banding together, later

My colleague Eric Weisbard was kind enough to review my first book, Banding Together, at the Journal for Popular Music Studies. [Behind a paywall, I'm afraid.] This made me extremely happy, not only because of the respect I have for Eric and his knowledge of American popular music, but also because this brings the book into a conversation with music specialists, an extremely smart and important audience for my ideas.

I have, thus far, not responded to reviews of the book, and for several reasons. Primary among them is my belief that readers are entitled to their opinions and if I feel they have the wrong opinion about my work, my time is better spent improving my arguments (and prose?) to ensure that my future pieces are more clear and less open to mis-interpretation.

I was moved to respond to Eric’s review on social media because there’s a sort of ‘tradition’ (if you can call it that) of lively intellectual discussion among music experts on these status threads. And once I had written a thank you and a comment I thought: why not post it on WITW?

I apologize to those of you who don’t have access to the [gated] review; I can’t repost it here or I’ll violate the intellectual property rights of at least the journal, if not also Eric. If I can clarify anything to help this make sense, just pop into the comments.

Here’s my response (omitting the totally sincere thanks that open my comment on the thread):

Just to clarify my position: musical styles (and the borders between them) are not ‘out there’ in the world, as objective entities, but are rather produced by music communities which include fans, music journalists and academics, Billboard chart makers, record industry professionals, club owners and so forth. The book is based on a careful analysis of how they (musical communities) carve up the world of sound, and how that changes over time. Musicological genres are neither natural nor inevitable, and I hope the book demonstrates how a messy and wonderfully complex world of sound ends up being presented to us (by so many otherwise smart people) as if it were always neatly bundled into these things called ‘genres.’ The fact that musicological boundaries are subject to dispute, and are mutable, is one of the reasons I propose a substitution of those (mutable, musicological) categories with a sociological definition of genre–one that the AgSIT trajectory illustrates in the U.S. case. [And I'm eager to note that I devote a substantial amount of text to non-U.S. cases.] So I was surprised and disappointed to read that you felt I “offer little historical periodization of the development of popular music genres across stylistic categories.” Were I to describe the book’s primary purpose, I couldn’t find a better sentence. I would have instead expected non-sociologists to complain that my substitution of the sociological definition for genre places it “beyond music” and looses something as a result. And my response to that, of course, is that thinking orthogonally about such things is often generative, as I’m glad you’ve found in the case of Pete’s work. And while I am very much in debt, personally and intellectually, to Pete, I’d like readers to understand that my book–whatever it’s merits–are the result of my own labor (a content analysis of over 300 books [ed: I should have said 'books and articles'] on 64 styles of 20th century music) and not derivative of the work of some (forgive me Pete) smart white guy.

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crossing brooklyn wary

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!

The VMAs of the past, and those of the future; The gory sights like beads on my smallest blog posts–on the walk in Jay Z’s house, and the passage over the river (the B, D, A, or C to the L, which isn’t in service so I switch back to an F); The trains rushing swiftly in richer neighborhoods, and none in the Rockaways; The others that are to follow me, their glances at my blog; The certainty of Tumblr–the life, love, sight, hearing of Brooklyn.

IMG_0782Welcome to the 2013 VMA live-blogging experienco. We’re in Brooklyn this year, which is a place you might have heard of, since that’s where funny mustaches, “mixologists” with suspenders, and Jay Z are from. It’s also apparently where David and Victoria Beckham conceived one of their children, and the first name of Andy Roddick’s wife. I’m sure there’s going to be a fuzzy mid-show package that will remind you that Brooklyn is also home to Coney Island and the Rockaways and they’re still recovering from Sandy, and I strongly encourage you to support the efforts of Occupy Sandy.

One of the things to say straight off is that State Farm Insurance sponsored the pre-show “new faces of pop music” (or whatever) and that tells you some important information about what’s happening here. But I’m not doing the pre-show, so I’ll see you in 15.

Act 1 (pre show): Keeping with the Walt Whitman theme, my colleague’s joke about “Leaves of Chronic” is brought to you by whomever runs the Gaga green room. That’s what wicked faded looks like, kids!

Act 2 (opener): Gaga close-up in what is possibly one of those full-body rubber suits in the shape of a tooth. Smart fans floss! There’s pretty intense booing, possibly because it turns out she’s in a nun’s habit with a square face-framing hat until WHOAH she’s dressed in the black leotard show outfit from A Star Is Born. And then a sparkly blue suit of an Upper East Side accountant out at dinner. That’s off and on with a neon yellow wig and it slowly dawns on us that this is a very silly Martha Graham tribute. Until the moment she comes out in a clamshell bikini which is just as unsexy as you’d imagine it would be after seeing her dressed as a nun, an accountant, and Martha Graham. SCENE.

One Direction in so much black presenting Best Pop Video: Selena Gomez’s first hug is to Taylor Swift who immediately commences the most awkward snake-like dancing I’ve seen outside the Bulgarian Disco.

This commercial break goes out to Time Warner cable who is incapable of providing me with a cable signal that doesn’t skip out the audio for four seconds about once a minute.

Fosse, dammit. The Gaga reference was Fosse, not Graham. (#vmaregrets #likebooking2Chainz)

Someone and someone: Miley Cyrus twerking song starts with a closeup on a big teddy bear which she’s also wearing on her body suit. And the backup dancers are either dressed in bear suits or holding huge bears on their backs. One of whom is throwing candy into the crowd. I bother with the description because a whole group of human beings interested in making money got together and green-lighted this, from the writing of the song all the way down to this pederast’s fantasy. And she got the gig of singing Robin Thicke’s SONG OF THE SUMMER with him, so she chose to strip off the fancy bear corset, and is now grinding into him, tongue out, in a nude leather bikini with one of those rubber sports hand/finger gloves shooting out from between her legs. And now we get 2Chainz rapping up the hallway while Thicke’s dancers are holding up craft (glitter, tinsel) versions of a Picasso and a watch and then a mini yacht paper mache float rolls across the stage and it occurs to me that there might be LSD in my Glenfiddich. Unless you’re seeing this disaster, too.

I’m just going to get this out of the way: I love me some Lil’ Kim. She’s co-presenting Best Hip Hop Video: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Let’s hope they opine on race relations in America, or possibly Drake’s eyes and/or relationship with Amanda Bynes. “They let some independent hip hop artists up here at the VMAs.” Which, as you can imagine, is the preface to one of those acceptance speeches that one hit wonders often make, e.g., “I. Am. An. ARTIST.”

I don’t know what we can do to repair the damage that Miley Cyrus has done. I don’t even know how you’d begin a conversation with your kids about that, let alone how you’d know when you were done.

Kevin Hart: in which we get a joke about Gaga’s ass and “gams” and then a joke about Miley Cyrus getting a pregnancy test, and then Robin Thicke gets just a regular, not misogynistic compliment. Keep it classy, MTV.

Jared Leto introducing Kanye West. “Strange Fruit” is what he went with? Nothing says “party in Brooklyn!” like lynching? And OHMYGERD they’re bleeping out all the “nigga” variants in the verse, which eliminates all sound.

There’s really nothing to say about that, is there? I mean, that’s not even “stripped down”–one skrim with a photo of a garden, most of the song he’s in shadow writhing around, and the song’s like a neat 3 minutes. Meh.

Oh, dispatch from email: Cee Lo Green is joining the New Power Generation folks at the City Winery show tonight. Doors at 1145.

Pharrell, Nile Rogers, Daft Punk commercial precedes actual appearance on stage in confusing WHICH ONE IS THE COMMERCIAL moment. They’re presenting Best Female Video to Taylor Swift. And she doesn’t miss the opportunity to point out that winning a VMA is her revenge against “you know who you are” who inspired the song.

Ed Sheeran presenting Best Video with a Social Message, WHICH IS A THING? I can’t believe that Miley Cyrus isn’t in the running.

Okay, the Macklemore song about same sex love wins, and that seems exactly right, if “social message” means, “articulating the widely held values in our society.” But “gay rights are human rights” my man. I agree. Hear us roar, Russia. We’re coming for you.

Time to re-up. Tepid performances still enough to melt the drink out of my glass.

On second thought, I’m more happy with the Kanye performance. And super creeped out by Miley.

When did MTV shows turn into an all day Jerry Springer marathon?

Jimmy Fallon brought his black suit to introduce Justin Timberlake, who won the Michael Jackson lifetime award thingie. Calls him “The President of Pop,” which I can’t believe hasn’t already been given out or maybe calls for re-election?

I’m a minute into the performance and the most important question is: is he wearing a dickie? He should really be making more of the fact that those Brooklyn mixologists really stole everything but the mustache from  JT’s wardrobe.

I have the sound up so loud that the synth sounds are pilling up like an old sweater, by the way. And there’s the ‘Nsync reunion you read about on twitter. Complete with the “cock the shotgun” move. BYE BYE BYE.

I totally loved this, but I’d have loved it more with fewer shots of Taylor Swift dancing, One Direction drinking a beer, Gaga’s clamshell bikini, and Rihanna nodding off. But I’d keep Jimmy Fallon as my hype man.

It looks like we’re at the 1.5 hour mark and the VMAs will apparently remain, for the whateverith consecutive year, a visual word salad of empty signifiers, a contemptuous treatment of sexuality, and awkward transitions.

My video froze for some reason, but Kevin Hart is yet again talking about Lady Gaga’s ass because nothing says humor like repeating the bad joke, twice.

So they’ve invented “Song of the Summer” because it only look them whateverinth times to realize that was a real thing and would allow them to book an artist and a song that people might actually still be listening to (hear me, Macklemore?).  And we get to vote! And somehow One Direction wins for a song that I, as a music effing expert, have heard exactly once. Even though Daft Punk obviously had the song of the summer. This is what happens when you let teenagers vote which is a lesson to you. Keep sending them to war though, ’cause that also really makes sense. They know exactly what they’re doing.

A$AP Rocky and Jason Collins (he’s basketball?) so that the latter can use an anecdote from his grams to talk about bigotry as A$AP Rocky hams it up and prepares to MENTION HIS ALBUM. Jesus.

Mackelmore now gets to sing “Same Love.”  And the big reveal is Jennifer Hudson who comes in to sing the final verses. Which is lovely in a sentimental way that I have no tolerance for after the hell I’ve been subjected to, see: commercials, Miley.

Can we discuss these really strange Kia commercials with the skeevy bar/gym rat hampsters (mice?)?

This is the time in every year’s VMA that I realize my life is speeding by and I have nothing to show for it. Not because I should be on stage, but because I shouldn’t be watching.

Artist to watch, aka artists with good PR firms: Austin Mahone? I suppose the award has served it’s purpose since my reaction is a massive who?

T-Boz and Chilli from TLC: possibly another reality show? Introducing Drake. Who starts with a close up shot of his ugly face, amirite Amanda? ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ


I do want to know what Rihanna’s friend’s got in that popcorn bucket tho.

Jayden Smith was FREAKING THE F*CK out at Drake, which is exactly what I’d expect from the Karate Kid. Or Xenu.

Prepare for your snoozy overlord.

And because the people I know are wicked, there’s already a funny/smart post on the 7 Things Kanye West might have worn tonight, if we could have seen what he was wearing.

Oh wait, there IS A NEW REALITY SHOW WITH TLC. (I do this for a living folks. Habitus at play.)

Taylor Swift presenting Best Male Video. She’s a great spokesperson to represent respect for men, since she’s involved in a multi-album harassment campaign of every man she’s ever dated. Bruno Mars, “Locked Out of Heaven.” And who’s the Roy Orbison meets Porn Producer friend he just man hugged? Birds want to know who to call.

Eminem is selling Dre’s headphones?

The Challenge Rivals II seems like it gives a really compelling insight into

And there’s a Jackass film.

This is the end of civilization.

Selena Gomez introducing Bruno Mars. I’ve never dug a single song of his partly because he always strikes me as someone prone to temper tantrums. The stamping-foot-on-the-floor type.

Or is he just short?

No amount of lasers and fire bursts are going to make me pretend this song has soul.

If Prince and Phil Collins had a baby, would it be Bruno Mars?

Katy Perry with a boxing robe labeled “Lioness” feels pure Brooklyn, amirite? Like, “32 year old woman gets iPhone stolen in 78th precinct” Brooklyn?

Is there enough of this to go that I need another re-up? I can’t actually send this to a vote because then I’ll be drinking a big glass of One Direction.

By the way, here’s the Smith family watching Miley Cyrus. It is everything.


Video of the year: Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors.” He’s now wearing a reverse dickey. I hope this dickey issue is in the news tomorrow.

Also, Drake’s 5 Gum edge:

BSj-xIeIcAABtSZOh yes.

Here we go: Katy Perry on the Brooklyn bridge. ROAR. Other than making money, what exactly is she the champion of? Has she ever stood for anything? Or maybe this is just another chapter in the Neverending Search for An Anthem To Replace Franklin’s “Respect” and/or Parton’s “9-to-5?” GIRLZ NEEDZ ANTHEMS.

Perry just totally did the Bush “Mission Accomplished” thing!

So, that’s it. The war on pop rages, but Perry declares victory.

Maybe we’ll manage some kind of wrap up post tomorrow, or just keep posting screen shots. Thanks to the four of you who chatted, and the hundreds more who sat silently, marveling that an otherwise completely sane and interesting person would live blog this nonsense. See you in 2014.


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Just a friendly reminder that I’m going to live-blog the drop-crotch pants off tonight’s MTV VMAs. Show starts at 9 EST. There is some threat of guests, and of Glenfiddich.


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Who wants to do the due diligence to find out why this map is so wonky? [A Google Maps visualization of every protest on the globe since 1979.] Why so few protests in the same cities throughout the 70s? And why the throbbing wall of lights these recent years with no up-tick in media awareness of the extent of mobilization? What is being counted here, and why is it wrong?



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round again

I missed it, but 17 August was my 6th year anniversary blogging at WITW, and my 10th anniversary blogging. It is entirely in keeping with the philosophy and pedagogy of WITW to diminish this achievement by mentioning it as a passing note in a post that is actually about:


Sunday’s the annual celebration of douchebaggery known as the MTV Music Video which no awards are given for music video achievement. I’ll be live-blogging it, in keeping with tradition…the tradition I believe I ignored last year and possibly the one before. Let’s look it up, shall we?

Here’s 2011.

Here’s 2010.

Here’s 2008.

And if you want the Grammy’s series, just use the helpful search box—>

What should you expect? You should expect an opening burst of enthousiasm followed by a creeping sense of despair, followed with a relaxed descent into madness, followed by relief and grief. If you’re not picturing a music critic’s version of “Drunk History,” you’re not doing it right.

From the show? Oh, the typical nonsense (MINUS CHRIS BROWN THANK YOU BABY JESUS!):

Drake, Bruno Mars, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Miley Cyrus, Robin Thicke, Katy Perry, Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga.

Unfortunately, MTV’s webtextstaff decided to describe the Red Carpet special guest Grimes as an “electro fairy princess” which is only slightly less contemptuous than straight-up calling her Tinkerbelle.

Let’s hope that Thicke has his lady friends go Full Monte so that we can have that debate again, and have it dovetail with the equally stupid on-going Nipplegate fiasco. Come to think of it, it’d be BOSS if Janet showed up to the VMAs.

And they’re in Brooklyn which is a slightly veiled attempt to keep Jay Z happy with Viacom.

So tune in here for your “two screen experience” this Sunday, around 9pm EST and whatever time they decide Californians should fire up their iPads out at the gym.



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The only thing embarrassing about being a sociologist of culture is that deans and departments don’t recruit you.

Everyone knows that popular culture suffuses our everyday lives, right? You don’t know a single human being who goes a day without doing one of the following: watching television, a comedy show, or a play or musical theater;  listening to popular music; reading a novel or a magazine or a newspaper; wearing off-the-rack clothing or accessories; or using consumer electronics.

Can we please all stop pretending that we’re haughty, elitist dicks who don’t want to be polluted by the lowbrow drek of commercial culture? No one is immune to its charms, it is the very water through which we swim, and yet I keep observing people pretending that they’ve just noticed they’re in the tank with the rest of us, and rather wish they weren’t.

[Yes, I'm referencing this...

..but I'm ashamed to say that I discovered it, like, the one time I looked at facebook.]

Enjoying life as a 21st century human isn’t what we should be ashamed of…we should be shocked, horrified, and embarrassed at the fact that the Sociology of Culture is third from last in the list of specialty areas that appeared in Sociology faculty job postings in 2012.

Social control, crime, law, and deviance were first. Now, I’m not saying that the study of deviance is unimportant–I’d actually argue that citizens of a country that has the highest incarceration rate of any country on the globe have a moral obligation to develop expertise in this area. It’s just that we also top the globe in terms of the volume and quality of our cultural output, at least in recorded music and film.

Moreover, students are interested in it. I’ve never once taught a class in popular culture (and I’ve now taught multiple dozens of classes on the topic) that wasn’t immediately over-subscribed. And for all the teeth-knashing and hair-pulling over the inability of Americans to engage a critical consciousness when they engage popular culture, wouldn’t you think having high quality, intensive, college level courses on the subject might help?

You can’t staff those courses well if you don’t hire in the Sociology of Culture, and that doesn’t mean that you make a hire in demography or deviance and tack on a secondary interest in culture. What happens when you do that is that you get someone who is an expert in demography or deviance, who teaches one course every three years on culture. This pattern generates expertise in much the same way that replacing the oil in your car every 3,000 miles makes you a mechanic.


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a life

I have a lot of dead friends. I have friends who have died in their 80s and in their 20s. I have friends who have died from suicide, drug overdoses, and because they were murdered. Sudden deaths and slow deaths. Deaths that shocked me, and deaths that gave me hope that there was a force on the planet that had enough wisdom and compassion to halt suffering.

My friend Mike died this morning, and he’s the first friend of mine who died from cancer.

Mike was born the same year that I was, at least as far as I know. We met in 1995, in Cork, Ireland. He was a student at Colby College in Maine, and I was joining one of their study abroad programs. I don’t remember first meeting him but that’s obviously going to be the case when you meet 15 new people all at once in the Boston airport and then more when you arrive and find a dozen other students had already spent a semester learning the ropes. Mike started in the fall; I arrived in January. We lived in almost contiguous cinder block three floor townhouses that University College, Cork offered to international students.

Mike didn’t live with us, but I can count on one hand the number of times I woke up or went to sleep and Mike wasn’t in our apartment. We became close friends quickly; Will, Mike, Johnny Ryan, Ann, our truly certifiably insane Swiss roommate Thomas, and local friends including Paddy. We went to so few classes I barely remember the inside of any of the lecture halls, and instead have a crystal clear memory of the college bar. We walked down to An Brog if Thomas wasn’t willing to squeeze us into the former Swiss postal vehicle he was using as a car. We had the bright idea one night to walk over to the grassy hill next to my apartment and spike empty whiskey bottles into the black night by hitting them with a golf club we found. There were injuries. I don’t remember eating food that semester except for a few special nights that Thomas would cook pasta with gorgonzola cheese sauce at 3am after coming home from the bar. I mostly ate chocolate bars from the little store at the mouth of the housing complex. I lost a lot of weight that semester.

Mike was a musician: a pianist and a very good one. He was obsessed that semester with the movie Easy Rider (or maybe it just was his favorite of the few films we had in the house) and loved the song “If you want to be a bird” by The Holy Modal Rounders. He’d dance to it by crouching, bending, and bowing, while slowly moving his arms up-and-down, like birds’ wings. It was hilarious.

I don’t know when Mike and I started to write letters, but I think it might have been 1997 when he sent his first collage. He had taken a camping and hiking trip somewhere and compiled photos from his trip with bits of text into a flimsy paper three-ring binder. It arrived without explanation, in the mail. We probably sent each other hundreds of letters between the late-1990s and this week. Depending upon whether you think your 20s were the most consequential, exciting, and important decade of your life, or the most self-absorbed and cowardly years, our correspondence is either irritating or fascinating.

I think this is another letter to him.

I’ve tried to send at least one each week since Mike was first diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I tried to stay on neutral topics, mostly rambling about whatever nonsense was going on in my life–a new job, a new apartment, friends, family. He went through a few good periods, when the chemo seemed to be working and the cancer abated, but more of them were bad. Once he turned toward experimental treatments, I started to write about our shared experiences more. Last week, I found a bunch of photographs from Cork–mostly from the Strauss Ball we attended–photocopied them, annotated the pictures, and sent them off in a flimsy paper envelope. I sent him two letters on Monday, each with an inspirational verse I’d found in my files while setting up a new work computer. I don’t think they arrived in time.

It doesn’t matter, though. Mike, more than anyone I’ve ever met, accepted you as you were. He saw the best in people. He never wanted more from them than what they offered.

Most of his post-college life he spent in service: first in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, then with anti-war and anti-death penalty movement organizations. He went to a peace demonstration in a wheelchair, this last week of his life, with his 3 year old daughter, wife, and friends.

He spent some time in jail, related to this protest work. He mentioned it once in a note from last February, thanking me for the birthday card I had sent him. Mike wrote: “As per your twirly card, it was received on the same day as another (altered birthday) card offering to spin and based on your first name’s first letter, find out your (Johnny Depp derived) first name. [Ed: from Pirates of the Caribbean, this was.] Mine is Chum Brinybottom. Yours is Booty Tanglebeard. In the Big House there was a dude known as Spoty. And he had an almost-always visible tattoo to prove it which read ‘Spoty.'”

That same letter closed with this list: “Do you Momofuku? Do you Poisson Rouge? Do you send BeDazzles?” In a letter from May, he informed me that he “learned a fun new marching chant this week, ‘Potato, Tomato, No More Nato.’ Cute, huh?”

He wrote about his daughter in every note, after she was born three years ago. Most notes, at least at first, included pictures. He was excited about her, and the girl she was becoming. He felt the same way about his family, and his friends. A group of his buddies, including Will and Johnny Ryan, went to visit him last fall. He sent me a picture of the alphabet doughnuts they bought to celebrate, which spelled out DUDEPOCALYPSE. What hilarious nonsense. Another handmade card, written from his hospital bed during one of many stays, has an illustration of what look like mother and children potatoes cooking over a flowerpot inside an igloo and a newspaper clipping pasted next to it with only the following: “‘The true leisure is to be at home among manageable things,’ said George Santayana.”

I am not gifted enough to describe a person that I know really well, and love. Mike is a part of my heart, and so many peoples’ hearts, and he was a good and kind man. It’s a terrible thing that he’s the one who had to get cancer, and had to die at 38 years old, but we can’t stop terrible things from happening, not even to the best of us.

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