Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Music We Enjoy and Music We Study

In a recent review of an essay collection entitled Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, Robert Walser questions the very idea of the book's premise, citing Dave Hickey and Christopher Small and their approach to contextualizing and taking seriously people's genuine pleasures that other critics flatly dismiss.* Guilty pleasures in popular culture are inherently about class and privilege. During my years as a graduate student there have been flare-ups and heated debates about this topic –– among my fellow grad students, in the classroom when I lead discussions, and in much more public forums like seminars and conference panels. It's an intense topic and some people take offense at the very idea of ironic cultural appreciation (i.e. "oh I love Fergie, but only ironically") and guilty pleasures. As a case in point, just a few days ago I noticed that two of my facebook friends joined a group called "Against the concept of guilty pleasures." Thus, the debate rages on. But it brings me to a larger theme in the academic study of music: for many music scholars (by no means all of us), there is the music we passionately enjoy, and then there is the music we study (which, no doubt, has its own passions).

I know of a few music scholars who study pleasures that they consider guilty and a few others who refuse to study the music they love. Some keep these divisions separated in their lives by period (i.e. an 19th century music scholar who is passionate about EMO, the medievalist who is obsessed with Beck), while others have their loves and objects of study in much closer temporal and geographic proximity (i.e. the Brazilianist with a strong interest in contemporary art music, the North African music scholar with a love for jazz, the rock music scholar with a secret passion for Film Music). I even know one ethnomusicologist who began his dissertation research on a particular genre simply because he so passionately hated the music that he wanted to understand its popularity. He's upfront about this, and sometimes I wish others of us would be clear about our motivations in our work. Surely we all make our choices for our subjects of study for a variety of reasons, but I want to challenge this separtion a little bit more.

Just the other night, I ran into some ethnomusicologists at a jazz/fusion show. An old friend of mine was playing with his band and I decided to see them again after numerous prodding emails and phone calls. The show was great as usual, but seeing my colleagues was, well, a little awkward. In one sense, it forced me to read the concert ethnographically and even hindered the experience for what it was. In another sense, none of us was there because we study this music. I know that one of my colleagues was there because he, too, is friends with a member of the band, while the other one simply told me, "yeah, these guys are great! More people should know about them!" Jazz/fusion shows tend to draw a certain demographic, and I couldn't stop paying attention to the fact that as a woman, I was in the minority. And I love this music, but I am extremely uncomfortable studying it. Before I decided to specialize in Brazilian music, I thought I was going to work on the intersections of jazz and electronic dance music. (Ask me some time about my MA exams or my MA thesis...) I changed specializations for many reasons, but among them was that I did not feel comfortable analyzing the musical cultures of my closest childhood friends.

Similarly, I discovered during my second year at my MA program that I am incapable of studying music for which I have intense emotions, especially the music I connect with my adolescence. When I decided that musicology was for me, I knew that I would eventually run into this problem – I just never predicted the multitude of ways that it would present itself in my life and in academia. In fact, during my first years as an undergraduate learning about musicology, my mentor told me that for many people, "popular music is either too important for intellectual discussion, or not important enough." Have I fallen prey to the very values that make it so difficult for popular music scholarship to attain the same prestige as, say, the canon?

But these choices and personal observations are my own; they do not apply to everyone. (For example, I know of plenty of excellent scholars who study what they love, regardless, or even because of, that personal attachment.) I have a feeling that many of the essays that caused Robert Walser to react so strongly to Bad Music have to do with scholars attempting to intellectually reconcile the music that causes them mixed emotions and abject reactions with the charge of being popular music scholars. Theoretically, we should take one-hit wonders as seriously as we take Louis Armstrong or jazz/fusion bands, and we should surely be able to study the music that is most dear to us. I guess the question for many of us is whether or not we want to go down that particular rabbit hole of personal taste verses intellectual duty. I'm still unsure myself.

* Robert Walser, Review of Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, edited by Christopher J. Washburne and Maiken Derko, New York: Routledge, 2004, Journal of the Society for American Music 1 (2007): 511-516.


Sammee said...

I've mused a bit about this topic on my blog, if you care to read and get a dialogue going. I have similar problems writing about anything I love very much, unless I have placed it in an academic mold. I love William Byrd's music with all my heart, but since I've been studying it as an academic for so long and have placed that rubric around it, I feel I have more emotional distance.

Anonymous said...

Aaron Fox (from Columbia U) here -- I wrote one of the papers in "Bad Music."

I have to say that Prof. Walser's review is not nearly as thoughtful as your blog post, and that the deeper subtext seems to be an angry emotional response to the project on his part, thinly justified with a rather incoherent critique. It's an unfair and over-personalized review, the tone of which (concluding with "If I had been asked to contribute," amazingly) bespeaks issues that are not broached about first claims to topics, and the authority to frame certain issues (not to mention an emerging East Coast/West Coast divergence that rivals the hip-hop wars of the 90s).

But all that inside baseball hinting aside, perhaps it's as simple as you say -- he finds the book a celebration of guilty pleasures and finds this a condescending, elitist perspective. I think he's wrong about the book's content, on balance, much of which is overtly celebratory of "bad" musics in a non-ironic way, and more of which simply interrogates the very framework he deploys here, one that assumes the aesthetic transparency of discourses of value in relation to sonic objects.

Let me assure the reader that country music is, for me, only a "guilty pleasure" in the transcendent sense I describe in my paper (that all commodified music is an ironic pleasure). I have no problem saying I love the stuff as such, without irony, or that my Texan consultants do. (Of course, the question then simply devolves into an authenticity spiral, since the question of how we define or specify the contents of the label we apply to what we "love" immediately follows, with qualifications galore, among musicologists no less than among country music or jazz fans.)

But we don't specify musical objects with genre labels, and thinking that we do is the cardinal sin of most popular music scholarship. We specify *social* logics and *cultural* or ideological formations that are nearly endlessly open to new musical content. That is the point of my essay -- and Frith's, and the introduction. As long as we make the musical text or sound as such the extent of the definition of "music," we'll be caught in the absolutist dilemma overdetermined by naturalized rhetorics of value that partake of commodity fetishism to identify recordings with social experience without the mediation of the social practices surrounding musical experience as such.

As Prof. Walser clearly agrees, one man's bad music is another woman's fine art. I say no less in my article or my book (which begins by claiming country music is, first and foremost, a working class art form worthy of critical aesthetic study). Indeed, I have always taken Prof. Walser's work as agreeing with the broad arguments I am making here, which makes his review all the more perplexing to me -- he takes a challenge to autonomous value so deeply personally, after years as a scholar of heavy metal and the flubbed notes in Miles Davis' recordings?

I also want to call Prof. Walser out for failing to mention (substantively) the co-editorship (and co-authorship of the book's introduction) by Maiken Derno, and his general tendency to be more critical of younger and female scholars who contributed (pick on someone your own size, why don't you -- I volunteer), as well as his notable exemption of his own student from his critique. Some elements of the review are just sloppy, a result of writing in a state of high dudgeon.

Finally, I have to believe this review was not solicited without knowledge of Prof. Walser's distaste for the book. The review reads like something he was itching to write, and I question the fairness of assigning a review to someone who clearly resents the project in question for personal reasons -- the tone of chagrin when Prof. Walser provides a one-paragraph summary of his own tragically uninvited contribution to the volume is unmistakably churlish and out of place in a serious review. It's Hillary Clinton-esque, in fact.

So to me, it's a deeply flawed review, and I don't say that because it's negative or because many of the contributors to the book are my friends (and, I thought, Prof. Walser's friends too). I've been slammed (by friends even) in the past and I expect it as part of the game (indeed, Prof. Walser even exempts my paper, mostly, from his most scathing criticisms, though I am amused to be called out on not knowing Western art music history well enough, since I am an anthropologist and not a musicologist, by choice and training; but I still say music has been a commodity since the dawn of capitalism and that this gives Bach -- certainly the contemporary "Bach" we know and love -- plenty of commonality with Kenny G).

So I think that in a sense you're right -- the emotionality this "absolute values" argument entails makes it hard to be rational about the question of why we have the musical values we do. As a social scientist, I solve the problem by not caring whether I like the music I write about or not. I love some country, I hate other country. So what? It's an important socio-musical formation that needs to be written about from numerous perspectives, including the deeply aesthetic and technical perspective I bring to bear in my book (though not in my "Bad Music" essay).

Anyway, I'm not trying to sound defensive or pissed off. It's suiting that a book on Bad Music would get a Bad Review (that makes all the most predictable puns). And in American Music, no less, which makes it very nearly an honor for those of us who think the discourse of "Americanist" musicology is a sadly ethnocentric and conservative one, caught up in antique nationalist fantasies left over from the early 20th century. Perhaps Prof. Hisama's editorship will change that; I haven't read this journal in many years because it has nothing to do with the "American music" I write about.

Thanks for indulging this. I've wanted to respond to Prof. Walser's over-the-top tone in that review since I first read it. For such an articulate critic of musicological embrace of aesthetic autonomy as Prof. Walser, this review seems thoughtless.

Anonymous said...

Thanks go to Aaron Fox for taking Robert Walser to task for his review of Chris Washburne and Maiken Derno’s Bad Music volume. I am in complete agreement with all of Fox’s points.

Walser’s review systematically distorts and manipulates what I actually wrote, which was to attempt to deconstruct and clarify what the music industry thinks “good” “world music” is, as is clear from the essay, which opens with the lines: “This chapter is not about music that people think is bad. It is about music that is relegated to the margins of the ‘world music’ category by the increasing dominant music industry…” (83). All of the quotations that Walser includes from my essay are characterizations of music industry positions as I saw them at the time of writing that chapter. Nonetheless, I fear that the seductiveness of Walser’s prose may end up concealing what appears to be a calculated series of misrepresentations of my work, so I must correct these misrepresentations quotation-by-quotation (with quoted bits in italics, and key passages omitted by Walser in boldface).

Walser quotes from two discussions, the first concerning the reception of recordings by the Native American musician Robby Bee, in which I analyzed what I viewed as the music industry’s and press’s ideologies around these recordings; and the second, the concluding portion of the essay in which I summarize the set of underlying ideologies held by the music industry with respect to “world music” more generally:

“Aesthetic judgments do not matter” as long as we know that it’s “hybrid, political, by people of color” (89). But if that were true we would have Korean world music (we don’t), and a Martian could enjoy world music in just the same way as I do, since past experience and cultural competence would have no bearing on our reception—because, if he is right, genre “trumps music aesthetics, no matter what the music sounds like” (98).

In fact, the first sentence reads, “Aesthetic judgments do not matter because this album [by Robby Bee] speaks to the music industry—and the listener—expectations of what world music should be: hybrid, political, by people of color” (89). I am not making generalizations about music or culture, but am instead characterizing music industry ideologies about “world music,” which are passed on to listeners through marketing practices and (an unfortunate number of) reviews.

The later passage that Walser quotes reads, in its entirety:

What happens in judgments about world music is a complicated mixture of moves based on social and political indicators and cultural codes. That is, many judgments or understandings of musicians of color are based on the musician’s life and objective conditions of race, ethnicity, geographical location, class position, gender, as represented in the album cover art and in the liner notes, regardless of sound. Knowledge about any of these qualities trumps music aesthetics, no matter what the music sounds like (98).

Here I am speaking of music industry marketing practices and reception as registered in sales, reviews, and the like, and made no claim about “genre” trumping aesthetics.

The remainder of Walser’s excerpts from my essay do equal injustice to what I actually wrote, which continues my concern for the western music industry’s narrow views of what can be considered “good” in the “world music” category. Walser writes:

Taylor writes of “musical quality,” of music that is “just as good” as other music, and doesn’t say what he means by that until finally defining aesthetic quality as “musical inventiveness and professionalism” (87, 90). That’s a startlingly parochial definition, one that not only doesn’t fit a good deal of music but also makes all music seem interchangeably trivial. “Put on something inventive and professional, please; it doesn’t matter what.” Who on earth would say such a thing?

Well, nobody said such a thing. Again, the full quotations continue to serve my actual arguments (while at the same time demonstrating Walser’s deftness at selective quotation and misrepresentation), for the full passage reads:

Due, in large part, to the romanticization of the rebel rock musician, and, more recently, the popularity and sales of hip hop music by urban African Americans, it is increasingly the case that the cries of the oppressed can be a selling point. There is plenty of music by disadvantaged groups that thematizes their plight which receives notice by the music industry, whereas music just as good that does not tackle the same issues might get overlooked. (86)

And later:

In short, if the musician in question is heard to possess an anger that is reasonably consistent with the modality of subaltern urban anger sanctioned by the music industry—best, but not only exemplified by the sounds of rap music—then, regardless of the aesthetic values or quality of the music or the musical professionalism exhibited, that musician stands a chance of being noticed by the music industry. Values that we could call positional—that are concerned with the musician and her culture—prevail over the aesthetic, over musical inventiveness and professionalism. (90)

Again, I am not making judgments or prescriptions, but writing about music industry assumptions and preferences. That is what that article is about, and what a review could potentially have addressed. Like Aaron Fox, I must wonder about the editorial practices of the journal the allowed such a deeply flawed review to be published.

Timothy D. Taylor (UCLA)