Thursday, November 29, 2007

I'm A Humbug

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 "'s like history and sociology, sort of, but about music," and then sometimes even further by, ", 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."


K said...

I enjoyed reading your perspective, because I am one of those people who grew up listening only to "classical" music. I hadn't even heard the Beatles until I was in grad school and a friend was so shocked she made me a mix. I've come to appreciate a wide range of popular music, and because so many of my colleagues are enthusiastic about popular music, I'm happily free from any shame or other guilt about selecting Shakira over Shostakovich on my iPod. I do, however, really think that we as musicologists need a new kind of language to discuss pop music. I think one is forming, but it's taking a while to get past the divide between, "Here they just jam for like 30 minutes," and "Now Led Zeppelin's lead guitarist performs variations on the theme heard in the vocal in the second stanza," etc. I think total comfort for those of us in both worlds will come when we have a more common language.

Oh, and I just tell people I work in "music history." It's easier, at least for me. :)

Rebecca said...

I also go the "music history" route unless someone seems particularly invested in the question. I no longer get irritated by the inevitable follow up question (when I respond, "musicology"): "Oh, what instrument do you play?" This is because I realize that there are fields that would stop the conversation cold. There would be no follow up questions. So, if people grasp on to the part they understand ("music-") that's great. I go with it.

I am one who feels guilt about my lack of knowledge in the pop music arena (grew up listening to mostly older repertoire). I think K's comment about needing to find a common language is exactly right. I've seen a few examples is recent years, so I think we will get there.

Sammee said...

I just had a conversation about what musicology is with my new beautician. She asked me the inevitable, 'So, what do you do?' question while getting ready to cut my hair. I replied, 'I'm pursuing a PhD in Musicology,' which obviously caused her to look at me blankly. When I told her that musicology is the academic study of music and that I write about a 16thC English composer, that seemed to sound esoteric enough that we could just leave it alone and move on to something we both have opinions on, namely the open Newsweek magazine on my lap that had a picture of Nicole Kidman in it. I'm not really bothered if people can't really talk to me about my discipline; I have enough experts in my life, and I really prefer not to have to explain it to my hair stylist as well.

As for the whole 'popular' music hang up, I suppose I feel similarly to you. I grew up listening simultaneously to top 40, gospel and the canonic repertoire, but my piano teachers influenced me to privilege the canon because 'classical music is art'. This has caused me to view the canon as being Most Important and Most Academic, so therefore I should make sure I know it best above all else before moving onto the less important and less 'interesting' musics. Perhaps I feel less authoritative in my knowledge of punk rock because punk rock has never been authoritative nor will it be labeled as authoritative in any sense of the word. Does my knowledge of augmented sixth chords in Liszt enable me to write culturally sensitive and insightful pieces on the development of Joe Strummer's musical language from 'London Calling' to 'Sandinista'? No... but I guess it makes me feel better, because I feel like I have to defend my interest in punk rock by saying, 'But look, see, I AM a worthy music academic, I know how augmented sixth chords function in Liszt and Strauss!' How silly... esp. since it just seems to be conflating the cultural study of music (an element of *musicology*) with a very formalist, scientific study of music (*music theory*).