Like everybody else, nine times out of ten, when people ask me what I study, the response to "musicology" is "what's THAT?" I have a pat answer I largely cribbed from Grove ("Musicology is the study not only of music, but of musicians, composers, and audiences living in certain places, at certain times, and within certain social constructs"), which usually has to be followed by a semi-apologetic "...it's like history and sociology, sort of, but about music," and then sometimes even further by, "...like, WHY is Beethoven so popular?" After coping with questions about what instruments I play, I tend to launch into murky, confusing rhapsodies on "gender theory." These conversations usually go poorly, and I am left drinking alone at parties after alienating the friendly querier and everyone within earshot. Even in my own family, confusion reigns. For years, my grandmother has been asking why I need so much school "just to teach piano lessons to little children."
I find that I am situated somewhat differently within musicology, in terms of my own angsty hang-ups, than other people who have posted on this blog. I come to musicology profoundly humbled, often abject, constantly aware of my bewildering shortcomings in studying the classical music which I have never actually known that much about. My musical background is more along the lines of the "punk-ass kid": I spent nearly ten years of my life playing in various rock, pop, and pretentious "conceptual electro art/prog" bands and touring somewhat internationally in a succession of dirty, breaking-down vehicles.
I have never had a problem with the music I liked. The first band I ever got into was They Might Be Giants, in 7th grade. I think when TMBG is your first love, you sort of transcend shame. It never occurred to me to think it was "funny" when I used words like "powerful" and "mind-blowing" to describe Justin Timberlake's album, or Beyoncé's reggaeton juggernaut "Check on It." Popular music is my people, and if I am ever in the terrifying position of teaching an opera class, you can be sure that "Tommy" will be on the syllabus.
So, I have this same shame about writing academically about pop music, but it's because I feel like in order to do so, I must first know all about old serious music. It seems like everybody else knows so much about classical music that they feel stupid talking about popular music--almost like they feel less authorized, or like they are coming from TOO educated a place to unproblematically stick Bob Marley next to Mahler in their paper-writing chronology. But when I imagine magically having all this knowledge about harmonic analysis and Beethoven and whatever else, I imagine it setting me FREE. I feel that if I was more comfortable talking about old music, it would automatically privilege my life-experience knowledge about popular music more. And I think that's weird. I think it's weird that you can grow up devaluing your own musical knowledge even when no one has ever explicitly told you to--and even when, at UCLA, most of your professors go out of their way to give props to popular music and to your wrathful papers about Kenny G and how people hate women. Do the fancies who grew up listening to Tchaikovsky feel guilty because they don't know enough about Joni Mitchell? Maybe, I guess. But my arch nemesis Gene Weingarten would certainly never compose a sorrowing screed about the uneducated materialists who dared to WALK PAST Mitchell playing in a subway station, the way he did for Joshua Bell. To quote Molly Shannon: "DON'T get me STARTED."
I love all "my" music indiscriminately and unironically, whether it's Harold en Italie or Mariah Carey. But love doesn't equal intellectual authorization. Why do I feel like I can't write authoritatively about Mariah Carey (not to mention Harold en Italie) without first developing a categorical knowledge of 19th century German music? One could argue that the two are related in only the most abstract way ("music made by humans"), and yet the impression persists. And no matter how much I read about the towering fallacy perpetuated on Time Itself by German Idealism and the nationalistic upholding of German absolute music as political propaganda, I still get sweaty and think, "oh jeez, I hope nobody finds out I don't really understand what a Neapolitan chord is."