Tom Moore Ethnography in Progress

What is popular music? The answer is obvious: music that is popular. Despite that, its shorthand form, “pop music,” draws an almost entirely different image to mind. “Pop music” is bubblegum, commercial, formulaic, etc. yet that definition leaves a massive divide between commercial music and ‘high-art’ music. In between is the creative work of many people who are neither exclusively commercial nor explicitly interested in the forms of music that are lazily grouped together as the “classical” forms. Popular music is often considered a genre, but while most genres are defined by timbral qualities, popular music cannot be. The popular music of Germany is timbrally different from the popular music of Japan; both are different from the popular music of Perú. The popular music of Brooklyn is different from the popular music of Nashville; both are different from the popular music of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Lady Gaga might leak into all these countries/cities, but most people would not consider the commercial pop of Southern California and New York to be the sole expression of popular voice through music. Even in more microcosmic communities popular musics can exist, as was seen the Gay and Hispanic dance music scenes of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. These musics represent the popular voice of communities however large or small and are not necessarily for ‘music’s’ sake or for profit’s sake. Popular music is not Gay, nor Hispanic, nor necessarily tied to the common person, nor is it solely the property of the musically uneducated.

So what is it? Popular music is not defined timbrally, commercially, or demographically. Seeing popular music in its various incarnations, though, does reveal some common characteristics. Today, popular music’s listeners are starkly divided between those who listen and those who listen and attend shows. By this I mean that popular music is consumed in its recorded form, and then some, more dedicated fans go to shows and support the live element of popular music acts. Some of the less-musically-inclined might have Kanye West and The Beatles on their computers or phones, and they might very well take the music seriously for any number of non-musical reasons. My own father, who often reminds me of his “complete unawareness” of music will nonetheless comment on the greatness of bands and musicians like the Eagles, for their relatable lyrical content while driving around northern Michigan in a truck, or Led Zeppelin, for providing him the memorable slow dance to Stairway to Heaven at his 7th grade junior-high dance. It seems in these examples that popular music serves as a context for one’s culture, and different cultures have different musics that vary in importance to the particular culture’s identity. The culture of private headphone music that contributes to the silent ocean of noise in any college library is a popular music that helps define a particular scene, demographic, etc. The music scene of any particular college is a popular music in that it functions as a popular voice in its presence, accessibility, and power as a social agent. In Bard’s own music scene, certain venues cater to different live popular musics and attract strikingly different audiences for reasons such as the line-up, social benefits (new friendships, hooking-up), supporting friend’s bands, discovering new music, or simply providing something for a bored student to do on a slow weekend/weekday night. Photographs of Bard shows reveal repeating faces always in the front of the various venues staring straight at performers as they play. Participant observation reveals the large swarms of people outside conversing among friends for seven-minute cigarette breaks or for entire nights, never seeing the bands that often travel from afar to play the venues that have hosted many now-celebrated popular musicians. Probably every freshman that enters Bard knows that Bard spawned Steely Dan and the Beastie Boys, that Bruce Springsteen’s son briefly attended, fewer may know that Bob Dylan sings about Bard in Subterranean Homesick Blues, or that the Sherman Brothers, a songwriting duo whose music was featured in countless Disney movies and thus became parts of the soundtracks of many millions of Americans’ childhoods, also attended Bard. Jonathan Richman, the legendary front man of The Modern Lovers asked to play Bard just last year. The list goes on, which would not necessarily be so surprising, given that any college could have a popular act come and play a show for its students, but Bard doesn’t simply have a budget that pays the greats to come to Bard and perform. Bard doesn’t pay the price for these performers to come. What is peculiar is that they start here, or come of their own, private volition. It is not uncommon for Bard to have hosted a band one year that goes virally popular the next. When I spoke to Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear and the Department of Eagles he reflected fondly on Grizzly Bear’s second show ever at SMOG, Bard’s largest (maximum capacity as per fire code: 49 persons) music venue. After I spoke with him, he continued to help the staff of the Music Hall of Williamsburg pack up his gear after his sold-out show that closed his national tour of 2014.

Bard’s scene is certainly an enigma. There is hardly a space on campus or off campus to provide industry standard accommodations for touring musicians. SMOG is a two-car garage, the Root Cellar is a root cellar, and the Rat Shack is a living room/kitchen that empties out about once a month for twenty odd people to watch bands play for a few hours. These three venues will be the focus of my study of the audiences of popular music in live settings. Each serves a distinct purpose for Bard’s particular popular music but sometimes the purposes are conflated. The audiences are fluid, yet the behaviors of the audiences at different shows or venues all have some similar qualities. There are the passionate and there are those who wear their attendance like a fashionable garment. Both these types and others are essential to the popular music audience. All are tuned into the wavelength and there is hardly any consensus as to what that wavelength actually is.

The reason I chose these three sites is that the first two (SMOG and The Root Cellar) are basically home to Bard’s on-campus scene. The Rat Shack is a particularly active off-campus venue, but represents most any off-campus venue in that it is A) not fundamentally a venue and B) that it has been passed down by previous tenants who hosted shows and therefor has a reputation for being a house that hosts shows for Bard students. I am closely tied to these sites because I am a “club head” of SMOG (meaning that I am one of two chief operators of the venue), I meet weekly with the club heads of The Root Cellar to discuss music budgeting and team efforts, and I share a backyard with the Rat Shack and will often lend them my equipment for their shows. Bard’s music scene is my scene. Because of my deep involvement, I very much consider myself a “halfie” as I have a hard time distinguishing myself as a clear ‘other’ to the culture I am investigating. (Abu-Lughod, Writing Against Culture, 153) I also have a deep affinity for Bard’s music scene, but I will nonetheless do my very best to dedicate adequate time to assessing and challenging my views of music culture at Bard.

  1 comment for “Tom Moore Ethnography in Progress

  1. Jacob Merrell
    April 27, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Hey Tom Tom. The thing I want to add to your descriptions, which are precise and articulate to my eye, is that popular music (and this is not a definition I’m proposing but an observation) is often that which you hear frequently in certain locales. You touch on this with your description of the library. In a lot of ways, I think we can think of subjects discussed and views put forward in popular music as affecting the discourse of listeners. Popular songs give us lyrics that we repeat to ourselves without considering as well as language that we share with our friends. Plenty of our weekend nights are spent with people who talk some percentage of the time in memorized popular raps. What does that say about the power of pop? Is that a feature common to pop? I know I said I wasn’t trying to define pop here, but is it possible that this relationship with popular discourse could be a distinguishing or even defining feature of pop? I love the idea that it could be.

Comments are closed.