Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cultural Anomalies, Ethnomusicology, and SEM 2010

Broadway and 5th Street, Los Angeles

I just recently returned from a fabulous trip to Los Angeles for the Society for Ethnomusicology's annual meeting. Last year was Mexico City, next year is Phili, I'm totally suggesting Detroit to the SEM Board! Seriously. The conference was excellent. There were over 1,000 people registered and in attendance. It's crazy big, even if you've never heard of ethno-what? George Lipsitz gave the Seeger lecture, a major event during which nothing else is scheduled. It was really excellent and inspiring. He's always been an influential person for me, academically. Ever since I was an undergrad at NYU studying with Tricia Rose and reading great essays by Lipsitz, I developed a fondness. To hear him speak eloquently with barely a nod at his notes about Johnny Otis, social justice, and our responsibilities as scholars was so moving. Some of the major themes of the conference were social justice and activism. Those ideas were ever present throughout conference presentations, discussions, and informal conversations.

I picked up some books at the conference that I'm excited about:

How I never read this book is beyond me.

I feel a strong responsibility to read anything and everything written about electronic dance music, and other forms of music that involve DJs, especially if there is some form of ethnography involved.

That said, I finally own this:


Black Women and Music: More Than the Blues edited by Eileen M. Hayes and Linda F. Williams

And finally, bought with no knowledge of the book, but a strong interest after looking over it:

Can't wait to start in on these.

And now for the meat of this post. I'm not a big "tweeter," I get kind of overwhelmed by the overload of jumbled utterances and bit.ly's, ETC. I also get overwhelmed and annoyed by having to make quite an effort to filter the tweets. Anyway, at the Sound Studies special interest group meeting on Thursday at the conference, I volunteered to tweet the conference for friends who couldn't be at the conference as well as for anyone who missed papers that I attended, but were still interested in knowing a bit about them. Twitter doesn't allow for extensive descriptions of academic papers, of course, but my efforts at keeping people informed were fun, for me. I also linked my Twitter account to Facebook so that interested friends on the FB with whom I'm not connected on the TW (?) could join in as well. And it ended up leading to a bit of extended discussion in a few cases. I like that. I included a few SEM tweets about a genre of music known as enka and enka artist, Jero.

Here's what I typed:

#SEM10 So far 2 major uses of Jero at conference that I have seen, although I know there have been more. http://bit.ly/dJvJt

#SEM10 #Jero #enka Super weird cultural aberrations and anomalies that fit your theories with ease; doesn't mean they should.

#SEM10 Blog post brewing about anomalies and academic analysis. Did someone ask about cutting up vinyl? WTF, what a freak.

These three comments will be the organizational themes for the rest of this post. Jero is an African American man from Pittsburg with Japanese ancestry (his maternal grandmother was Japanese). He began singing enka as a child, speaks (and sings) Japanese fluently, and has had a great deal of success singing enka. I knew nothing about enka or Jero before this SEM conference. I was interested in the panel of which the Jero paper was a part because ethnomusicologist Noriko Manabe was presenting on Japanese hip hop. She's a prolific writer and excellent scholar, and I'm always interested in what she has to say. Here's something to listen to and watch:

I admittedly have no idea how relevant this song/video is to enka or Jero, except that it's him singing enka. In accordance with the multiple conference presentations that were based on, or included, Jero (I saw two, but heard about more), the draw is his existence as a cultural anomaly. I'm not trying to label an entire human being as an aberration. However, a young African American man who adorns himself in US hip hop styles, attempts pop dancing and b-boying in his videos, and sings a relatively dated form of Japanese music that is not typically recognized as a genre embraced by youth in Japan, is a cultural abnormality. That said, weirdness breeds academic excitement. The ease with which a scholar could potentially scoop up such anomalies and capitalize on them with a wide range of analytical ideas is tremendous. A scholar could wax theoretic on Jero for weeks! But that ease does not always mean that it works in a broader scheme. Ideally, and I think those readers who were at George Lipsitz's lecture may recall his thoughts on this, we as scholars strive to get ourselves beyond our small, very specific, detailed worlds of ethnographic, cultural, and musical analysis, and make broader, stronger contributions to the world around us. We are not just writing for other scholars!

The conference mentions of Jero came with interesting analyses of identity, blending of cultural norms, genre, and language. There is certainly validity in exploring these kinds of cultural performances - and I mean performance in a very broad sense, performance of identity, of culture, etc., not just getting up on a stage and "performing." But I think that as scholars, we have enough background in ways of writing about and analyzing culture, that we need to interrogate any kind of easy, smooth analysis that is not really informed by local, or indigenous, ways of theorizing culture. Detroiters and Detroit musicians have a vast array of analytical tenets that are very specific, and simultaneously diverse. It would only serve to alienate them from me, and me from them, if I wrote some big analysis that was entirely disconnected from local ways of theorizing culture, music, and history.

This experience at SEM brought me to thinking about a personal experience I had with my own ethnographic research in Detroit on electronic music. I recently posted an inquiry in a number of places (313 email listserv, FB, and DetroitLuv).

Here's the question I asked:

Has anyone ever done or heard of anyone doing the following IN DETROIT:

Physically manipulating a piece of vinyl by cutting it down the middle exactly and then gluing it to another half of vinyl so that the grooves match up and it can actually play? Or any other kind of dramatic vinyl manipulation?

I'm thinking of things beyond concentric grooves, inverse grooves, and locked grooves.
I know lots of you already, but just in case you're wondering, I'm writing a dissertation on Detroit techno and house music through Indiana University. I've lived in SE Michigan since early 2008, did research, including lots of interviews, steadily for a year and a half. Still here, still doing interviews ... but I'm mainly writing. Starting chapter 3 tonight!

Feel free to message me directly if you'd rather. Thanks!

My thoughts about this stem from an interview I did in 2006 with a musician named Carrie Gates. I'm working on a few chapters of my dissertation simultaneously and was reading over the paper I wrote for a course, a conference, and an award competition (which was successful), that was based on that interview, among other things. The paper was mildly Detroit related, although I had done zero fieldwork in Detroit by that point, so there was not a whole lot of Detroit related insight. I'm still working with a few of the core theoretical ideas that I introduced in that paper and wondered if vinyl manipulation of this type was something people did or cared about in Detroit.

That DLuv link is to the discussion on that message board, but I also got lots of feedback from 313 list members and on FB. Most of what I got was the following: not really, sort of but no, here's something related but not exactly, and a big old fuck no. I didn't know what to expect in the form of responses when I originally posted the query. I'm really glad I asked in such a public way, because the resulting discussion was really helpful. I'm not going to be writing about vinyl cutting of this kind in my dissertation because it's clearly not a relevant issue here and there are many more way important things to write and think about.

The things I am going to spend a great deal of time on are the concepts of intertextuality and interdiscursivity in the context of performance and production. For the purposes of this blog post, I will define intertextuality, but I'll leave interdiscursivity alone. Just modify what comes next in terms of discourse and more expansive understandings of time.

Intertextuality: the intercommunication of cultural and performative texts.

A text can also be thought of as a unit of communication, or an utterance. I use the concept of text as a way of analyzing performance and production of electronic dance music. Just to reassure you, I'm not using text in a limited verbal sense, and I will explain that in detail in my dissertation. I have developed this approach after endless frustration and disappointment with theories of postmodernism, hybridity, and improvisation; all of which have been used in analyses of electronic dance music for a while now. My thoughts on intertextuality also tie in interperformative relations and the concepts of eclecticism and diversity in Detroit music and culture. Sonic eclecticism and diversity of identity. I know, this is so brief, maybe annoyingly so. But there's more to come, just not necessarily on a blog.

Vinyl cutting was the single most obvious and tangible case for intertextuality in the paper I wrote in 2006. An aberration that fits my theories with ease. Doesn't mean it should! And clearly it won't.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.