I have been honored by an invitation to speak at a conference–the Culture Section 20th Anniversary Symposium, to be exact–and so here are my remarks, in case you can’t come but are interested:
I probably need to start by giving you a short explanation of who I am. I am the daughter of a medical and organizational sociologist. In the late 1990s, I wrote a dissertation on the network structures among 13 hundred successful rap artists, in Columbia’s sociology department. I’m now in my 6th year as an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University. I’ve completed projects on various forms of music, music videos, festivals, immigrant artists, critics, creativity on college campuses and the Promise Keepers. I use whatever methodology I can to solve the problems I’m interested in, both qualitative (interviews, participant-observation, and content analysis), and quantitative (both traditional statistical procedures and network analysis). In addition to the work on popular culture that I write for a sociological audience, I’ve presented my research at the EMP Pop Music Conference; the Social Science History Association conference; the Social Theory, Politics and the Arts conference; and SASAE—an economics and network conference. I’ve given a talk in a series organized by a Vanderbilt Philosopher at Nashville’s Public Library, and to a Book Club at an elementary school. I’ve published in the interdisciplinary journal Radical Society, and the Communications journal CCCS. I am way out of my depths sitting on a panel with these excellent scholars, and so I am going to do what you would do in my shoes—make a global critique of our discipline. My talk is entitled, “Intellectuals Do Not Have Aesthetic Experiences.”
Last month, at a conference at Erasmus University, sociologist Andy Bennett described a concert series in which classic rock albums are performed live, by an orchestra for the BBC. Performances have included works by Led Zeppelin, Queen, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. Most of these albums were recorded in the first rush of enthusiasm over new digital technology. Artists capitalized on the ability to record overdubs, and multi-layered vocals. To, thirty years later, have an orchestra imitate those sounds—thought impossible to create live—on a stage to a packed house, gives me chills.
Also this summer, Billy Joel played his last concert in Shea Stadium to a sold-out crowd of 55,000 fans. The last night, Joel shared the stage with Paul McCartney. The two played several songs by the Beatles, including “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “Let It Be.” Joel also shared the stage with Roger Daltry of the Who, playing back-up on “My Generation,” and smashing a guitar on the center-field stage. It must have been so cool.
I first learned about “rockism” from a New York Times article, published on Halloween, 2004. I learned later that the term is more than twenty years old. It was invented by Pete Wylie, a British singer-songwriter and guitarist, not very well known for leading the band variously known as Wah!, Wah! Heat, Shambeko! Say Wah!, JF Wah!, The Mighty Wah!, and Wah! The Mongrel.
In his Times article, “The Rap Against Rockism”, author Kelefa Sanneh defined rockism as follows: “A rockist is someone who reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.”
Rockists presume a relatively stable canon of works and artists who made Great Rock. These artists, and their music, set the standard for all popular music. As a kind of nostalgia, rockism opposes new technologies, and so performances that rely on certain digital and visual technology are automatically castigated. Appreciated modes of dress, performance, lifestyle and persona are similarly old-fashioned and unchanging.
The term “rockism” was coined as a polemical label to critique a group of music journalists and fans, specifically, those who not only preferred pretty standard rock and roll, the kind whose roots extend to the blues, including bands like Led Zeppelin and Rush, but those who felt the rest of contemporary music was worthless.
As you can see, I’ve got a little rockist inside of me. In fact, when I started learning and writing about the sociology of music, in the mid-1990s, almost all the scholarship I read was rockist. Or jazzist. Or Classicalist. Scholars I respected still rejected the notion that rap was music, and the most progressive were simply defining rap’s qualities and quality in rock terms.
Unbeknownst to me, an anti-rockist movement was afoot. A few years into my research—which only measured aesthetics inductively, and so had little to say to the rockism debate—I met Sasha Frere-Jones, the pop music critic for the New Yorker Magazine. He was the first serious scholar I had ever met who rejoiced in contemporary pop music and defended it on aesthetic grounds. That is, he would speak to aspects of composition and production and define quality within a range composed for popular sounds. About five years later, fellow New York music critic Sanneh would tag these opinions as “anti-rockist.”
Anti-rockism, which is really the topic when we discuss rockism, is simply a pro-pop critical stance. In its simple and beautiful form, anti-rockism is the position that pop music can be just as lovable as rock, just as edifying, just as socially significant, just as worthy of criticism and thought, as rock.
Anti-rockism suited my politics, and that of most sociologists, because it criticizes rockism as a racist, sexist and/or homophobic ideology. It is seen as such because it accords authenticity and value to music made almost exclusively by heterosexual white males. It also targets for critique those genres disproportionately made by women, blacks, Latinos, homosexuals, and others. Rockism promotes the notion that “rock bands record classic albums, while pop stars create ‘guilty pleasure’ singles” and this kind of self-evident logic reflects “not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it” (Sanneh 2004).
By the time I finished my degree, I was resolutely anti-rockist. A frustrated anti-rockist. I began to notice how often my anti-rockist colleagues would slide into the same prissy, pompous, fussy and precious, self-important dribble that they criticize in rockists. Around the same time, Sanneh argued in the Times that, “You can’t fight rockism, because the language of righteous struggle is the language of rockism itself”. For example, you can argue that the lyrics of some rap star are just as authentic as a rocker’s, but you haven’t challenged any of the questions (like, “Who is more authentic?”), you’ve just added new answers.
This is anti-rockism, acting like rockism. The impulse is anti-rockist—all about relativising the self, highlighting the fringes without maintaining a single center. It easily accommodates a cursory or more serious engagement with the politics of race, religion, gender, disability, or any other way in which our society gets tight. But the delivery is resolutely rockist—we stay with questions of identity, specifically, of authenticity, of trajectory, of linearity, and tradition, and inheritance, and connection.
When we ask about the “what” and “how” of knowledge, we are asking questions about disconnection, but we easily make all our successes forms of overcoming difference. Sanneh, and many other progressive anti-rockists, argue that rockism gets in the way of listening, that it limits our expectations of pleasure, and that we miss out on music that isn’t honest, soulful, gritty, rebellious.
In bypassing rockism, and crafting a progressive anti-rockism, he challenges us to develop new prejudices. But what shall these be, and from what will we derive them?
To begin, we see the foundation of rockism lies in a particular aesthetics. The wa-wa pedal, tight jeans, long hair, and two guitars. The rejection of rockism was based on the consequences of those aesthetic commitments—specifically, forms of social exclusion they promoted or changes they occluded. Anti-rockism appears to have sunk into the same, stale unreflexivity. Can we preserve its freshness? What was good about anti-rockism in the first place?
Anti-rockism’s strength was that it pointed out the exclusionary assumptions of rockism on the path to justifying different aesthetic commitments. Anti-rockism, then, needs to identify its aesthetic commitments and think about their consequences.
It is inevitable, as Bourdieu argued, that symbolic systems act as political instruments “which help to ensure that one class dominates another (symbolic violence) by bringing their own distinctive power to bear on the relations of power which underlie them and thus by contributing, in Weber’s terms, to the ‘domestication of the dominated’” (Bourdieu 1991: 167). From a Weberian, or Habermasian, perspective, then, we should try to uncouple power systems from their sources of legitimacy to conceive philosophical models of justice.
I argue that aesthetics plays that role for the sociology of culture. More exactly, I argue that both a reflexive methodology, in which we think about our place in the research, and our aesthetic commitments function as checks on the crippling relativism common to contemporary sociology of culture. Heck, even Nietzsche admitted, in his “Attempt at a Self-Criticism”, that “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.”
Having aesthetic commitments is the only way to get taken seriously, really seriously, outside the world of social science. You can’t expect musicologists, or philosophers, or students to substantively address your position as value-neutral. They both won’t, and can’t. And while you can, in your work outside the academy, encourage people to interrogate their own value commitments, you don’t want to usher in a world in which they have none at all.
That is a world in which, according to Evelyn Waugh, terrible things will happen. Mr. Waugh’s amateur sociological instincts led him to conclude that “almost all crime is due to the repressed desire for aesthetic expression”.
Interdisciplinary work in general, and people working on popular culture in particular, have often suffered the criticism that their work is shallow or superficial in its analysis. I think this is exactly right.
However, there are many good reasons for this. What works analyzing popular culture can lack in depth, they often make up for in the complexity and multiplicity of associations and the mind-bending, autodidactic intelligence required for their production. Resembling any kind of collage, the pieces of information or opinion can merge together into a most beautiful new thing, in the hands of an artist.
We are also typically working within a more constrained time frame. Changes in popular culture are constant; if you study popular culture, your turn-around time tends to be measured in days, not weeks or years. The challenge is to develop a highly sensitive filter, so that you can distinguish the pabulum of the entertainment cycle, those issues or topics that matter to you as a sociologist, from all the irrelevant crap.
The final challenge is to your ego. As you know, talking to experts in other fields can be ruinous to your ego, if you seek professional credibility in shared domains. These folks may be ill-equipped to recognize any of the status or intelligence indicators we spend our early careers accumulating. Working in interstitial space, as I sometimes do, means that I spend an awful lot of time establishing my credibility. I capitalize on my willingness to make fun of myself, my tolerance for being misunderstood and misunderstanding others, and my ability to find sage quotations from famous people. Thank you.