August 28, 2012
I didn’t do it on purpose, I swear.
I’m an ethnomusicologist by training, which means that I should be out there studying things in the present (in the most stereotypical view of ethnomusicology) and (if I can be even more stereotypical) most likely of another culture. But that’s never been exactly what I did–and if you asked most ethnomusicologists, they’d also diverge from the stereotype.
My graduate department at Columbia had an especially strong focus on ethnography, and my master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation reflected that. Though I was working in the U.S., most often among middle-class white people, I used the same methodologies that ethnomusicologists use when studying “traditional” musics: deep hanging out, ethnographic interviews, recordings of performances, etc. And maybe because anthropologists and ethnomusicologists often give side-eye to U.S.-based projects, I did extra fieldwork at both the MA and doctoral level–two and a half years, plus extra prep and return trips on either side.
And I loved it. But a couple things happened in the intervening years. First, when I wrote up my dissertation, I became deeply interested in the lineages behind the people in my dissertation–how they placed themselves in a history of feminist and/or musical activism. That historical thread nearly always pointed back to Riot Grrrl, which meant that I pretty much had to address the 1990s in my dissertation anyway.
But the real thing that made me a scholar of the 1990s was not connected to music, but to politics. In all honesty, the reason that I’ve turned toward the 1990s as a topic in the past few years is the resurgence of anti-woman politics, often from the same people who were around in the 1990s. I can’t believe that I’m still hearing the same things that I heard in high school about date rape vs. “legitimate” rape, or rape not causing pregnancy, or any of a thousand or so horrifying things that I’ve heard in the past few years.
And I want to know why this type of rhetoric is gaining traction again, why the discourse so particularly anti-woman in a way that resonates with the 1990s, and who is fighting back against it (then and now). And so I’m looking into the past, as well as at the present. I am not researching 1990s music because I’m “nostalgic” about my teen years (though I do study 1990s nostalgia, too!), but because I think that pop music (and youth politics) were reflective of the politics of the time in a much more direct way than today.*
It’s pretty simple, really. To steal and revise a phrase from James Carville, “It’s the misogyny, stupid.”
*I am also interested in the changing trends in pop star politics. It’s strange to me that “legitimate rape” isn’t more under fire in the same weeks that pop stars are clamoring to support Pussy Riot. No analysis there in my mind yet, but there you go.
August 1, 2012
I’m bobbing up and down in the deep end at swim class, waiting for the instructor to give some feedback on my finally-corrected-after-being-taught-wrong-as-a-child breaststroke. I am also waiting for “Joe” and “Bob,” my advanced swimming classmates, to make their way down the 25 meters of the pool.
Bob gets there first. He and I move to the far corners of the lane to let Joe come in. Joe’s a little bit of a messy swimmer, and we generally have to steer clear. Bob is faster at dodging Joe than I am, but I do manage to escape Joe’s kick by popping briefly into the next lane.
After Joe grabs the wall, our instructor “Emily” tells me that I’ve greatly improved my kick. This makes me very happy–I’ve been working on it every time I’ve hit the pool in the past three weeks, un-learning bad habits. I’ve put in the work, and it’s showing.
“Yeah, you’ve got a great breaststroke kick!” Joe says. “It’s really turning into your stroke! You’re such a natural.”
I am not a natural, and I know it. What I do know is that I’ve been in the pool three times a week for the past month, and I keep at it. Even though Joe tends to get on my nerves, I shrug off his compliment.
“I just practice a lot. I teach, so I have time off during the summer.”
“I really need practice on it. Emily, is this how you do it?” Joe doesn’t wait for me to move around him, or get out of the way. I feel his foot slam into my calf, and my muscle quivers, then spasms. Tears well in my eyes, and I grab my leg, while trying to get over to the wall. I can’t tread water with my leg like this. I can’t swim. I can’t think of anything but the pain in my calf.
The instructor asks if I’m all right. I say no, clutching the wall with one hand and trying to massage the spasm out of my leg with the other. We have to wait a few minutes before I can continue.
But I do.
Moral of the story: Sometimes, even when you’ve put in the work, someone may still come along and kick you really hard. And when that happens, you just have to keep going.
You can’t–or at least I can’t–do things based on an expectation everything turning out right all the time. I certainly put in the work for my dissertation, for example, and I couldn’t have known the economy would crash the week I graduated and all the jobs would disappear. But I did the work, and that’s what’s important. I wrote a YA manuscript, which may or may not ever “do” anything, but I put in the work (Though you have no idea how much it bugs me that Twilight fan fic is now getting major deals. I mean, seriously???). And now, I’ve been working on my academic book, and I have no idea if it will get me a tenure-track job. But I am doing the work, and putting in the effort. And that means that even if I don’t get what I want, I have accomplished something.
But I really, really hope that no one kicks me at my next academic conference.
July 26, 2012
At least not in an academic context, anyway.
During the time I was writing my dissertation about Ladyfest (think: bands that sound like Sleater-Kinney putting on a music festival of bands that sound like Sleater-Kinney), people often made a few assumptions about me. The biggest was that I must be a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuge Sleater-Kinney fan. And, while I certainly will admit that I listened to “Good Things” on repeat after a particular college-era breakup, I am not the hugest SK fan in the world by any mark or measure. I like them, I respect them, and, most importantly, I find them interesting. And all of that makes it easier to write about them (and bands like them) with a sometimes critical eye and with as much fairness as possible.
In contrast, when I love a band’s music–and I mean really, really love it–all I can do is … talk about how much I love it! For example, and I realize I am really 20-some years too late for this bandwagon, I fell in love with Fugazi* last week after watching a live performance from January 12, 1991 in the Riot Grrrl archive at Fales Library. My text to Ryan afterward: “Watched Fugazi show today. Now I WANTS ALL THE FUGAZI.” Yes, I lolcat-spoke. And to another friend: “FUGAZI FUGAZI FUGAZI.” (Similarly, if you asked me to talk about why I love Pulp or The Jam or Blondie, I’d have no answer for you, other than I’m a middle-class white woman and it’s part of my habitus, but I’m not a strict Bourdieusian so that’s somewhat unsatisfactory.) And THAT’S why I never write about what I love, but only what I like.
I don’t think I’m alone in this issue. I spoke with a senior scholar earlier this year who works on Mozart. And, while she loves all of Mozart’s work, she has a special place in her heart for Cosi fan Tutte. She told me that she has problems every time she teaches the opera because she can’t get the sheer beauty of its music across to undergraduates. She hits a wall, just as she has every time she tries to write analytically about it.
And that wall is something I face every time I try to write about music I love. But here’s the good thing: there is so much music in the world! I don’t have to write about my personal favorites! But, make no mistake, I do have to like and respect the music and artists I write about (except maybe one… and I’m pretty sure that anyone who’s been to my indie rock world music paper can guess which one that is). In general, I listen to the music I write about exclusively while writing about it. And I often interview those I’m writing about. I wouldn’t want to do that with music I hated, or even mildly disliked (because that would quickly flame up into hatred).
All of this is to say: I’d be a terrible music critic.
*Yes, I have heard Fugazi before. I did not live under a rock. Jeez. But I think their live performance was just a-maz-ing and affected me differently from hearing their recordings… which I have, many times. After all, Ryan has all the Fugazi. So yeah.
June 1, 2012
“The only song she could think of at that moment was ‘Piano Man’ by Billy Joel, which had to be number one on her list of Songs to Be Stricken from the Musical Record. It was a song she despised so much that she knew it perfectly, note for note, just so that she could hate it in detail.” (from The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson)
When I read this passage a few months ago, I loved it immediately, and not just because I feel precisely this way about “Piano Man.” (Mostly, I hate Billy Joel’s diction throughout the song, but especially on the word “
spirit” “feeling” in the phrase, “You’ve got the spirit us feelin’ all right.”*) No, I love Johnson’s passage because it speaks to the perverse pleasure in hating a particular song. My earliest musical memories were filled with songs I hated, but I can only remember a few that I absolutely loved. (Though maybe that has to do with what was played on the radio in the early 1980s–contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t all new-wave goodness, but more a soft, schlocky rock morass.)
Here are some songs I hated over the years, in approximate chronological order. I have note posted audio or YouTube vids because I am not into torturing anyone:
1. “Every Woman in the World to Me,” Air Supply. For some reason, the radio station in Pensacola, Florida, where my family vacationed every year, LOVED Air Supply and continued to play their music for years after their popularity had waned. I have a very distinct memory of getting very angry every time this song came on, to the point that I would immediately reach to turn the radio off. I don’t remember any parental repercussions for this one, so I suspect my dad didn’t like the guy screeching, “Girl, you’re every woman in the world to meeee/you’re my fantseeee/you’re my realiteeee,” either.
2. “Woman,” John Lennon. Oh, I know some of you are saying, “But he’s a Beatle! He’s great! And this song is about Yoko! And you’re one of those people, the Yoko defenders.” Yes, this is all true. But, as a kid, I hated this song. I have a very distinct memory of dancing around in my carport–as one does–to the portable radio, and an announcer saying John Lennon had been killed. And then he played this song. And I turned the radio off in anger. To my credit, I didn’t quite understand the concept of death at this point.
But, despite the angry radio turnoff trend developing here, I know every lyric, every note to this song, and exactly what I hate. The vocals were recorded in that particularly weak style of double-tracking popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which only underscores the fact that the song has no real chorus, just a bunch of doo doo doo dooo dooooos, intermixed with an occasional, “I loooooooooove yoooooouuuuuuuuu.” Feh. Give me “Oh Yoko” or the “Ballad of John and Yoko” any day, but not this song.
3. “Keep on Lovin’ You,” REO Speedwagon. This one is from the video age, and I’m pretty sure that it was the singer’s appearance combined with the song’s lyrics that creeped me out. (Yes, I was only six years old when this song came out, and, yes, my parents let me watch MTV.) As the years have gone by, the song creeps me out ever more. Here’s a sample lyric: “You played dead/But you never bled/You just lay still in the grass/All coiled up and hissin.’” Yep, I just love a song where the lady is a snake! But I’m even more ooged out by the line, “I don’t wanna sleep/I just wanna keep on lovin’ you.” Because then I imagine the lead singer sexually harassing some poor woman who just wants a good night’s sleep and is tired of being compared to animals. (Note: I had a hard time deciding between this one and REO Speedwagon’s other big hit, “I Can’t Fight this Feeling Anymore,” which I remember hating even more as a child. But it is less creepy.)
4. “I Only Wanna Be with You,” Hootie & the Blowfish. True story: my college suitemates went to a Hootie concert and one of them got selected to be on stage during this song. Then they were invited to play golf with the band the next day. Somehow, that story illustrates the wrongness of Hootie & the Blowfish’s entire ouvre.
5. “Somebody that I Used to Know,” Gotye. When I read the Maureen Johnson quote a few months ago, I realized I hadn’t hated a song in detail for a long time. Enter Gotye, whom I learned about via my sister, who sent me an email asking, “Have you heard this shitty song?” (or something to that effect). This song is so passive-aggressive that I just want to send Gotye’s singer to a good therapist (if this song is at all autobiographical) and point him in the direction of this classic Shakesville post on Nice Guy Syndrome. The first verse is the worst, because the dude basically admits he was super unhappy in the relationship but never told the girl, who was happy, that anything was wrong. And he’s happy they broke up… but unhappy that the girl is making a life without him. Does he seriously expect sympathy for his narcissistic behavior? I’m glad she kicked his self-pitying butt to the curb.
*Damn mondegreens. I have apparently misheard that lyric my entire life. Stilll doesn’t make me like the son.
February 21, 2012
“The 1990s were the decade of the year of the women in rock.”
–Ann Powers, at “Sex, Hope, and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” aka the Ellen Willis Conference, April 30, 2011
Lately, I’ve been grappling with nagging feelings about the first chapter of my academic book and the questions I raise in its conclusion. The first chapter, as readers of my Twitter feed may know, is on historiography, memory, and Riot Grrrl nostalgia. As it’s evolved, I’ve used the conclusion to raise issues about the women who get left out as we begin to write histories of the early 1990s. Who disappears from the narrative of history when Riot Grrrl becomes the story of women in rock and feminist musical activism in the 1990s? The nagging question goes back to thoughts that I had when working on an academic article on Liz Phair; still other nagging feelings that arose while constructing the book’s third chapter, which addresses ideas of empowerment in early 1990s hip-hop and R&B; and finally, other-other nagging feelings brought on by listening to the ’90s-alternative radio station on satellite radio on a plane.
Basically, I felt like there was something–and a bunch of someones–missing from the histories, and even from the wave of 1990s nostalgia in the past two years.
Back in November, Pitchfork posted a feature titled, “Not Every Girl Is a Riot Grrrl,” which asserted that women in bands today are tired of the connection that they are all drawing on Riot Grrrl. The article intrigued me because it revealed just how dominant Riot Grrrl is within the discourse of Third Wave feminism and in the discourse of women in/who rock, especially indie rock. The women in the article didn’t define themselves in relation to Riot Grrrl–but neither did most women in indie/alternative/punk spaces in the early 1990s. And a TON of those women considered themselves feminists. So where were they?
I had already thought about other missing women in outlining the book and in working on what is now the third chapter. When I wrote my article on Liz Phair for the academic journal Women & Music, I really started to think about how women in hip-hop have been seriously overlooked in the history of Third Wave feminism (shout out to Latoya Peterson, whose “Exile in Girlville” was the starting point/inspiration for that article). In part, I’d like the chapter on hip-hop feminism to trouble the waters of the simple, directional flow of empowerment from Riot Grrrl’s “Revolution Girl Style Now” to the Spice Girls’ “Girl Power.” That little bit of uncomplicated nonsense has floated around for years, and it deeply bothers me that ladies like Queen Latifah, TLC, and En Vogue are overlooked in that restricted view of Girl Power’s precedents. So, a reconsideration of hip-hop feminism and empowerment forms the third chapter.
But they are not the only women overlooked as the history of Third Wave music, or in 1990s nostalgia. And here’s where Sirius satellite radio comes in. I took a plane home for Thanksgiving, and back to New York, and not once–NOT ONCE–did I hear a woman’s voice in about five hours total of flight time. And I thought: Where are the Breeders? Where’s Belly? Where’s PJ Harvey? Where’s Hole? Where’s L7? Where’s Juliana Hatfield? And I realized that the ’90s were pretty circumscribed to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a bunch of shitty mid-90s bands that I had blocked out of my memory (I’m lookin’ at you, Sublime and Candlebox). All dudes. And, while someone could argue that Liz Phair, while critically acclaimed, never sold that many records, the Breeders and Hole were both platinum-selling artists, and they’re very rock-oriented. So where were they?
Two things bother me in about this erasure. First, leaving these women out of the story doesn’t indicate the nature of what Ann Powers’ quote at the beginning of this blog alludes to, which was the ubiquity of women in rock music in the 1990s. Second, erasing these women from the narrative presents feminism as occurring only in subcultural musics, a role that circumscribes its importance in a broader history of the intersection of music and politics.
However, I had no solution to these problems. I couldn’t think of a way to integrate the alterna-ladies in a way that didn’t seem cheesy or stupid, or drawing on the stupid “ANGRY WOMEN IN ROCK” trope. At the same time, I’ve been trying to find a new title for my novel (see previous blog post), and the novel itself had led me to research a lot about abortion rights in the early 1990s.
And then, last week, with a bunch of dudes talking about the evils of birth control, I thought about a strange absence in the present. Where are the big-name bands supporting Planned Parenthood? (I’ve seen several small ones, sure.) Where’s the equivalent to Eddie Vedder writing “pro-choice” on his arm during Unplugged? Where’s Rock for Choice?
And then I had it: Where is Rock for Choice in the story of Third Wave feminism and music? Seriously, where is it? And why shouldn’t I be the one who puts it back in the mix? Someone’s got to.
So, there you go. A long story to indicate what the new chapter two will be: a history of Rock for Choice, which presented something unique in its time in that it connected supposedly apathetic Gen X-ers with an established feminist organization. It runs counter to the pervasive idea that feminism itself was subcultural at the time, and that every girl was a Riot Grrrl. And it will round out the early 1990s tryptich that starts the book quite nicely.
Now, onward! To the monumental task of archival research, bugging people at feminist organizations, and working every possible connection I have to get in touch with the former members of L7.
January 31, 2012
I’m finally at the point where I should start querying my novel: I polished the prose, I took out “plot-device Rachel,” I strengthened the antagonist, etc. And now I realized I have a HUGE PROBLEM.
My title, GOD IN PLAID PANTS, no longer works, and I’m at a loss for a new one.
Origins of the title: back in college, I was paired with my lovely friend, Andrea, as a creative writing partner in our freshman honors lit class. In that class, we were assigned to read a bunch of 20th-century classics, we took “Socratic walks” with the professor and the rest of the class on nice days (don’t ask me how he got away with that one, but I suspect the answer is “tenure”), and, most importantly, we had to produce 95 pages of prose before the end of the Spring ’95 semester. As writing partners, Andrea and I traded pages back and forth. We also became great friends (and later roommates, and still later we were in each others’ weddings).
Since my 1995 manuscript was a YA romance, Andrea and I talked a lot about our high school crushes. At some point, Andrea talked about a guy in her high school who thought he was “God in plaid pants.” And I loved it! I thought it would be perfect for my YA romance with a guy who may or may not be genuine, may or may not be totally arrogant, but who is definitely super hot.
Fast forward fifteen years. I started writing a new YA novel, also a romance. I borrowed the title from the earlier book because it seemed to fit–you never know if the boy in the story is genuine. But, as I plotted it out, got to know my characters, and really got into the writing, I realized that the subplot was way more interesting than the fluffy romance of the main plot.
I revised, making the relationship between the protagonist and her sister the key element. Now, already we see a problem with the title, since neither of them are God in Plaid Pants. But wait, it gets worse.
In the novel, the narrator and protagonist, Athena Graves, starts off her sophomore year assuming that her younger sister Helen will be just fine in high school. But someone in their (Catholic) high school starts a rumor that Helen has had an abortion over the summer, and pretty soon the situation spirals out of control: Helen is kicked out of the school’s pro-life club and turned into an “example” by her school’s guidance counselor, and ambiguously pro-choice Athena tries to help Helen at the risk of alienating her two best friends, Melissa and Sean. (Melissa was a volunteer clinic escort over the summer, and Sean’s girlfriend may be behind the rumors, but he doesn’t believe Athena.)
OK, so here we have a plot which takes place in a Catholic school, and it’s about abortion rumors. Suddenly, a title like God in Plaid Pants seems to have a religious agenda. And that’s so not what the book is about. In fact, it has no religious or political agenda. It’s deliberately ambiguous because it’s narrated by a 15-year-old, not a politician or a preacher.
However, title problem is something I only realized after sending out a round of queries to test the water. Gah! Now I need a new title and I’m completely drawing a blank.
And finally: Unpopular Topics in YA: I’m pretty sure abortion is at the top of the list, because most of the time people don’t agree on it, and it’s so easy to sound like you’re preaching in one direction or the other. I’ve tried very hard not to do that, since my characters are not me and they should and do talk like teenagers. Also, they don’t all agree with each other, and none of them are “right” all the time. But it’s still hard to convince agents of that in a query letter and a short writing sample.
In addition to abortion, my book is set in 1992, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I know this too is an issue: I’ve read several agent blogs that warn that you look ooooooooooold if you set something in the 1990s. And if I were doing it because I love the ’90s (which I do) or because I’m a scholar of ’90s pop culture (which I am), that would be a legitimate issue.
However, I have a very good reason to set it then and there (though, yes, it is my hometown). In the summer of 1992, when Helen supposedly had her abortion, Baton Rouge’s only abortion clinic was the site of Operation Rescue’s “Summer of Purpose,” which aimed to shut the clinic down. Throughout July, thousands of anti-choice protesters clashed with police and pro-choice protesters, who struggled to keep the clinic open. It was an extremely volatile time, and that volatility trickled into diocesan high schools, each of which had a “pro-life” club, like the one Helen gets kicked out of. Stanley Ott, the bishop, wrote a statement supporting Operation Rescue, and Woody Jenkins, one of the local politicians who worked with Operation Rescue, was a yearly speaker at my school. Abortion was the topic at my school, and rumors like the ones that affect Helen would have been certain social death and, if believed by adults, potential cause for expulsion.
All of this is to say that I’ve thought long and hard about the time and the subject, and I know it’s going to be hell of a time getting an agent, let alone selling the book.
May 10, 2011
Here’s one handy chart to illustrate why, courtesy of the AAUP:
This figure tells us a few things, none of which are particularly great.
1) The myth of grad-student overproduction is mostly a myth. See that column on the far right? It’s pretty much steady. So the rate of grad-student overproduction is the same as it was in 1975, perhaps not even as bad.
2) The column to the left of grad students is far more telling, and really bad news. Part-time faculty have no benefits. They have no guarantee of a job from semester to semester. In most places, they make less than half what a full-time employee makes. To give an example from my own life, this year I worked as a full-time, non-tenure-track lecturer at a place where I adjuncted. That full-time job paid exactly twice per credit hour what I earned an adjunct.
Here’s what adjuncts do: they teach high-enrollment, entry-level courses. They often provide the initial experience a student has with a particular department. And they get paid very little to do it–some as little as $2500 per class. Since adjuncts generally have to teach at multiple institutions to make ends meet, they have less time per class than a full-time faculty member. Out of necessity, most adjuncts make easier and easier-to-grade exams. They also spend less time prepping for class, or are reluctant to integrate the latest materials into coursework. Why? They aren’t lazy. They just don’t have time.
For the students, this has multiple implications. They might learn old information. They might have an easy time with easy questions, and not learn anything. They might have an adjunct professor who is so focused on his or her research — the only thing that he or she might get recognized for, though once you have the adjunct stink on you it never comes off — that he or she ignores student emails at conferences or around important deadlines. Or that adjunct may just tune out altogether as he or she realizes that the job doesn’t pay enough to worry about students’ futures. And, sometimes, they might get an instructor who loves teaching, and doesn’t yet know that adjuncting is a dead end. And the kicker? If a student really loves an adjunct, he or she will likely not be able to take another course with them, since in many places they are relegated to intro courses only.
Adjuncting is bad for both students and departments, since it often means fewer students are taking advanced classes in departments, whether because they have a crap teacher or a good one they can never take again. It means less tuition money for those departments, and that they have less value to the university. And so the cycle gets worse, because there’s no justifying a tenure-track line to a dying department. (And I don’t have any time to go into it here, but for full-time faculty, you should really think about how adjuncts teaching high-enrollment courses get the tuition dollars to pay for YOUR salary to teach classes with ten kids in them. Because I have.)
3) At 7.6 percent of university jobs, getting a tenure-track job is less likely than winning a scratch-off ticket. A lot of NY State Lotto tickets have at least one in seven odds. This is much worse.
Would you spend eight to ten years in school for any field if someone told you that only 7.6 percent of the jobs* had a future or a guarantee of more than four months, or, at most, a year? Would you do it if someone told you there would be over 200 applicants for each job, always and forever? Would you do it knowing that if you took one of those part-time jobs where you gain experience teaching, most of the time they’ll pass you over for someone ABD (all but dissertation, for my non-academic readers) who “shows potential” because teaching as an adjunct part-time holds a stigma for many in the profession?
A lot of faculty members are now saying that they warn grad students that it’s a tough market. However, most people still go with the adage, “There’s always room for people who do good work. You do good work.” With those odds, however, “good work” doesn’t cut it. Most people who get through grad school do “good work.” Hell, many do “great work.” And not all of them have jobs, because there aren’t enough jobs to go around.
(Aaaaaaand, finally, that would assume that all jobs went to good people. But as this article in the Chronicle attests, that isn’t the case.)
*Outside those with tenure, but you aren’t eligible for those straight out of grad school. Still, the total of tenure and tenure-track jobs is 24.4 percent. That’s pretty terrible.
February 4, 2011
I’ve been working on a novel for a while now, and I’m nearing the end of a solid (though flawed) first draft. But in my academic and public life, I haven’t told that many people about it. In fact, I only mentioned it on Twitter a few days ago, and I still feel reluctance at claiming the fiction-writer status, since I’m unpublished. Mostly, though, I’ve been afraid to “come out” as a fiction writer because I’m an academic.
I was afraid that being open about writing fiction would hurt my chances on the job market. (Silly me! I should’ve known that being a feminist pop music scholar was enough of a barrier toward getting a tenure-track job!) Academic employers could see my blog and say, “Well, if she’s working on this fiction thing, will she be able to keep up a steady stream of publications toward tenure? Won’t she be distracted?” The only way to counter that is to point to my record of publication, which continues to grow, and to note that I’ve been doing a lot of research in the past six months on a new project. But would a committee think my commitment to academia was strong enough?
This imagined search committee’s doubt about my potential to publish represents an attitude that pervades academia, and it leads to its own line of fears and stresses. In academia, you must always work, work, work, the dominant discourse asserts, so you can secure tenure and never have to work again. The big secret of academia, though, is that most people spend far more time worrying about their work instead of actually doing it. They/you/I fret over every deadline, rue every conference paper, freak out about sending things off to journals. Worry leads to procrastination leads to rushed deadlines leads to more worry.
In short, being an academic is an exercise in perfectionism gone wrong. It isn’t productive. It isn’t helpful. It isn’t sane. Writing fiction has been my way out of this cycle.
Last spring, I started research on a project about feminism and popular music since 1990. I won’t go into it much here, but I love it. The first chapter focuses on Riot Grrrl, nostalgia, and historiography, and I spent a lot of my summer interviewing women about their relationship with feminism and popular music. But my focus on actually writing that chapter kept being interrupted by, well, more research. I didn’t feel like I could sit down and write something deeply analytical until I had some perspective on the material. And because I was finding more research material, getting more interviews, and branching out to more interlocutors than I originally thought (what a problem to have, right?), that day kept getting postponed.
Just in case you think this is another form of procrastination, I have done a lot of work on the actual writing of this chapter recently. But back in October, when I felt overwhelmed by research, I also felt the compulsion to write something else. I needed a break from the intensity of research proposals, book reviews, and conference papers. And so I turned to fiction.
Writing fiction frees up my brain. When I sit down to work on academic prose, I feel the pressure of perfection, as though every paragraph, every sentence, every phrase must emerge fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. I leave myself no room for error. But when I write fiction, I’m OK with the knowledge that I can, should, will have to revise. And that revising is not only OK, but expected. And so I can, and do, write about three times more quickly when I’m writing fiction. Is it any good? Probably not! But I can and will make it better.
I’d forgotten this aspect of fiction writing in my sojourn away from it. But it’s a valuable lesson for an academic to remember. It’s helped me so much over this past semester. When I had to do a series of research proposals over the winter break, I wrote in a much more organized fashion than I’ve experienced in years. It’s still to early to know if they’ll bring me any funding, but the feedback I got from my mentors, who can be blunt and pointed with their critiques, was shockingly positive.
In the end, whatever happens in either my fiction or academic career will happen. But I think that both are mutually beneficial. And for how my academic writing helps my fiction… well, that’s another blog post.
February 3, 2011
Over the past few months, I’ve been obsessively working on a YA novel in my spare time. I’ve also started obsessively reading YA literary agents’ blogs and tweets, and noticed a surprising consistency on pop culture: Don’t use it, as it will make you seem ooooooooooold, because by the time you get to print somewhere in 2015, the Biebz will no longer be famous, or Lady Gaga will seem soooo 2009. And I get that.
But what if you use pop culture to fill out a setting, or to create a sense of time and place?
Unfortunately, the consensus still seems to be, “It’ll make you sound oooooooooooooooold.”
Here’s where I, a pop music scholar in my day job, disagree. And where I finally get to the story that gives us the title for today’s blog post.
I started teaching pop music history in the spring of 2008, shortly before I finished my PhD. In the first few classes, I felt like I was struggling to connect with the students, especially the few girls (9 of 31 students). They sat quietly and respectfully in class, but none of them said anything. I started to blame my teaching, and maybe the fact that the music was really oooooold. Hell, most of it was from over 20 years before I was born. How could students born in 1990 relate to it?
And then came the Girl Group class. Or, rather, the day before the Girl Group class. I was, at the time, also teaching a music history intro at another university on alternating days. I often put on music from non-classical artists before class, and that day, before my 8:30 class, I chose the Shirelles. What happened next surprised me, mostly because it was very loud for 8:25.
“Oh my god! I love this song.”
“Yeah, it was in Dirty Dancing!”
“I love that movie!”
“I have the soundtrack!”
So, here we have a movie from 1987 about the early 1960s, and the girls are going CRAZY about both. It gave me an idea about how I could approach the Girl Group class.
When I went in to class the next day, I took a cue from Dirty Dancing and Susan Douglas’s essay “Why the Shirelles Mattered.” Instead of giving a history of girl groups, or the Brill Building, I started by asking them to imagine themselves as girls in 1958, when some of the first “Girl Group” songs started to chart. What could they do after school? Where were they allowed to go? What kind of jobs could they hold? What kind of dates would they go on? What weren’t they allowed to do? What were the differences between “bad” girls and “good” girls?
And then, after we listened to the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” I asked the students what the song is about.
“It’s a one-night stand,” a girl answered. She’d never spoken before in class.
“Will he love her tomorrow?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“How do you know, from the music or lyrics?” I asked.
“It’s not in the lyrics,” another girl answered. “You just know.”
“How do you know?” I asked again. I wasn’t letting them off the hook.
“Because of her voice,” yet another girl said. “She’s sad.”
And so we had a discussion about voice and performance and sexuality, and from there we moved on to how other Girl Groups negotiated these treacherous shoals in the early 1960s. It became an enormously successful class and a moment of clarity for me about the importance of getting the class to relate to the music in a genuine way. The Shirelles resonated with the girls because, well, what teen girl doesn’t at some point or another fear that the person she just made out with (or went “all the way” with, as the song seems to imply) won’t love her tomorrow?
So, what does teaching a pop music class have to do with writing YA fiction with pop culture? In short, it’s all about voice. Writing a YA novel is about getting teens to relate to your characters and plots in a genuine way, just as I try to get students to relate to teen girls of the pre-women’s rights, pre-pill, pre-Title IX era. Pop culture can absolutely be a genuine part of your writing, as long as it fits the voice of your characters, their plot, and their times.
Most problems with writers sounding ooooooooold when they use pop culture arise from issues of voice. Their characters won’t seem filled out and real because they used pop culture as shorthand to create reference points that the readers won’t get because they weren’t even born yet. Or they don’t sound authentic because the pop culture isn’t an integral part of the characters’ lives, and so a toss-away reference to Soundgarden just seems stupid and out of place and very, very dated. But I’m guessing that writers who treat pop culture this way probably have other problems with voice, too, like saying someone was “going with” a boy instead of dating or hooking up or whatever.
All of these are huge pitfalls, and it’s easy to blame pop culture. But pop culture isn’t the cause of bad writing. When it’s used well, it can help to open up a whole new world, like Roddy Doyle’s almost-YA The Commitments or Judy Blume’s overlooked classic MG novel, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. Without the references that date these books, neither would create a fully realized world.
I get a lot out of the agent blogs and Twittering I read, and I appreciate them all. But as a pop music scholar and aspiring YA writer, please do me a favor. Stop blaming pop culture and start pointing out the real culprit: lazy, sloppy writing.
January 11, 2010
Part I: Blog plans
I’m going to try to write a lot more this year. I know I said that last year, but somehow planning a wedding, running a marathon, researching hipsters and teaching about rock and roll and music history got in the way. It’s as though I’ve been working four jobs, because I was! I’m going to be doing some new classes this semester, though, so I think I should have plenty to write about. Let’s find out what I end up leaving out about hip-hop! I can tell you one thing–I won’t give short shrift to Run-D.M.C. like Jeff Chang did!
(I do like Can’t Stop Won’t Stop quite a bit, but I’m sad that there’s such little room given to Run-D.M.C.)
Part II: New Commenting Rules
I have not approved many comments recently, since they violate the very rule I set down in my classroom: the “It’s awesome/It sucks” rule. This rule is very simple in the classroom. You can disagree with me about the importance of a band. You can hate what I play in class. You can love it. But if your only comment is, “It’s awesome” or “It sucks,” you are not being particularly insightful or revealing any sort of engagement.
Want to disagree with me about Damon Albarn? Okey doke. But do it in a way that indicates you at least read my critique of him, rather than tell me I don’t know anything about world music. I love his music, but I still believe that we can critique music and musicians we love, acknowledge problems with them, and still enjoy them.
Part III: Lost in Translation
Soooo, despite being a delinquent blogger for about a year now, I keep getting lots of comments regarding one particular post, “Anton Corbijn and the Curse of Death.” I’m not posting these comments, because they should be embarrassing to the posters. Why? Because they took it seriously. It is a joke. It reads, “Of course, this entry is tongue in cheek. I don’t really think that Anton Corbijn is a curse.” I realize I am not a standup comic, and maybe you don’t think it’s funny, and that is fine. But it is absolutely not meant as “conspiracy theory” as one idiot noted (who then continued, “I didn’t read any of your examples.” Well, then you also didn’t read the part where I note it’s not serious.).
I do understand that some of the people reading and commenting on this post are, in fact, from the Netherlands and may not get idiomatic U.S. English or my sense of humor. Maybe they are some of Corbijn’s relatives or view him as the pride of Groningen, but what about the sentence “I don’t really think that Anton Corbijn is a curse” indicates that I do think that?
Here’s what I really do believe about Anton Corbijn: His work is a fairly distinctive body of photography, yet his portrayal of different artists includes strikingly similar lighting, filters, and imagery. In his photography, U2 looks like Depeche Mode looks like Echo & the Bunnymen looks like Control. This reveals a strikingly limited and static visual vocabulary, as well as a restricted vision of his subjects, who become Corbijn’s ciphers of the moment. In terms of dynamism and individuality, he is no Annie Leibovitz, or Richard Avedon, or even Charles Peterson.
I also view his depiction of women in his film Control and in his videos and photography to be troubling at best. Control featured cardboard characterizations of Deborah Curtis and Annik Honore, who become stereotypical poles of responsibility and passion between which our troubled hero Ian Curtis cannot choose. In much of his late 1980s and early 1990s work with Depeche Mode, naked women frequently appeared as vacant sexual objects along with the band. Perhaps Corbijn viewed this as some sort of ironic commentary on gender relations, but mostly it just seems like Depeche Mode wanted to reinforce an idea of their heterosexuality in the quickest, cheapest way possible after their gender-bending dressing in the 1980s.
At any rate, if you still think that I believe Anton Corbijn is a curse, you are not reading. If you think my post was unfunny, that’s fine. We don’t all have the same sense of humor. If you lurve his work and disagree with me, that’s fine, too. Just don’t violate the “It’s awesome/It sucks” rule, and we’ll all be OK.