The call for papers for the 33.3 issue caused me to think back on the founding of this journal, originally called Tracking: Popular Music Studies, in 1987.1 To delve into its history would take this short essay well beyond a reasonable word count (though it could provide a valuable lesson: Be careful what you say “Yes” to while still a graduate student, although, that said, I have the complete opposite of regrets and what I learned launching it served me well when launching two other journals). But it is worth reflecting on the impetus for the journal, because the reasons for bringing it into being remain relevant. There is still a need for spaces in which to publish smart, critical writing about popular music; there is even more need for that writing to be valued, to be counted, as legitimate scholarship, whether it hews to traditional scholarly forms (e.g., journal articles) or not.
The impetus for the journal came about at the 1987 IASPM-US meeting in Pittsburgh. There was conversation about whether there were sufficient outlets for scholarly writing about popular music. At the time there were only the Cambridge journal Popular Music and Popular Music & Society, if memory serves. Occasionally popular music studies articles would turn up in journals in cognate fields like media studies, communication, sociology, musicology, ethnomusicology, cultural studies, and the like. The consensus at that year’s business meeting seemed to be that there was room for another journal, and in the (post)post-punk but-still-DIY spirit someone (probably I) said, “Let’s do it!” I was greatly inspired by some of the people at the conference, who continue to inspire me, such as Larry Grossberg, Reebee Garofalo, Portia Maultsby, John Shepherd, Franco Fabbri, and Georgina Born, and many others. It was my first IASPM-US conference; I felt I’d found a home and wanted to contribute.
Now, thirty-three and a third(ish) years later, there are not many more journals dedicated to popular music studies. IASPM has had its own journal for the past ten years. El oído pensante is nearly ten years old too. Volume! The French journal of popular music studies is closing in on 20 years. It is particularly heartening to see that there are journals that welcome scholarship in languages other than English; however, there has not been a groundswell of new journals over the past 3.3 decades. There has instead been a remarkable rise of both print and online periodicals that publish articles that could very well have been found in all of the aforementioned journals—I think here of No Depression, Ugly Things, and Mojo, just as quick examples, and of course there are myriad more online. As I write this, The New York Times Magazine has just published its music issue. None of what appears in its pages is “scholarly,” but in this day and age, if it were to hew toward the academic, would that be any more of a surprise than Taylor Swift collaborating with members of the National?
In 1987 when launching Tracking I was too young, too naïve, to understand how academia worked, how deeply entrenched its values were. I was perhaps dimly aware of the legitimizing role a journal could play, but I was unaware of the degree to which the blind peer-reviewed journal article was the coin of the realm, and I was unaware of how much the labor expended launching and editing a journal is discounted (at best; sometimes such labor is outright disdained) in the academic sector by comparison with research and publishing. To be clear: It is absolutely valuable work and we should all greatly value the effort that has gone into keeping this journal going for 33⅓ years. Without scholarly journals and the peer review process, the scholarly conversation that engages authors, reviewers, readers, and editors and creates a community of scholars would not occur. The medium matters. In and through the written word, in the fullness of time that reading, writing, reviewing, revising, and editing take place, scholars engage with those who came before them and will come after them. Such a long view of the place of scholarly journals is, I fear, difficult to take when one is in the middle of pressing short-term efforts to earn tenure, promotion, or simply a living. The editorial work in maintaining this enterprise, this conversation, is incredibly important.
New media of communication, however, have brought with them new options for these conversations. Going forward, an important question is whether traditional scholarly journals can or should serve as singular markers of intellectual quality as they did in the pre-Internet age. Is it right for the coin of the realm to remain unchanged? Is it possible that what is upheld as “rigor” in academic circles is by now, in the early part of the twenty-first century, simply too constraining and is just keeping diverse voices out of the scholarly conversation based on an outdated and exclusionary notion of prestige? Some of the most interesting writing about popular music can often be found in trade publications, or on podcasts, for example. Are these of less value than what I might find in an academic journal? Why?
In fact, alternative forms of writing and research are rightly kindling discussions of whether and how new forms of publication ought to count as scholarship. Scholars in the digital humanities have been discussing this for more than a decade, but those discussions have been slow to permeate the academy overall. The Journal of Popular Music Studies has long been providing alternative formats to traditional scholarly articles and should be recognized and commended for it. If JPMS is to make it to 45, or even 78, I hope those of us in more senior positions can support those who undertake such efforts to try new things as well as to support those who undertake the labor of journal editing, and shoulder (at least) some of the work ourselves. We should encourage risk-taking, creativity, new approaches and efforts, new forms of scholarship and engagement, and not restrict ourselves to history or tradition, to what has already been done. Let us be open to new ideas both with regard to the breadth of what is possible in scholarship and to the range of opportunities to engage many voices in our conversations. I was reminded recently by a colleague that Iggy Pop published an article in Classics Ireland in 1995, and a good one at that. If that’s not an auspicious model for popular music studies journals being open to a multitude of voices and styles, then I’m the Steve Jones who played guitar for the Sex Pistols.2
Why Tracking? I honestly cannot recall, but I’m grateful to whoever instigated the change to its present name and kept it going over the years; it’s older than I was when it was launched.
The publisher of my first book in fact believed that’s who I was and filed the copyright paperwork with the U.S. Library of Congress accordingly.