hip hop music

July 7, 2003

Getting Schooled on Pop Music Scholarship

One of the reasons it's hard for me to keep this blog updated everyday is that there's very little published music criticism I find worth reading. Nine times out of ten, when someone gets paid to intellectualize about music, it's very hard for me to make it past the first paragraph without my eyes glazing over.

Like this Rolling Stone piece about Eminem by Kelefa Sanneh, I'm sure it's interesting enough but I just can't bring myself to trudge through it, there doesn't seem to be any point.

So I'm always delighted to find a piece like this one from the New Yorker, which was truly a pleasure to read, and never lost me as it jumped through a wide variety of topics. Coincidentally this guy's main focus is pop music scholarship itself, and he captures pretty well why I find most of it irrelevant, while proving by example that all of it need not be so:

ROCK 101: Academia tunes in

Duke Ellington once had to field a barrage of questions from an Icelandic music student who was determined to penetrate to the heart of the genius of jazz. At one point, Ellington was asked whether he ever felt an affinity for the music of Bach, and, before answering, he made a show of unwrapping a pork chop that he had stowed in his pocket. “Bach and myself,” he said, taking a bite from the chop, “both write with individual performers in mind.” Richard O. Boyer captured the moment in a Profile entitled “The Hot Bach,” which appeared in this magazine in 1944. You can sense in that exquisitely timed pork-chop maneuver Ellington’s bemused response to the European notions of genius that were constantly being foisted on him. He said on another occasion, “To attempt to elevate the status of the jazz musician by forcing the level of his best work into comparisons with classical music is to deny him his rightful share of originality.” Jazz was a new language, and the critic would have to respond to it with a new poetry of praise.

Now Ellington is himself a classic, the subject of painstaking analytical studies. He occupies a Bachian position in an emergent popular pantheon, which is certain to look different from the marble-faced, bewigged classical pantheons that preceded it. The very idea of a canon of geniuses may be falling by the wayside; it makes more sense to talk about the flickering brilliance of a group, a place, or a people. In the future, it seems, everyone will be a genius for fifteen minutes. The past decade has seen the rise of pop-music studies, which is dedicated to the idea that Ellington, Hank Williams, and the Velvet Underground were created equal and deserve the same sort of scholarly scrutiny that used to be bestowed only on Bach and sons. Pop-music courses draw crowds of students on college campuses, and academic presses are putting out such portentous titles as “Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience,” “Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Culture,” and “Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music.”

Pop-music professors, especially those who specialize in rock, are caught in an obvious paradox, which their students probably point out to them on the first day of class. Namely, it’s not very rock and roll to intellectualize rock and roll. When Pink Floyd sang, “We don’t need no education,” they could not have foreseen the advent of research projects with titles like “Another Book in the Wall?: A Cultural History of Pink Floyd’s Stage Performance and the Rise of Audiovisual Gesamtkunstwerk, 1965-1994.” (That comes from Finland.) Ever since Ellington, Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton struck up the soundtrack to the bawdy, boozy twenties, popular music has been the high-speed vehicle for youth rebellion, sexual liberation, and chemical experimentation, none of which yield willingly to the academic mind. The pop scholar is forever doomed to sounding like the square kid at the cool kids’ party, killing their buzz with sentences like this: “From the start, hip-hop’s samples ran the gamut of genres, defying anyone who would delimit hip-hop’s palette.”

Then again, maybe it’s not a problem that so much pop-music scholarship sounds conspicuously uncool. For decades, jazz rhapsodists and rock poets were so intent on projecting attitude that they never got around to saying much about the music itself. The pioneering rock critics of the sixties, such as Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus, wanted to mimic the music in their prose, and they had enough style to pull it off. Bangs, whose writings have been collected in a new anthology from Anchor Books, lived the life of a rock star, or at least died the death of one. But his writings are a better guide to the mentality of smart people who went to rock shows in the sixties and seventies than they are a reliable record of music and musicians. Discussing the Rolling Stones in 1974, Bangs wrote, “If you think I’m going to review the new ‘It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll’ album right now, you are crazy. But I am going to swim in it.” Between prose poetry and academic cant there has to be a middle ground, and pop-music studies is searching it out...

Posted by jsmooth995 at July 7, 2003 7:02 PM

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