IASPM 2017

I presented at my first International Association for the Study of Popular Music conference, the biennial international one, which was held this year in Kassel, Germany at the Kulturbahnhof—the former Hauptbahnhof (main train station) of Kassel, which is now converted into an arts center—a super cool venue. (Full conference program and abstracts available here.)

Photo from http://www.kulturbahnhof-kassel.de


The program for this conference was huge, with something like six parallel sessions running at once. I tended to favor panels that were music-theory-ish, dealt with music technology, or dealt with gender.



I doubt I would have applied had I not been asked to form a lovely panel by a colleague, Nick Braae, whom I met at the Osnabrück popular music summer school that I attended in September 2015.  Here is the full information of the panel:

Shaping Sounds and Sounds as Shapes in Popular Songs—Contemporary Analytical Approaches

Alex Harden (UK): “Oneiric Narrativity and Recorded Popular Song”

Harden analyzed how recording techniques may interact with the lyrics to create an oneiric sound space, focusing on Kate Bush’s “Waking the Witch.”

Megan Lavengood (USA): “Analyzing Sound, Analyzing Timbre”

I presented a trimmed-down version of Chapter 5 of my dissertation, ultimately arguing for more analysis of timbre in popular music studies.

Bláithín Duggan (Ireland): “The Shape of the Voice: Analysing Vocal Gestures in Popular Song”

Duggan took a holistic approach to analysis that takes motives beyond pitch and rhythmic content and attends to more subtle details of dynamics, timing, and pitch, using early Beatles songs as a corpus.

Nick Braae (New Zealand): “Analysing Musical Time in Popular Songs”

Braae discussed cyclic versus directional time created through interactions between song forms, harmonies, and melodies.

We were teamed up with another panel as well, organized by Kai Arne Hansen:

So What? Contemporary Approaches to the Interpretation and Analysis of Disparate Popular Musics

Kai Arne Hansen (Norway): “Darkness on the Edge of Pop: Constructing Masculinity and The Weeknd’s ‘The Hills'”

Hansen gave a preliminary exposition on themes of violence, misogyny and darkness in The Weeknd’s music and music videos.

Steven Gamble (UK): “Empowerment and Embodiment in Rap Music”

Gamble analyzed elements of rhythm in “Backseat Freestyle” by Kendrick Lamar, identifying musical elements which contribute to a sense of empowerment through embodiment.

Claire Rebecca Bannister (UK): “Psychopharmacology and the Analysis of Goth Music”

Bannister discussed goth music as a psychedelic genre, and defines psychedelia through the idea of set and setting, terms from psychopharmacology, in determination of what constitutes a psychedelic genre.

Andrei Sora (UK): “To Prepare a Face to Meet the Faces that You Meet: The Persona in Instrumental Music”

Sora used analysis of a persona in the unusual genre of instrumental popular music. While persona analysis is frequently applied to instrumental art music, it is rare to see this approach in instrumental popular music, where the notion of an analytical persona interacts with a perhaps more robust public persona.

The goal of both panels together was essentially to showcase new work by young scholars in the field of popular music analysis, and to show what we can do that is sort of “outside the box,” although maybe there is no such “box” anymore!


Recording technology and the music industry

Steffan Lepa (Germany): “The Diffusion of Music Streaming Services in Germany”

Lepa reported on data collected with his project, Survey Musik und Medien, from a 2012 survey and a follow-up 2015 survey of German music listeners. The data was used to develop hypotheses on the change in audio media that people use to listen to their music. Lepa said the data is different than many other sources, because it is derived from a survey of listeners, whereas most data comes from sales figures. They divided up listeners into classes based on the ways their listening habits changed between the two surveys: versatile audiophiles, digital mobilists, selective traditionalists, selective adopters, versatile traditionalists, and radio traditionalists. The last category was made because a large portion of people only listened to music on the radio—the fact I found the most surprising about this presentation. I would love to compare this to a similar study in the US—is radio equally prevalent here?

Chris Anderson (USA): “Contemporary Strategies for Making, Distributing, and Gifting Music”

Anderson featured two case studies of musicians giving away their music for free, relating this to Attali’s utoptian vision of creation for self-satisfaction instead of monetary gain. I am hopeful that in future studies the author might begin to consider the implications of class, and also of devaluing art. One of his subjects was only a hobbyist musician. It would be interesting to see who releases music for free because of “self-satisfaction instead of monetary gain,” versus who releases it for free due to economic pressure to do so to compete.

Franco Fabbri (Italy): “Binaurality, Stereophony, and Popular Music in the 60s and 70s”

Fabbri articulated an important distinction between stereophony and binaurality: if a typical stereo setup is meant to imitate having the best seat in the house, then headphones position the listener actually in the center of the stage. For symphonies, this might be like sitting next to the conductor. Fabbri also highlighted that while classical recording practices typically valorize “realism” in the mixes, in the case of concertos, the mixing typically creates an unreal sound space, as the performer is mixed in both channels.

Pat O’Grady (Australia): “The Politics of Digitizing Analog Technologies”

O’Grady reported on the variety of virtual and digital technologies that are meant to imitate analog recording software. Most fascinating to me and my research were the words that O’Grady reported as being used to describe these plugins. Plugins are typically described as having “warmth”. “Smooth”, “glue”, and “musical” are other words used to describe their plugins. I would love to learn more about these plugins and compare the language used to describe them with the language used to describe the Fender Rhodes and other technologies that are often contrasted with the Yamaha DX7.

Steve Waksman (USA): “Remaking aliveness in American Music, 1900–1930”

Waksman gave an account of the use of the word “live” as an adjective to describe technologies. Advertisements for sheet music would use the word “live”: “live songs for live singers by live authors.” We nowadays think of sheet music as kind of a dead object, maybe, but at this time it was being sold as more “live” than the “canned music” of recordings. The American Federation of Musicians launched a campaign that praised the virtues of live music as movies with sound killed off jobs for musicians as silent movie accompanists and vaudeville musicians.


Gender in popular music

Robin James (USA): “Queered Voices in the Era of Post-Feminist Pop”

James featured two queer artists who do not conform to the post-feminist feminine ideal of resilience and overcoming. In one case, the artist Bottoms talks about emotional damage, and does not overcome this damage, but rather enjoys the damage. The artist-collective Decon/Recon writes music in a deeply collaborative way in order to resist ownership and thus the post-feminist ideal of feminine empowerment. I would love to see more of this kind of scholarship in pop music analysis, which in my view often relies on tropes of empowerment in its narratives. James also gave a keynote at the opening of the IASPM conference, which I unfortunately had to miss.

Sarah Dougher and Diane Pecknold (USA): “Girls Rock! Reverberations and Limitations”

Like Robin James, Dougher and Pecknold draw attention to the post-feminist assumption that femininity is equated to overcoming. They point out that this then places additional burden on girls, in a sense: all girls are feminized, but good girls overcome this. Dougher and Pecknold trace representations of the “Girls rock” theme from Jem through Black Girls Rock!.


Concluding thoughts

The experience of meeting these international voices was incredible.

There were a lot of papers, so they were sometimes hit-or-miss, but I saw many very high-quality papers. And having such a huge program meant that I was almost always seeing something that related to my research in some sense.

IASPM provided lunch and several coffee breaks every day, as well as an opening reception, which made it easy to socialize with conference-goers.

Slots were 30 minutes for the paper and questions, but the organizers did not insist on a 20-minute paper with 10 minutes of questions; rather, they left it up to the presenter how to divide the time. I love 30 minute sessions—45 is way too long (ahem, SMT)—but I think question time ought to be mandated. Questions are usually the best part!

For some reason there was a lot of drama in the three-hour-long general meeting (which then went over time!), but I’m gonna go on the record and say that IASPM 2017 was a great conference for me. I’m grateful to all involved in its organization and success.



It’s a cliché to say this now, but the election results were a complete and utter shock to me. Maybe that makes me blind. I was in disbelief as the numbers climbed on the TV, dismissive of Florida when it went red (“typical Florida”), betrayed by my home state of Ohio when it followed suit, and bowled over as more and more Midwestern states voted for a reality TV star rather than the most qualified politician to ever run for president. I kept watching til 2AM waiting for things to change, before my friends and I began the slow process of coming to terms with our new reality. I slept for about five hours before waking up and scouring the internet for strategies Hillary might use to still eke out a win—something about recounts or the Supreme Court or something?—but of course there was no such path. This is really happening.

Yesterday was a weary and emotional day of realizing that I was not celebrating the election of the nation’s first woman president. Instead I tried to come to terms with imagining my future under President Trump, hearing him give more speeches, representing our country internationally, appointing justices, and facing little opposition or checks and balances in the legislature or the courts. My brain knows that fear is not a productive response, but it’s hard to drive it out. I keep thinking how my life will change on a personal level: how will my career be impacted by budget cuts? by cutting access to health care? by new policies that target reproductive health? I am certain that women will not experience equality under this administration. The hostility I feel from the President-elect toward myself, i.e., toward women, is unlike anything I’ve ever felt in politics.

My next thought is, if this is how threatened I feel, as a straight white cis woman, how much more endangered must others feel who are more marginalized than I am? My heart breaks. Many of the students that come to the Writing Center at Medgar Evers, where I work now, are immigrants, mostly from Caribbean islands. Nearly all of them are black. Most are women. Many are Muslim. What are they feeling now? I’m thankful that I don’t have to tutor again until Monday, so I have time to straighten myself back out. I tutored two students on Election Day. Both of them assured me they were voting. One informed me that she always volunteers as a poll worker. When she said this, a tutor complained that her name had been removed from the voter roll, and this student helped the tutor understand her rights and what to do. She stayed a while after I was done tutoring her, talking about the dread of the election with other students and tutors. At the end of our conversation, while my student walked out the door, she said, “Well, tomorrow morning we’ll be waking up to President Trump.” I said with a smile, “No we won’t; don’t say that.”

Lying in bed at 2AM on election night, sickened, remembering this exchange, I realized how my unwillingness to see the racism and sexism of America for what it was allowed me to believe the election would go the way I wanted it to go. My unwillingness is a product of my white privilege. I didn’t listen to people less privileged than I, who were literally telling me that Trump had this election in the bag. But because I didn’t want to believe that the country would elect a stupid, racist, sexist buffoon with anger issues, I was able to imagine that my country was better than it is. This didn’t cause me any dissonance, because I’m able to avoid seeing racism myself. I didn’t listen to people who actually are forced to deal with racism as a part of their everyday life, and I told them they were wrong.

Yesterday I read the Twitter thread I linked at the top of this post and felt an incredible resonance, like Marco Rogers was talking directly to me. I had the luxury of crafting my bubble. I’ve left the Midwest and the South in my past, moved to New York City, avoided talking to old friends and family whose opinions make me uncomfortable. So that’s evidence of my privilege, the fact that I can even do that. And then, I have to consider the charge that in doing that, I’m not being an ally to people of color: instead of running away—a luxury not everyone can afford—I should stand up to these people and try and change their minds, or at the very least, condemn what they have to say. With regard to this last sentence, I think there is truth in that. And it’s painful to hear that I’m not doing my duty, in a way. At the same time, I wonder how productive such arguments would really be.

Before I cleansed my digital presence from all political implications, I would occasionally get into a Facebook fight about politics, where I felt particularly compelled to do so. I don’t get involved in Facebook arguments unless I respect the person I’m talking to and believe them to be intelligent. In these cases I believe these people must be well-intentioned but that they don’t understand why something they’ve said is problematic.

And yet, I can think of only one time where my getting involved in a political argument with someone I respect has ever resulted in that person changing their mind. The rest of the time it’s only led to anger, hurt feelings, and often even damaged relationships with the people I dared to argue with. So how much can I even do? What power do I have?

My Facebook and Twitter feeds were scrubbed of Trump supporters as I gradually unfollowed them so as not to be tempted to get involved in these arguments. Then, living in NYC, of course no one talks about supporting Trump in public here. I and all my neighbors and friends went and voted; the lines were down the block. Hillary won the popular vote. Yet none of it mattered. What else could we have done?

Paradoxically, I also am dealing with regret that I didn’t do more. Certainly I could have done more. I have largely stayed out of it this political cycle. I prefer to remain distant and jokey about my political preferences (in no small part because I don’t enjoy arguments like those I mention above). I secretly was grateful to friends who actually joined the campaigns as volunteers, though I dare not say it aloud, lest I compromise my brand. I didn’t really lift a finger personally to help the campaign, because that’s not me. I didn’t even make a typical political post, because ugh, those are so annoying anyway. This is just “how I am.” But if someone had told me, “Megan, if you make a post like that, if you volunteer one afternoon, you can make a difference,” I would have done it. Funny though, because of course people do say things like that, I just don’t believe them. This is the paradox again.

I do my civic duty, I go out and vote, but that’s not good enough when I insist on maintaining this aloof, joking attitude toward politics. That attitude is a luxury, born of my white privilege. I am sad and embarrassed that I didn’t learn this lesson until my status as a woman felt threatened, instead of learning it as LGBTQ folks and people of color were screaming it at all of us. But better late than never, I guess. I feel better today than I did yesterday. But part of the reason I am writing this is because I want to remember not to be complacent. This is a bit of a watershed moment for me and I need to record it, so I can go back when I slip into my jokey aloof self, and remind myself that this is how it felt when I really finally understood.

Edit 11/11/16: many of my friends have written their own blog posts about this event, and I recommend them all: Bryn Hughes, Michael McClimon, Jill Brasky. Bryn has also assembled an excellent Spotify playlist