrambled in a fifty-minute session on
classical as pop to jump from 1850s opera swan Jenny Lind to West Side Story
(1960), culminating in an avant-garde film, now easily available on YouTube,
made for a Steve Reich rumination on minstrelsy. Can blasting Reichs
spliced, head splitting Oh Dem Watermelons (1964) for ten minutes
translate to undergraduates as pop interpretation? I will get back to you.
Now, and returning ingenuously for a moment to the top of that
Aristotelian triad of humanities scholarship, it is I believe accurate that we

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are well along the way to a thorough revamping of the field of American pop
music history. Lotts love and theft paradigm shift, with its historicized
use of Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies notions of
the popular as a contested construction, then and now, prevails across
multiple periods. The vogue for writing about Bert Williams and other
vaudeville figures, combined with Jonathan Sternes inauguration of Sound
Studies in The Audible Past (2003), and such newer work as JPMS associate
editor David Suismans work on Tin Pan Alley, has recast the birth of
pop as a pulsating billboard of newly electrified performativity. Where
the roots fields of blues and hillbilly are concerned, plantings by Bill
Malone, Benjamin Filene, and Richard Peterson a few years back have
now grown into a bumper crop of revisionist studies: Elijah Wald, Karl
Hagstrom Miller, Barry Mazor, Jocelyn Neal, Patrick Huber, and on, among
their revelations an argument that my choice of metaphors just now was
misguidedseemingly agrarian sounds were as modernist in their context
as a chorus of showgirls. There are jazz scholars who refuse to dissociate
that music from its pop cultural offshoots. Rock scholars positioned to
stress the other side of the 1973 economic meltdown rather than workingclass triumphalism. Hua Hsus recent celebration of some of this work in
American Quarterly can serve as an able summation.
But the emergent conversations about popular music I have in
the classroom, office, and afterhours only partially mirror this focused
revisionism. Students are at once too idealistic and too distracted for some
of the more, lets say, conjunctural lessons to stick. Or maybe they have
other trajectories: the kid who cant write a sentence or parse university
press writing but interned for Def Jam last summer. Even the culture seekers
keep wanting to revisit Woodstock and riot grrl. Elijah Wald and Jody
Rosen or no, does one have to go through a Robert Johnson phase before
fully filtering the particularities of a Dinah Washington? Can that hugely
suggestive chapter by Guthrie Ramsey from Race Music (2003) that uses
Washington, a Tuscaloosa native no less, to explore Afro-modernism take
them there directly, or will the other material in it, on the Four Jumps
of Jive, William Brewster, and Cootie Williams, prove too distracting and
unassimilable? Perhaps Ramsey should be left to the grad syllabus. I read
scholarship about ballad hunters while my work makes me an assignedreadings hunter. Four semesters in, I find, counting through my folder
of PDFs, that I have restlessly experimented with over seventy articles,
chapters, or book excerpts. This sifting has its serendipities. Tera Hunters
chapter Sexual Pantomimes, the Blues Aesthetic, and Black Women in

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Eric Weisbard

the New South, discovered in the doorstop collection Music and the Racial
Imagination (2001), might seem daunting. But students used to the Hotlanta
of hip-hop and R&B find the focus on domestics in 1910s dance halls, bodies
shaking to rhythms of their choosing, revelatory. They also adore Allison
McCrackens Gods Gift to Us Girls, with its clear contrast of regular dude
Bing Crosby and the feminized, dangerously unfixed masculinity of Rudy
Vallee, the guy with the cock in his voice.
As it happens, I learned about McCracken through comments on a
stray Facebook status update by IASPMUS treasurer Caroline OMeara,
who teaches similar courses to mine from inside the University of Texas
School of Music. The emergent conversations we have through new
technologies are the joker in popular music studies house of cards. Nearly
every day, smirking at me on Facebook is another YouTube clip that Greg
Tate or Mike McGonigal has posted, another friends link to an article I
should read, an argument ranging under a posting that ranges from the
earnest (Barry Shanks ruminations on the pop political) to the journalistic
(my wife Ann Powers uses her chorus of 2,000 friends to explore topics prior
to publication) and flat-out pointless (that would be me, whipping up fortyplus comments on a thread about what songs to put on a Long Island songs
mix tape). Sometimes, as with the McCracken reference, these trickster
transactions yield a sober result, but mostly I think they are reminders that
we carry our cultural conversation far beyond our workmuch of our best
thinking is essentially ludic. Which is fortunate, since so are so many of our
best subjects.
Simon Frith has written about discourses of the classroom and
discourses of the hallway both affecting how we learn. To be momentarily
prescriptive as I close, it seems to me that the balancing act an ambitious
publication like the Journal of Popular Music Studies has to attempt requires
an attentiveness to a similar divide: the field and off the field, too. Yes, we
need to do much more to ensure that we are better aware of what books are
being published, what grants are being offered, and what historiographical
debates are in the wind. This is no small task, but accompanying it should
be other sorts of conversationspedagogical and personalattuned to the
matters that grip more of our working and listening lives than our CVs ever
admit. For this semesters version of American Pop Music, I have scaled back
my lectures, designating one out of every two in-class days for discussion.
We will sit in a circle, put the PowerPoint slides aside, and see what kinds
of dialogues ensue.

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Work Cited
Hsu, Hua. Hey, Whats That Sound? American Quarterly 62.4 (2010): 96375.
Print.
McCracken, Allison. Gods Gift to Us Girls: Crooning, Gender, and the Recreation of American Popular Song, 19281933. American Music 17.4
(1999): 36595. Print.
Salem, James M. The Late Great Johnny Ace and the Transition from R&B to
Rock n Roll. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 2001. Print.