Saturday, March 2, 2013

Fans, Artists, Love, and Exchange

Punk has always challenged traditional models of artist-audience interaction, from DIY culture to the contradictions of the record industry selling rebellion against the record industry (for more on the latter, watch The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, then read Mary Harron's "McRock: Pop as a Commodity" in Facing the Music: A Pantheon Guide to Popular Culture, ed. by Simon Frith). The latest wrinkle in this thread of punk history is Amanda Palmer's innovative use of online culture, including Twitter and Kickstarter, to bypass the record industry and to ask fans directly to support her artistry. She explains her approach in a recent TED Talk, "The Art of Asking," which just went up online:

TED Talks are always a little awkward (I remember someone once tweeting that they are occasions "where business people and academics pretend to like one another" - who was that?), but this talk seemed awkward in a somewhat useful way, introducing the typically staid TED audience to the glories of edgy performance art and cabaret-punk. It has not been without controversy--last year, Palmer ran into some public criticism of her essentially anarchist business model in terms of paying guest musicians, and how she addresses this controversy in the TED talk has been a matter of further discussion in the blogosphere.

I am more interested, though, in what all this says about fandom and its place in the sales and marketing of music in the digital age. Are fans rebels or ultra consumers? What are the right and wrong ways to recognize their devotion? Who, if anyone, should own crowd-sourced work? How might such questions help us to rethink (or rediscover) the participatory nature of arts? There is a lot of thinking out there about these questions, of course, from Liza Potts' investigations of Palmer's fan base to Henry Jenkins' wide-ranging work on new media distribution to Lewis Hyde's thinking about gift culture and the commons. Looks like a good new undergraduate seminar, no?

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Phantoms on the Bookshelves is a charming memoir of bibliomania, by French editor and writer Jacques Bonnet. Treading in the footsteps of classics like Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library," Bonnet offers a series of reflections on his personal library and, more generally, on the quality of a life lived with books. Its 123 pages can be enjoyed in an afternoon; its charm lies in Bonnet's quiet self-awareness and wry humor. Throughout Bonnet mentions not only the books he has read (and re-read) but also the numerous authors who have, throughout human history, written about their reading and their libraries. For those interested in books about books, this tiny volume is a great map.

Bonnet is interested in something I've been pondering a lot lately: from where does a passion for books (or passion for the arts, in general) come? In the beginning of the book, he mentions how "reading...penetrated, like a shaft of sunlight, through the gloomy atmosphere of a provincial childhood of the 1960s" and about how both escape from and knowledge of the world excitingly tarried with each other for him during the tumult of France in the late-1960s. These answers are circumstantial, pointing to the power of books to re-contextualize us, to subvert the conditions in which we find ourselves. But he also wonders about the force of sheer curiosity: "The fanatical reader is not only anxious, he or she is curious. And surely human curiosity--condemned as it was by certain Fathers of the church as being of no purpose since the coming of Christ, and even prohibited, since we now have the Gospels--is one of the determining factors of all our actions? A capital element in the search for knowledge, in scientific discoveries or technological progress, the essential force behind human endeavour..." (29)

Otherwise, I was taken with his repeated assertion about libraries as alive. For readers, this is a common reality; for non-readers, it might seem hyperbolic. It is not easy to explain. Bonnet says, "A strange relationship becomes established between the bibliomaniac and his (or her) thousands of books...We may have chosen its themes, and the general pathways along which it will develop, but we can only stand and watch as it invades all the walls of the room, climbs to the ceiling, annexes the other rooms one by one, expelling anything that gets in the way." (31) Bonnet is genuinely surprised as he writes to us about his library, seeing things he had not seen before. "How did these books get into my library?" he asks at the start of chapter 5. The question is not entirely rhetorical.

One of the funniest moments was his discussion of how "human reality sometimes intrudes strangely into the principles of classification" of any library, noting how book collectors think long and hard about which books should be allowed together or forced apart. Apparently, the author of a rulebook for personal libraries in the Victorian era suggested that works of male and female authors had to be separated "unless the parties are married to one another," (41); Bonnet quotes the hero of a bibliomaniacal novel, The House of Paper, who worries about putting Borges next to Garcia Lorca, Shakespeare next to Marlowe, or other potentially unpleasant social situations.

In the end, Bonnet assert that "hundreds of thousands of people live in my library." First, he notes that each book contains a host of "imaginary" characters, with whom we have a deep experiential and psychological communion, who are always there, living their stories for eternity. Second, while asserting that authors are only fragmentary apparitions about which readers know very little, he argues that readers nevertheless are are invested in their reality and are always in search of books' creators. "We are so anxious to maintain the illusion that the author is a real person that we cannot be satisfied simply with an orphan work of literature." (83) Of course, these are the two foundations of fandom--sustained passion for a work and the quest to establish a lasting and strong relationship with others, famous or humble. Escape and knowledge.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Musicking in Early America

I woke up this snowy morning to check my email and sleepily surf through my usual list of journals and sites, and what did I find? An entire issue of the online journal Common-Place devoted to "Music and Meaning in Early America." Exciting! The articles explore a wide range of issues and topics from musical representations of King Philip's War to sacred music and Southern nationalism after the Civil War. (There is also a review of Listening and Longing by historian David W. Stowe). One of the guest editors, Nikos Pappas, explains: 
...Rather than trying to define American music according to a narrow understanding and definition, the contributors to this special issue of Common-place explore the multivalent world of British North America and the United States for its first three centuries of existence. They reveal uniquely American trends in music performance, composition, and the climate for musicking, especially in the period predating recorded sound as well as the replication of European practice in the Western Hemisphere and its resonance and use in its new environment. Together, their essays explore the many ways in which music existed in the United States. The result reveals how disparate and quirky American music was in that period.
Have a look, if you get a chance.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fandom and the Public Sphere

In 2009, I talked with literary scholar Barbara Ryan about her ongoing project on Ben-Hur fans. She has been researching the political efficacy of Ben-Hur fandom and the complexities of the "citizen-audience," a term that has gained traction in media studies through the work of scholars like Richard Butsch, Joke Hermes, Toby Miller, etc. At the time, I wasn't fully aware of the specific ways that audience studies and citizenship studies had been intersecting, but now I'm starting to encounter this approach more broadly across both academic and professional fields.

The latest was a post by Peter Gutierrez last month on his Connect the Pop blog. Citing the ways that students' participation in online fandom might offer opportunities for learning not only "netiquette" and basic online safety but also civic engagement more broadly, Gutierrez offers K-12 students a "Digital Fandom Checklist" to help students think about the social contexts and commitments the shape their fandom. Given the strong, long-term, communal nature of fandom, Gutierrez notes, "Fans must take into account not just the short-term value of making a point or having the last word, but their long-term relationships with their fellow fans, both individually and generally, the latter insofar as they’re developing a reputation or history within fandom." He goes on to suggest that the particularly social framework of fandom can help students to begin to work out what it means to engage publicly with others in a democracy, especially around issues that are fraught with strong feelings, even tension.

Obviously, there is much much more to think about in terms of how media, audiencing, education, and civics have influenced one another, especially in different historical contexts of social transformation. But I like that Gutierrez has provided teachers, librarians, and students with a means to start analyzing and applying ideas emerging from the growing scholarship on citizenship and audience.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Introducing Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte arrives in the RISD Auditorium, January 29, 2013. Photo by John Maeda, via Twitter
I've had an ongoing interest in the power of oratory since I started researching "cultures of hearing" in the 19th century. Anti-slavery activists, temperance reformers, Lyceum lecturers, campaigning politicians, evangelical preachers--19th century urban Americans were not only surrounded by speech but believed in the potential of an utterance to transform one's life. This history really came alive for me last night, when I had the honor to introduce--and hear--singer and activist Harry Belafonte, who was visiting Rhode Island School of Design as part of its 2013 celebration of Martin Luther King's legacy.
Where can I possibly start to introduce you to the exceptional achievements of Harry Belafonte?  
For me, the best way to sum up this work is to think about the voice. The voice, of course, is the key tool of any singer and actor, and Mr. Belafonte's emergence as a star in the 1950s was centered on it--a controlled baritone, textured with a slight rasp, punctuated by sharp articulation, capable of explosive, raw emotion. His voice could work wonders with audiences. Starting out as a jazz crooner, he soon expanded to a broad repertoire of spirituals, calypso, gospel, the blues, and folk; in all, he transformed the melodic simplicity of traditional songs into passionate declarations of a diverse world. In movies, Broadway, and television, too, his voice became a recognizable element of the sonic landscape of America. He was the first African American to have a million-selling record, the African American to win a Tony, the first African American television producer, the first African American man to win an Emmy, the first African American to host "The Tonight Show"--the list of superlatives reflecting his boundary-breaking achievements as a singer and actor goes on and on.  
The idea of the voice, of course, also emphasizes the importance of Mr. Belafonte's social and political activism. More than any other entertainer in the latter half of the twentieth century, Mr. Belafonte has given his voice, enhanced by his celebrity, to the cause of global equity and human rights. It's another version of that Kevin Bacon "six degrees" game; name a social justice movement since the 1950s and you can connect Mr. Belafonte to it.  
He was a confidant of Martin Luther King and strategist for the Civil Rights Movement. He was a cultural advisor to the Peace Corps and liaison between leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and of liberation movements in Africa. He was a public advocate for the American Indian Movement. He established TransAfrica, a group instrumental in shaping the anti-Apartheid divestment movement. He was the founder of USA for Africa and its benefit album We Are the World, which addressed widespread famine in Ethiopia. He was a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, conducting fact-finding in Rwanda just after the 1994 genocide and later working across Africa to promote public education and awareness of HIV and AIDS. He organized Nelson Mandela's triumphant tour of the United States in 1990. More recently, he organized the Gathering for Justice to address the crisis of youth incarceration, and he led the movement against U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. And I'm only touching the surface, here, of his remarkable record of activism. 
This is not just about Harry Belafonte's voice, though. All voices are central to a functioning democracy. America is a country with a robust history of declarations, public hearings, presidential debates, oral arguments, mainstream voices, minority voices, dissenting voices, free expression. We all want a "chance to speak" and to receive "a fair hearing." It's why Walt Whitman celebrated "America singing" in 1850 and also why some of the most deeply troubling historical moments in U.S. history have involved silencing, from the sedition act of 1798 to the electoral exclusion of women and minorities. In this light, Mr. Belafonte has done something quite extraordinary throughout his career--not only has he raised his voice in song, not only has he given his voice to the cause of social justice, but he has, in doing those things, created new spaces in which those made voiceless can speak themselves and participate anew in public discourse.  
In Protestant Christianity, there is a tradition of being called to service, of hearing a voice that guides one to speak and act in the world, sometimes in ways that are contrary to worldly assumptions about value or success. However you might feel about the religious nature of this phenomenon, its basic idea has also animated democratic activism and change for centuries: voicing, hearing, and action are deeply intertwined. In that spirit, let us listen now, in the hope that we might find the inspiration to speak and act ourselves. Ladies and gentlemen, let us give a warm welcome to Mr. Harry Belafonte.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Audiences: Noisy, Social, Silent, Uptight

“The box-circle.” Sigismund Ivanowski, 1905. “Cabinet of American Curiosities.” Library of Congress.
Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan highlighted a portion of an interview with musicologist Carolyn Abbate, talking about her new book (co-authored with Roger Parker), A History of Opera. Titling the post "Before Opera was Uptight," Sullivan emphasizes Abbate's suggestion that reverent silence at the opera was instituted by composer Richard Wagner in the 1870s, and that such reverence has led young people ever since to eschew opera performance for more social and boisterous forms of popular music performance.

I'm not so sure. The shift from noisy to silent audiences in the late nineteenth century has been articulated before, most notably by Lawrence Levine in Highbrow/Lowbrow and John Kasson in Rudeness and Civility. It also has been criticized before by music historians like William Weber, Ralph P. Locke, and Joseph Horowitz. Based on my own research on nineteenth-century music lovers, I have to say that I agree more with the critique. I don't dispute that there was a change in expectations for the behavior of audiences for public performance between 1850 and 1910, but I worry that accounts of "imposed religiosity" on late nineteenth-century performance tend to unnecessarily homogenize people's historical experiences of music (audiences are either entirely boisterous or entirely reverent), and underplay how very uneven and complex the change was (audiences are portrayed too simply as loose and fun before the 1870s and then stodgy and uptight after).

As I wrote in Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum:
...Interpretations of classical reform as a break with more unruly and vibrant forms of audience participation also tend to gloss over the extent to which the reform movement depended on the already-established existence of devoted music listening, something to which the movement added new utopian ideas about the function of music loving in an increasingly anonymous and commercialized society. 
Both Kasson and Levine, for example, have talked about the “silence” that accompanied classical music appreciation, particularly how the imposition of new rules to keep audiences silent during performances were a means to overcome and control, in the words of Kasson, “boisterous informality and conviviality.”  However, the evidence of audience behavior in the diaries of actual listeners indicates that silent listening is not the most accurate way to capture changing practices and aesthetic debates among post-Civil War music audiences. Antebellum music lovers valued silence as much as postbellum audiences; for the former, silence enabled them to fully experience the skills of virtuosos and was a sign of engagement and astonished appreciation. Instead of introducing the novelty of silence to a noisy environment, postbellum reformers changed the meanings and uses of silence according to new beliefs about the definition and function of music. (173)
At any rate, I look forward to reading Abbate and Parker's book and learning more.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Archiving Tweets

Before the World Wide Web, Internet bulletin boards and discussion lists provided me with a new means for doing ethnographic work among fans. Today, online activity is more important than ever for those who study human social life and institutions, and it has fallen to archivists to find ways to usefully record our collective digital traces. As part of that effort, the Library of Congress just published an update about its new archive of tweets, a project that has been underway since 2010. They are currently trying to figure out how to index over 120 billion tweets and provide access to researchers, which, as the report explains, is an enormous and expensive task.

Whenever it works out, I'm most excited about the possibilities of this archive for audience studies. Some still dismiss Twitter as only record of the mundane (something, actually, that could be quite fascinating), but I think one of the most interesting aspects of Twitter culture has been the phenomenon of "live tweeting" various events, from concerts and television shows to elections and storms. As a kind of "event marginalia," such tweets might offer real insight into reception, social discourse, and diverse kinds of audience behavior.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reading in Public

If you've come across this blog before, you probably know that I enjoy talking about reading as much as--well, reading. That's why I enjoyed this post by Scott Aiken and Robert Talisse, about "Reading Weird Books in Public," over at 3 Quarks Daily. Apparently, people have strong reactions to what others read. Think of it as a kind of social marginalia.

As an academic whose professional life revolves around reading, I bring books everywhere. There is always reading to be done, and, as a parent who must drop-off and pick-up children on a daily basis, I am often waiting, with time to kill. Why not catch up on the latest journal? Take notes on a book for research? Prep for the next class reading? It doesn't really matter whether it's at the mall or gymnastics class or on the soccer field--if there's light, I can read.

Apparently this is not always cool. Usually, I don't ever get more than a second glance, or someone wise-cracking "a little light reading, eh?," when I am spotted outside of the classroom with an academic monograph. Of course, there was that one time when a woman on a plane was curious about my copy of David Mitchell's The Cloud Atlas and asked if I were "studying to be a meteorologist." And I do still get grief from my family about the time I sat amidst roaring fans in the stands at a high school football game, engrossed in Brian Ward's Just My Soul Responding. (In my defense, I had class the next morning).

Inappropriate reading has a long history, reaching at least into the 18th century, including workers sharing pamphlets, housewives engaging in novels instead doing housework, etc. (see I never really thought about the extent to which we still maintain all kinds of prescriptions and rules about what, when, and where to read. It may not be threatening anymore, but it can still provoke.

For more on the contemporary phenomenon of reading in public, be sure to check out:
Underground New York Public Library