November 17, 2015
This episode’s guest, Lauren Oglesby, is a singer-songwriter from Seattle who now lives in New Orleans. Unlike the previous guests, I’ve never met Lauren in “real life”; instead, she answered my general call on Twitter for women who wanted to be interviewed.
So, in other words, Lauren is pretty brave.
In our first email exchange, Lauren pitched me with an intriguing topic: how contemporary Christian music had influenced her when she was learning to write songs, and how she’d gotten away from that both in terms of faith and songwriting. Now, I know nothing about contemporary Christian music. I was raised Catholic, and the post-Vatican II church music that I grew up with somehow managed to combine the worst attributes of church modes and 1960s folk music. So, of course I wanted to talk with Lauren to learn more about the Protestant side of the world.
Our conversation covers a lot of ground, from her songwriting process to falling in love with music. That little bit about loving music comes toward the end of the podcast, and it’s one of my favorite moments in the series so far. Seriously, it’s great to find someone else who feels the similarities between falling in love with music and falling in love with an actual human.
Lauren is also a tremendously talented musician. You can (and should!) check out her music here.
November 11, 2015
It’s the “not punk enough” episode of Loud Sirens! RIGHT HERE!!!
Punk is complicated, if only because it’s a subculture with an endless feedback cycle with academia. Was it complicated in the first place, or did Dick Hebdige make it so, and did the thousands of white, middle-class nerds who ended up in grad school after having a teenage punk band reinforce that notion? I dunno! But probably the Hebdige thing, and definitely the last bit.
Anywho, Jamie Varriale Velez and I both feel like we don’t quite measure up to the “punk” identity. Jamie’s analysis along lines of race, ethnicity and gender is both smart and impassioned, and is pretty much what I’d like to think is super punk rock. But we both know that what we’d like punk to be isn’t always what punk is. Ergo, not punk enough.
I first met Jamie at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, in the summer of 2010 (I think?), through our mutual friend Daphne. We were nerds among the cool kids, in a lot of ways—Daphne and I taught the “Women who Rock” session, which Jamie helped out on. We’ve been pals ever since, commiserating over academia and punk and punk in academia.
And, of course, we’ve talked a lot about our positions as women in relation to both those topics, and this podcast is no different! Jamie’s research on Los Crudos and identity politics in punk pairs well with my research on Riot Grrrl. Or, really, it’s a good study in contrast of the deployment of identity politics—what works, what doesn’t, and how aspects of identity become flattened when those politics involve women. (Like, for example, the erasure of women of color from Riot Grrrl.)
Jamie’s a FANTASTIC, funny, smart partner in conversation, and I’m amazed by her extensive knowledge about punk, including Greg Ginn’s astrological sign (Gemini!), as well as its implications for Black Flag. Who knew? JAMIE!
So, listen to the podcast! We might not feel punk enough, but who really does?
October 29, 2015
So, I’ve been having some delays getting the podcast onto iTunes for various dumb reasons, up to and including my own negligence, but also involving weird errors on iTunes for three days straight any time I tried to go to the “Podcast” page. Given that wee hitch, I’m putting a pause on releasing the next episode until I get this shizz straightened out.
BUT! This does not mean that you can’t listen to the three episodes already up at Libsyn! Here’s a little blog post about each episode, so you can check out each of the lovely participants: Meg Wilhoite, Erica Flores, Alexandra Apolloni.
Aaaand, I am also switching to a TUESDAY schedule. I am a keen observer of what gets the most circulation via my Tweets (blog posts and my other writing), and the Thursday release schedule just wasn’t working. I don’t want to do a disservice to any of the amazing women who offered their time to the podcast (so far!), and so I’m going to be putting this podcast out on what is, quite frankly, a better day for getting noticed.
The schedule going forward:
Episode 4: Jamie Varriale Velez (Not Punk Enough!)
Episode 5: Robin James (Postfeminism & Race! Depeche Mode! EDM!*)
Episode 6: Lauren Oglesby (Songwriting! Composing! Escaping CCM!**)
Episode 7: Liana Silva (Sound Studies, Part 1!)
Episode 8: Sammus (Nerdcore! Indie Hip-hop! Sound Studies, Part 2!)
More interviews are in the mix, but I order is still TBD.
*Electronic Dance Music
**Contemporary Christian Music
October 23, 2015
Episode 3 of Loud Sirens is HERE!
It’s a day late, but definitely not a dollar short! The guest for Loud Sirens Episode 3 is Alexandra Apolloni, a musicologist who earned her PhD at UCLA with a dissertation on “girl” singers in swinging London in the 1960s.* As someone who has done a little bit of research on Girl Groups in the US, I wanted to know more about Xandras topic of research–the London girl isn’t the same as the NYC girl, but both of them had a little more freedom than the generation before, even if that freedom came across in gender-restrictive ways. The way that Xandra talks about Lulu’s arrival story is so fluid and smart, I can’t wait for you to hear it.
Xandra and I have also written a lot about intersectionality. So, if you’ve ever wondered how feminist academics talk about intersectionality (and not how Tumblr kids talk about it), give it a listen. I blab a bit about structure, even though I know I’m not supposed to in this poststructuralist world. We discuss Xandra’s awesome 2014 essay, “‘The Biggest Feminist in the World: On Miley Cyrus. Feminism, and Intersectionality” which I edited for the American Music Review, and demonstrates that she’s aces at talking about her research.
Xandra’s research is GREAT and very exciting to me (she’s SO solid, y’all! GIVE THIS LADY A TENURE-TRACK JOB STAT), but the “topic of the week” is something utterly depressing: the music industry’s treatment of women. We’ve both seen various biopics (Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse) and read various depressing stories (Chrissie Hynde’s self-blame for her sexual assault; the Jackie Fox story) that illustrate this particular iteration of shittiness.
Can I tell you how excited I am for this episode, despite the depressing theme? It’s a great episode! You should definitely listen.
P.S. For those of you waiting for iTunes, the podcast is still awaiting its approval.
*She also has fantastic—and I mean absolutely the best–taste in spectacles. I have never seen her without an awesome set of glasses.
October 15, 2015
Hooray! The second episode of Loud Sirens is HERE!
This week’s guest is Erica Flores, the Program Director of Girls Rock Austin. I met Erica at the EMP Pop Conference in Los Angeles some years ago, when she and Allison Wolfe (of Bratmobile fame) acted as delightful gadflies in numerous panels. Their commentary was spot on, and (you’ll hear Erica tell it) led to them helping to shape the next EMP.
Meeting Erica and Allison (who I’d interviewed for my dissertation a few years before via phone) in person was a highlight of that conference for me. Although I don’t talk about it on this podcast, that particular conference was a low point in my academic career: I found out while I was there that I was out of the running for a big job where I’d been on the long short list; for the first time since the early days of 2004, I blew the presentation aspect of my paper by talking WAY TOO FAST after the famous person on my panel insulted me and my topic; and I had a terrible experience with one of the conference organizers. In short, I was in a bad place.
But Erica and Allison provided a balm for this suckitude, and talking with them (and with the always amazing Alice Echols, who chatted with me about my research for an hour) saved the conference for me. Erica and Allison are both smart, funny women, and I’m glad that Erica is the second guest on the podcast.
This episode’s main topic is Girls Rock Camp, a now-global series of non-profit, independently run camps where girls spend a week learning to play instruments in a supportive environment. Erica talks with me about the growth of the organization, how she puts intersectional ideas into practice with the kids, and the importance of creating an organization that pays attention to local needs.
Ancillary topics include: teenage rebellion, shopping for musical equipment as a woman, and our mutual love for The Cure and Britpop. Plus, bonus topic: We chat about the awesomeness of the Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie oeuvre.
A note on the podcast: I say that this one will come after one about intersectionality, but I had to change the order due to some technical issues on the other episode that I’m still cleaning up.
October 9, 2015
The First Episode of Loud Sirens is HERE!
The First Guest: Meghann Wilhoite:
Meg(hann) is a music theorist by training, an amazing musician (Faulkner Detectives, Death of Codes, and our unnamed metal project), and one of my closest friends IRL. We became friends at Columbia in 2007 under circumstances that bring out a cynical laugh from both of us, as is evidenced by the first section of the podcast.
Meg is, in many ways, the inspiration for this podcast (the other inspiration is that I’m tired of male rock critics talking with male artists and generally ignoring women, which is an eternal issue; the other other inspiration is the 50 or so women that I know who I want to have on the podcast). We’ve been talking about music since we met, often from very different perspectives. As a (former?) ethnomusicologist, I’m often more concerned with the cultural implications of a piece of music than I am with the notes; my friendship with Meg often reminds me that, well, those pesky notes are important, too.
Our discussion is a little more free-ranging than most of the interviews I have done since, and I probably talk 50-75% more than I would with anyone else (fair warning!). But don’t let my blabbermouthed-ness in this episode scare you away, because Meg is a brilliant person. We talk about leaving academia (which both of us have done), the sunk costs of research, Morton Feldman (the subject of Meg’s graduate research), and playing music as women in our 30s.
I had a very hard time choosing a name for the podcast. So I asked Twitter. I got a ton of puns, most of which were excruciating. (Verily, I had continuous puns for days, which have still not stopped but only slowed to a trickle.) However, within that pile of puns, I got a few good ideas. Among the first was from Heather Wheat, who suggested that I incorporate “Sirens.” And Jamie Varriale Velez, a guest on a future episode of the podcast, seconded that idea. And then someone else thirded it, and I knew that it probably should be part of the name.
And now comes the second part of the name. Earlier this week, in preparation for my interview with Liana Silva, I read her brilliant personal essay on women’s voices, volume, and ethnicity on the Sounding Out blog. The essay reminded me, although women’s voices in general are not supposed to be loud, those implications are amplified by race, ethnicity, class, etc. As a white woman with a VERY loud voice, I’m rarely punished for it in a way that “blames” my racial and ethnic background. So, it made me think a lot. In this podcast, I want to reach out to other loud women, and I want to explore complex issues of identity, like Liana does in her essay, with other women who are very smart about music.
October 1, 2015
Earlier this year, rock critic/journalist Jessica Hopper published The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, a bold title that riled some people, but held a real nugget of truth:
Women rarely get to be experts about music.
It doesn’t matter what kind of music. It doesn’t matter if you’re an academic, it doesn’t matter if you’re a journalist, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a musician. If you are a woman, your knowledge is suspect, at the very least held to a much higher standard.
The thing is, though, I know a ton of smart women who are experts on various aspects of music. My group of friends is filled with them, my Twitter overflows with an abundance of them, and my network of acquaintances I admire from afar has dozens more. But rarely do any of these women get to be experts in a public way–to demonstrate the kind of knowledge that dudely critics are just assumed to have as part of their essence.
This is a podcast where women get to be experts about music.
The first five podcasts will be:
10/6 Meg Wilhoite. Music theorist, writer, musician with various projects including Death of Codes and Faulkner Detectives (our band on hiatus, alas!). My conversations with Meg are the inspiration for this series. She’s a good friend, and our gchats and IRL conversations are some super nerdy shit. In the first podcast, we talk about being an expert, leaving academia, trying to write about music, and much more.
10/15 Erica Flores. Program Director of Girls Rock Austin, guitarist, and all-around communications smart woman. Topic of the Week: Rock Camp, intersectionality, and the difficulties of feminist praxis. And we also talk about The Cure and The Wicked and the Divine.
10/22 Alexandra Apolloni. Musicologist (focusing on girl singers of the 1960s!), intersectional feminist, and owner of the coolest glasses in the US (though she’s from Canada). Topic of the week: The Music Industry Sucks for Women. In a depressing but enlightening discussion, we talk about recent biopics and memoirs of women in popular music.
10/29 Jamie Varriale Velez. Punk rock Latin Studies! The topic of the week: Not Punk Enough. We talk about Jamie’s research on Los Crudos, hardcore boys and Riot Grrrl, and how race, class, sexuality and gender are (and aren’t) part of punk rock. Spoiler alert: neither of us feels punk enough.
11/5 Robin James. Philosopher extraordinaire and gal with the best haircut in your (or any) town. Topic(s) of the week: masculinity and femininity in philosophy and musicology; white post-feminism in Top 40 pop. We also talk Depeche Mode, though we don’t get too deep into obscure dance remixes.
AND THEN THERE WILL BE MORE!
However!!! I still need a name for this thing (by Tuesday, y’all!), and I’m drawing a blank. Suggestions welcome!
June 17, 2015
I have a literary agent!!!
Long-time readers of this blog might remember that I write YA fiction in my spare time (or what passes for spare time–i.e. my long-ass commute between Upper Manhattan and Brooklyn).
Some time ago, I completed a manuscript, queried it when it wasn’t ready, put it away, worked on something else, and then realized, HEY THAT OTHER THING I WROTE? WELL, I FINALLY KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT GOOD!
Writing: it’s a process, and sometimes it needs to percolate in your brain before it’s right.
And, today, I’m SUPER EXCITED to announce that I’ve signed with Eric Smith of P.S. Literary Agency. Eric is AWESOME! For one thing, he’s hilarious on Twitter and he writes wonderfully enthusiastic emails (though I don’t think he uses ALL CAPS with the same abandon as I do). For another, he’s very tapped into YA (he’s also a YA writer) and has an unmatched love for the category. But, most importantly, he’s on the same page with me about revisions and about things we think are essential to keep before the manuscript goes on submission.
So, YAY! I look forward to working with Eric on this and many other projects in the future!
December 18, 2014
Elizabeth and Katie both left teaching positions after the Spring 2014 semester. Katie has taken unpaid leave for a year. Elizabeth began working in real estate in September, while still maintaining her freelance editing business. When Joe first asked us to write this column last spring, we were still teaching as contingent faculty—now, we are post-academics. Thus, we are both to a degree in transition, and our discussion will reflect some of this fluidity.
On Choosing a Topic
KP: Let’s write about leaving academia and trying to rebuild our lives. We could also write about using social media to help us do this rebuilding, via networking, writing, etc., if you think that could work too, since that’s how we met in the first place.
EK: Sounds good.
On Abandoning Academia
EK: I was going to abandon academia in the spring of 2013, more than a full year ago, while I was adjuncting at Fordham and Columbia. I had heard that all of the jobs I’d applied for that cycle had moved on without me—even the ones where I’d made it to the long-short list. And so I wrote a series of thank-you-for-all-your-help-but-I’m-leaving emails to my advisor and other mentors and senior faculty who’ve been helpful to me.
Then, literally two days later, I got a request for a two-day, on-campus interview at an R1 in my dream location. (My husband can transfer his job to only one city other than New York, and this was it.) On the one hand, I felt a little flutter in my heart that maybe, just maybe, the universe was finally throwing me a lifeline. On the other, I knew that I was the sixth of six candidates, brought in after a pause in the search, and that either the job was going to me or to no one.
Once I got to the interview, it was clear that my dream was never going to happen, and that the search would fail. But it was a real heartbreak to be so close to the thing I wanted and realize not only that I’d never get it, but also that jumping into a department that viewed itself as constantly in crisis wasn’t something a sane person should want. At that point, I knew I couldn’t go through another job cycle with likely the same close-but-no-cigar results.
But I didn’t leave. Another challenge complicated my extrication from adjuncting: fertility issues. My husband and I were about to do a round of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) last summer, and the doctors told us we had very good chances of having a baby. Since we believed them, and most of my friends had success with IVF on the first try, I thought I’d adjunct in the fall and then take the spring off to have a baby. Then I could look for a job outside academia at some later date. The first IVF didn’t work, but we were told our chances were still very good if we tried again. So, instead of searching for a non-academic, 9-to-5 job when I knew I’d face tons of early-morning doctor visits, I decided to stay in my adjunct position for another year.
This decision, though practical, led to a lot of frustration. I was no longer treating adjunct position as a step toward a tenure-track job. Instead, I saw adjunct work for exactly what it was: a radically underpaid dead-end job. And then I read a conversation about uppity adjuncts between two tenured folks on Twitter that set me off. So, I started blogging with “How Not to Be a Tenured Ally,” followed by “How to Be a Tenured Ally.” Suddenly, after these two posts, people were coming to my blog and contacting me over Twitter. Blogging (and tweeting, since I’m pretty much on Twitter all the freakin’ time) helped me recognize not just that I wanted to leave my terrible adjuncting job, but that I was really done with the pursuit of the ever-elusive tenure-track job and the “academic” mindset.
So, for me, leaving academia (especially adjuncting, which is a trap no matter how you look at it), wasn’t the result of one crisis, but the culmination of a bunch of them. On your blog, you mention that it took a crisis to make you finally leave. Without getting into that crisis per se, what made you know that this was the time to leave?
KP: My most recent blog post prior to our writing this piece, “What Does It Mean To Be a Freelance Academic?” takes on my identity-shift from someone who was very much immersed in the identity of an academic. In retrospect, my exit began long before I requested my year’s leave of absence back in May, and I should make clear, I’m still planning to return to my contingent academic job.
But I am not planning to return to my identity as an academic. I will no longer be looking at academia as professional fulfillment (even though it has been my career for eleven years). I will no longer be viewing academia as a career. Instead, and this sounds kind of funny when I write it down, the university is merely one of my many freelance clients.
Here is the chain of events that led me to request a year of unpaid leave, and then to take on a new identity as a freelance academic: On the day I was promoted to “associate”—in quotation marks, because in my department, writing faculty cannot be on the tenure track—two other events took place. My sister gave birth to her third child and Nelson Mandela died. I received the call that the vote went my way, and then I went to the bathroom of the coffee shop where I’d been working and bawled. Like, I completely lost control.
When I say that my promotion is meaningless, here’s what I’m referring to: I do not get any presumptive increase in pay. In fact, I do not expect any increase in pay. I do not get more freedom in my teaching—I will continue to teach the same course every semester, year in and year out. Absolutely no benefits accrue to this promotion except one: a contract term that is two years longer than my previous contract term. In a world in which adjuncts are fighting for any sort of job predictability at all, a long-term contract is nothing to sniff at. I know. I’ve been year-to-year.
But birth, death, and the changing the world made my meaningless promotion seem especially meaningless that day. What on Earth have I been working one-hundred-hour weeks for? I asked myself. THIS?
I got my act together, went back to teach this past spring semester, hoped my working conditions would be better, and realized, due to a variety of events that occurred during the spring semester, that my working conditions were never going to be better. I asked the dean—in a fashion that could not be misunderstood—whether I could make a move to the tenure-track. He said, in similar fashion, “No.” That’s when I realized that I’d been working 100-hour-weeks because I’d been hoping that they would let me in the tenure club.
I came home and tried to explain to my husband what I was feeling at work—the snub at the coffeemaker, the “Who are you again?” at the copier. He nodded sagely (he does that) and said, “Well, they’re not letting you be what you know you can be.” And that’s when I realized the most important thing that I wrote about in that Freelance Academic post: when you’re contingent faculty, the university is basically saying that it wants the small bits of you that will do the exhausting, draining, underpaid work while remaining at the fringes of academia. And for so long, I pushed myself so hard to try to break in, to show I was good enough to be let in from the fringes.
But here’s the con, the legerdemain, the grift, the whatever you want to call it. And you yourself know this as well as anyone, Elizabeth: it isn’t a matter of being good enough. They truly just don’t want us in the club—whether their thought process is conscious or not. They’re scared and self-conscious, and exclusivity is all they have. They have to believe in their “process” because without their process, their myth of merit, they have nothing.
As soon as I saw the academic house of cards for what it was, I wanted no part of it. It was easy to walk away from the con. It’s not easy to walk away from teaching and from students, though. I love teaching. I love students. Indeed, this love, the “calling” of teaching, has enabled the conning of adjuncts for years, as Rebecca Schuman has pointed out.
On Social Media and Rebuilding
EK: Adjunct/Post-Ac/Alt-Ac Twitter, more than blogging, made a huge difference in how I started to see my role as an adjunct. I started blogging about adjuncting during Campus Equity Week, which was fortuitous and partially planned. I’ve been on Twitter since 2008, but my followers were a mix of music scholars and people from geek culture acquired whenever my Twitter-famous spouse mentioned me. Discovering Adjunct Twitter was a huge part in how I could start reframing myself. How did you get looped into the contingent/post-ac blogosphere and Twitter? Have you found it helpful in rebuilding your identity?
KP: I never used Twitter at all until I left Facebook nearly one year ago (fed up with their ridiculous privacy rules—oh, and I’ve since returned, but purely for “professional” reasons ROFL). I figured Twitter had to be better, since it only had one simple setting: public. I never realized how dang useful it would be. Once I figured out how to coordinate my blog, Twitter, colleagues, and conferences, it seemed like a whole new world opened up. Adjunct Twitter—I’ve actually never used that term before, but yes—has been very helpful. I’ve needed help negotiating my precarious status in the university, figuring out an identity separate from academia, and networking a professional existence outside the ivory tower. All these challenges would have been much harder without my Adjunct Twitter network.
On Networking as Post/Freelance-Acs
KP: As I’ve shifted my identity from full-time contingent professor to Freelance Academic, I’ve gotten really brazen about networking. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how generous the Adjunct and Post-Ac Twitter communities are. I’ve emailed or messaged folks and asked for referrals or advice about writing for publications; everyone has always not only agreed but also done so whole-heartedly. I’m happy to do the same for others, I just don’t have as much pull in powerful places as others do. Maybe some day.
I do think that academia trains us to not ask for things, to be meek and wait our turns. Or to accept as our due when the spotlight only shines on a special chosen few. We don’t question the spotlight, or the structures in place that create the “chosen few” in the first place. Part of the academic con is the belief in the pure meritocracy. What a load of crap. Outside academia, good hustle is rewarded, which comes as a relief to me. I’m a hard worker (sound familiar, Elizabeth?) and I want to be paid for that work. One way to work hard is to network hard: to reach out to people, with kindness, and ask for their help.
And to always remember to repay the favor.
EK: I’m terrible at networking, in the sense that I am never sure what the boundaries are. Years in academia have led me to expect that everyone is as prickly as a tenured Ivy League professor, but, really, most people aren’t. (I’m not sure if the bias toward white men is still there—or if, in some cases, gender bias is working in my favor in the new careers I’ve been investigating.) The more I reach out to people, the more I see that the extreme kowtowing of academe is a little unusual in most places—sure, people expect (and deserve) respect, but most people are more willing to give up their time more often than I think they will.
In a lot of ways, I should be used to reaching out to people—my dissertation involved extensive fieldwork, and I’ve been a freelancer who regularly checks in with clients—but there’s something different (and scarier) when it’s about a whole, new field. It’s not just about introducing yourself to someone new, but about learning about a new industry while simultaneously pitching yourself as a potentially viable job candidate for some future position. It’s a delicate task made all the more difficult by pre-existing stereotypes of academics (we’re stodgy; we won’t take direction; we don’t pay attention to deadlines; we’re already making a lot of money), as well as real, structural issues within the larger economy.
On Shedding the “Academic” Title, but not the Identity of the Scholar
EK: So, one of the things that really struck me as we were writing this is that we’re both leaving academia in slightly different ways. For me, it’s leaving a job that I find exploitative, while giving up on the dream of a tenure-track job. But I don’t see myself shedding the “scholar” identity any time soon. I’ve got more articles in the pipeline now than at any time in my career, and I still enjoy thinking and writing about music and feminism in a scholarly way. The biggest question for me is: How do I continue to be a scholar without being an academic? Is it even possible to dream of being a public intellectual in this climate? I don’t know, Katie. How are you reframing that scholarly part of yourself as you move forward?
KP: Right now, I have one article that I am finishing up, and two conferences on the horizon. I would imagine that I would stay involved in my scholarly communities (I’m interdisciplinary), but I won’t be immersed. The hustling I will do is for me, not for professional recognition in those fields. I think that’s the main difference between hoping for success in academia and working as a freelance academic: I’ve changed the metric of success. Is my family clothed, fed, housed, happy, safe? Do I have time for them? Am I doing satisfying work to me? Well, then, that’s far more than most people get, and I feel lucky.
April 9, 2014
As I read Saul Austerlitz’s extended hysterical diatribe against “poptimism,” I almost thought I was reading a parody. After all, who wants to bring back discourses of authenticity/quality/“good music” that privilege white dudes who make mediocre music above women and people of color, who dominate pop music’s landscape?
I could use this blog space to argue why Austerlitz is wrong musically. There are many things that pop music offers that traditional rock does not: crisp production styles; hybridization of genres; timbres that extend the concept of what music is; skilled session players; and songwriters who hail audiences that, yes, include the 13 year olds whom Austerlitz uses to dismiss current pop critics. I could point out that in the canon of poptimism, there are a hell of a lot of examples of good music, whether it’s Chic’s live-instrument take on disco, grounded in Nile Rodger’s guitars and Bernard Edwards’s bass lines; or 1980s synth-pop’s use of interlocking melodies, made all the more impressive when one takes into consideration the limits of the technology producing them; or, hell, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which indeed won the Pazz and Jop poll. Or I could point out that the Beyoncé album that Austerlitz uses as his entrée to the topic contains complicated, extended song forms, employs a variety of songwriters, and finally puts Beyoncé’s amazing vocal range to good use. Or I could point out that Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake both employ fantastic live bands and pump up the arrangements with skillful playing. Or I could just shout the name “JANELLE MONAE” five hundred times, because there’s a woman who writes pop songs and isn’t afraid of jazz harmonies, sounding like Michael Jackson, or mixing genres in a giant blender.
Or, in contrast, I could point out that all of the indie rock bands he mentions as “daring” are old-fashioned recyclers—even the bands he mentions that I personally enjoy, like Speedy Ortiz, are guilty of that. Or I could point out that a lot of other indie rock bands are moving back and forth into the pop space, too, by writing songs for Beyoncé, or sounding like Fleetwood Mac and Wilson Phillips, or writing songs that draw sonically from R&B and then are covered by indie-loving R&B artists. And I could point out that anything interesting in indie rock in the past ten years has pretty much come from this kind of cross-pollination.
But, you know, that’s a music critic’s argument—and I’m not a music critic. (Though I’d be happy to write about the sonic qualities of the music all damned day. Another time!) Rather, I’d like to look at this purely from the perspective of a feminist ethnomusicologist who focuses on the history of pop music from the postwar era to the present. In short, I’d rather focus on how music criticism is always a product of a critic’s habitus, i.e. their particular social position that incorporates a variety of aspects of identity as well as cultural capital. (That’s a very short gloss on Bourdieu, but this is a blog post and I’m not going to outline all of Distinction here, TYVM). In recent years, though, the old cultural capital standards “high,” “low,” and “middlebrow” culture have shifted into what sociologists Richard A. Peterson and Roger Kern have labeled “omnivorous consumption.” Omnivorous consumption may sound indiscriminate, but the term actually implies that a different set of disctinctions is involved, drawing on both high and low taste cultures. (And, really, Austerlitz is someone who should be very much aware of this. He wrote a book on sitcoms!)
Contrary to what Austerlitz argues, the shift toward omnivorous tastes hasn’t led to a indiscriminate, disproportionate focus on pop, but to a recognition that there are more forms worthy of attention—and, yes, criticism—than just white, middle-class, male-dominated indie rock. That includes, but is not limited to, pop music (and even indie rock—if you look at Pazz and Jop winners, you’ll see that they’re still well represented). It actually means that more forms of music are evaluated than before. “Poptimism” is just one aspect of omnivorous consumption; in terms of Pazz and Jop, it’s also meant that artists like Kanye West have landed in the number 1 spot (more than once).
Even people like Austerlitz, who clings to his indie rock like so much guns and religion, think that it’s fine when music critics cull from high and low in the “long view” of history—very few people would argue that women and people of color got a lot of respect in the early to mid-20th century. This has made a huge difference in the recognition of styles that had previously been shunted from the historical record, including country music and R&B. Jody Rosen, whom Austerlitz “admires” but feels free to criticize, is a wonderful example of someone who is aware of the need to include a wide variety of musics (and people who make them) in the historical record of popular music; Rosen’s recent “100 Years of Pop in New York” for New York magazine is a great example of balancing the race and gender in a list that could easily have been dominated by white dudes. But placing those issues in a historical framework—and only in a historical framework—implies that the conditions of the past do not affect the conditions of the present; additionally, it often allows some critics (definitely not Rosen, to be clear) to think less critically about the present.
And so, we get articles like Austerlitz’s. It’s important to remember that even while there’s a general trend toward omnivorous tastes, not everyone’s going to develop them, and not everyone’s going to understand the new distinctions. In large part, that’s what his critique of “poptimism” is about—resistance to new rules that determine musical worth in cultural terms. (And that’s fine—like what you like!)
But when Austerlitz implies that 1) the critics have the taste of 13 year olds and 2) there’s no criticism in poptimism, there’s something else going on that’s equally worthy of attention. These two implications have something to do with misunderstanding omnivorous tastes, but they also have a lot to do with gender–of the audience, of the critic, and of the artists.
First, the missing word after “13-year-olds” is “girls,” because, let’s face it, the pop music audience is always gendered female. The artists he mentions are women with audiences of teen girls, from Britney Spears to Lorde to Lady Gaga to Katy Perry to Beyoncé to Sky Ferreira to Icona Pop. There’s only one dude mentioned—Robin Thicke—and he has a primarily female audience. If Austerlitz had included artists that 13-year-old boys liked, then I might be willing to give him a pass. But, yes, this is about gender at its core.
The tastes of 13-year-old girls are usually the most easily maligned, whether in pop music or in books or in films. So that’s why Austerlitz uses it—it’s a gendered slam against the critics who earliest embraced poptimism without actually coming out as a sexist.
However, if we take the long view of history, we can see that 13-year-olds (especially girls) can have some pretty damned good taste (in terms of taste as a cultural construct, of course). Thirteen-year-old girls were the first fans of Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys. Thirteen-year-old girls were the target audience for Girl Groups of the early 1960s; while that era was long critically dismissed (aside from a passing acknowledgment of the “genius” of Phil Spector), no one in their right mind would do so today—and it’s not due to “poptimism,” but the long-term covering of Girl Group songs in other genres, from punk to indie rock. (Of course, sometimes teen girls are wrong: If you watch Don’t Look Back, you’ll see a conversation between a teenage girl and Bob Dylan. Like many folk critics of the time, she tells him he was better before he went electric.)
Second, when Austerlitz says there’s no criticism in pop music criticism—that it’s all a celebratory mush of pop excess and fashion and lifestyle, rather than a reflection of a broadened taste palette for music critics—he’s dismissing a lot of writers, especially women. Like, oh, say Ann Powers, who has a very long history of covering both pop and rock with a critical eye, or Maura Johnston, who broadened the taste of the Village Voice in her tenure there. So, it’s also about who’s doing the criticizing, too, and why he might get away with comparing them to 13 year olds.
Finally, the view that criticism about pop isn’t real criticism is also about the gender of the artist; again, note that the overwhelming majority of artists he dismisses are women. Austerlitz’s parallels to literature reveal that he’s not a very broad reader despite earning money from reviewing books, or else he’d know that this same debate has been raging there for a long time, too. He doesn’t seem to know that authors such as Jennifer Weiner have called out reviews sections in The New York Times and the New York Review of Books for disproportionately choosing to review books by male authors. He doesn’t know that what’s considered “literature”—like what’s traditionally been considered “good music”—has everything to do with the gender of the author, and not the content of the book (though I will give him Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer). He doesn’t know that YA author Maureen Johnson did a series of gender-swapped book covers that demonstrated the arbitrary notion of “boy books” and “girl books” for that teen audience he so flippantly dismisses.
So, there’s definitely something else about Austerlitz’s habitus at work here: it’s the insecurity of the white, male critical voice in a world that has opened up to women—as audience members, as artists, and as critics—as much as it has opened up to tastes that draw from both high and low culture. While I don’t really care what Austerlitz listens to in his free time, I do wish he’d be a little less certain that his kind of taste is the only “good” taste out there.
 Yes, I know some indie rock bands do this, too—but it’s not like Austerlitz was citing them. He’s talking about The National and The Strokes.