Readings: Formats

Eric Weisbard, who teaches in the American Studies Department at The University of Alabama has a new book coming out, Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music, that looks very interesting.  Weisbard’s topic here is formats. From the introduction:

Let’s begin with the radio in the 1979 Chevy Nova my grandma Cele gave me. A volume knob, a tuning knob, and five preset buttons for cementing a relationship with AM radio—that was it. At one point, driving, I came upon a venerable Top 40 DJ from Philadelphia who called himself the Geator with the Heater. Later, after hauling the indestructible green machine to the West Coast, I wondered at the Quiet Storm shows on KDIA that took Oakland soul listeners into sleep. In those same Bay Area years, circa 1989–92, Hot New Country was flourishing on my Nova. For an indie rocker who’d spun records on college radio by groups with names like Butthole Surfers, this country stuff beamed in from another planet. But as a captive to the Garth, Trisha, Clint, and Wynonna flow, I learned to hear another format on its own terms: the small rebellions and innovations that made sense when set against a constancy of sound and attitudes.

Keep those car buttons in mind for a bit longer. Each potentially represented a separate music format: Top 40, adult contemporary, rhythm and blues, country, or album-oriented rock. And each station played, consistently, proven hit records, whose basic qualities a regular listener could anticipate even before pushing the button. The identity of those listeners varied as much as the music did, to let advertisers target different consumer segments. In the 1950s, Top 40 had emerged as a programming style to help radio compensate for television’s absconding with syndicated network shows. By the mid-1970s, the format system I will focus on offered different musical flavors of Top 40, rooted in divisions of age, gender, race, region, and economics but also blurring and crossing between those rival categories. The result was a particular model of commercialized cultural pluralism: a formatting of publics.

There’s another take on introducing this material and approach here.  Given that my longest sustained piece of writing dealt with genre, its really interesting to me to see a talented scholar like Weisbard take on a similar structuring force in the intersection between music and commerce.  I have to admit that I haven’t paid enough attention to formats (or to radio in general) in my work.  Weisbard has done some thinking about genre and format though:

Formats let music occupy a niche in capitalism and—as with Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, with its monologue and interviews structure and MOR appeal—connect music to other show-business realms as well. Genres are different. Ordinary people don’t proudly identify with formats, but some do identify with genres. One can have a hit song that goes “I was born country”; probably not “I was born adult contemporary.” Music formats like MOR, AC, and Top 40 were crossover spaces, with no single dominant genre. A trickier category is music, like country, with both format and genre identity, making for something more porous in definition than honky-tonk, soul, or that Bruce Springsteen fans might prefer. Black-oriented pop divided between rhythm and blues (R&B), a format, and soul or hip-hop genres. Rock, in its 1970s form, was the Uncola of formats: a lucrative format posing as a rebel genre. Music genres, more inherently ideological, chafe at formats, with their centrist, commercial disposition.

I want to press on those last two sentences a little, because I think that they open up some interesting doorways. First:
Rock, in its 1970s form, was the Uncola of formats: a lucrative format posing as a rebel genre.” This is undoubtedly true, and and something that I struggled to deal with in the latter part of my dissertation.  Whether you sided with Nat Cole in “Mr. Cole Won’t Rock and Roll” and dismissed rock and roll as a cheap showbiz fad, or took the retroactive boomer critic line that it was a vital, integrating force in American culture, rock and roll had a distinct enough form that the arguments about what did and didn’t belong in the genre and what that meant made some intuitive sonic sense.  But “rock” as it emerged in the 70s had no such sonic coherence.  I couldn’t make much sense of that with the tools that I was working with, beyond the fact that “rock” represented some kind of transition in what genre in pop music meant, and possibly the death of a certain kind of generic determinacy regarding musical style.  Understanding “rock” as a format rather than a genre, but one that’s disguised as a genre and thus does some of the same discursive work, really helps with this.

The following claim also holds a lot of truth: “Music genres, more inherently ideological, chafe at formats, with their centrist, commercial disposition.”  Musical genres are inherently ideological and rhetorical.  The very shortest version of my take on musical genre is that genres aren’t categories, they’re  ongoing arguments about what kind of music goes in those categories.  But the arguments have to be understood as simply assumptions or judgements, as mostly self-evident for the arguments to do the discursive work that they do of charting borders, origins, and meanings. Its these charts, or narratives, that define legitimacy and authenticity for a given genre.  And these narratives are, I’d argue, per Frederic Jameson and Kenneth Burke, socially symbolic narratives, discursive acts that speakers, writers, listeners, etc. use to try to provide aesthetic resolution to felt, real world contradictions.

The only caveat that I’d offer is that contrasting ideological genres and centrist formats suggests a certain level of rigidity in genre that I think is more part of genre’s illusory, narrative-creating engine than it is a description of what genre, especially musical genre, is and does.

So, I see a couple of interesting roads out of this. One of them has to do with the relation between genres (as I understand them) and formats. If musickers use genres as part of the narrative structure that helps them understand and negotiate the lived contradictions and everyday alienations of capitalism, then how do formats play into this? On the one hand, it would be easy to dismiss them as simply industrial attempts to manage those narratives for profit.  But this kind of understanding is too overtly teleological to account for the roles that formats play in people’s lives, the unintended effects of the attempts to shape genres, and the way that musickers might incorporate formatting into their own generic narratives.  Weisbard’s opening gambit, focusing on his encounters with and reactions to different music via radio format suggests that this book will have some interesting insights in this area, and I look forward to digging into it.

The other path that I see here requires taking into account yet another way of dividing and categorizing the acts and artifacts of musicking: style.  In the past I’ve tended to assign to “style” the kinds of concrete and discrete musical practices and sounds that, as signifiers, are the building blocks of these generic narratives.  Its not a clean division, and as Weisbard notes regarding genre and format, there is some confusingly common language.  Arguably, “country” is a style of musical practice, a genre with long argued borders and origins that define the (authentic) limits and meanings of those stylistic acts and artifacts, and a format that disciplines the delivery of those acts and artifacts to members of one of many pluralized sub-publics who, in turn, discipline the borders and meanings of the format itself.  I need to think more about this, but provisionally I’m wondering if genre, style, and format could all be part of an inclusive set of tools that together help us understand the complex ways that music and commerce combine to help us make meaning of our lives at the intersection of art and commerce.

Preview: Jasmin Kaset and Birdcloud

I’m trying to make good on a commitment to bring this blog back to life through the revolutionary practice of blogging more often.  That’s going to mean doing things more quickly, which isn’t easy because I tend to let pieces of writing build up in my head–like the one about the Nashville blue comedy duo Birdcloud that’s been gestating over the past month–before actually putting them down to text.  That particular piece became more complex when I discovered that half of Birdcloud, Jasmin Kaset, has a whole solo catalog of smart, complex, and sonically adventurous songs all on her own, and all very different from Birdcloud’s disconcertingly raunchy aggro-folk.

I’m wary of making too much of this contrast.  Creative people work in all kinds of different directions, sometimes all at once.  Its only the post-Bob-Dylan-1965-Rock-Authenticity Mandate that makes us think that an artist’s work isn’t legitimate unless it’s the result of a SOUL BARING STRUGGLE TO REPRESENT EXACTLY WHO THEY ARE AND WILL BE FOREVER.  Moreover, as I’m going to argue when I get around to it, Birdcloud’s material is a lot more complex once you get under the hood than it seems from the outside, full of nuanced characters, inconvenient desires, and unreliable narrators.

Still, its quite a contrast. Listen to/watch this:

and this:

And feel your head spin.

Quick Thoughts on Performance Paths

Nothing too deep here, but something hopefully worth thinking about and expanding.  I should preface it with the caveat that Performance Studies is not my main gig and that I’m not necessarily a reliable guide to readings in the field.  But its in the purview of what I’ve worked on and think about.  So, besides elaborations on this thought that hit my head as I was on my way to sleep, I’m also looking for corrections, refutations, arguments and tangents.

There are, roughly and broadly, two different normative paths into and out of “performance studies.”  One of them is the analysis of staged performances and rituals, that which is set aside from everyday life in some manner.  Here, I’m thinking of everything from the vast history of music, dance, and theater criticism to the work of Victor Turner and the scholarship that follows out of that. My favorite marker down this path is that put up by Jose Limon in Dancing With the Devil: Society and Cultural Poetics in Mexican-American South Texas.

The other path is the Ervin Goffman Trail, which tours the performative as it occurs in everyday life: the way that we stage our actions and practices, play roles, and define ourselves against and in response to our own imagined and imposed  audient. There are some alliances with Folklore studies here, in the way that folklore imagines the everyday as an object of study, but it does a nice job of removing the historical folklorical reflex to only imagine the lives of others (by which I mean “Others” or “the othered”) as objects of study.  When we talk about the performance of everyday life, its much easier to immediately understand that we’re discussing our own lives and performances than it is to hit the some conclusion via folklore.

Just bringing Turner, whose work is anthropological and not dramaturgical, into this discussion this early is a clear clue that this is a false schism, since Turner’s study of ritual is rooted in social practice.  I’m not going to pretend that I’m tearing down heretofore unbreachable walls here.  But I think that some bridges can and should be built between the study of overt performance (Performance) and undemarcated performance (performance).  The need to mark of “the everyday” from staged performance sometimes elides just how transcendent and moving and personal and political our everyday lives in fact are.  The analysis of staged performance should start before the show and shouldn’t stop when it ends, for either the performers or the audience, who all have “everyday lives” that these performances/Performances are part of.

Its in the popular analysis of the latter–staged Performances–that I really see this bridge needing to be built.  What do we bring to and take from these Performances?  How do they infect our everyday lives, whether we are on or offstage?  What good are they to us? What do we understand about staged performances if we strive to always see a performer’s (or a composer’s or director’s) onstage as work, as part of their expressly personal and political lives?

The place this train of thought takes me to is the idea of socially symbolic narratives, as founded in Kenneth Burke’s dramatism and as expanded in Frederic Jameson’s political unconscious.  The bare bones idea here is that narratives–broadly writ to include virtually everything performative, including that where the “performance” is the subvocalization of a read text–are socially symbolic if they resolve contradictions that are unresolved in everyday life.  In my dissertation, I argued that the construction of musical genre, in formal and informal discourse, is an ongoing act of socially symbolic narration; an attempt to come to grips with the contradictions we encounter in our everyday lives through the telling of stories that relate styles and practices, performers and performances into coherent and cohesive catalogs of the transcendent.  I also argued that while genres present themselves as these supposedly coherent catalogs, they are more properly understood as arguments about cataloging.

I’ll try to provide some concrete examples of these bridges and the paths across them in another post.  Maybe this does go somewhere.  We’ll see.

I really really want to thank you for dancing to the end.

So, there are these three videos from Janelle Monae’s new record The Electric Lady that I keep watching, over and over.  They tie into, and are the latest episodes of a long-running future history narrative arc that she’s used to connect every bit of her publicly released work.  I don’t know nearly enough about that narrative enough to explicate it, but maybe these folks can help with that. In the meantime I just want to put them up here, possibly counterpoised with some other “emotion pictures” (as they’re known in the world of Monae’s alter ego, Cindy Mayweather, the Archandroid.  Here’s the first, the scene setter:

And, as I watch that video I find myself seeing this one out of the corner of my eye:

There are some obvious nods, in the multiple roles that Janelle and Andre play, and in the twitchiness of the filming. What else?  

Concrete Jungle

There was at least a solid two years in Fayetteville where it seemed like you could not go to a party or hangout or a show without hearing “Legend.” Usually on cassette, and typically turned over a couple of times. This, and the whole jambandization of reggae in general has probably led me to take bob Marley for granted, and forget that I used to hear punk and reggae as musical coefficients. Anyway, this rocked my world. if you find an hour and a half of reggae daunting (I do) start here at 20:06 with “Concrete Jungle.” and skip ahead to 33:27 for “Them Bellyful,” both deep grooved and blistering deconstructions of the real situation.

Cultural Exchange

Dave Bruceck has passed, and everywhere on the net, “Take 5″ is playing.  That’s a wonderful thing, but here’s a lesser known bit of the Brubeck legacy, a musical written by Dave and Iola Brubeck, starring Louis Armstrong and Carmen Mcrae, among others, about the cultural and political paradox that was the US State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program, during the era of segregation and the Cold War.