"R-E-S-P-E-C-T (Find out What It Means to Me)": Feminist Musicology and the Abject Popular

By Cook, Susan C. | Women & Music, Annual 2001 | Go to article overview
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"R-E-S-P-E-C-T (Find out What It Means to Me)": Feminist Musicology and the Abject Popular


Cook, Susan C., Women & Music


As a feminist first and a musicologist second, my research and teaching start from the premise that the work I do matters, and it matters in a way that can be called political. It is more than embracing the well-worn feminist belief that "the personal is political"; it is also practical. I don't have the time resources to do lots of things, and so the things I choose to do must advance my interrelated goals of creating community, achieving equity, and, well, having fun. Doing work that matters also comes from my desire to live holistically. I am the most productive and easiest to live with when I feel how the various parts of my life are building resonances with each other. A desire to do scholarly work that mattered brought me to the pleasures of feminist musicologies (the plurals are intentional), and it is now what keeps me committed to doing feminist research and writing on "popular" musics.

My self-identification with popular music is relatively new, although I've been working on a ragtime dance study for more years than I care to remember. Initially I identified with this century; I was a "Twentieth-Century Person," labeling myself as we musicologists like to do by our chronological focus. (Although as an old boyfriend used to chide me, "We're really all twentieth-century people.") Then I became a card-carrying Americanist through my affiliation with the Society for American Music. (1) Now "the popular" has become my passion, because for me the most troubling legacy of twentieth-century modernism perpetuated by twentieth-century scholars regardless of their historical foci has been the creation and maintenance of hierarchical--and largely fictitious--dichotomies of all kinds. One of the most fiercely believed in draws a distinction between "classical" and "popular," or "serious" and "popular," or "cultivated" and "vernacular."

Like so many hierarchical categories, the "popular" and the "classical" are imaginary, and yet they are powerfully imagined. A great deal of energy goes into keeping these categories circulating and often in simplistic and uncritical ways. We use the labels easily, yet it is rarely clear what we do indeed mean, what constellation of socioeconomic contexts, practices of consumption, or criteria for inclusion or exclusion we seek to identify--in short, what kinds of value we are assigning and why, what kinds of "popularity" we either celebrate or debase. These categories, like patriarchy itself, were historically created, and every time we use the terms, we call into being something that does not necessarily exist except as a kind of shadow. And through naming it without defining it, we give it extraordinary discursive power to shape us and our larger cultural landscape.

I admit that I'm not altogether sure anymore what I mean when I use the term "popular music," as the world of the "popular" expands for me daily. A graduate seminar I taught a year ago wrestled for weeks defining "popular music" and eventually decided there was no one definition, yet it was incumbent upon each of us to try and define it within the contexts of our own work. For me, it means taking seriously the listening and musical recreational habits of groups of individuals in different times and places. Like Anahid Kasabian, I value "ubiquitous music," "the musics heard most by the most people every day." (2)

What bothers me about our fictional categories like "popular" and "classical" is that they are set into tension with one another. They don't simply exist as a pair of labels, resting comfortably side by side, but are almost always set up in inequitable relationships of power and prestige wherein "the popular" gives "the classical" its worth; the "classical" is worthwhile only if the "popular" is worthless. And the hierarchies keep replicating internally so that within the "classical" you uncover the further delineation of populars that can similarly be dismissed or discounted. Thus, for example, the symphonic wind ensemble, with its connections to the marching band (extraordinarily "popular" and woefully understudied), is the less valuable "popular" to the symphony orchestra.

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