Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Pleasure Garden

The Times Literary Supplement recently published an engaging review of a new book by David Coke and Alan Borg, Vauxhall Gardens: A History. The book exhaustively re-constructs the world of Vauxhall and its enormous appeal to Londoners in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Essentially a pre-industrial amusement park, the pleasure garden, like Vauxhall (and, later, Niblo's in New York City), established a vogue for informal amusement outdoors--extended promenading, ice cream and other novelty refreshments, fireworks, theatrical productions, and big orchestra concerts. It had a tawdry side, too--the grand openness and informality of the park encouraged prostitution, gambling, and other illicit pleasures. One has to wonder at the kind of sensual appeal constructed in the 18th century pleasure garden--an exciting cornucopia of monumental scale, novelty, and informality. Vauxhall and later pleasure gardens were at the forefront of the emerging forms of commercial spectacle in cities that began to shape new groups of eager and devoted consumers--as well as vehement critics and earnest reformers. You could argue that "modern" popular culture starts here.

Especially useful for the study of audiences is the website accompanying an upcoming Foundling Museum exhibition on Vauxhall, curated by David Coke. As with early concerts and theater, we don't actually have much evidence about how people used and really experienced pleasure gardens, but this site collects what we do know, including a list of subscribers (and the souvenir metal "tickets" offered for a season subscription), as well as an online archive of contemporary accounts of the gardens, from the celebratory to the sarcastic.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Chuck Fans

Great post over at the Monkey See blog today by Linda Holmes on the ways that "Chuck" fans challenged the usual assumptions about producer-audience relationships in television. As she writes, "It's a common internet truism that if you're not paying for ad-supported media, you're not the customer — you, as an eyeball to be advertised to, are the product. It's most commonly said about services like Facebook, but it's just as true of ad-supported television. And Chuck fans, in their businesslike enthusiasm, sold themselves as a product." Specifically, to Subway:

Frankfurt School-inspired critiques of fandom sometimes depend on rather narrow notions of producer hegemony: the "culture industry" manipulates; consumers are directly duped or resistant. The case of "Chuck," as Holmes points out, offers a slightly different understanding of who is negotiating with whom and why. It reminds me, actually, of examples of fans embracing alleged manipulative frameworks of exchange and taking perverse pleasure in that "complicity"--from the willingly humbugged visitors to Barnum's Museum in the 1840s to the self-loathing/loving of Sex Pistols fans. (For more on this sort of complexity, see what remains, in my view, one of the best pieces of writing on the topic, Mary Harron's "McRock: Pop as Commodity," in Simon Frith, ed., Facing the Music, 1988).

At any rate, the pop pleasures of "Chuck" end tonight. But pop pleasure will endure.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Whither the Music Collector?

Music Man Murray (trailer) from Richard Parks on Vimeo.

A recent post by C. P. Heiser on The Los Angeles Review of Books blog featured Murray Gershenz, a collector seeking to sell his nearly half-million rare records. He is also the subject of a new documentary by Richard Parks, "Music Man Murray." The post and the film both have good insights about the culture of collecting, something that I've talked a bit about before on this blog, particularly as it relates to fandom. Clearly Gershenz represents a fan practice on the decline, or at least, experiencing a profound shift in meaning and definition. As Heiser writes: "...Outside, the building with his name on its façade appears to be shrinking, just as music, too, has shrunk. These days, music lives inside a few scattered bits of data, the fetishized object becoming, at least for the masses, not so much the music as the little hand-held device upon which it plays."

Whither the music collector? What issues would arise if we tried to write a new version of Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library" in the age of digitization and streaming? Is it time for a "Sorting My Playlist?"

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Giveaway Winner!

Thanks again to everyone who participated in the Listening and Longing Giveaway. (Clearly I'm going to have to start watching "Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock Holmes"). I'm going to turn things over to my daughter Lulu, now, who is going to announce the winner, which was determined by giving a number to each entry and then sorting them with the random number generator at

Hi, this is Lulu. The winner of the contest is: Marc! Because you are at RISD, my dad says that he will bring it to you in person. Congratulations!

Marc, you have won a new paperback copy of Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum, published by Wesleyan University Press in December. The book traces the emergence of music listening in the United States, from the antebellum era, when entrepreneurs first packaged and sold the experience of hearing musical performance, to the Gilded Age, when genteel critics succeeded in redefining the cultural value of listening to music. Its publication is supported by grants from both the American Musicological Society and the Professional Development Fund of Rhode Island School of Design.

“Impeccably researched, Listening and Longing shows us how Jenny Lind was the Lady Gaga of her day. Cavicchi’s excellent use of primary materials, such as 19th-century diary entries and periodicals, document how the seeds were germinated for today’s music-fan culture.”
—Holly George-Warren, author of The Road to Woodstock

“Cavicchi's book is a richly detailed, lucid account of how and why music-listening is an active, participatory aspect of music-loving. Listening and Longing has changed fundamentally the way I think about the development of America’s musical culture.”
—Dale Cockrell, author of Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World

 “With grace and insight, Daniel Cavicchi demonstrates how the first modern ‘cultures of hearing’ emerged in relation to new markets and venues, new urban environments, and new moral taxonomies surrounding the very categories of ‘music,’ ‘audience,’ and ‘listening.’ Pushing well beyond the conventional terrain of early American music studies, this is a work that helps us reconnect the notoriously subjective acts of ‘listening’ and ‘longing’ to their much broader historical contexts.”
¬--James W. Cook, author of The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum

Monday, January 23, 2012

Les Différents Publics de Paris

Stephen J. Gertz, at Booktryst, had an interesting post today about Gustave Doré's Les Différents Publics de Paris (1854), a remarkable set of lithographs depicting the people of Paris in the audience at various public amusements, from a magic show to the library. Through the language of caricature, Doré offers insightful social commentary about audience behavior, from the fawning men in the opera's loge de lions to the casually-refined postures of seated spectators at a wrestling match.

In some ways, the prints remind me of the rich culture of amusements described in Paul Metzner's The Crescendo of the Virtuoso. Metzner points to a significant rise of publicization in France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, that is, the process by which activities and skills that were previously private (everything from making music to athletics) were commodified and made available to new and ever-larger audiences for the purposes of entertainment. Clearly Doré found the changing city of the 1850s interesting, as well; his repeated emphasis, here, is on different publics (an interesting concept in itself), audiencing the talents of others.

Overall, this kind of imagery, especially from period books, magazines, and other ephemera, represents one of the few historical traces that we have for audience behavior in the 19th century. One of the things I've been trying to do on this blog (and in my own research on fandom) is to start a repository of such images. Is there more work like Duré's out there?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Reminder: Listening and Longing Giveaway

Thanks to those who have commented so far on their fandom and entered the Listening and Longing Giveaway! This is just a quick reminder to those still thinking about it that the deadline for entering is Monday morning. Please note that the comment doesn't have to be long; even one word will do.

See you tomorrow for another Name That Audience.

Friday, January 20, 2012

1984 All Over Again?

Bruce Springsteen's new single is a protest song called "We Take Care of Our Own," and Christopher Phillips, Editor of Backstreets Magazine, has offered an insightful analysis of its initial reception. Nothing like a protest song with an anthemic style to breed confusion among casual listeners; as Phillips points out, there's an emerging resemblance, here, to how Springsteen's 1984 hit "Born in the U.S.A." was widely misunderstood in the 1980s, from an endorsement by Ronald Reagan during his presidential campaign to a nod from conservative columnist George Will in the Washington Post (see Overthinking It for a summary). The ways in which people hear a song--especially one with a memorable yet ambiguous refrain that can be rather easily divorced from its contextualizing verses--presents all kinds of interesting questions for reception theory. I suppose we'll have to wait and see what Springsteen does with "We Take Care of Our Own" in concert and whether the presidential candidates start using it at rallies this spring.

By the way, while all this could turn into 1984 all over again, I'm also struck by the ways in which "We Take Care of Our Own" even more strongly invokes another ironic anthem, from 1940, that many people still don't fully understand: "This Land is Your Land." Entirely appropriate in the Woody Guthrie Centennial year, don't you think? Bruce knows what he's doing.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Battlestar Galactica

The television show “Battlestar Galactica” ended in 2009, but I never had cable, so I’m catching up now on Netflix. I’m watching it a lot. In fact, it’s the only thing I’ve been watching over the past month, a behavior that, in a mysterious coincidence pointed out by my friend David Ressel, was recently parodied on the brilliant comedy show “Portlandia.”

I’ve been making the argument to my family that “Battlestar Galactica” is extraordinary television, that the writing and characterization is amazing, that you have to absorb yourself in the episodes in order to understand the multiple levels of meaning, that Edward James Olmos is in it, that it’s not really cheesy science fiction like the original series in the 1970s but rather a profound commentary on the War in Iraq, etc., etc. Reality, of course, is that I used the same intensity to watch “Mary Tyler Moore” reruns in high school and, later, “The Young and Restless,” “China Beach,” and others. In fact, I’ve done this all my life. I have never really just “watched television,” simply doing the act of sitting and seeing whatever was on. I “get into” a show and watch it with focus and enthusiasm. Talk about being on the "edge of your seat"--sometimes I can't help but stand near the screen while a favorite show is on. (Actually, that started because the antenna reception on our TV used to be really bad for certain stations, and you had to get close to hear and make out the shapes in the periodic fuzziness, but still....). I suppose I have what you might call a fan-approach to viewing.

Two things that have come from my recent BG fandom:

1. Non-fans may find this odd, but the characters and plot-lines of these shows have affected me; they have become a part of my thinking and somehow woven into my accumulation of experiences. They crop up at different moments and shape how I understand things. Recently, for instance, biotechnologist Juan Enriquez visited RISD and gave a scintillating talk on the human genome and the ways in which cloning and manipulation of genetic code might aid medical science. When the discussion turned to ethics, I immediately thought, “Just look at what happened with the Cylons!” Sure, that’s the nerdiest thing you might hear today. But it was there.

2. I'm not sure what I think anymore about spoilers. During the days of the “LOST” broadcast, I wholeheartedly embraced the online world of Lostpedia and avidly moved around on discussion boards, like The Fuselage or DarkUFO, before and after every episode to try and crack the mysteries of LOST’s mythology. This time around, though, with "Battlestar Galactica," I have resisted. With "LOST," there was a sense of camaraderie and engagement in spoiling the series as it was happening. As Jonathan Gray and Jason Mittell have suggested, spoiler culture was very much a part of Lost’s “operational aesthetics.” That may have been true, too, of "Battlestar Galactica," but in my engagement with it, now--after the fact of its broadcast serialization and with the answers to its mysteries readily available online--I feel the need to protect myself from those who have already watched it or know about it. When family members teasingly said that they had gone online and knew how the series ended, I covered my ears and fled. I don’t want to know how it ends, or who betrays whom next. This is not so much about eschewing extra-textual pleasures but seems instead about the deferred timing of my viewing experience. The series is functioning differently for me now, as a lone viewer, than it might have if I had watched it with others across the world when it originally aired. Or, maybe it’s just because I’m less interested in the “puzzle” of human-cylon history than in its characters’ developing relationships. I don't know.

I’m not big on extended self-examination, especially on a blog, so I’ll just stop now and say that this has me thinking. What are the various ways in which fans are managing their viewing experiences in this new age of media access? Are there real generational differences (broadcast/post-broadcast TV) that govern how we understand a series, or is it more appropriate to locate diverse engagement as more deeply rooted in individual preference? (After all, there has always been the divide between those who, say, read the conclusion of a mystery novel first and those who prefer to read with naivete). More broadly, what kinds of historical and personal circumstances govern how a person might choose to engage a text?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Football Girl

From Jesse Lynch Williams, The Girl and the Game, and Other College Stories, 1908.

The "football girl" was a type of audience member in the world of collegiate sports at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was defined by a particular historical context involving both the emergence of the "co-ed" on America's college campuses and the growing prevalence of football as the competitive game of choice between institutions in the late 1890s and early 1900s. (Aside from a comic recording by Miss Rae Cox in 1907 titled "Baseball Girl," depicting the ups and downs of a fan's emotions during a game, there is no significant corollary in America's other pastime).

Similar to the matinee girl, the football girl was a common subject of male journalistic curiosity. That someone of the "fairer sex" (gender stereotypes of women as emotional, overly-sensitive, and nurturing were alive and well in the 1900s) would be interested in watching a competitive match involving "brute" physical force was both titillating and confounding for many male writers. Historical descriptions in magazines and books typically described the football girl as separate from "regular" male fans, giving her both "special" and marginalized status, as Freeman Freebush demonstrated in his National Magazine article on football in 1897:
 “…So much for the player. Now for the people who follow the sport. There is an interesting assortment. There is, of course, first of all, the great body of college students, the men who know the game better than they do their alphabet.  At a very respectable distance from them comes the “old grads,” the men who year after year steal away from their business or their profession and “take in” the big matches as religiously as any youth of twenty. On that great day or days they don their colors, swing into line and cheer as lustily as in the days when the world had no care for them. After the above two types comes the average citizen, the man who attends the big games, not always from any great love of the sport but because he makes it a principle of his life to see all the big shows. Anything grand in the spectacular line and he is there. He is the man, moreover, who cheers for the winning team, the “upper-dog” fellow. In his wake, comes the inevitable “little mucker,” always irrepressible, always much in evidence. How some of these urchin-sports manage to secure the price of admission is indeed a sphinx problem, but without them, their antics and their wise remarks, the event would seem sorely incomplete.
  I reserve a separate paragraph in honor of the last and greatest group of spectators—the girls. The world has man creations but none quite so fetching as the football girl. You think you see the American maiden at her best at dances, promenades and summer resorts, but you don’t. She is tame on these occasions compared to the moment when she makes her triumphant entry on Hampden Park or Manhattan Field, a moving vision of bright eyes, sweet smiles, gay colors and a wealth of flowers. A bevy of such starts a cheer from the grand stand all along the line. Excitement and enthusiasm give luster to their faces, anticipation eagerness to their manner. Perhaps they are a trifle conscious of the striking picture they make before such a multitude, and the influence is as wine. Who knows? I’m sure I don’t.” [Freeman Furbush. “Football As We Find It.” National Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 2, November 1897: 161]
Writers regularly marveled at the possibility that women would want to watch football. Commenting on the Yale-Princeton game on Thanksgiving, 1880, for example, writer Henry Chadwick took special pains to note the stamina of the football girls in the audience, who stayed to the end of the game--through a snowstorm--just like the male spectators: 
“…The crowd present to see the match was thoroughly a representative American assemblage. Intelligent in its judgment and in its appreciation of the best points of the contest, full of vim and excitement, and bent on seeing fair play. While partisan feeling was displayed, it was too evenly distributed to exhibit any one-sided prejudices. Both sides were encouraged, and both had a fair filed provided for them. Moreover, there was American pluck shown in the staying powers of the assemblage in facing a heavy snowstorm to see the battle out to its close. In this the ladies present—and plenty of bright eyes gleamed on the manly players in the field from the grand stand—displayed as much spirit as the men. They stood it out to the last, like true American girls, who know no flinching when called upon to countenance their favorites of the opposite sex. Fortunately, the list of wounded in the battle was unusually small, despite the rough mauling and tackling they were in turns subjected to.”
[Henry Chadwick, “Foot-Ball: The College Championship” Brentano’s Monthly, Vol. IV, No. 3,  December 1880: 243-44.]
Conversely, writers rationalized women's presence at such a raucous sporting event by rendering them objects of beauty. As writer Jesse Lynch Williams suggested:
“…A good deal has been said about the American out-of-door girl. She is seen at about her best, I think, at a college football game. Of all the women of all the outdoor crowds in the world, so far as I have had the opportunity of looking them over, these animated faces are the loveliest. Two old bachelors, who are not very ancient, and who always go to games together, have an interesting scheme for deciding which shall pay for the dinner which concludes their day’s fun; they bet on which color will be sported by the greater number of pretty girls. So, as the crowd passes by, they solemnly check off each two girls in turn, according to her colors and her comeliness. That evening they toast all of them.” [Jesse Lynch Williams, “The Day of the Game,” Outing Magazine, 1907: 145]

Image from “The Day of the Game,” Outing Magazine, 1907. Note that the caption suggests that the women are not fans, attending a game for their own pleasure, but rather  the "sisters, cousins, and aunts" of the players. 

An anonymous poem in Judge's Library: A Magazine of Fun focused on the football girl not as a diversion for male audience members but more specifically as a muse for the "strenuous lusty play" of the men on the field: 

The strife is fierce on the gridironed field,
Where the lines of battle sway,
And strength and spirit alike are steeled 
For strenuous, lusty play.
The banner of fame streams forth as prize,
Its beckoning folds unfurl;
But mightier far is the flag that flies
In the hand of the football girl.

And many a stripling chants full oft 
the words of his college cheer,
And many a rival flaunts aloft
His colors of meaning dear.
But, straining phalanx or quivering rows,
Ah, where is the blind, dull churl
Whose heart swells not at the hue that glows
On the cheek of the football girl?

Renown will come to a favored 
The emulous crowd among
Their praise be spread by a generous crew,
In deafening chorus sung.
But, oh, most fortunate he of all
Who, after the furious swirl,
May hear his name as a token fall
From the lips of the football girl.
[Judge’s Library: A Magazine of Fun, No. 173, August 1903: n.p.]

This kind of evidence provides accumulates gender stereotypes and romantic fantasies rather than useful knowledge about women's football culture; we only know about the "football girl" through male eyes. It's clear that women were attending college football games in considerable numbers at the turn of the century and that their participation appeared segregated--both in the stands and in accounts of the games. But I'm still searching for evidence that might help us to learn more about the actual motivations and experiences of these female fans. How did they understand their own participation at games? How did they talk to one another about the play on the field? To what extent were they aware of male assumptions about their participation? Did they care? How did they negotiate those perceptions?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Searching for the Poe Toaster

The latest news among Edgar Allan Poe's followers is that they will wait one last time for the appearance of an anonymous dedicated fan, known as the Poe Toaster, who, until recently, paid tribute to Poe every year on January 19th. Visiting authors' (and performers') grave sites is an old fan tradition. (For more on literary tourism, see my recent post.) What's most fascinating in this example is the extent to which a Poe fan has created his own fans and admirers. As I first argued in Tramps Like Us, the idea that a fan is totally obsessed with the object of his/her fandom is a very naive view; most fans also spend a lot of time enthusing about fandom itself as a means to build and sustain the fan community.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Dr. King's Voice

I have written about oratory before on this blog. Today, I just wanted to point to the enduring power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice--as heard, remembered, recorded, and re-created. Many talk about the content and message of King's speeches, as they should, but I have been struck also about how many news stories there are out there about the auditory experience of his speech: reprints of news accounts of him at the podium, people remembering where they were when they heard the "I Have a Dream" or "Mountaintop" speeches; stories about re-creations of his speeches in community centers and town halls and college auditoriums; people listening to recordings of him speaking and writing about their inspiration. In particular, there have been several accounts over the past several years about the recovery of "lost" recordings of King's speeches and the excitement over our ability to actually hear his ideas anew:

In Cleveland in 1967:

At Kansas State University in 1968:

At Bethel College in 1960:

Part of recounting where and when one heard Dr. King speak is a certain claim to historical authority; we elevate the knowledge that comes from encountering social leaders face-to-face or participating in significant historical moments. But beyond that, I think there really is something special about having the opportunity to give oneself over to the power and resonance of his oratory. After all, we could just silently read transcripts of speeches, or watch his televised appearances, or converse about his legacy. But that's not really how MLK Day has come to work for many Americans. Audio clips of King's speeches are all over the Internet; many people, every year, reflect through listening, just as King, a preacher, asked his congregants in the 1950s and 60s to reflect through listening. This is not simply mimicry. There is something about the recorded human voice that provides for many hearers a sense of immediacy; inflection and "grain" can feel like a more direct trace of a person's body and spirit than published writing or news photographs. His words are still--literally--with us. By re-gathering each year to hear King's voice, we celebrate his legacy but we also create and sustain a new kind of call-and-response, one that is not simply in the past but across the past.

"I Have a Dream" Audio:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Listening and Longing Giveaway

I'm delighted to announce that my new book, Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum, has been released by Wesleyan University Press. This book is a culmination of nearly a decade of research and thinking. After I published an ethnography of music fans, Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans, in 1998, I began to wonder about the history of music listening in the United States (an unusual behavior in the context of the world's music cultures) and started visiting archives to find answers. I transcribed breathless descriptions of concerts from listeners' personal diaries; interpreted amateur commentary scribbled in the margins of concert programs and sheet music; and studied prints, cartoons, paintings, and other public representations of music audiences over time. Ultimately, I began to understand how the experience of hearing music was commercialized, augmented, fought over, institutionalized, and generally re-made between 1835 and 1885, a social drama that helped to shape our modern age of fandom, "following," and "playlists."

At any rate, in order to celebrate this occasion, I would like to give away a new paperback copy of the book to readers of this blog. I'm not very good at this sort of thing, so I am going to hand over the details to my daughter, Bella (who is an experienced blogger in her own right--I'm allowing her a plug at the end of the rules).

Hi :) Here is how you can enter for The Ardent Audience's first-ever giveaway!

The prize: One copy of Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum 
How to enter: Comment on this post and tell us what you're a fan of!
Bonus entries: Follow The Ardent Audience and/or tweet about the giveaway. Leave another comment so we know you have done so.
Giveaway closes: Monday, January 23 at 12 noon, EST.
Number of winners: One

Open to US and international readers, so everyone has a chance to win!

The winner will be chosen from among the comments posted by and announced on Tuesday, January 24.

Good luck :) Bella 

Thanks, Bella. And thanks to everyone who participates! 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Name That Audience 10

Here's an interesting one. What's happening, here? It's obviously a theater, but why is there an audience on both sides of the proscenium? A theater in-the-round? An elaborate production about a large theater audience? The answer is after the jump.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Laurie Anderson on Audience

"The audience creates its own personality, I’ve noticed, in the first five minutes. They will either be generous, funny, silly, withholding, academic, analytical, grudging. And I’m fascinated with how that gets constructed, because it happens right away...."

Musician Laurie Anderson has interesting things to say about audiences in an interview published in the January 2012 issue of The Believer Magazine. She suggests that audiences very much bring with them associations and judgments to any performance--interpretive moves, in Steven Feld's terms--that a performer may, if they choose, then work to subvert with "jump cuts" and other techniques that might "throw things off." That, in turn, can create new sets of expectations. This dynamic game of performer-audience interaction, of course, is one comedians know well (Anderson appropriately mentions Andy Kaufman, with whom she worked in the 1970s, by way of explanation). And it's important to note that it also has a long and storied history in American entertainment, from P.T. Barnum's playfully deceptive exhibitions to today's spoiler culture. Overall, Anderson provoked me to think about questions of reception: Where do expectations for different forms of cultural performance--a comedy show, a concert, a lecture--come from? How do we shape and share audience literacy, not only at the large scale of institutions or culture but also in the dynamics of any performance, moment to moment? Fascinating, indeed!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Protest as Heard

One of the aspects of audience history I’ve been thinking about lately (since 2012 is the Woody Guthrie Centennial) is the reception of protest songs. Music historians and writers typically analyze the composition or performance of protest music; scholarship is relatively plentiful on the content of songs like “Get Off the Track,” “The Preacher and the Slave,” or “We Shall Overcome.” And news features, interviews, and biographies have filled us in about the great performers of protest music, from Woody Guthrie to Rage Against the Machine. But we don’t know very much about how such songs have been encountered by actual listeners in different contexts; what those encounters made people think, feel, or do; or how those songs and their reverberations were woven into the daily lives of abolitionists, workers, activists, teachers, police officers, politicians, businessmen, or even opposition groups.

There is some good work out there that suggest some answers by delving into historical or cultural contexts of social movements. T. V. Reed’s The Art of Protest, Annie J. Randall’s Music, Power, and Politics, and Mark Mattern’s Acting in Concert, among others, all have profound thinking about the power of music in society and in social change. Still, there is a general assumption in the scholarship of music and politics, influenced in part by the folk movement of the 20th century, that the best protest music is a participatory enterprise, a marked ritualized moment in which people make music together and, through that action, cohere and inspire the front lines of a social movement. Obviously, the shared experience that is engendered in such music-making represents a significant form of public discourse and social meaning. Music-making is politics, in that sense. But I think also that there is another way that protest songs operate, especially in the contemporary world of commercial popular music—through listening. How do we make sense of the fan who hears a song of conscience--on the radio or at a concert--or the average citizen who encounters singing protesters in the street? Presumably, that act of audiencing has the potential to change him or her in some way. But how?

Mark Pedelty and Linda Keefe have done a study of this very sort of thing over at the journal Music and Politics ("Political Pop, Political Fans? A Content Analysis of Music Fan Blogs"). Their research focuses on contemporary listeners, however; I wonder whether it might be possible to explore the effects of "political pop" for historical listeners. What was it like to hear Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” during the 1940s? How about a suffragette song like “Give the Ballot to the Mothers” at the turn of the century? When the Hutchinson Family Singers sang “Get Off the Track” in the 1850s, to the tune of the popular minstrel song, “Old Dan Tucker,” what did people hear, exactly?

In fact, what do we make of the large volume of 19th century sheet music that offered social commentary and even confrontation? Who was buying it and why? George P. Holt’s “Wanted a Substitute” (published by Oliver Ditson & Co. in 1863) offered a clever take on the class politics of the Civil War draft and the resentment it created. But how can we accurately assess the kinds of dynamism the song afforded various people in their daily lives in 1863 and beyond?

How protest songs were heard is an area that desperately needs more study. There are so many possibilities, here, for thinking about historical reception—one could go song by song, issue by issue, era by era, documenting listener's interpretive moves and/or the literacies of protest at work in each level of analysis. Scholars of fandom, who are already attuned to the varieties of attention and response to cultural forms, as well as to the intricacies of commercialized manipulation, might have something significant to offer.

Monday, January 2, 2012


The New York Times recently posted a web page, "Why We Collect Stuff," featuring various experts weighing in on the phenomenon of collecting. While purportedly a "debate," the positions aren't really about collecting, or its history, or its complex role in broader realms of audiencing and the arts, but rather about the fine line between collecting and hoarding. Unfortunately, as a whole, it reads a lot like media analyses in the 1980s which sensationally--and wrongly, in my opinion--portrayed fandom as amusing on the surface but always ready to tip over into stalking and murder. (John Hinckley and Mark David Chapman were, in this analytical frame, simply extreme versions of any Trekkie or teenybopper). Why assert, as do several of the Times debaters, that collecting is all well and good in a quick opening sentence and then outline in lengthy detail how it can become a problem? Why connect collecting and hoarding at all?

I expect better from the Times. The narrowness of the debate stems, perhaps, from the fact that several of the debaters are psychologists specializing in compulsion disorders. Few elaborate very deeply on material culture and its long-standing role in creating meaning, memory, and identity for individuals and communities. And few acknowledge the growing academic work on collecting, which suggests that it is not a single behavior, good or bad, but rather an analytical category pointing to a range of human practices that articulate people's relationships with the material world. Where were the curators, anthropologists, and historians? They would have provided definitions of relics, souvenirs, exhibits, artifacts, and collectibles; shown how such items can be made meaningful through accumulation, association, interpretation, gifting, narrative; and situated collecting into wider contexts of imperialism, commericialization, ritual, and the modern self.  

At any rate, check it out, if you want. But do so knowing that there is better analysis and research out there, including the work of Walter Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard, Susan M. Pearce, Susan Stewart, John Elsner, Seth C. Bruggeman, Leonard J. Davis, Daniela Bleichmar and Peter C. Mancall.