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.


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.

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.

Loud Sirens: 

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.

Podcast! Podcast! Podcast!

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.


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!

Elizabeth Keenan & Katie Rose Guest Pryal

December 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.

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?

Oh. Yeah.

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.[1] 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.




[1] 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.

Back when Heathers was released in 1988, I didn’t see it–pretty much no one did, because it was a flop. But, starting about a year later, I would see it a lot. My older sister and her friends would hold Heathers-themed parties, where they would eat spaghetti (lots of oregano) and corn nuts, and drink blue Kool-Aid (a stand-in for the drain cleaner that killed Heather Chandler) and Perrier (the drink that cemented Kurt and Ram’s homosexuality). 

Eventually, they let me join in. I was three years younger than my sister, and this was huge. It meant that I wasn’t being seen as the annoying little sister anymore–at least not always. I would have watched Heathers with them every time even if I hadn’t loved it–but I did, and that made it so much the better. The movie was dark and funny satire, bringing life to all the stereotypes of high school. Even though the characters were totally campy at times, they weren’t entirely cartoons, but somehow perfect representations of late 1980s teen angst bullshit. 

So, when I heard that a Heathers musical was in development, I wasn’t sure which elements of the film would translate well. Camp? Yes. Teen angst bullshit? Maybe not. The thing that worried me the most was that the genuine, teen angst core at the heart of Heathers‘ satire would get lost in a haze of 1980s nostalgia–I couldn’t see how that particular ache would survive the translation to musical numbers and the streamlining that musical theatre always necessitates.*

Now, I’m happy to say that I was wrong. Heathers the Musical does amp up the camp–there’s a super-catchy number called “My Dead Gay Son”–but it doesn’t lose the core of genuine feeling. In large part, this is due to Barrett Wilbert Weed’s portrayal of Veronica, which offers a more sympathetic, less jaded, and more nuanced characterization than in the film. The lack of jadedness in the musical is, I think, a result of our collective ’80s nostalgia: no one quite wants to admit just how jaded the late ’80s were (cf The Goldbergs), so productions that draw on those memories somewhat smooth them out. I might have a problem with how Heathers the Musical sometimes makes Veronica more innocent (and less complicit) than the film did, except for the fact that Weed is so damned good in the role.

Weed is a very different Veronica than Winona Ryder was. When we meet HTM‘s Veronica, she’s still a nerdy outsider, planning a weekend of movie-watching with best friend Martha Dunstock (the musical collapses Betty Finn and Martha into one, a change which both makes sense and gives the excellent Katie Ladner a larger role in the production). Veronica’s transformation from outcast to fourth (maybe third) most popular girl in school gives Weed a chance to portray a greater range of feelings, from guilt to ambivalence to glee at finally being popular, than Winona Ryder’s jaded Veronica, who has already been absorbed into the Heathers’ world. At times, this difference is a pretty major reconstruction of character: Weed’s Veronica excitedly loses her virginity to J.D.; Ryder’s Veronica schools Betty Finn on how sex is really not that exciting. At other times, it gives Weed a chance to shine, especially through musical performance. In the song “Dead Girl Walking,” Weed’s voice powerfully conveys the sense of anger, fear, and frustration that only getting kicked of the most powerful clique in school can inspire.  

Another place where Veronica’s innocence comes to play is with J.D. When we first meet the dark horse prom contender in the film, he points a gun at Ram and Kurt; in the musical, no gun, just some (admittedly amazing) choreographed fighting. Was a gun too much in this day and age? Or is it just so unbelievable that our more innocent Veronica would fall for a dude who appears at least a little psychotic in his first scene? Also, I’m not sure I would believe that film Veronica ever thought she was in love with film J.D., but the more wide-eyed stage Veronica declares her love quite easily. Again, I don’t think this would work if Winona Ryder played Veronica this way, but with Weed, it makes more sense.

The Heathers themselves start off a little more vicious and a little more cartoon-y than their movie versions (well, except for Heather Chandler, who was always vicious). Last night, Charissa Hoagland stood in for Heather Chandler, the queen bee of all queen bees (usually portrayed by Jessica Keenan Wynn). Hoagland’s Heather was the strongest performance of the three, especially in the first act song “Candy Store.” Hoagland brought a palpable bitchiness to the role, which made it a shame that, well, she’s the first Heather to die. (But it’s also nice that she gets to return as a ghost.)

Other stand-outs in the cast are Evan Todd (Kurt Kelly) and Jon Eidson (Ram Sweeney), who spend most of the second act as ghosts in their underwear, and Katie Ladner (Martha). Kurt and Ram’s song “Blue” is, well, the best song about blue balls I’ve ever heard (not that I listen to that many of them, but…) HTM gives a little more insight into Kurt and Ram than the film, giving them both aggressively macho dads (who have their own, er, moment in “My Dead Gay Son”). Katie Ladner infuses Martha with Betty Finn’s innocence and an eager boy-craziness all her own. Even though a very bitchy guy behind me suggested that her second act solo, “Kindergarten Boyfriend” wasn’t necessary, I disagree: it was worth it for the opportunity to get a few more minutes of Ladner on stage, especially since she gets to show off her wide range.

While Heathers the Musical isn’t the Heathers of my youth, it still captures the fear and dread of high school in a campy, yet resonant, way. Oh, and the music is fantastic–if they release a cast recording, I’ll review it here. 

A final note on nostalgia: while I enjoyed the music before the show, it was of a certain ’80s style that no one would have been listening to in 1988/89. This lack of historical specificity always bothers me, but most people will just revel in the catchy pre-show tunes. But, occasionally this happens in the show, too. For example, in the party scene, the Hipster Dork is wearing a Depeche Mode Violator t-shirt. That album was released on March 19, 1990, making it unlikely that anyone would wear said t-shirt to a party in 1989.

*Mind you, this streamlining isn’t necessarily bad. I have a great deal more sympathy for the Sally Bowles of Cabaret than the Sally Bowles of Goodbye to Berlin.  

Back when I was looking at different grad schools, I knew that I was coming in with some disadvantages. My background was in music history, with an almost-double-major in journalism, but I didn’t have the background in social or cultural theory that a lot of people from fancier institutions almost certainly had. But I made a decision to acknowledge this void, rather than try to hide it. It was a gamble, I knew, but I figured that people would either appreciate this boldness or not.* 

So, everywhere I went, I asked everyone the same question: What books would you recommend to someone in my position? 

A lot of them recommended traditional ethnomusicology texts. Sure, that was fine, but whatever; I had already figured those out, and they were for the most part as un-theoretical as my undergrad experience. Two people at Columbia recommended the same book, though: Resistance Through Rituals, edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson. Both of the dudes recommending it seemed pretty cool (one of them would later become my dissertation advisor), and they actually got my question. 

I’m not joking when I say that the book changed my outlook on popular music studies. And, though 22-year-old me thought everything in the book was ridiculously dated, it still offered a sense of possibility for taking popular culture as a serious object of study. And, as a bonus, all the bad rock music criticism that attempted to do sociology now made sense to me. 

Armed with the Birmingham School and its descendants (especially the work of Angela McRobbie), I now had a research framework for my grad school applications. And, though I ended up moving ever more resolutely in the direction of feminist and queer theory, I’ve built that on a foundation of cultural studies that understands identity’s importance within popular culture. 

And, for that, I have to thank Stuart Hall (and Tony Jefferson and Angela McRobbie and pretty much anyone in the first two generations of British subcultural studies).

OK, so, all of this is to say that I got into grad school to write about popular culture, and I’ve been doing that for the past fifteen years. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do, in fact; however, I’m not doing it now. For the past six months, I’ve mainly been writing on this blog about adjunct issues, which has turned out to resonate with far more people than I ever expected. However, writing about my failure all the time is pretty exhausting. So, here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to keep writing about adjunct issues, because I still have a lot to say on that topic. But I’m also going to write more about music in this space, too, because that is what I love.

There won’t a set schedule for this, but I’m guessing it’s going to mean one adjunct post and one pop culture post per week. 

*I got in everywhere I made this gamble, so the gamble worked. 

On Recognizing Privilege

February 7, 2014

By now, you may have seen this post on the Chronicle Vitae site. In it, Kelli Marshall, a lecturer at DePaul University, talks about her job as an adjunct as a pretty pleasurable experience. And, really, reading her description: it’s not so bad. She apparently makes more than most adjuncts (almost the starting salary of an assistant professor, she says), has a decent commute, has an office, and is fairly secure in her situation. Oh, and she has a husband, also in academia, with a full-time job.

Now, if you caught me on a really good day, that description could be me (except that my husband is not in academia). On a bad day, like today, when it took me over an hour to commute 3.7 miles via bus, you will only get scowls from my general direction. I’ve been teaching at the same two institutions for the past five years. When one of them had a one-year vacancy, I was given a real salary and benefits for a year; I’m also their preferred adjunct, getting first choice at classes. So, they like me! They really do. (That’s a Sally Field reference, for you youngins who didn’t get it.)

I also enjoy various benefits of the flexible adjunct life: I work from home three days a week (note: I did not say that I had those days off); I can go to the gym or the pool when it’s dead quiet, which is usually around 2 p.m.; I can occasionally meet a friend for a run and maybe tea afterward; I can schedule a haircut in the middle of the afternoon at my usually busy salon. (Yes, this is deliberately obnoxious–I’m driving a point home.)

However, just because can do these things does not mean that the system of contingent labor in academia is not massively fucked. Nor does it mean that I’m happy in this position–I really do not want to be a housewife with a part-time job. My husband and I would definitely have more economic security if I had guaranteed work. I’d very much like to get rid of my debt, so that maybe we could actually afford to buy a house someday. But, the reality is, I can do a lot of things that other adjuncts can’t because I have a significant amount of economic privilege (not to mention the racial privilege that landed me in a good school in the first place). And I’m not so blind as to let my privilege obscure my critiques of the system–I know others do not have that privilege, and that they are infinitely more screwed over than I am.

Marshall and I fit the traditional image of the adjunct–white, female, married. As Kay Steiger writes in The Nation, academia has a long history of adjunct positions as “Mrs. Professor So-and-So”:

Before women were allowed to be full professors, colleges often allowed them to teach at the adjunct level and wives of professors often picked up extra work as adjunct instructors. As Eileen E. Schell, the author of the 1998 sociological work Gypsy Academics and Mother-Teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction, said that the reputation for adjunct teaching as a women’s profession was so strong that adjuncts were dubbed “the housewives of higher education.”

So, forty-odd years after the women’s movement started, here’s someone in a Mrs. Professor position telling the rest of the world that adjuncting doesn’t have to be that bad. Well, no, it doesn’t, when someone else is taking care of you. But, despite how much privilege Marshall (and, yes, I) may have in our adjunct positions, we are not the reason to accept the system as is. In fact, we–and I include myself in this 100 percent–are part of the problem.

I said this before in my own Vitae piece: When academia views adjuncting as a job for privileged spouses, everyone suffers. The labor of teaching is devalued, treated as a hobby, and paid equivalently. This screws over the vast majority of adjuncts, who, unlike the traditional-but-outdated portrait that both Marshall and I fit into, are not working for pin money.

So, when someone tells you adjuncting isn’t that bad, consider what other resources they have in their lives.

P.S. There’s an unrelated issue at the bottom of Marshall’s post, where she notes that you need to make connections to get a job. Of course that’s true, but to insinuate that other people are stuck in their crappy adjunct jobs because they’re bad networkers–and not that most adjuncting jobs are crappy–is a bit off mark.

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