Postcards from a PhD
Snowball sampling is something I have vague memories of from studying A-level sociology. It’s basically a technique of recruiting participants for a study via the existing participants, each new person referring new people. This is pretty much how my method of selecting reading works: find an article, ransack the bibliography for further reading and repeat until you have a ‘to read’ pile large enough to function as a coffee table. It does seem a slightly chaotic method of finding literature, but it’s working so far and no one seems to have come up with a better method. Today I decided to tackle a few papers from my to read pile that had been pushed to the bottom. Things at some point I thought looked interesting, might be relevant, might not. I guess the only way to find out is to read them.
‘Rock Critics as “Mouldy Modernists”’ by Becky Shepherd, PORTAL Journal of Multidisiplinary International Studies, 8:1, 2011.
Shepherd starts by posing three questions; why rock criticism is tied to the past, why the music press propagates a fixation with canonical rock and how the specialist music press generates retrospectivity in contemporary popular culture. We’re slightly on the back foot here as ‘rock’ isn’t defined other than as an ideological binary opposite to ‘pop’, which isn’t terribly helpful. Shepherd rejects explanations of nostalgia that are causally associated with dissatisfaction with the present, preferring to draw on Jameson and the idea of an ‘imaginary museum’ from which elements of the past are taken, rearranged and re-contextualised. However, Shepherd doesn’t buy into the idea that this process is simple similitude, as her reading of Jameson suggests. Instead, I think what she is arguing here is that this process is more progressive than the notion of pastiche might imply. As for why the fixation with ‘the canon’, this relates to what Shepherd calls an ‘ascribed authenticity’ and a self interest within the music press in maintaining the ‘myth of rock’s own ideological effects’. Shepherd claims “the contemporary specialist music press continues to valorise canonical rock music at the peril of other constituent genres of popular music (pop, rap, hip-hop, and the many permutations of dance music for example)”. Here one has to question what ‘specialist music’ publications Shepherd has been reading because the last time I loitered in WH Smiths there were as many magazines on dance music, hip hop and DJ culture as there were ‘retro’ publications valorising classic rock. That’s not to mention the mountains of free publications – like The Skinny and Loud and Quiet – found at music venues that certainly cannot be accused of prioritising ‘the rock canon’ over more contemporary music. And anyway, don’t the other genres mentioned have a canon of their own? Diplomatically filed as ‘not relevant’.
‘”…This Little Ukulele Tells the Truth”: Indie Pop and Kitsch Authenticity’, by Emily I. Dolan, Popular Music 29, 2010.
This was an article that found its way into my to read pile while I was pondering whether the ephemeral culture of hauntological music was a continuation of the indie tradition of appropriating ‘outsider’ culture, placing value on the mainstream has rejected. The fact that Dolan uses the music of Stephin Merritt, probably best known for his work as The Magnetic Fields, was a bonus. I’m regretting leaving it on the pile for so long now, it’s a great paper, really great.
‘…This Little Ukulele Tells the Truth’ explores the relationship between personal authenticity and the relationship to consumer capital in indie music using the concept of kitsch. Dolan explores “the problem of espousing the aesthetics of rebellion and countercultural ideals while at the same time depending on the mechanisms of mass culture for dissemination and distribution”. Kitsch, which Dolan is quick to divorce from associations with bad taste, is a useful concept because of its relationship to temporality. Old forms used in new contexts are often considered kitsch, drained of their original meaning but still sustaining memory. In music, using old forms as referents to the past can create this element of kitsch and Dolan suggests that indie uses this ‘temporal and aesthetic disjunction’ to sound deliberately outdated, employing odd instruments, old electronics and naive performance intentionally to develop an aesthetic of memory (Dolan uses the original conception of aesthetics as a study of sensation, not just style). These elements also break the illusion of an unmediated experience with the music, drawing attention to its production, its materiality and the experience of the listener and in doing so create a sense of ‘authenticity’.
Dolan also raises some really interesting points in relation to the physical culture of indie music and collecting. She brings in an intriguing point by Keir Keightley that I am really rather taken with, suggesting that as indie essentially operates on a reduced scale of capitalism this may relate to its ‘investment in the miniature’, exhibited in the form of boutique stores, attachment to the 45rpm single, limited editions, the homemade etc. Dolan relates indie consumption to authenticity due to its reliance on “time, effort and curiosity” and notes indie listeners’ interest in ‘found’ music, tying this back to the concept of kitsch via Walter Benjamin and the idea that kitsch value may be generated when art is appreciated not for its ‘original aura’ but for its sentimental value. A fascinating and broadly researched paper. I’m filing this one under ‘revisit in more depth’.
‘Some Things a Scene Might Be’ by Will Straw, Cultural Studies, 29:3, 2015.
This made its way onto my to read pile based on an interesting article on the material culture of music by Will Straw, which I covered under my post on residual media. Also in a Guardian piece Andrew Gallix suggested that hauntology was the first trend in critical theory to have developed online. I wondered if this could be extended to hauntology as a music trend, or scene and hoped Straw’s article might shed some light on this. Unfortunately, ‘Some Things a Scene Might Be’ almost exclusively focuses on location-based scenes so is not hugely relevant to me in this sense. Straw does, however, note the potential for this as an area of research, that is scenes that are not dependent on relationships of physical proximity, such as that of online gaming. Filing this one under ‘interesting but not relevant’.