My first post, and a bit of a meta-post. Navel gazing, and probably not even worthy of the term manifesto, though it leans in that direction:
In my two seminars this semester–“Rock Studies,” and “Jazz and the World”–I asked on the first day, “why study this?” An innocuous quesiton, and one that has plenty of mundane answers, but one worth asking at the beginning of a seminar. Seminars are, after all, though enjoyable in their way, frankly, difficult and occasionally unpleasant. One of the answers I got in both classes was, “because there’s some great rock/jazz music out there and we should know about it/spend time thinking about it.” I’m absolutely sympathetic to that answer (musicologists occasionally forget to let their audiences know that we genuinely love music, but most of us do); but I had to follow up with the question, “what if the music sucks?” Should bad music, lame music, music I/we do not love/like/respect get a portion of our time?
Musicologists have largely come to an answer to this question. Between th so-called “new” musicology and ethnomusicology, the cultural studies bent of much contemporary musicology has agreed that it is our job to study cultural phenomena, artifacts, and so forth, and thus, all music (because it is made and used by people) is worth our time. Beethoven is no more inherently deserving of our study than is Mariah Carey, The work of Imrat Khan no more deserving than that of Lata Mangeshkar. This is a position that, though salutary, for the work it has done in combating the basic hegemony of white supremacy, ethnocentrism and elitism, is nonetheless problematic in a variety of ways.
The most obvious problems with this answer are that, first, it is pretty much incomprehensible to musicians and audiences alike, who would no doubt like to see the things they like given due respect, but can see no reason to pretend that bad music is a worthwhile object of study, and second, that it is a position we hold in theory, but I think almost never really put into action in practice. On the first of these, Milan Kundera–who I appreciate as an essayist for being unapologetically modernist, even if I often disagree with his positions–has written eloquently in his most recent essay, The Curtain. He says, in essence, the history of an art is the history of its great works, of those works that have lived and influenced others. We postmodernists may scoff at this, but his point is unassailable: most musicians, etc., don’t want to make bad music, etc., and mostly don’t model themselves on prior examples that suck.
In the first of what may become a series of posts on this topic, I would like to take a minute to think about this second problem. What I mean when I say we hold it in theory but not in practice, is that I think very few of us–definitely not I–write at length about or include discussion of in our teaching music we dislike/don’t respect. Chris Washburn’s collection, Bad Music is a notable exception, though it is more focused on getting beyond the dialectic of good and bad than the title might suggest. In graduate school my answer to this was something like, “It’s not my job to judge, and any music is potentially worth study; but life is short and I don’t want to spend my time with music I dislike.” This is fair, and has largely been true over the years since then, but it seems like a cop-out. Moreover, I wonder, what is the point of having a theoretical position like this if we don’t, generally, put it into practice?
For me the prime example of music that I think sucks, but that I am certain is absolutely central to an understanding of popular music, is Madonna’s work. I genuinely dislike all of it, from “Material Girl” to “Vogue,” “Papa Don’t Preach” to Ray of Light, Bedtime Stories to lord knows what else. Now, I’m willing to concede that at least part of my discomfort with Madonna is that she scared me when I first started hearing her. As a thirteen-year-old boy, her strength and power as a post-feminist female performer freaked me out. But I also think a lot of it is cheap and uninteresting, and I see some real truth in bell hooks’s critique of the singer’s fascination with the black male body, not to mention John Hutnyk’s critique of exoticism in Ray of Light. It hasn’t yet come up, but I don’t see how I would teach a class on popular music without talking about Madonna.
I’m convinced that we shouldn’t, as music scholars, forget that we, and pretty much everyone else, evaluate music all the time, and truly love some of it. Our delight in the greatness of music we love should inform the work we do. But for me, at least, it is a goal to think more about how to integrate music I dislike into my teaching and writing, if only because I may find that there is something of value where I had not seen it.