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.