Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pop Music Professing and Consumption

Just a few hours ago I finished my very first lecture at my very first post PhD job. And it was exciting, let me tell you. I have the rare privilege of teaching the very stuff that matters most to my research. It's great!

In the past few weeks I've been culling together my materials for this class and a few things occurred to me about the nature of teaching pop music classes, especially those classes that rub up against the present. At a certain level, we must consume pop culture at an accelerated rate approaching hyper-consumption. Those of us who work in that vague temporal period known as "Music of the 20th Century and Beyond" must somehow keep up with the ever-changing pop cultural landscape through consumption. This is a pop cultural landscape increasingly characterized by ever-changing niche markets and sub-sub-genres where the mainstream isn't as central as it was just five or ten years ago (let alone what it was during Michael Jackson's hey-day). Those of us who work on music from different parts of the world have an even greater challenge of keeping up with pop culture shifts in multiple places. It can be a bit dizzying.

Some of us are really savvy at navigating this new cultural landscape. We read music blogs, twitter and what have you. We pay attention to what we hear on our favorite TV shows and we keep up with our students' tastes as much as possible. Some of us are also pop music producers/performers and through that practice, we are always involved in what's going on. Or we try to be. It's a talent that I very much wish I had, but alas, I do not as of yet. As a blogger (and twitterer) and active user of the internet, I consume and listen as much as I can. But as an academic and a specialist, I often feel pressured to turn on that giant fire hose of pop culture at specific times to be as efficient as humanly possible. It's a common dilemma: there just isn't the time to hear all the great stuff that there is out there.

So how do we do it? Where do we set our limits? Apart from the basic ethical dilemmas of piracy (and a legal system that treats file-sharing as a very serious crime), I always feel myself turning into a hyper-consumer in the weeks leading up to a new class. (All of this doesn't even begin to approach the problems of making these examples accessible to students... but I digress.) I don't want the examples I cite to be dated or "played out," but I also don't want to compromise the arguments I wish to craft over the course of the term. It's a serious dilemma. Any ideas from the peanut gallery of professing pop scholars?


PMG said...

Man, I sure know what you mean. I actually have a very old-fashioned way of keeping up with the music of Kids These Days--I have a subscription to Rolling Stone. Despite the constant baby boomer nostalgia in the feature articles, the reviews and the Top 40 lists give me a sense of what to pay attention to, in a slightly more coherent fashion than the various modes of internet consumption.

Zach said...

Wow, good question. Keeping up with what's happening both below and on the radar of popular music seems completely impossible. In fact, it seems like a recipe for burnout. There is only so much you can listen to and take in (not to mention, purchase) before it all starts to turn into white noise. I don't know if anyone out there truly has their finger on the pulse. Instead, people specialize and hyperspecialize. I would argue that perhaps it doesn't particularly matter how on top of things you are, and that attempting to take it all in might be a waste of time. Maybe you can concentrate on what you already know and find interesting, or what you organically run into in your life as musician and scholar. Choose examples for the classroom that exemplify your point and fuel discussion, regardless of how played or peripheral they are. And let us know how it works out!

KG said...

Thanks Zach and PMG! I think I might start perusing Rolling Stone and the charts on the iTunes music store to at least keep track of major changes, even if I never get to hearing them. As far as avoiding burning out, I feel pretty good. Thus far, I've been relying on examples I knew about (at least peripherally) before I hunkered down to make my syllabus. That helps.
But there was that moment on day one when my very intelligent students called one of my examples "a cliché." I couldn't help but agree, and based on the tone of the room, I opted to skip the M.I.A. example in favor of more discussion about the Pussycat Dolls. Sometimes controversy trumps critical acclaim, I suppose. ::sigh::
My students are a very smart and savvy group.

harrit said...


This is the first time I’ve read about this. I keep learning new things everyday!

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