Popular music has regularly been a part of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), and the 2018 SEM meeting had a lot to offer scholars of popular music. There were panels on topics such as “Engendering Popular Music Soundscapes,” “Popular Musics and Indigenous Ontologies,” and “Global Pop in the U.S.” From the latter, Althea SullyCole’s paper on West African musicians’ encounters with kora music and notions of blackness in the U.S. was a conference highlight. In addition to region-specific work on popular music from East, Southeast, and South Asia to Brazil and Chile, multi-sited studies of how popular musics circulate and travel featured prominently on the program. The pre-conference session on decolonizing ethnomusicology, coordinated by Ana Alonso-Minutti and featuring a panel on mariachi education in the U.S., was excellent.
The healthy presence of popular music studies at SEM must be attributed in part to the work of the society’s Popular Music Section (PMSSEM), whose sponsored roundtable “Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of Popular Music Scholarship” engaged unflinchingly with issues facing the field both at SEM and beyond. In his comments at the roundtable, Steve Waksman spoke indirectly to an underlying point of tension when he drew attention to his own marked presence at SEM as a popular music scholar who does not do ethnography. Taking this observation as a starting point, we will address the questions it raises about SEM’s disciplinary and methodological priorities and how these shape the presence of popular music studies at the annual conference. What emerges, we suggest, is the need to decenter ethnography in order to facilitate SEM’s fuller scholarly dialogue with popular music studies. To begin, however, it’s necessary to outline the tension between popular music studies and ethnography at SEM in more detail.
Despite the diversity of topic and region on display in Albuquerque, New Mexico, many pop music thinkers do not make SEM a home conference, perhaps in part because of the methodological emphasis on ethnography on which this year’s conference doubled down. Indeed, noticeably absent were the often-robust contributions from sound studies scholars who interact with popular music in different ways than ethnographers and historians do. Also largely missing were performance studies scholars who tend to carry forward the cultural studies spirit of early popular music studies while blending it eclectically with other methods as needed. The music scholar contributors to E. Patrick Johnson’s latest edited collection, No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies (2016), come to mind in this regard. This emphasis on papers and panels clustered around core ethnomusicological methods and approaches cuts both ways. On the one hand, it provides a common ground for pop music scholars who employ similar methods to deepen their exchange across region and topic at SEM. On the other hand, it keeps the conference relatively isolated from other currents in the field of popular music studies that find a more welcome home in more heterodox conferences, such as Pop Conference or the annual meetings of IASPM or the American Studies Association.
The PMSSEM roundtable discussion of how the field addresses intersectionality (especially with respect to gender) illustrated how these different structural emphases play out. In response to a consensus that the #MeToo movement demands greater attention to gender and sexism in popular music studies, participants called for an increased analytical focus on popular music industries and the practice of ethnography within these spaces. One audience member positioned this call specifically as a response to the overemphasis on traditional ethnomusicological topics of inquiry (such as oral traditions and folk musics) at a panel nominally on music and #MeToo. Presumably they referred, here, to “Gender, Trauma and #MeToo in a Global Context,” whose papers indeed reflected this sort of topical focus. They might have been more satisfied by the panel on “Reflections, Analysis and Directions in the Age of #MeToo,” which more directly addressed issues pertaining to ethnography and industry. Nonetheless, the point is well-taken, particularly when considered in relation to panels such as the Pop Conference 2018 keynote on “Music, Activism and the #MeToo #TimesUp Moment,” which attended closely, and from a variety of perspectives, to the precarious position of women in popular music scenes.
Dissatisfaction with the lack of emphasis on popular music industries at SEM also gave rise to broader critiques of the intellectual priorities on display at the conference. Capturing a perceived conservativism, Jeremy Wallach argued at the PMSSEM roundtable that the status quo at SEM reflects ongoing Adornian strains in the lukewarm reception of popular music. The suggestion was that the conference overlooks popular musics—and specifically issues with doing ethnography in popular music industries—in favor of traditional ethnomusicological topics with greater disciplinary familiarity and more scholarly capital. What is needed, then, is a democratic pluralization in our objects of study. From this perspective, the ethnography of popular music could itself benefit from a more fluid approach to, and more complete dialogue with, popular music studies.
Indeed, we note a tension between the objects of study privileged by ethnomusicology and popular music studies, respectively, that plays out on the battleground of popular music panels at SEM. Within ethnomusicology, an inherent conservativism continues to favor topics already broached by ethnomusicological inquiry. For instance, a paper situating the “oft-ignored” contemporary popular music style of New Orleans bounce in relation to brass band music, with which the author was able to engage more ethnographically, yielded questions only about the latter. The audience can be heard to reproduce the privileging of brass bands because they are ethnographically known objects of study, while failing to take the attempt to broach bounce as seriously. This hierarchy of ethnomusicology at SEM chafes against that of popular music studies, which stresses a more dynamic dialogue between various theoretical frameworks and hyper-current objects of study. Speaking to the regionalized terms on which this tension often plays out, as Harris Berger recounted at the PMSSEM roundtable, people have lamented that PMSSEM, and particularly its annual David Sanjek Keynote Lecture in Popular Music, has focused almost exclusively on Western or Western-derived popular musics. These hierarchies of objects of study within ethnomusicology and popular music studies work at cross-purposes, driving ethnographers of popular musics of the global south to other areas of the SEM ecology, if they visit the conference at all.
Based on our observations in Albuquerque, SEM appears perched between at least two visions of its future, which are closely entwined with the future of ethnomusicology as we practice the discipline in Anglophone North America. One is a less bounded conference that accepts all kinds of scholarship where the object of study deals with music or sound broadly construed. This space has room for scholars who might crosscut old methodologies and theoretical tools with insights from, say, auto-ethnography or digital humanities or Black studies or queer theory, better reflecting the research interests and values of a wider group of music and sound scholars. Another, represented by this year’s conference, takes a more narrow focus by prioritizing core methods over newer ones. Indeed, ethnography has offered important complements to early popular music studies’ focus on discourse analysis. Now, however, it remains to be seen whether the merits of a more focused conference outweigh the benefits that come from a big tent approach. In the coming years of SEM annual conferences, we suggest that popular music will be a bellwether for charting the shifting winds of this society. We have a chance to influence this direction by submitting our own work to SEM and contributing actively to its ecology of governance and sections and special interest groups.