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.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Class, Race, and Visibility

There is a great article by Henry Giroux on the topic of class and race. Giroux reflects on how these impacted him as he grew up in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1960s.

It got me thinking further about the old cliche of the middle class being "the class that won't speak its own name," a seemingly empty, normal identity. Giroux remembers how class affected every aspect of his upbringing (he was raised in a blue-collar family), yet no one ever talked about it. Instead, it was race that was openly discussed, affirmed, fought over, etc.

Giroux describes "working-class" and "white" not merely as adjectives, but as verbs -- the very means by which those in his neighbourhood related to the social world around them. This was often through conflict. He notes,

Most of the interactions we had with others were violent, fraught with anger and hatred. We viewed kids who were black or privileged from within the spaces and enclaves of a neighborhood ethos that was nourished by a legacy of racism, a dominant culture that condoned class and racial hatred, and a popular culture that rarely allowed blacks and whites to view each other as equals, except of course, in athletics. Everywhere we looked segregation was the order of the day. Community was defined within racial and class differences and functioned largely as spaces of exclusion - spaces that more often than not pitted racial and ethnic groups against one another.

In spite of living through the divisions of race and class, Giroux notes how there seemed to be no language to talk about it. The divisions were so naturalized that they were assumed to be differences arising out of human nature, rather than constructed social divisions.

Music played an interesting role in all of this: for the working-class white kids (of which Giroux was one), African-American popular music was acceptable for listening, even if fraternizing with actual black kids was taboo. Meanwhile, the feeling of difference from middle-class kids resulted from being segregated from them at school (they never took the same classes), their ways of speaking, and, of course, their taste in popular music. The richer kids liked the clean-cut, mushier music of Pat Boone and stars of his ilk, which became an icon of effette elitism to the working-class kids.

On popular culture, Giroux elaborates,

Popular culture provided the medium through which we learned how to negotiate our everyday lives, especially when it brought together elements of resistance found in Hollywood youth films such as "Blackboard Jungle" (1955) or the rock n' roll music of Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Etta James, and other artists. Moreover, working-class street culture provided its own set of unique events and tensions in which our bodies, identities and desires were both mobilized and constrained.

Giroux remembers how being working-class in the US at this time meant being valued (if at all) for your physicality -- your ability at athletics, or your ability to labor manually -- and remembers how more affluent kids seemed to live outside their physicality.

Giroux notes that much of his own work in cultural studies has been a kind of "memory work," learning to understand explicitly the things about his early social environment which were never talked about openly and only understood implicitly. The activism of the 1960s, he says, did much to open his mind critically to class and racial divisions. But, as he notes, the pressure to keep perceptions of social difference under the surface of daily discussion remains pervasive.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cultural Influence: Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down

I want to make some notes on cultural influence across class lines. Charles Seeger is one of the few musicologists to make an issue of this. He wanted to document the emergence and eventual merging of class-based cultures in the US. Seeger was particularly interested in the notion of subacculturation, the process by which musical influences from one class became adopted by another.

Seeger used the familiar (if now outdated) three-part paradigm of the folk arts, the popular arts, and the fine arts. The folk arts were the home-made and passed-down musics of the rural settlers; the popular arts were the semi-literate and mass-distributed musics of the urban working class and middle class, while the fine arts were European classical music.

I realize that my statement in the previous post about class being more fluid in North America may miss the point. Mass communications in the 20th century probably made the cultures of different classes and regions more fluid, mobile, and open to appropriation by others. But it’s not the same thing as class itself being fluid.

This is significant because, as Seeger points out, the cross-fertilization between the folk and popular arts is a huge part of the story of popular music in the first half of the 20th century. The influence of rural forms of music (early folk balladry and fiddling, field hollers, gospel, country blues) on the music of the city was tremendous.

But the city and the world of vaudeville, film music and Tin Pan Alley (middle-class and middlebrow musics) left their stamps on these rural musics as they migrated into the urban centres. Thus we see the development of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country music of various types, soul music, and so on.

The flow of cultural influence, in these cases, was mostly bottom-up. The music business took the music of the poorest in America and commodified it, allowing it to appeal across class lines, and sometimes across racial lines.

But, as Seeger notes, the attempt to send cultural influence from the top-down was not overly successful in the US. He references the nineteenth-century efforts, which he calls the “Make America Musical” movement, to implant European high musical culture in the US.

Orchestras were founded, music critics had columns in major newspapers, philanthropy by rich men like Andrew Carnegie led to the building of elite concert halls and opera houses, conservatories and musical pedagogies based on the European model were established, and on it went. Many music departments in universities across the US still bear marks of this effort to use European high culture as a standard for musical training in America.

Its success was mixed. Classical music in America struggled against a colonial/provincial mindset. The classical orchestra flirted with jazz at times, and the use of orchestral composition in American film-making has a distinguished history. But the sense of classical music as a central tradition (as in Europe) was never very strongly established. At best, it filtered downward through middlebrow channels, but even this way of mediating high culture seems to be fading away.

I wonder to what degree the relative success of bottom-up subacculturation accounts for the “culture wars” that have riven the US at various points. Since the nineteenth century, the American elites have had difficulty asserting their culture in a top-down process of assimilation, and they have had to adapt by colonizing and disciplining popular culture in various ways.

Perhaps the PMRC, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, conservative rock canons, and (in a way) talk radio represent elite reactions to the challenge of bottom-up subacculturation in American popular culture.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On Artistic Integrity and Selling Out

One of the great Zen riddles of the rock era concerns artistic integrity and commercial success.

More of one is usually assumed to result in less of the other. Pleasing yourself or staying true to your initial small pool of fans is supposed to be superior to pleasing the masses and pandering to the lowest common denominator.

This is a central tenet of what academics call the "rock ideology," and has its origins in the counterculture, and selling out originally meant working for "the man" rather than yourself and your youth-based community.

But the idea has a much deeper history than that: it stretches back to the Romanticism of the 19th century. The Romantic notion of artistic purity being measured by the artist's brave flouting of conventions and rebellion against society's expectations continues to reverberate today.

Robert Pattison argued some time ago that rock mirrors Romanticism in many ways. But rock can only do so in a contradictory way. It is a mass commercial medium in the first place (it was never anything but that), and thus setting up an opposition between the uncommercial (authentic) artist vs. the commercial (artificial) entertainer in rock was always problematic.

This isn't to dismiss the oppositional, bohemian subcultures that popped up in rock's history at various times, but to acknowledge that bohemian oppositionality has often been a source of rock's commercial appeal.

There are lots of bands that used the rhetoric of the Romantic artist as a way of authenticating themselves, partly because they and their fans fervently believe in it.

As a Rush fan, I know I did. I liked the idea that the band "stuck to their guns" (so they said) and stayed true to their artistic vision, and shrugged off the fact that they'd never had a bona fide hit single. Yet -- and here's the rub -- I also remember feeling proud of my chosen group for their commercial success: the string of gold and platinum albums, that grandness of their live shows (and the size of arena they could fill). It somehow spoke to their strength as artists, the payoff for being so creatively bold.

There's nothing original about this: Led Zeppelin and many of their fans, King Crimson, and tons of other rock, prog and metal bands embraced this seeming contradiction.

I've been playing with the idea that this Romanticism is somehow linked to class, or at least to some kind of social privilege. Certainly, Romanticism arose at the time when the middle class was emerging in Europe; its individualism and revolutionary (anti-establishment) tenor is certainly part of the bourgeois culture of the time.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote extensively about class and taste, and laid out clearly how those on the higher end of socio-economic spectrum view art and culture as something outside and above the world of economic exchange. Because they're too rich to have to worry about the material necessities, culture can be viewed in a disinterested way and appreciated for its own sake. Mass culture, for them, is crass; real art and refined aesthetics are not concerned with wide appeal and mass sales. (I've reduced this idea greatly -- see Bourdieu's Aristocracy of Culture and Gene H. Bell-Villada's Art for Art's Sake for a fleshing out of this.)

Now, of course, most rock stars don't start off rich, but the attitude that musical integrity matters more than fame, money and popularity suggests that the prospect of material deprivation is not taken overly seriously.

Contrast this with the sheer flaunting of wealth that has become stylistically prevelant in rap music: the issue of selling out barely registers. If you've known material deprivation with little prospect for escaping it, then of course you flaunt success when it comes. Poverty is what was shameful, not jumping on your ship when it comes in. Endorsements, clothing lines, cross-marketing -- bring it on.

Art for art's sake, then, is an idea that originates in privileged circumstances. The starving artist is a Romantic, noble thing as long as it symbolizes idealism, not an inescapable reality. But does that mean that only the privileged buy into this idea?

I'm only playing around with this theme right now, because the idea of art for its own sake seems to have played a role in a lot of subcultural movements with a strong working-class base -- it's not just a middle-class thing. I'm wondering if its significance connects more forthrightly to an ethnically white/Western cultural position, because it shows up in white-dominated popular genres more than black, Latin or other immigrant genres in North America.

So maybe the art for art's sake attitude is something shared across class lines within an ethnic group. This leaves the door open for thinking about what Charles Seeger calls subacculturation -- literally, the transferring of cultural influence from one social class to another. With its history of having a relatively fluid or porous class structure, North America has been more open to subacculturation than Europe.

More on this in the next post.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Does "The Trees" Say About Class?

Well, I'm having a little author's regret about not talking more in depth in Dreaming in Middletown about Rush's "The Trees," an enduringly popular song from Hemispheres (1978).

I addressed it briefly while talking about the political meanings of individualism as Rush used it. But this song, which is told a bit like a kid's fairy tale or fable, bears a lot more discussion from the standpoint of class.

Above all, it's the one Rush song that specifically and literally is about stratification.

Neil Peart transposes this issue to the forest: the Oaks, by virtue of naturally growing the tallest, get most of the sunlight; the Maples, shorter in stature, get less. The Maples demand an equal share of the sunlight, but the Oaks balk. The Maples form a union, protest loudly, and a law is passed that light shall be distributed evenly. The result is that the forest is cut down to stumps.

What view of social stratification does this song provide?

The lyrics seem fairly straightforward on this: stratification is considered an inevitable, perhaps natural, aspect of society. Some have more access to wealth and resources than others. Attempts to alter the existing arrangement (e.g., by unions) are unwelcome in this story: more equitable distribution results in catastrophe.

Anyone who cares already knows that Peart was influenced by Ayn Rand at this time, and the influence of her philosophy on this song is so obvious as to make comment unnecessary. I’m not really interested in literary influence here, anyway: I’m much more interested in thinking about how social positioning makes this story desirable or relevant.

Clearly, it’s a song that flatters conservative sensibilities: it cautions against changing the status quo. Existing inequities are deemed natural. The perspective seems at least middle class: the idea of lower classes banding together and making demands is portrayed as catastrophic, and perhaps this view is fuelled by middle-class status anxiety. I certainly don’t see how working-class interests are at all served by the song’s rhetoric, whatever my critics might say.

"The Trees" may be one of Rush's most perplexing songs.

Not musically, of course -- it's quite nice. The classical guitar intro is atmospheric and attractive. The rock sections are quintessential Rush -- odd meters, open chords, intense vocals -- as is the bridge, with its gentle arpeggios, unusual percussion items, and mysterious synthesizer. In less than five minutes, it pretty near captures the best in Rush's classic 1970s style.

The lyrics have been a weird sticking point. Rush's biographers have been pretty coy about what the song is really about. The British rock press, says Rush author Brian Harrigan, pilloried the band for making a sweeping conservative statement with the song, but Harrigan demurred, saying that "it can be read as a union-bashing song but I think that only diminishes what Peart is saying -- peaceful co-existence and live and let live are all" (1982). But in a review of Exit...Stage Left a short while later, Harrigan admitted that he found "The Trees" "jarring" politically.

I’ve seen this in a number of reviews of Rush, where the pro-Rush writer either avoids discussion of this song’s message or diverts from the (plain) message as Harrigan did. Reviewers who dislike Rush will raise this song as an example of band’s bafflingly strident defence of class privilege (see reviews of Rush in the NME, or Paul Stump’s summary in The Music’s All That Matters).

On the one hand, it’s interesting that the song evokes such reactions, since it reads like an almost simple-minded cartoon. But it tells a story about the important matter of social stratification, and it hits a nerve.

The middle class is conflicted on this topic, and this is where middle-class political sympathies get complicated. Some of us (maybe parts of us) identify with the Oaks: we deserve what we have, we see ourselves among the upright in society, we think what we do is important, etc. Some of us identify with the Maples: stratification is not fair, merit is too often confused with chance or birthright, we are slipping from “haves” into “have-nots” as the elite grows taller, and so on.

But that still doesn’t quite get at it. As I discussed in Dreaming in Middletown, the position from which Rush writes is mostly petit-bourgeois, lower middle class. This is the small business class, the freelance professionals, the shop-keepers -- the people who are politically and economically in-between -- who end up equally resenting unionism and corporate elites. They are told that they are the engine of the “real economy,” and they believe that, in a more laissez-faire world, they would be the Oaks. Stratification would work fine for them, if not for all the rule-changing, lobbying, and politicking that goes on and gerrymanders the system.

That’s my take on why something like “The Trees” portrays stratification as it does. We really need a good social history on movements like libertarianism and objectivism: so much discussion of them is either political (aimed at persuading or dissuading) or is abstractly philosophical. But so much of the story lies in who these movements appeal to, what needs or desires they address, and what historically accounts for their peaks and ebbs of popularity. Their role in debates over social stratification is ultimately a huge part of their raison d’etre.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Disciplinary Divides, Social Divides? (II)

The New (Ethno)Musicologies, a collection edited by Henry Stobart, was published recently, and has a number of contributions that speak to the issue I wrote about a few months back.

The idea of a specific discipline catering to particular social categories, and hence certain musical topics, could be extended to further issues. The book features contributors from a number of different disciplines, many discussing how ethnomusicology and musical ethnography looks to them.

Fabian Holt, writing from popular music studies, notes that his discipline is focused on an Anglo-American pop canon where almost no ethnography is done. Ethnomusicology, when it focuses on popular music, looks almost entirely outside that canon, and does approach its topic ethnographically. He notes that many "American musics" not well-covered in popular music studies -- that of Asian-Americans, or Latin-Americans -- are far more likely to be picked up by ethnomusicologists.

Popular music studies, says Holt, sees its musical field as defined almost entirely by a dialectic between African- and Euro-American culture, gives Latin American music just a little attention, and Aboriginal and Asian-American musics almost no attention at all. The disciplinary lines in these inclusions and exclusions are clear for Holt: "To this day, there are deep differences in the core conventions of what is studied and how in popular music studies, musicology, and ethnomusicology" (p. 42).

I was happy to see an acknowledgement of how social class plays into this. Holt notes:

Academic culture has largely been centred on the white middle-class male subject, and middle-class values have defined the status of individual musics. Western, especially German, art music was the single privileged domain of early musicology, and it still dominates in...prestige. Conversely, stereotypes of "non-Western" musics and popular musics have worked to the disadvantage of scholars in ethnomusicology and popular music studies. Middle-class dominance in the latter is evident in almost complete ignorance of a working-class rural music such as country music.

I generally agree, though as my previous posts indicate, the sense of what is canonically acceptable middle-class or working-class music to a hip middle-class gaze bears much further interrogation.

Michelle Bigenho, an anthropologist who studied musical culture in Bolivia, writes about why she refuses the designation "ethnomusicologist." What I found interesting here is her refusal to assume that music is a unique or autonomous category in culture. In her experience, anthropology treats music as a part of larger cultural themes and practices, while in ethnomusicology, the centrality of music as a topic tends to edge out (or overdetermine) other considerations. She blames the departments and institutions that structure our disciplines: music departments expect ethnomusicologists to play music, teach ensembles, teach area studies and genres, so that's what gets studied. Anthropologists would never do this; music is not always so isolatable, and indeed, this would be seen by some as a counterproductive way to understand a culture.

I'm just starting on Nicholas Cook's essay on musicology vis a vis ethnomusicology, but it looks like more promising insights on this are to come.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Voice, Class, and the Inescapable Barthes

I swear to God, I'll rip out what's left of my hair if one more popular music scholar name-checks Roland Barthes and "The Grain of the Voice!"

Whew -- now I feel better.

Seriously, though, what is it about this (admittedly rich and piquant) little article from 1977 (reprinted in On Record) that leads everyone from grad students to senior music scholars to invoke it every time the singing voice is tabled for discussion? Is it really the most insightful thing written on the voice in more than 30 years?

I got to thinking about this recently while researching for my IASPM/CSTM Regina presentation, because it kept turning up in every other popular music studies article or book chapter I picked up. I've been noting this for some time, but when Barthes was cited three times in one day at the conference, I decided that I really needed to go back and re-read this article and think about it. I became really curious about why it seems so inexhaustibly relevant to so many, even thirty-some years after it first appeared.

What's particularly interesting is that no one seems to criticize Barthes's concept of the "grain" of the voice, at least in our discipline; it's always invoked, applied cursorily, and then left. It's probably beyond my limitations to criticize Barthes directly, but on re-reading the article, I'm left with a number of questions and reservations about its application in music scholarship.

Why, for example, is an article principally concerned with the voice in European classical music so influential on popular music studies?

The driving force behind Barthes's discussion of vocal "grain" is his preference for the opera singer Panzera over the more popular Fischer-Dieskau. Although Barthes insists his choice of singers (for illustrating vocals with grain vs. vocals without grain) is not important (they are just "ciphers," he says), it's hard not to read the article as a very sophisticated justification for personal preference. This seems more like "music criticism" than "cultural criticism," so what does it mean that his model is used principally for the latter in popular music scholarship?

Is "grain" the most accurate translation of what Barthes means?

Presumably, the term "grain of the voice" is meant to be roughly analogous with "grain in the wood" or "grain of the rock," a texture or internal pattern that is unique to a wooden plank or something. On its face, it's a striking analogy to think about, because an individual's voice is so unique and recognizable, and yet we lack a substantial language to describe it.

But Barthes has a more complicated notion in mind: vocal grain is "the body in the voice as it sings," it's the "materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue." It's more than timbre, he says. He clearly gets off on a voice that is relatively unruly, insofar as you hear the tongue itself, the wet snap of tissue in the mouth and throat, the click and scratch of teeth, and so on. Panzera made artful use of these qualities, for Barthes, while he heard nothing in Fischer-Dieskau except clean, clear vocal tone. Panzera is unbridled bodily sensuality, ambiguity, etc.; Fischer-Dieskau politely, clearly and cleanly serves the music. The former has grain, the latter doesn't.

It's hard for me not to hear where this is all going in a very "classed" sense: Panzera gives the upper-middle-class French intellectual lots of "bodily" stuff to dive into, to appreciate sensually (albeit in a very theoretical language) in a vaguely avant-garde way. Fischer-Dieskau, by being "clear," in Barthes's words, by singing in a way that makes sense with respect to the expressive context set up by the song, is being too utilitarian, obvious, etc. In other words, Fischer-Dieskau is almost middlebrow, acceptable to a lower-middle-class sensibility.

Maybe that's why I get a bit irked reading Barthes: he's a French upper-middle-class theorist-provocateur, while I'm a pragmatic North American Anglo petit-bourgeois, outfoxed again!

But this is the real question: what does the concept of "grain" (and its attendant concepts, scooped up from Kristeva, the pheno-song and geno-song) do for us?

I've seen people apply this very nearly by rote to pop singers, whereby notions of "grain" get applied to a certain kind of singer (Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, Tom Waits, etc.) while a lack of grain is more paradigmatic of a pop singer whose tone, style and training more closely aligns with crooning, Broadway style, or mainstream pop.

The problem for me is that "grain" is still being deployed with a sneaky undercurrent of value judgment, which doesn't generate new understanding, but buttresses the same old assumptions about why some singers are great, and others are run of the mill. It becomes another tool in maintaining the authentic/inauthentic dyad, or the artiste/entertainer dichotomy.

Really, just as no wood is without grain, I don't like the idea that some voices have no grain. Maybe some are smoother than others, maybe some have more texture than others -- that's fine. Maybe you can hear more "body" (in Barthes's sense) in one voice than another, but why is more body-in-the-voice always necessarily better?

Finally, how has the idea that Barthes came up with been elaborated for our purposes in musicology or popular music studies? Obviously, it still speaks to a lot of people, but are we getting anywhere with it? For something cited so frequently, it seems like very little has been added to build up the theory.

Maybe I'm missing something: I'm open to hearing from those who think Barthes's theory deserves the attention it receives, at least in our discipline.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Class Without A Culture?

I've returned from the IASPM/CSTM conference in Regina, which was entitled Spaces of Violence, Sites of Resistance: Music, Media, and Performance. The quality of presentations was quite high, and I enjoyed lots of stimulating papers and discussions.

My presentation on the problems and potentials of studying the middle class and popular music was well-received, and lots of people have followed up with suggestions for other sources and papers.

One strand from the paper which bears further elaboration concerns the (white) middle class's cultural obsession with alterity and the other. I argued that the perception of the middle class as an invisible "norm," and also as something prosaic or lame, has led middle-class cultural consumers to be looking continuously outside themselves for something more real, authentic, vivid, etc., than what traditionally middle class popular culture has provided. This process accelerated during and after the big cultural and political changes of the 1960s, altering middle-class tastes, both in content and range, beyond recognition.

In a discussion with my colleague, Norm Stanfield of UBC, we talked about how the white, American middle-class culture which has been all but rejected by its inheritors (think here about orchestral pop, Tin Pan Alley crooning, etc.), has been enthusiastically picked up by other middle classes emerging around the world (China's emerging middle class and Chinese-American immigrants provide good examples). Crooners are popular, as are lush orchestral (or synthesized) textures, ballad-type songs and a relaxed, sophisticated atmosphere. Yet, in most white, middle-class circles, few such pop sounds could be more unhip. It's like a mirror on what white, middle-class music used to be like, and for some reason, it makes a lot of people like me recoil.

Why is this?

Norm recommended an article in The Atlantic, entitled "The End of White America," by Hua Hsu. It's largely about the coming demographic shift when, in the 2040s, white people cease to be the majority ethnicity in the US. What kind of multi-ethnic or multi-racial country will the US (or Canada) be by then?

More urgently, how will white people respond to this demographic shift, and given that ethnic identity is always changing and evolving, what will it mean to be white then?

In discussing this question, Hsu talks about the state of white culture, although I think he's talking more specifically about white middle class culture. It's not simply that it's so ubiquitous that it's invisible, or considered just "normal," but that it has pretty much been abandoned.

Much like I argued in my own paper, Hsu discusses how the baby-boomers (and later generations) ceased looking towards the genteel culture to which the middle class has traditionally been heir, and has instead embraced a fluid, eclectic cultural field focussed principally on people unlike themselves.

The consequence of this is double-edged: perhaps white middle-class North Americans have become more open-minded and tolerant of the culture of others, but at the expense of having any substantive culture of their own. They have become, more literally than before, cultureless.

Hsu quotes sociologist Matt Wray, who notes of his own white, middle-class students:

They don't care about socioeconomics; they care about culture. And to be white is to be culturally broke. The classic thing white students say when you ask them to talk about who they are is, "I don't have a culture." They might be privileged, they might be loaded socioeconomically, but they feel bankrupt when it comes to culture … They feel disadvantaged, and they feel marginalized. They don’t have a culture that's cool or oppositional.

Hsu holds up William "Upski" Wimsatt's book Bomb the Suburbs (1994) as a symptomatic text documenting the move towards a white, middle-class culture that is focussed almost exclusively on alterity. Wimsatt valorizes the white middle-class hip hop fan for adopting black American culture as fully as possible, much as Norman Mailer did 50 years ago in The White Negro. The very implication of Wimsatt's book title -- destroy where we live, erase what we are -- is evocative of the kind of self-loathing that marks modern, hip attitudes towards middle-class identity.

In a future where there is no majority, Hsu surmises, a cultureless whiteness may be a problem indeed.

The reason I see Hsu's cultureless whiteness as being more of a middle-class issue than a working-class one is that I don't think the white working class has been nearly as quick to abandon its culture. They're far less embarrassed about their country music proclivities, for example, than we've been about our mainstream pop.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Presenting on Popular Music and the Middle Class

On Thursday, June 3, I'll be presenting a paper, "Popular Music and the Middle Class: Problems and Potentials in the Study of 'Dominant' Formations," at the joint IASPM-CSTM conference at the University of Regina.

It will discuss some of the stumbling blocks I found when studying both Rush and the singer-songwriter movement in relation to the North American middle class.

I'll be talking about the aversion to talking about class, and the seeming "invisibility" of the middle class, as two preliminary problems.

But I'm particularly interested in how the recieved wisdom and myths about the middle class weasel their way into the discussion, even if you try to avoid them. And I'm interested in how these myths seem to come from a place of embarassment or even self-hatred, since most studies of the middle class are actually studies of the self (that is, studies by middle-class writers about the class they come from).

Thus, we get the middle class as dull, as sick, as gentrifiers, and so on.

I'll post more about this, and how it relates to music, when I return.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Middlebrow Bites Back

John Guillory wrote an incisive review of literary critic Harold Bloom's The Western Canon a while back.

Bloom's book, apart from being a summary of the great works of Western literature (Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, etc.), contained a caustic introductory essay and a biting conclusion, accusing the contemporary professoriate of destroying standards in the humanities and bitterly dismissing aesthetic value in the arts.

How does Bloom think they did this? By daring to look at the social and political contexts in which the great works of Western literature were created, and asking how canons themselves are formed.

Bloom's complaint partly rested on the notion that great literature's "greatness" was wholly dependent on aesthetic value, something that only dedicated and gifted ("deep") readers could access or experience. Any other question about it was either beside the point or actively subversive to the appreciation of great works.

Guillory brilliantly cut through Bloom's rhetoric, assertively showing who Bloom was aiming this book at, and why.

Bloom was not aiming at "deep readers" of Western literature, Guillory surmises. He was aiming at middlebrow readers who would never, ever actually read through any substantial portion of the canon. He told such an audience exactly what they wanted to hear: great literature is great, period. He gave them capsule summaries of great works so that they could feel, at some level, conversant with its topics, plots, and characters.

And he played right to their prejudices: great literature frustrates all attempts at analysis or interpretation. There are no politics here. Aesthetic greatness transcends history. In short, shut up and appreciate! And if you can't appreciate, just shut up!

Bloom -- despite being a professor himself -- plays to the anti-intellectual tendencies of a public that deeply mistrusts intellectual work. He accuses his colleagues of asking the wrong questions, teaching the wrong works of culture, undertaking studies that undermine, rather than buttress, the "old" way Western culture was taught.

Guillory argues that Bloom ended up creating an elitism that doubles as populism. Bloom seems to argue that the greatness of high culture needs to be protected from elite intellectuals, the very guardians and teachers of that culture. Anxiety about high culture -- what it is, who it is for, what it means -- is assuaged by assuring the middlebrow reader that it doesn't belong to anyone in particular.

Intellectual work on popular culture, interestingly enough, is sometimes met by the layperson with the kind of response Bloom encouraged: the charge is often that intellectuals over-analyze and miss the point of what they study.

One review of a recent popular music study (not mine) even states this outright, admonishing the author to just "shut up and play your guitar." But really, the reviewer was incensed that certain questions were asked, that critical reflection was undertaken, rather than discussing the music on its own (fan's?) terms.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Disciplinary Divides and Social Divides? (I)

Popular music studies is an interdisciplinary exercise.

Sociology, cultural studies, English, communications, musicology, music theory, ethnomusicology, anthropology -- these are some of the disciplines that have contributed to popular music studies.

But being interdisciplinary, as Stanley Fish once said, is so very hard to do.

At least part of the problem is that different disciplines come at any topic with their own strengths and weaknesses, and they tend to grab at topics which they can most easily explain. There are notable exceptions to this, but there seems to be a divide among the disciplines that do popular music studies, leading to very interesting musical divides. These, in turn, reflect social divides.

Take, for example, music theory's (and to a lesser degree, musicology's) contributions: the tendency has been to study popular song that has relatively complex forms and interesting chord progressions. Thus, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, the Beatles, and some of the more clever singer-songwriters have received significant attention. Heavy metal, too, has gotten its share of attention, with its modalities and virtuosic guitar solos providing fodder for analysis. Even recent work on girl groups draws off of a repertoire with some advanced compositional and arrangement techniques -- the world of the Brill Building and Motown was self-consciously professionalized, after all.

On the other side, consider cultural studies and sociology: their emphasis on working-class lifestyles and subcultures have led to revealing work on punk rock, the mods, the London rasta and rudie scene, and so on. Likewise, the interest in reading (postmodern) texts led to a flurry of studies on music video.

I'm obviously being reductive here to make a point, but I find it interesting how these two disciplinary areas have had little to say about musical topics across their divides. For example, in Frith and Horne's sociological book, Art into Pop, the authors stress in the introduction that this is about the role an education in fine arts had on musician-artists who ended up in popular music; they issue a stern caveat that they are not interested in so-called "art rock," that classically-influenced stuff that bands like ELP peddled. What follows is stuff like the Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, PiL -- pop on the proto-punk/punk rock/new-wave axis.

On the other side of the divide, punk has gotten little musicological attention. In his seminal Rock: The Primary Text, musicologist Allan Moore dutifully (if briefly) surveys punk as a substyle of rock, only to dismiss it as something that will be seen as having had a limited stylistic influence on rock at large. (A speculation which I'm guessing was probably written around 1990, before alternative rock really took off -- the original book came out in 1993.)

I have to confess my own complicity in this divide: by writing about Rush, I was doing the musicological thing of diving into something that was self-consciously designed to be interesting to a certain kind of musician. Rush analyzes "well" musicologically. It's a convenient topic, from one standpoint.

What bears further thought is how the relationship between social divides and musical divides (which we are mostly aware of) also interrelates with disciplinary divides. Most of us working in popular music studies are striving to do interdisciplinary work, but each discipline carries its baggage.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Humour and Detachment (Rush)

Chapter 4 of Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class focuses on issues of seriousness and detachment in Rush. I looked at how this was apparent in their lyrics, musicianship, and live performance. What emerged was a band carefully positioning itself as a highly disciplined group of musicians, making thoughtful and serious observations about life and society.

This image may be a bit dated now. Late-career Rush seems quite a bit less invested in an image of thoughtful seriousness, and the band seems much more at ease with its public profile. Film and TV cameos have been growing in frequency in recent years (Colbert, Rick Mercer, I Love You Man, Suck, and Trailer Park Boys, to name some of the bigger profile cameos). Peart's recent re-versioning of the old Hockey Night in Canada theme seemed like good fun, as well as a nod towards his native country. Is Rush, contra "Limelight," actually starting to have fun (in the public eye) with celebrity?

To be fair, though, humour has been an aspect of Rush for some time. In some ways, the recognition of that humour, often buried in liner notes, album covers and the odd interview, was something the band shared with its most attentive and devoted fans.

The pun-on-top-of-pun on the Permanent Waves cover is one example. The model on the cover has a permanent wave; the title was a rejoinder to music critics' fawning over "new wave" rock, the storm-surge behind the model at once added more "waves" while also referring obliquely to the introduction of "Natural Science," and the "Dewey(i) Defeats Truman" headline on the Chicago Tribune newpaper, blowing in the wind, symbolized what Rush fans (offended by dismissive music critics) already believed: the press doesn't always get it right! Lots of nudges and winks.

The band let some of its in-jokes become public knowledge, which the fans came to cherish: the nicknames, the droll banter in concert programs, the silly inspirational slogans on the walls of the studio. By the 2000s, when Geddy Lee replaced his bass speaker cabinets with laundry machines and chicken rotisseries, the jokes weren't even so "inside" anymore.

In 1994, Neil Peart commented straightforwardly on the tension between Rush's seriousness and Rush's frivolity. He told Seconds's Stephen Blush, "Our work is serious in nature. But just because we take our work seriously doesn't mean we take ourselves seriously. That's the distinction we make, and that would certainly represent an important distinction. Our concerts are very important to us....Making records is the same way, we apply everything we have to doing it, but it doesn't mean we don't laugh afterwards."

For a band that produces very serious songs like "Losing It," "The Pass" and "Natural Science," the balance provided by a healthy sense of humour makes some sense.

But humour, itself, can also be a gesture of detachment. Irony is a great example of this. The humour of saying exactly what you obviously don't mean is the basis of irony, but this device of speech is also used to say the things we mean, but which we feel uncomfortable saying seriously and outright. ("Yeah, like I'd really love to listen to nerdy band like Rush!...[actually, I would...]) Sometimes, it's more comfortable to say something you mean in jest, because it gives you an out: you are detached from what you are saying.

Peart's quote reminds me a little of this. The music is serious, but the band detaches itself from that seriousness. It's another way of showing distance, which I discussed in chapter 1.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Southern Music & The US Working Class (I)

I was going through Bill Malone's excellent history of country music, Don't Get Above Your Raisin', while prepping for my popular music class this week.

The class's topic was the backlash against the 1960s counterculture levelled by country artists like Merle Haggard, which so clearly show the social distance they felt from 60s political activism.

Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee" expressed, with wit and sarcasm, the feelings of conservative, blue-collar, small-town folk about the excess and hedonism of the hippie counterculture. The song also criticizes the hippies (or, more accurately, the anti-war protest) for dissenting against the government and thus against the nation. It was the first in a long series of country songs with a nationalistic, love-it-or-leave-it attitude towards the US.

The "other" in "Okie from Muskogee" is never really named apart from the hippies, but implicity, the opposite of the small-town, blue-collar, white man is the urban, middle-class, university-educated white man. In other words, it's about class, not race. (Gender-wise, I get the sense that the ideal or "addressed" listener is male -- not sure why).

Malone's book is principally concerned with the white American working class and what country music meant to this constituency. I was interested in what Malone had to say about the politics that get expressed in country.

Malone shows that country music's populist basis once overlapped with some progressive politics -- see the Depression song "Hurrah for Roosevelt," praising the New Deal and the president's concern with the plight of working people -- and he deals with the apparent conservative turn that the American working class seemed to make after the social changes of the 1960s divided the nation. "Okie" was one of the harbingers.

However, the politics of the American working class, especially as expressed in country music over the past 40 years, is a riddle to most social scientists. The clinging to rugged American individualism, the hardcore religiosity, the disdain for "liberal elites," the "my country right-or-wrong" nationalism is perplexing when it seems so clear, given the massive income disparities in the US, that the working class should logically embrace a more progressive politics. Explanations for this are usually very condescending. The assumption is that they are duped, uneducated, justifiably angry yet misdirected, or some combination of these.

Malone's argument is simply that country music's politics can't be pinned down in any simple way. Fair enough: the social class backgrounds described implicitly in country music aren't singular or monolithic. But Malone's conclusion also indicates that a lot more research and analysis is left to be done.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Music/Class/Suburbia: Revisiting Burlington in the 1980s

Growing up in the 1980s in south Burlington, Ontario, there was quite a wide range of social class living in a fairly close radius. Upper and upper-middle-class families lived frequently along the shores of Lake Ontario (with even larger and more expensive homes going up in that area now than when I was young). Just back from the lake, there were a lot solidly middle-class areas, particularly around the downtown, with lots of professionals and white collars who commuted either to Toronto or Hamilton. There were also a lot of war-era bungalows around, where lower-middle-class and respectable working-class families lived. There were some lower-income apartments dotting the area, especially near the Mall, but the land-use was clearly biased towards single family homes. Burlington had fast become a suburb, after all.

The high school I attended reflected this mix. It's probably a function of my own petit-bourgeois background that I wasn't always sure where I fit in. The upper-middle-class kids seemed a world apart to me; I had some working-class friends, but I remember some of them being taken aback when it turned out that I lived virtually inside the affluent Roseland neighbourhood.

Rush fandom, aside from being almost exlusively male as far as I could see, was similarly class-confusing at my high school. Most of the upper-middle-class kids had no use for Rush; they were as declasse as Iron Maiden, Styx and Judas Priest, and any other such metal or FM-oriented arena-rockers. Some headbangers loved Rush, but so did some of the kids in the chess club, and they frequently weren't part of the same constituency. If there was a centre to Rush fandom from which it radiated, it seemed to be in the lower middle class.

It's hard to remember much now about how musical taste and class identity aligned (or didn't align), but among the male constituency, different types of rock seemed to have their place among certain groups or cliques. The preppier guys seemed to like artier, more ironic kinds of music, like new wave and some technopop. Some of them were into jazz. The preferred types of rock seemed to get "harder" as you moved into the more lower-middle-class and working-class groups. However, genres like hardcore punk were hard to place, especially since (in North America) this type of music was heavily associated with college radio and the university circuit -- it wasn't "dole queue rock" as it was sometimes called in the UK.

The late 1980s was also the time when eclecticism was picking up as a new sort of highbrow stance, and I remember the "I like everything but country" cliche starting to circulate around this time. This was a stance I took with my musical taste late in high school; it was now part of middle-class identity to treat the whole cultural field as a big smorgasbord.

But the fact that country and sometimes rap were excluded from this declaration of broad taste definitely showed how divisions of class and other kinds of social distance were still clearly operating.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reconsidering the Middle Class

Now that Dreaming in Middletown is published, I want to briefly touch on the road I could have taken, and didn't.

I am fully aware that my conception of the North American middle class, which operated throughout the book, is open to the challenge that what I described as "middle class" may be understood from a different perspective as just a "higher" echelon of the working class.

I remember discussing this with a colleague of mine at York U -- a lifelong Marxist -- who disagreed that the suburbs were middle-class. These were some questions he put to me after I described my ideas for sketching North America's middle class. Do you have to be at least middle-class to own your own house? Does earning a salary rather than an hourly wage automatically admit you to a different class? Is white-collar labour really so different (in principle) from manufacturing and service-sector jobs? When I said "middle class North Americans," was I really talking (mostly) about embourgeoised workers?

These are good questions. Excluding the small entrepreneurs and self-directed professionals who are best described as petit-bourgeois, many of the white collar guys who grew up in suburban environs and might recognize themselves in the teenage protagonist in the "Subdivisions" narrative may think of themselves as middle-class while working under conditions that befit an upper-working-class definition in much classic Marxist sociology. At best, they might be described as society's "middle layers," but not middle class, per se.

Nevertheless, I chose to thow my lot in with an eminent American sociologist (C. Wright Mills), certain American historians (Burton Bledstein, Peter Stearns) and American cultural critics (Rita Felski, Lorraine Kenney) and call these white collars, professionals and entrepreneurs part of the "new middle classes," as we've known them since the late 1940s.

It seemed to me that there was a cultural ethos among the middling sorts that had a distinct, bourgeois flavour, even if it didn't fit Marxist models.

It doesn't hurt that the middle class is such a North American catch-all. A band like Rush can attract fans from across the social spectrum with their middle-class-inflected music because so many of us -- white collars, blue collars, new collars, no-collars -- think of ourselves as middle class, living the American dream.

But it remains open to the challenge that middle-class identification is really some kind of false consciousness. We think we're middle class just because we aren't poor. Or because we've grown up thinking of our position in society as unique, or a product of merit or maybe accident.

It's hard for North Americans to "think straight about class," as Rita Felski writes, because we talk so little about it, we have almost no sensible language for it. Race and gender are so much easier, and so visible; but class is almost a taboo. It's also bloody complicated: an auto worker may earn more than a high school teacher, but teachers have to have a university degree, and some teachers have more than one. Meanwhile, artists, classical musicians, and others who produce "high culture" sometimes live close to the poverty line. Class and social position aren't just about wealth.

There's so much to consider, and so many ways in which class is lived and performed. And there's so much to think about where it intersects with music: a whole history is there, waiting to be written.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Welcome to the Middletown Blog

I am Chris McDonald, author of Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown, which was published last fall by Indiana University Press.

This blog is intended as an informal sounding board for developing new ideas and new research into the relationship between music and social class, with a special emphasis on the middle class. I welcome input from those interested in topics related to popular music, the middle class, and (of course!) Rush.

I'm not intending for Rush to be the focus of this blog, but I expect to be blogging about them periodically.

New musical topics that I'm becoming tentatively interested in as "middle-class culture" include progressive rock, singer-songwriters, folk revivalism, and musical eclecticism.