Comments on IASPM 2011 conference by Bruce Johnson

During the closing plenary session at IASPM 2011 International conference, six speakers from as many continents were asked to present their summarising comments on the conference. These are Bruce Johnson’s reflections for Australasia.

First, I want once again to thank and congratulate the conference organisers for the logistical triumph they have achieved in getting us all to this relatively inaccessible destination, for looking after us so well and so cheerfully, and for organising not just the conference, but some really memorable excursions. Having organised a number of conferences myself, I know just how much attention to detail this involves, and can well appreciate the labour that has gone into the event. It is also immensely gratifying to see so many local scholars, and especially early career researchers, taking such effective advantage of this international forum, and it is a revelation to see how much activity there is here in popular music studies. Apart from what I have learned about popular music in this part of the world, I think that this interaction is likely to become an important long-term ‘seeding’ event for local popular music studies and a further welcome enlargement of our international community. But the comments I want to make are not so much about the specifics of this particular conference, but the ways in which this event has reflected aspects of the profile of the international IASPM community. And there is good news and bad news on that profile.

As always, I have heard some wonderfully inspiring papers and sessions, as well as some presentations that were so dismally inept that I think all academic institutions should introduce workshops that give its students, and most particularly its post-graduate students, as well as its early career staff some basic skills in conference presentation. But wherever the papers stood on the spectrum of quality, one thing that was most refreshing to me was the impression I had that the infatuation with post-structuralist derived theory has now cooled. Even as recently as a decade ago, you could still hardly attend an IASPM session with having to be screened from musical practices by a Heath-Robinson apparatus being wheeled ostentatiously out, constructed of theory that had little or nothing to do with the phenomenology of sound. These were felt to be obligatory rather than optional tools in our tool-box. I still attend the occasional literary studies conferences to remind myself how fortunate I am to have IASPM. Those literary conferences, still lumbered with oppressive theoretical frameworks that function to mystify the field and conceal a deficiency of actual engagement with it, remind me of how refreshing it has been to slip out the back door into cultural history and popular music studies. For a while there, our own field seemed to me in danger of disappearing into the same black hole, but at this conference, I felt a much more direct engagement with actual musical practices, and it has been wonderfully refreshing to escape the stink of decomposing theory.

But – and now a bit of bad news – the tendency to ‘presentism’ continues, I think, to be a feature of the overall ‘intellectual physiognomy’ of our organisation. An influential Australian public intellectual, Max Harris, once declared that the problem with Playboy centre-fold women was that they look as though they don’t know where they have been. This is a wonderfully succinct way of articulating the link between glossy objectification and deracination from history. The subjects of these photographs look as though they have no past – and therefore, of course, no future. If we are not engaging with the history of our field, then I suggest we can’t adequately engage with the present. And I think a schematic summary of the programme of this conference suggests that as a community, we are not very historically attuned. Let us say conservatively that the Anglo-European tradition of popular music is about 350 years old. I would argue for much older, but just now I want to steer clear of gratuitous contentiousness. I am suggestion 350 years because we can date from the late seventeenth century the emergence of several circumstances which enabled and encouraged the formation the ideas and material conditions which incubated what we can call popular music: the development of public concert music, of the distinction between high and low cultures, and attempts, peaking through the 19th century, to regulate and suppress vernacular and street musics. So, I think it is not exceptionable in a sketch this brief to imagine the history of our field to be at least 350 years old. A survey of the conference programme suggests that, roughly, fewer than 3% of the papers delivered dealt with the first 300 years of that history, say 1650 to 1950. About 32% of the papers were devoted to the half-century from 1950 to 2000. And a massive 65% or so dealt with the last decade. Three percent for 300 years, 65% for ten. Is this not a disconcerting imbalance, suggesting that ‘we don’t know where we have been’?

Of course, there is no objection to be made if individuals wish to focus their attention on music of the present, but I believe there should also be a greater collective sense of the history of our field. Off-hand I can’t think of any established academic discipline that does not include in its sensibility a comprehensive awareness of such a history. Literary studies, other forms of cultural studies, including traditional musicology, all locate their subject areas within a historical perspective, and their attentions embrace the whole historical span. Popular music studies is, I think, the only field of cultural studies that does not. This means that we have little understanding of the cultural history that makes us and our music what we are. In very practical terms, it means that we are studying musics which are still in historical terms, a mere blip. This seriously limits our musical imaginary, our sense of the full sonic range of popular music. It means that we are likely to imagine music in terms of sonic excess, as something emptied of silence and confined to a very narrow dynamic range, both of which generally characterise pop music since the late 20th century. To me this ahistorical profile is the mark of an immature discipline. How many other cultural research fields would devote 95% of its attention to the last 60 years of the history of its field? In practical terms, I would be delighted to see the introduction of a conference stream that specifically calls for papers that deal with pre-twentieth century popular music, and its continuities with the present. Apart from commenting on this presentist bias, I repeat my usual suggestion that it might also be an instructive exercise for us also to study musical practices that we don’t like, or musics that we do like but wouldn’t want to be caught listening to.

And finally, once again, my thanks to the wonderful organisation of this logistically challenging event, which I believe will be immensely stimulating for the future of popular music studies in this region. And thanks also to all of you for the fellowship, collegiality and for sending me away knowing a great deal more than I did when I arrived.

Bruce Johnson, 7 July 2011

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