How I Ended Up Studying the 1990s
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.