The study of popular music is, well, popular. It crosses over easily between academic and non-academic audiences, it addresses objects and practices many students are already passionate about, and it is frequently seen within music departments (and other departments in which it takes place) as a driver of enrollments. Popular music scholars also frequently help shape public discourse. Yet while much of the work we do intersects with work by musicians, fans, journalists, filmmakers, podcasters, and others, our existing scholarly systems still do not value engaging with these constituencies. Popular music studies is also an inherently interdisciplinary field and thus as a whole comprises hugely diverse methodological and theoretical orientations, not to mention varied disciplinary and professional expectations. In addition to these specific issues, popular music studies faces the same widespread challenges as academia itself. Higher education’s growing reliance on contingent labor has far-ranging effects on the quality of instruction, mentorship, leadership, and research that popular music scholars can achieve. Graduate programs do not sufficiently prepare students for professional careers outside of academia, and the difficult labor market disproportionately affects underprivileged people. As a result, the academy is less diverse than our students, the greater public, and, for many scholars, our objects of study.
For the three of us—Brian F. Wright, Amy Coddington, and Andrew Mall—these trends have been present throughout our entire academic careers. Yet we and our colleagues rarely have the chance to formally discuss them in professional settings. Instead, they are frequently relegated to exchanges that occur between conference panels, in Facebook comment threads, on Twitter, and over late-night drinks or early-morning coffee. That is, the important structural concerns of our profession are too often left to its discursive margins. What would happen, we wondered, if we planned a symposium dedicated to how these issues affect our research and pedagogy? What might we learn about our field’s systemic problems and inequities by engaging them directly through our work?
In an attempt to bring these issues front and center, and to reflect on the state of our field more broadly, we organized a two-day event, “The Future of Pop: Big Questions Facing Popular Music Studies in the 21st Century,” at Northeastern University in October 2019. The event was sponsored by the Popular Music Study Group of the American Musicological Society (AMS-PMSG), Northeastern University, and Amherst College as a pre-conference symposium tied to the AMS’s annual meeting in Boston. The concentrated space and time of the symposium enabled and encouraged friendly discussions, collegial interrogations, and some collaborative thinking among participants about how to address the challenges we all face in our work—challenges necessarily complicated by our diverse identities, disciplines, research interests, and relationships to the academy.1 The Future of Pop was intended as a gathering space for those in attendance to take our field seriously, to critique and celebrate where we are and where we have come from, and to generate conversations about moving forward, both collectively as a field and as individual scholars and pedagogues.
We structured the symposium’s explicit themes around keynote topics proposed by four invited scholars whose work we admire for its willingness to push methodological and topical boundaries: Jack Hamilton, Shana Redmond, Francesca Royster, and Loren Kajikawa. Each of these scholars posed a “big question” facing popular music studies:
How might we more productively engage with audiences and voices from outside of academia?
How can we better account for the political stakes of listening?
How can we tell new stories by looking at the past through more deliberately eccentric and queer perspectives?
How can we make popular music studies more inclusive and accessible?
Following an open call for papers, we organized four themed panels around these questions, partnering each invited keynote with two papers by other scholars who engaged with these questions through the lens of their original research. Our presenters came from multiple disciplinary backgrounds—not just musicology and ethnomusicology, but also American studies, Black studies, English, media studies, music theory, and sociology. In addition to speaking from their scholarly backgrounds, they also discussed a variety of professional experiences, having worked variously as arts administrators, DJs, independent scholars, music industry professionals, music journalists, musicians, and non-profit directors. An even broader set of disciplinary and professional orientations within the audience became apparent during Q&A periods and our closing conversation.
In the pages that follow, we have summarized each presenter’s topic and gestured toward the larger issues that informed their work. (A forthcoming forum in Twentieth-Century Music will feature the contributions of three of the symposium’s four keynotes.) We do not pretend to have the answers to the significant questions and issues that our presenters raised throughout the symposium’s two days. There is always room for growth, for change, for new ideas, for greater participation, and for increasing equity and diversity in our classrooms, our field, our institutions, our pedagogy, and our research. But our hope is that by bringing them out of the (relatively) private and insular networks in which they are usually discussed, we, as a field, can work together to create a more inclusive future for popular music studies.
Popular Music and the Public
Given the current interest in public musicology, the first session of the symposium was dedicated to the ways in which popular music scholars might engage with audiences and discourses tangential to or outside of academia. The panel’s three speakers—Jack Hamilton (University of Virginia), Corrigan Blanchfield (independent scholar), and Eric Hung (Music of Asian America Research Center)—each expounded on how their skills as academics have proved useful in public contexts. Together, they generated a robust conversation about why scholars should celebrate public discourses and the important roles they can play in the preservation of historical knowledge.
The panel opened with Jack Hamilton’s keynote, “Across the Great Divide: Popular Music Studies and the Public,” in which he emphasized the importance of fostering a give-and-take relationship between popular music scholars and journalists. Hamilton, who is also the resident pop critic for Slate, started by reminding the audience that, unlike with other academic disciplines and fields, the general public is already deeply invested in writing on popular music, and that the subject’s acceptance within academia is still a relatively recent phenomenon. In spite of the fact that the earliest and most extensive literature on popular music came from critics and journalists writing for public audiences, many popular music scholars, he argued, now maintain an inherent distrust of such writing and have become problematically invested in centering their work as the only valuable source of knowledge. Rather than engaging in such an adversarial relationship, Hamilton encouraged scholars to embrace music journalism’s “real and lasting value.” He further suggested that popular music scholars have much to offer in kind. First, they are free to critique power imbalances and media consolidation, which have been historical obstacles to editorial independence for journalists working within the music industry’s corporate power structure. Second, scholars can do the important work of correcting factual inaccuracies in public discourse, as Charles Hughes did on Twitter last year when he supplied historical context for Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” Third, scholars can amplify public discourses that may be historically or critically significant but might not garner the same public excitement as articles about the biggest artists of the day. In the end, Hamilton proposed that both academia and the public would be better served if they entered into a reciprocal relationship of “solidarity, collegiality, and exchange.” Popular music studies, he stressed, “must remain a big tent and honor our history as such.”
In his paper, “Who is Allowed to Remember? Finding and Preserving Historical Records in YouTube’s Comment Sections,” Corrigan Blanchfield highlighted the value of YouTube comments as sites of cultural memory. Focusing specifically on early electronic dance music (EDM), Blanchfield demonstrated how former participants have filled the YouTube pages of obscure EDM tracks with personal recollections about the music, people, and locations that comprised individual scenes. Drawing on the work of Irish historian Oona Frawley, he argued that although these comments are often ignored, they act as “memory cruxes,” distilling important insights about these users’ ephemeral experiences.2 Given the passage of time and the underground nature of these early scenes, he further argued that the memories found in these comments might constitute some of the only remaining insights into the direct experience of early EDM culture. Yet the inherent precarity of music posted on YouTube means that these comments can suddenly vanish as soon as the company chooses to take down a video. In an effort to informally collect these comments before they disappear forever, Blanchfield has drawn on his computer science background to create a digital archive (www.cruxes.club), which saves personal recollections about early EDM clubs, radio stations, raves, and record stores. Taking one particular example, he explained: “While often, admittedly, little more than marginalia in the broader story of the [New York City club] Paradise Garage, when brought together—and especially once corroborated by multiple commenters—[these recollections] begin to paint a picture of what made the place unique among its many analogues and imitators around the world.” Blanchfield concluded by urging academics to seek out and archive this material before it disappears, and he described his hopes of eventually being able to crowdsource these efforts to others working within the digital humanities.
The last paper of the panel, Eric Hung’s “Canon-Adjacent Strategies for Greater Inclusion in Public Popular Musicology,” drew on Hung’s experience as the executive director of the Music of Asian America Resource Center (www.asianamericanmusic.org). As part of the MAARC’s mission to promote the history and music of Asian Americans, Hung described how he came to embrace the concept of canon formation and to wield it to promote the musics of marginalized peoples. While scholars have spent decades critiquing and deconstructing notions of canon, Hung argued that these notions still exert an inescapable influence on the material we teach and research; as such, we should instead “develop effective strategies that will allow us to simultaneously create new canons that are more equitable in approach, and to incorporate works by marginalized musicians into existing canons.” He then demonstrated how he is using the tools of canon formation in the MAARC’s upcoming podcast series, Hearing Asian America. By treating canons as gateways to further exploration, the series uses music by various Asian American musicians as a launching pad into broader discussions of the history and experiences of Asian Americans, ultimately attempting to build a canon of musical works that will “build solidarities across ethnicities and generations.”
The roundtable at the end of the panel moved from a discussion of Hung’s strategies for canon formation into a larger conversation about the preservation of popular music knowledge. Hung stressed the fragility of digital media and how quickly material can become unreadable. His advice in the face of rapidly increasing technological obsolescence was simple: “If you want to archive something, do it yourself.” Blanchfield similarly encouraged scholars to amass large personal archives, while at the same time he reiterated the importance of offering specific entry points into the material that can provide a path forward for future scholarship. Hamilton likewise detailed his ongoing efforts to reprint journalist Phyl Garland’s landmark text, The Sound of Soul, which has been out of print since 1971.3 All three ultimately advocated for academics both to participate in public discourse and to collect and preserve their insights for future generations.
Popular Music and the Political Stakes of Listening
The presenters during the symposium’s second panel—Shana Redmond (University of California, Los Angeles), Christa Bentley (Oklahoma City University), and Daphne Carr (New York University)—engaged with the political stakes of listening practices. Listening to popular music, of course, is not something that only critics and scholars do; in many ways, the listening of everyday fans and audiences has far more political potential. An engaged and activist listening practice should be one that directs our critical ears and attention to those affected by popular music and its industries, and also to the violence these perpetrate and perpetuate.
Shana Redmond’s opening keynote, “Unsubscribe: The Stakes of Not Listening,” challenged popular music scholars to confront the music industries and their capitalist institutions as systems of exploitation. In doing so, she suggested, we should be compelled not to stop listening to music and musicians that celebrate or perpetrate violence, but rather to alter our listening practices entirely in order to disrupt and dismantle existing power hierarchies. Redmond argued that “cancel culture” (the act of boycotting perpetrators of violence) both avoids confronting the systemic issues that enable violent offenders and also is not an available recourse to those victims of everyday violence who do not have a media mogul or celebrity musician to cancel.4 She encouraged us to discard not those who hurt us but rather the systems and infrastructures that promote them. Refusing to listen, in other words, is a beginning but not an endpoint in the struggle against oppression. Redmond proposed “insurgent listening” as a necessary activist practice that has the potential—as have other insurgent movements—to undermine systems of power. “Insurgent listening is an exercise in communal liability,” she said, “a conspicuous and creative act” intended to unravel and destabilize the capitalist exploitation of underprivileged groups. She ended her talk not with a roadmap to insurgent listening but rather with four calls to action. First, she advocated withdrawing from what she called the “explicit lyrics economy,” or record labels’ voluntary use of “parental advisory” labels to warn listeners of content unsuitable for children. Focusing on songs’ explicit lyrics instead of paying attention to artists’ broader messages constitutes an across-the-board censorship and entraps many whose voices we should be amplifying. Second, she asked popular music scholars to expand our listening horizons as widely as possible, using whatever means available to do so—including illegitimate forms of music distribution, which necessarily disrupt the music industries. Third, she encouraged us to reject the notion that exploited groups can achieve parity by participating in, and even succeeding at, capitalism; specifically, Redmond noted, Black capitalism is merely a ruse of progress and equality that monetizes political struggle for the benefit of the system itself. Finally, she asked that we listen to women and embrace their stories. Ultimately, a new approach to listening might create the foundation for a “strategic, interdisciplinary, and multi-method curation of the world as sound.”
“Listen to women” was also the opening call to action in Christa Bentley’s paper, “Reassessing Women’s Voices in the Era of #MeToo.” The music industries have a history, she argued, of erasing the contributions of women, favoring instead the interests of powerful men. In doing so, they have encouraged the questioning of a woman’s credibility, in accusations of violence and harassment as well as in business disputes. This culture of disbelief enables toxicity and perpetrators while silencing survivors and victims, Bentley suggested. #MeToo has forced the music and entertainment industries (and their audiences) to reckon with the art, status, and reputations of monstrous men as perpetrators. But what of women’s voices? Bentley argued that by reorienting our attention away from the perpetrators of violence and toward their victims, we would be better prepared to uncover how issues of violence and harassment continue to persist in popular music, how the music industries enable this behavior, and how women respond to their silencing and dismissal through their music. She presented two examples of how women are using confessional songwriting to reclaim their agency and also to raise public awareness of sexual violence and harassment. In the first, the singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers wrote of being abused by the musician Ryan Adams in her song “Motion Sickness.” This was an intentional act of inscribing herself into the narrative after several media outlets ignored her accusations, allegedly at the behest of Adams. (Bridgers is one of several women who have accused Adams of abuse.) H.E.R., an R&B singer-songwriter, controls the boundaries of what she divulges about her personal life, obscured figuratively by her stage name and literally by her ever-present sunglasses. Doing so invites skepticism from a celebrity culture for which transparency is increasingly the norm. Nonetheless, she advocates for her own agency and, in the song “I Won’t,” addresses toxic relationships and consent, which should be given voluntarily and not compelled. In the song, she does not consent to the advances of a would-be romantic partner; in real life, she does not consent to the media’s intrusions into her personal life. Bentley suggested that paying more attention to examples like these would help counter the culture of skepticism and disbelief in the music industries that women experience.
Daphne Carr closed this panel with her paper “Can You Feel the Beat?: Resounding Anti-Black Police Brutality in Black Popular Musics.” Building on the work of Black studies (which, she noted, remains underacknowledged within musicology and sound studies) and the writing of Sylvia Wynter, among others, Carr deployed a critical organology of the police baton (or billy club) to draw our attention to the ways in which “beat”—both beat as disciplining musical time and beat as disciplining physical bodies—constitutes explicitly embodied, performative forms of knowledge. Encountering the many meanings and definitions of the word forces us to confront the contextual slippage of language, which can be simultaneously precise and vague. In many performance ensembles, a conductor’s hand or baton articulates the beat to discipline time for the musicians; the beat is a percussive gesture of the body by which musical time is reckoned. But a police officer’s beat, like that of a conductor, is also a reckoning: of time, space, relationships, and knowledge. To beat is also to strike, and thus it is central to the systemic violence that Black people in the United States encounter through policing. Police batons, like conductors’ batons, are communicative and disciplining devices. They also enable police officers to perpetrate violence; Carr reminded us that police batons landed 56 blows in the beating of Rodney King, although the sounds of the baton blows were silenced in the media reporting and analysis of the incident. Ultimately, Carr encouraged us as popular music scholars to “dwell with the truth about the world sounded in today’s streets,” attending to the beat of violence inflected through the beat of Black music.
Panel chair Stephanie Shonekan opened the roundtable at the end of the panel with what she observed should be a foundational question: When popular music scholars invoke “we,” who is included? In other words, who are we talking about, speaking for, and talking to? What are the constituencies and the important distinctions within that collective, and how do those distinctions inflect the work that popular music scholars do? How might we, as scholars, make our work more inclusive by attending to the collective “we” not as a monolith but, instead, as a collection of individuals? Carr spoke of audiences for popular music scholarship as being potentially more diverse than we might anticipate; but, she noted, expressive modalities other than long-form writing might be better employed to engage a “we” beyond our academic and scholarly circles. Bentley noted that the audience for our academic work is not the same as the audience for the music that we study (although they may overlap); we should not be dissuaded from recognizing and addressing the different needs and expectations of these two distinct audiences, however, because the broader public remains an important participant. Redmond argued that, ultimately, music embodies the creative potential of collectives: in a sense, the collective “we” is dynamic, constantly rearticulating itself and coming into being. Audiences and collective bodies are not static, in other words, and a large part of the reckoning for which she advocated is grounded in the idea that addressing heretofore underacknowledged constituencies within the collective is an increasingly necessary component of our work as scholars.
Popular Music and the Past
The third panel of the symposium explored new ways of thinking through popular music’s recent and distant past. Featuring papers by Francesca Royster (DePaul University), Anthony Kwame Harrison (Virginia Tech), and Victor Szabo (Hampden-Sydney College), the panel demonstrated how fresh interpretations of popular music history—especially those emphasizing, addressing, or reinscribing issues of race, sexuality, and gender identities—can resonate with our current moment and point a way forward for future scholars.
The panel was anchored by Francesca Royster’s keynote, “Cruising Musical Futures: Queer Worldmaking and Popular Music in Everyday Life,” which focused on contemporary Black queer artists creating music that imagines new, more inclusive worlds. Celebrating the tenth anniversary of José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, Royster explored how this music opens up space for hope and same-sex desire, while also leaving room to express the pain of the present and to draw strength from the past.5 As a case study, she centered on Brittany Howard’s 2019 album Jaime, arguing that Howard’s music combines the long lineage of Black women’s blues and the seductiveness of male soul singers to imagine a distinctly queer future, but one that doesn’t abandon the artist’s heritage. Analyzing the lesbian yearning of “Georgia,” the lingering racism of “Goat Head,” and the familial celebration of “Stay High,” Royster asserted that “Brittany Howard insists on making Black queer music that does not leave behind those who she grew up with, including men, working class folks, and her own family.” By emphasizing these connections, Royster proposed that Howard’s Black feminism allows for joy in the face of grief and thus provides “the perfect tool to both cruise and struggle with utopia, and to change our everyday world in the process of its discovery.”
In the paper that followed, “‘To the East, My Brother, To the East’: Checking the Bold Blackness of X Clan’s ‘Fire & Earth,’” Anthony Kwame Harrison explored how the Brooklyn-based hip hop group X Clan actively repelled white listeners. At a time in hip hop’s “golden age” when the music was increasingly popular among white youth, Harrison argued, X Clan deliberately adopted a confrontational political style—a “bold Blackness”—that was “unpalatable to white rap fans.” As an encapsulation of this style, Harrison analyzed the group’s music video for “Fire and Earth (100% Natural),” the lead single from their 1992 album Xodus: The New Testament. Incorporating footage of Al Jolson in blackface, recurring self-referential uses of the n-word, an emphasis on elders and youth, and the group’s esoteric Afrocentric clothing, the video’s music and imagery specifically hailed insider Black audiences, Harrison argued, while simultaneously baffling white viewers and excluding them as outsiders. He further suggested that this resistance to white listenership is most evident in the vocal timbre of Professor X the Overseer, whose self-satisfied, smug persona can be heard as ironically modeling white vocality. Ultimately, Harrison argued that, although X Clan are less remembered today (likely due to the influence of white fandom on shaping rap music’s history), their bold Blackness may point to “future possibilities for Black music to serve as a political force and resist cooptation.”
Victor Szabo’s “Why Is Ambient So White? Tackling Homogeneous Genre Cultures” continued this discussion of racial identity in popular music, this time in the context of ambient music. According to Szabo, ambient’s apparent “whiteness” is less a historical reality than a result of genre essentialism, in which logics of racial dominance and genre purity have problematically reinforced one another in ambient genre discourses. In an attempt to break this cycle, Szabo drew on recent genre scholarship to propose a “plan of strategic anti-genre-essentialism,” in which he identified three fallacies perpetuating genre stereotypes and proposed possible alternatives: First, instead of imagining genre to be a musical category, we should conceive of it as a process that “actively structures social identifications and musical experiences.” Second, instead of presenting genres as flattened, homogenized wholes with clearly demarcated boundaries, we should foreground the messiness and inherent “diversity of genre participation.” And third, instead of treating scholarship as somehow removed from genre discourse, as scholars and critics we should openly acknowledge our own roles in constructing genres and perpetuating classification systems. In hopes of expanding the discussion surrounding race in the history of ambient music, and as a first step toward putting these goals into practice, Szabo shared a curated Spotify playlist, “#ambientsowhat?,” featuring a wide variety of ambient music by non-white musicians: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3wMdzUa9HnLpH76HblAx3V.
During the roundtable that followed, Royster discussed the intimate role that audiences play in worldmaking; Harrison underscored the power of popular music that speaks to a specific audience and its potential to protect their spaces or politics from being commercialized. Szabo similarly cautioned against shallow revisionism that adopts breadth at the cost of historical context.
Popular Music and Accessibility
The symposium’s final panel addressed the question of how scholars can make popular music studies more inclusive and accessible. The three papers by Loren Kajikawa (George Washington University), K.E. Goldschmitt (Wellesley College), and Philip Ewell (Hunter College) all centered on the role of curricula and pedagogy with respect to diversity and equity, and all were pressing for interventions into a field still working out its relationship to music studies and music departments more broadly.
Loren Kajikawa’s talk, titled “Musicology, Hip Hop Studies, and the Challenge of Significant Difference,” confronted how music departments are currently engaging in diversity work. As he noted, popular music courses often fulfill general education requirements intended to give students exposure to diverse humanistic traditions; they also often have high enrollments, which help subsidize the one-on-one studio lessons (and other comparatively lower-enrollment courses) that music departments offer. In addition to providing financial solvency, popular music courses have become increasingly important as students at many institutions (including both music majors and non-majors) question the relevance of history and analysis courses centered in the Western art music canon. And yet these courses are not integrated into music major requirements coherently or comprehensively, meaning that the subject matter that helps keep many departments afloat is designed to be structurally auxiliary to what some consider the “real” study of music. For example, Kajikawa pointed out that performance ensembles—typically required for music majors—rarely focus on popular music traditions. Those that do, such as a capella groups, rock bands, and hip hop performance ensembles, usually exist as electives or are housed outside of music departments. This separation dismisses hip hop, along with other styles of popular music, as an “object to be studied rather than as an art form to be practiced,” an epistemology that actively excludes certain types of knowledge and expertise. Thus, the growing popularity of popular music studies within schools of music, rather than helping to make academic institutions more inclusive, reinforces already existing exclusionary practices. Kajikawa also turned his attention to the discipline of music theory, which has recently focused its analytical tools on hip hop. He argued that most music theory scholarship on the genre analyzes the music in colorblind ways, avoiding cultural context and disregarding its racial semantics—in essence, deracinating the music. Music theory’s formalist commitments, he claimed, allow for an incredible level of analytical detail but come at the expense of what makes hip hop a vital and important part of our world. Music scholarship’s diversity problems thus cannot be solved by simply analyzing a more diverse and inclusive repertoire but instead must begin by upending the value system at the heart of the discipline and recognizing other sources of knowledge.6
Philip Ewell’s “The Myth of the Beatles: A Critical-Race Analysis of Popular Music Studies in Music Theory,” provided abundant data to support Kajikawa’s assertions. In a preview of the work he later presented in a plenary session at the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory (and which was recently published in Music Theory Online), Ewell argued that music theory, as a discipline, operates under a “white racial frame,” which sociologist Joe Feagin describes as “an overarching white worldview that encompasses…racialized inclinations to discriminate.”7 In the case of music theory, this racial frame comes about because music analysis erases questions of race and instead looks at “the music itself” while, as Ewell claimed, “framing Western functional tonality as the only organizational force in music worthy of music theory’s consideration in the classroom.” In a survey of all musical examples in the seven most commonly used music theory textbooks, which represent 96% of the market share, he found that only 1.67% are by composers of color. Furthermore, Ewell reported, 74% of popular music examples were by white composers. By examining “the music itself” through parameters designed to apply to Western art music, the discipline denies access to a diverse range of repertoire made by people of color. Instead, music theory whitewashes even artists such as The Beatles, whose music was unambiguously inspired by African American musical traditions. Ewell has continued to explore these themes on his blog, Music Theory’s White Racial Frame:https://musictheoryswhiteracialframe.wordpress.com/.
In a compelling follow-up to Ewell’s work, “Centering Latin America in Pop Music Curricula and Scholarship,” K.E. Goldschmitt surveyed popular music history textbooks and found a dearth of discussion about Latin American musical traditions. This means that, in what is often the most diverse course a U.S. music department might offer, the available textbooks fail to represent the incredible diversity of contemporary students, much less the diversity they see and hear in their everyday lives. Goldschmitt pointed out that many people using textbooks to teach popular music courses are precarious or contingent faculty—such as adjuncts or graduate students—and convincingly argued that these instructors, should they want to include a discussion of Latin American music, should not have to bear the labor of adding this additional content to their textbook-based courses. Goldschmitt advocated for textbook authors and publishers to work to ensure the presence of diverse repertoire, including songs written in Spanish and Portuguese. As a more interim solution, Goldschmitt also offered the pragmatic solution of asking native Spanish speakers in the classroom to help with translations of songs, as accurate translations of lyrics rarely appear in textbooks and are difficult to locate elsewhere. In other words, they suggested, popular music instructors should engage in a collaborative learning environment where students and faculty can learn from each other, decentering Western notions of expertise.
In the discussion following this panel, a graduate student spoke of the efforts their department was making toward decentering the Western art music canon in their curriculum. In particular, they mentioned that their department had recently moved away from a required Western art music survey course. Asking what the difference between investing in and trying on diversity looks like, they noted that the act of integrating more diverse content into department curricula doesn’t necessarily equate to students within those departments feeling like they are represented. All three presenters responded optimistically, highlighting the ability of collective student movements to create institutional change. Finding sympathetic faculty, staff, and administration, while not always easy, is possible. And, as Kajikawa noted, the history of social change within higher education suggests that students wield considerable power within their institutions.
The Future of Pop closed with an hour-long group conversation. Our goal was to foster a dialogue beyond the traditional presentations, one where attendees—especially those who had not given a paper—could raise their own questions and concerns about the future of popular music studies. The conversation began with a plea for practical, granular solutions to some of the problems raised during the paper sessions. After some initial back-and-forth, the discussion coalesced around the various strategies popular music faculty can use to empower students. These strategies came from independent scholars, graduate students, and faculty alike, gleaned from individual experiences both positive and negative.
The proposed strategies largely focused on helping those interested in popular music studies survive within academic institutions by finding ways to amplify their voices and carve out space to explore their scholarly interests. Many participants stressed the importance of compassionate mentorship and forward-thinking advising that advocates for students engaging in a wide variety of careers, both inside and outside the academy. Doing so necessitates creating an inclusive and welcoming scholarly community that acknowledges difference while embracing that same difference as generative. Multiple solutions were presented to help expand the curricular scope of departments, including encouraging tenured faculty to step outside their areas of expertise and do the legwork of responding to student needs. Other speakers suggested that instructors could ask students to bring their own expertise and enthusiasm to the table by assigning open-ended projects rather than tests or prompt-based papers, and that they could collaborate with local music scene participants to bring other types of knowledge into the classroom. The conversation concluded with a call to action, as one participant noted the unique position scholars are in to take advantage of popular music studies’ role as a more recent addition to the academy to encourage inclusive and flexible curricula through course development, curricular restructuring, study abroad programs, stronger mentorship networks, public engagement, and community outreach.
The concept for The Future of Pop came about in the summer of 2018 during the biennial AMS-PMSG Junior Faculty Symposium. Over the course of three days of workshops and conversation, we came to our own big question: “How can we find new ways to forge solidarity among scholars working across the vast range of popular music studies?”
Spaces for this type of community building already exist: here, for example, in the pages of the Journal of Popular Music Studies, or at the annual conference of the US branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM-US), where popular music scholars from a variety of disciplines come together to share their ideas and company. Yet most of us otherwise spend the rest of our time isolated from each other, often surrounded by those who remain skeptical of the value of our contributions.
One recurring theme at the symposium was that popular music studies in the twenty-first century must feature a sustained emphasis on inclusivity. To take this demand seriously means many things. But at its most basic level, it means that we must broaden the spaces where we discuss our research to better represent the diverse range of scholarship taking place within our field, both inside and outside the academy. This work could easily begin with the various organizations already advocating for popular music studies. Imagine what we might be able accomplish if increased dialogue and collaboration became the unified goals of the AMS Popular Music Study Group, the MoPOP Pop Conference, the Popular Music Section of the Society of Ethnomusicology, the Society for Music Theory Popular Music Interest Group, and the Sound Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association, to name only a few.
There is much we still have to learn from each other, but even more important, there is much strength to be found in combining our causes, energies, and resources. If we were to limit ourselves to just one takeaway from The Future of Pop, it would be this: we are better when we work together.
In conceiving of the symposium’s format, we were inspired by the 2015 symposium “Embracing the Margins: Counter-Mainstream Perspectives in Popular Music,” which took place at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was organized by David Blake, Joshua Busman, Brian Jones, and Mark Katz. We wanted The Future of Pop, like Embracing the Margins, to be a site not only for presenting research but also for collectively engaging larger questions that affect the work of popular music scholars, including questions of an ontological or epistemological nature, as well as those that reflect systemic problems within the field at large.
Oona Frawley, “Cruxes in Irish Cultural Memory: The Famine and the Troubles,” in Memory Ireland Volume 3: The Famine and the Troubles, ed. Oona Frawley (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2014), 1−14.
Phyl Garland, The Sound of Soul: The Story of Black Music (New York: Pocket Books, 1971).
William Cheng has similarly argued that actively avoiding (or “canceling”) encounters in which we confront the music of musicians accused (or guilty) of perpetrating and perpetuating violence also prevents us, as listeners and scholars, from questioning the historical and industrial trajectories that enabled these musicians. William Cheng, “Gaslight of the Gods: Why I Still Play Michael Jackson and R. Kelly for My Students.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (15 September 2019), https://www.chronicle.com/article/Gaslight-of-the-Gods-Why-I/247120 (accessed 5 March 2020).
José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
In particular, Kajikawa pointed toward the work of A.D. Carson (University of Virginia) as an important intervention in the field of hip hop studies. Carson’s position in a music department, Kajikawa noted, challenges “the academic system to accept hip hop music not simply as an object of study but as creative scholarly labor.”
Emphasis in original. Joe R. Feagin, The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing, 2nd ed. (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2013), 3. Philip A. Ewell, “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” Music Theory Online 26/2 (2020), https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.20.26.2/mto.20.26.2.ewell.html.