Thursday, September 29, 2011

Critical Wit Podcast on Rush, Rock Music and the Middle Class

I was interviewed by Chris Lindsay for the Critical Wit Podcast on Rush, Rock Music and the Middle Class. The podcast can be heard here.

Critical Wit broadcasts on topics related to science, literature and the arts. I was honoured to be included among variety of guests Chris has interviewed, including geneticists, philosophers and neuroscientists. Fine company for an ethnomusicolgist! Thanks so much to Chris L.

Monday, August 1, 2011

New Interview at Rush Vault

Robert Freedman runs a new and informative Rush site called Rush Vault.

He has given a lot of time to reviewing and summarizing the new Rush and Philosophy book, and he interviewed Durrell Bowman about co-editing the volume. I was pleased to be interviewed too about my chapter in that book, as well as about Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class.

The interview with me can be read here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Corporate Rock and Cultural Capital

I’ve always thought of Rush mainly as a progressive rock group. Of course, genre allegiances are open to endless argument, and Rush has been accepted at various times as a metal band and classic rock band. Some fans would argue that no genre adequately defines them.

I while back, when I was reading a blog entry from Tom Beaudoin at Rock and Theology, he talked about how he took abuse from friends and colleagues for liking Rush, as well as a host of other bands that were known in the late 70s and early 80s as corporate rock. He also liked Journey, Styx, Winger, and Billy Squier.

I remember in high school, there was definitely a demographic that listened to Rush as part of the same grouping Beaudoin describes. And Beaudoin talks about how his musical choices were informed, at least in part, by the social and economic conditions he grew up in, which sounded like a large working-class family struggling to get by. His favourite rock groups were, he says, considered déclassé by most rock critics and middle-class fans, but they were his lifeline, his means to express anger and make sense of his social experience.

However, I think that déclassé reputation is part of the reason why I always preferred to think of Yes or King Crimson as Rush’s peers, instead of Boston or Styx. Prog rock had its image problems with the critics, but so-called corporate rock is probably the most disrespected genre that ever attained popularity in rock’s history.

So corporate rock lacks cultural capital. Some of these bands aren’t even in some of the big “who’s who” rock encyclopedias – my copy of Rock: The Rough Guide contains no entries for nearly all of these bands (except Rush!). Apparently, they aren’t even worth remembering, they have no niche in rock’s history.

Like country music, it’s the kind of thing that hip, liberal, middle-class music writers despise, unless they approach it with a big dose of irony. A lot of underground, underclass and subcultural music is valued by hip, white music fans, but music preferred by white, working-class fans in larger numbers is treated like cynical pop culture garbage.

So what’s so bad about it?

A lot of Adorno’s logic gets levelled at corporate rock. It’s formulaic, it’s commercial, it’s aimed at a mass audience, it seems to have arisen at a time when rock was no longer emerging from underground scenes. Indeed, the punk and indie scenes that started springing up at the end of the 1970s seemed to be a response to this problem of rock’s co-optation by big business, and, of course, stuff like Rush, Styx and Boston were considered the “dinosaurs” the new wave was trying to displace.

There’s the problem of authenticity that goes along with corporate rock’s mass appeal. It was hard to legitimize this music with either “art” or “folk” notions; it seemed to be the result of pop craftsmanship. I have to admit, some of this kind of rock does sound like a showbiz production. I remember listening to a Styx album when I was 14, and I thought there was something very “Broadway” about it. Not just that it had a theatrical theme, but that the vocals sounded like polished Broadway musical voices. And many of the musicians in bands like this played like accomplished session musicians – the members of Toto, for example, actually were – and they played cleanly and expertly, like musicians in professional Broadway pit bands.

There’s probably a host of other reasons for these groups’ dismissal. Rolling Stone critic Steve Pond wrote an article in 1982 on this genre labelling them “faceless bands,” as imageless, uninteresting and interchangable. I remember some musician friends of mine criticizing them for their power ballads, and it seemed like the way these groups courted a female audience interfered with hard rock as a male bonding exercise.

I think corporate rock would make a great study topic from the perspective of cultural capital, at least partly because exemplifies some of the illusions Americans have about class, mass culture, taste and identity. And I’ll bet the recent re-popularization of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” by the TV show Glee has done little to recuperate the genre’s reputation among hip music fans. But who knows?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

On the American Celebrity

I'm excited to read a book that just came out -- Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility -- by Karen Sternheimer.

I'd been trying to formulate some thoughts on the relationship between celebrity and class, because it's such a revealing aspect of American culture. And Sternheimer's book looks like it addresses exactly this topic.

Celebrities are kind of like royalty. Fans who meet them are often overwhelmed emotionally, a lot like people feel when they met princes, queens and kings. Indeed, the fantasies people talk about with meeting, romancing, and maybe marrying a star compares favourably with the same fantasies people had about marrying into royalty in eras past.

But there's a distinctly American aspect to the whole "star" thing. Stars are supposed to be made, not born. Celebs are people who were like us, but climbed somehow to dizzying heights. Fame and fortune, for the movie star, singer, or TV personality, is the reward for talent, perseverance, luck, or some combination of these. They embody the American Dream because they show dramatically how changeable class is in America. Rags to riches.

Of course, celebrities also aren't like us. They don't have the privacy and anonymity most of us take for granted. Their wealth and lifestyles are anything but ordinary. Whatever the exceptions, they do become a class of sorts, living in similar enclaves, dating and marrying within their class, consuming expensive clothes and gaudy accessories appropriate to their station. Celebrity is also at least somewhat inheritable -- children of celebrities often follow in their famous parents' footsteps, using name recognition and connections, just as any other kind of wealthy family would.

For me, celebrity culture is compelling to observe at least partly because it can so weirdly, awkwardly blend upper-class licence with otherwise "unclassy" behaviour. There are plenty of examples in pop music where lifestyles marked by debauchery, indulgence, and immodest behaviour is at once "trashy" and "decadent."

In rock, this mix is well illustrated by a career (replete with exaggeration and innuendo) like Motley Crue's. In a Creem interview from 1984, they describe their sex and drugs lifestyle as that of a bunch dead-end blue-collar teens, but that rock stardom allows them to continue that lifestyle with "better drugs" and more frequent sex.

It also comes though in interesting ways with recent pop divas, where the power of celebrity allows them to exploit and exaggerate their own sexuality in ways that are pretty much unaccessible to average girls. Divas may provide fantasies about glamour, sex appeal, etc., to that audience, but fame and money allows them the licence (that most others don't have) to wear the clothing, act out the moves, and sing the words.

Of course, celebrity licence isn't unlimited, as lifestyle trainwrecks from Britney to Charlie suggest, although people watch these things unfold partly because they wonder (as Sheen even has out loud) -- how much can they get away with?

American historian Peter Stearns wrote about something like this in American Cool: Constructing a 20th Century Emotional Style, where he noted that the big difference between rich people and the middle class, in terms of emotional life and style, is that the rich have licence to be outrageous. They can go ballistic, be unrestrained emotionally, pull outrageous stunts, and so on, because their wealth frees them from consequences. Middle class people need to be more restrained because their jobs and lifestyles require it. They need to avoid offending people, or appearing unbalanced or ineffective, if they want to keep their jobs and prosper. Is that one reason why we find celebrities' lives so fascinating?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Voice, Class and Barthes Revisited

I while back, I got a bit grumpy about Barthes and his seemingly over-rated article, “The Grain of the Voice.”

I was delighted when my wife spotted a promising article on the voice and class that addressed some of these issues and, though referencing the dreaded “Grain” article, found something in it that surprised me.

Grant Olwage’s “The Class and Colour of Tone: An Essay on the Social History of Vocal Tone” appeared in Ethnomusicology Forum in 2004. His central topic is the notion of the “black voice” in South African choral singing, as it was described by white music teachers and commentators.

The concerns of the article focus on how voices, during colonial times, were classified as “cultured” or “primitive;” as “musical” or noisy, and ultimately as white or black. Olwage is quick to point out that the “white” voice corresponds not simply to a racial or even cultural whiteness, but one tied directly to class.

By coalescing as a cultural force in the 1830s, the British middle class emerged at the same time as those singing pedagogies that brought us the modern classical singing voice. Its main feature was a purity and openness of tone, in which no part of the body audibly obstructs or modifies the sound. Thus, the ideal of a “pure” voice contrasts with a “throaty,” “nasal,” “chesty,” or “guttural” sound – note that all the latter adjectives are derived from body parts.

Generally, he observes, any singing voice that middle-class Victorians encountered that ran afoul of this “pure” ideal tended to be treated as both [different] and inferior. Children, for example, sing with shouting, rough voices until (maybe) taught to refine their approach. Choral singing in one London slum, one source recounts, was considered “harsh, ugly and noisy” until sufficient training was brought to bear.

Olwage’s survey of choral singing’s history among black South Africans, principally drawn from commentary by white observers, found much the same descriptions being applied to the black choirs: too loud, too harsh, too chesty, thus unrefined and primitive.

But Olwage suggests that language also played a key role in creating the timbral character of the singing being described. This was where he discussed Barthes: “The grain [of the voice] is…the materiality of the voice speaking [or singing] its mother tongue.”

So language affects timbre, and affects grain.

Victorian middle-class English, he suggests, was full of vowels which tend to promote a softer, rounder vocal tone (e.g., “oo”). Working-class dialects (the “twang” of the Cockney) used vowel sounds with much brighter qualities, and the Xhosa language in South Africa emphasizes a bright “ah” vowel. Olwage suggests that within such linguistic practices the singing will necessarily sound brighter, louder, and to the Victorian middle-class ear, harsher.

I wasn’t sure what to make of his emphasis on the harshness of the “ah” vowel – my own vocal teacher described this as the warmest vowel on which to sing. But if it is closer to the “aa” in “lather,” I can see how this would tend to produce an edgier, louder tone.

In any case, it the article provided a nice set of linkages between timbre, grain, class and culture as they concern the singing voice.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Can We Hear Class in Music?

This is a question that I repeatedly ask myself as I think about the relationship between the music we hear and the society in which it’s performed. I started thinking about it again after reading a bit further into the work of János Maróthy, a Hungarian musicologist who specialized in discussing the inherence of social class in music and its history.

I pretty much rejected Maróthy out of hand while writing Dreaming in Middletown, mainly because I wanted to take a more open, cultural approach to music and class than his strict Marxist approach would permit. Also, his historical domain – feudal and proto-capitalist Europe – was quite distinct from the twentieth-century America which I was studying.

But Maróthy is concerned with a problem which faces any musicologist studying how the social is mediated through the musical. The issue isn’t about mapping consumption patterns or taste, or some crude one-to-one congruence of musical type to social group. It’s about how social realities are – what’s the right word here? – immanent, inherent, enacted in music itself.

Maróthy, studying bourgeois music in Europe, described what he saw as certain continuities of style which he felt were linked to the individualist, ego-centred nature of bourgeois consciousness. He saw something in the music, in its predictable phrase periods and its insistence on squareness and closure in its rhythmic and melodic character, that remained surprisingly regular across a fair swath of European history.

Though this is clearly a generalization that won’t hold up in every individual instance, the bourgeois style (mostly clearly seen in song, but also in instrumental concert music and other forms) musically expressed a worldview that stressed order, the security of boundaries, and regularity which Maróthy felt contrasted with the music of the peasant and working class.

Disappointingly, though, the clichés about the bourgeois world creep in: their music expresses the “emptiness” of bourgeois life, the emotionality of the music is described as artificial, full of fake sentimentality and overstated bombast. In his Marxist narrative, it is necessarily so.

But that doesn’t mean that Maróthy is not usefully wrestling with a central concern here, and his work provides a deep and meaningful meditation on the question of how music represents social reality (or rather, how social reality is *embodied* in music).

Maróthy wants to approach musical sound as something more than a system of signs or representations. For him, music’s rhythms and gestures are those of human activity itself, ritualized. For example, he states, “what is actually ‘in’, in a musical process, is neither the ‘meaning’ or some structural analogue of our feelings, neural substrates or the universe but we ourselves. It creates a field of force, in which we behave accordingly, in a real or imaginary way.”

In other words, human activity, and therefore the identities people perform, is inherent in music itself.

Now, this is not an unparalleled idea. Musicologists like Christopher Small, new musicologists like Susan McClary, ethnomusicologists all over the map, as well as some in cultural studies, have said something like this in a variety of ways.

The acknowledged problem with this approach is that the theory connecting music’s sounds with social structures has never been satisfactory. The loose ends were never quite tied together. Richard Middleton, reviewing Maróthy’s Music and the Bourgeois: Music and the Proletarian (1974), noted:

Another problem – one common to all sociologies of music – is the connection of musical technique to social determinant. On what grounds is, say, the bourgeois lyrical song to be related to certain socio-historical phenomena? One can accept so much on an intuitive basis, but when the system is extended into more detailed areas, doubt creeps in.

Ultimately, Middleton points out, the argument becomes circular. The social is inherent in music, because music is a social phenomenon.

Another commentator, Michael Morse, pointed out that Maróthy had other problems, such as explaining how bourgeois music could express a bourgeois class consciousness when the composers and performers of the music were not of that class. It was music for the bourgeois audience, but not made by them. “The tricky part,” says Morse, “is that Maróthy must assign a state (or content) of consciousness to people who not only were unaware that they had it, but who characteristically and vehemently deny that such a thing is possible in the first place.”

Maróthy is one of the few musicologists to really explore the possibility of the immanence of social class in music, and I benefited from using his example to revisit this question about how we can explain the connection between the social and the musical.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On Springsteen and Working-Class Heroism

In rock, during the 1970s and 1980s, Bruce Springsteen projected the image of an American blue-collar hero.

As a performer, he is transcendently excellent and charismatic. I recall my own amazement at seeing what he does live, because it did not seem to translate in the studio. Hitherto, none of his songs seemed anything more than "alright" to me. You really have to see him live to get it. (If Canada has any equivalent to this, I think it's the Tragically Hip. Friends of mine raved about them, but I remember hearing their songs on the radio and finding them unremarkable, forgettable, middle-of-the-road rock. Once I saw them live, though, it all suddenly made sense.)

What's interesting for me about the whole Springsteen phenomenon, though, is the massive white-collar following he has amassed. Tongue-in-cheek, I've sometimes wondered if Springsteen is a liberal yuppie's fantasy-come-true of what a working-class man should be.

Well, it turns out some Springsteen fans have wondered about the same thing. In his ethnography of Bruce Springsteen fans (Tramps Like Us), Daniel Cavicchi quotes one fan who thinks that most Springsteen fans are not from Springsteen's own socio-economic background:

I've read numerous published comments on the nature of Bruce's audience being incongruous with the music he sings about. We tend to be mostly upper middle class and above....A friend once questioned how I had suffered in order to understand Bruce's music? The people Bruce wrote about early on were my family, the people in my town, but they weren't me....I do not believe that the people who truly understand and enjoy Bruce's talents live those lives. Quite frankly, if I was "laid off because of the economy," I don't want to sing about it....I think you could look across the audiences of our favourite singer-songwriters (Springsteen, Petty, Seger, Mellencamp) and see a remarkable economic and social homogeneity to the audience. I would like someone to explain to me why the 200 million plus Americans who live the life Bruce sings about haven't bought the albums.

This is a great question. I've never been sure if Springsteen's music colourfully and compelling represents blue-collar America to itself, or if it offers a tangible image for middle-class listeners of a noble, politically-correct (and non-threatening?) working-class icon. Woody Guthrie played a similar role for New York folk afficionados between the 1940s and 1960s, a musician whose subaltern origins seemed to inform a righteous progressivism that agreed with the sensibilities of liberal intellectuals. In some way, consuming ostensibly working-class music like Guthrie's or Springsteen's just feels right: it's a sign of good, liberal citizenship, like giving to charity, recycling, etc.

According to the fan quoted above, it's easy for the middle-class audience to empathize with the working class, as Springsteen sings about it. Other kinds of performers representing American working class life are probably harder for such an audience to empathize with. It's interesting to compare Springsteen (a rocker) with comparable male country stars (Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels, Toby Keith). Unlike Guthrie or Springsteen, the political and social statements of these country singers are all over the map: their defiant pride in their blue-collar identity and anger at economic injustice might be consonant with progressive attitudes, but their forays into angry nationalism and conservative social causes repulse a liberal sensibility.

In the liberal middle-class imagination, then, Springsteen works as an affirmative, mythic icon of the American working class. He activates no redneck or hillbilly stereotypes for this audience, so the audience's prejudices don't stop them from embracing what he says.