It’s promotion review time for me, and in writing a research statement for the three anonymous sociologists evaluating my work, I’ve had the occasion to compile and synthesize my thinking on musical urbanism into a single essay. Think of this post as a users manual for understanding what I’ve been up to academically with this blog. Your comments are very welcome! [And if you’re my future evaluator, please skip this and read the final draft of this statement in the materials I’ve given you.]
My third and most recent field of research is a project in urban cultural analysis that I call musical urbanism. Since this project is still under development, and since it involves a somewhat unconventional approach to a topic seldom addressed within urban studies, here I provide a programmatic discussion of paradigm and methods. In this project, I examine popular music—an area that for almost 30 years I’ve been enthusiastically following and involved in (as bandleader, on-air disc jockey, college-radio music director, touring musician, and most recently house/techno DJ)—as a site for asking three general questions:
1. How do cities sustain creative milieus and cultural movements?2. How are cities and the urban condition represented in art and popular culture?3. What’s local (to a city, neighborhood, group) in any given art form or cultural movement?
Alone, any one of these questions has their scholarly traditions in the social sciences. Thus, as a contributor to the research on “creative cities,” I have a repertoire of sociological responses for the first question. Also, as a student (but never a participant before now) of cultural studies and the sociology of music, I’m familiar with the methods for answering the third question, which tend to involve ethnographic analysis of particular cultural forms, practices and audiences, concluding with a move into theoretical generalization. I find such approaches unsatisfactory for this project, however. For one reason, they have difficulty in accessing the exuberance, alienation and other deeply emotional responses that motivate musical producers and consumers alike. For another, they evacuate the specific content, meanings and experience of musical creativity and consumption, as analysts too often take away a familiar set of generalized sociological findings—solidarity, social movements, globalization, etc.—from localized activities undertaken in certain historic and geographical contexts. Coming out of the multidisciplinary field of urban studies, where I’ve appreciated the attention to specific, contextualized meaning paid by historians and literature/film scholars, I think a sociologist can benefit by incorporating methods from the humanities on this topic.
My point of departure is the phenomenon of urbanism, the modes of material life and consciousness found in cities. In contemporary sociology, where urban sociology is no longer the master enterprise it was for the seminal Chicago School, urbanism is necessarily a humbler concept. This idea no longer captures and conveys the central causal factors of modern life; indeed, as global flows of capital, people, ideas and commerce become our structural frame of reference, it’s easy to dismiss the analytical relevance of the urban to music, culture and social life more generally. However, what urbanism still highlights are the ways local and non-local contexts articulate with one another into concrete spatial formations for the conduct of everyday life—formations that we call cities or, maybe more accurately, places, a concept that doesn’t presume a certain territorial scale or condition of modernization. Significantly, as urban sociologist Michael Ian Borer emphasizes, places are the sites where people practice culture. Accordingly, urbanism offers a lens onto concrete (if not necessarily localized) practices of musical collectivity, creativity, and representation.
AN ARGUMENT FOR MUSICAL URBANISM
My project is given greater urgency by two developments in popular music production and consumption today. First, the spread of digital file-sharing has precipitated a “crisis” of the music industry model premised on selling physical commodities and enforcing intellectual property rights. Although this crisis maybe overstated (it seems to have bypassed country music, jazz, and other commercial music genres not weighted toward a younger demographic), it echoes broader social anxieties about the “virtualization” and impoverishment of face-to-face interaction, local group/neighborhood identities, and urban relations. Recent findings from Barry Wellman and other community sociologists give cause to suspect such zero-sum relationship between physical and virtual media of social life and cultural activity. Nonetheless, empirical questions for research include: (a) which urban materiél, relations and identities remain relevant to cultural practice and consumption; (b) how urban life, subcultural communion and public space are mediated by digital networks and an evolving music industry; and (c) why urban identities and affiliations (“I represent my city,” hip hop MCs and fans ritually proclaim) remain compelling in an Internet world.
Second, the “creative city” thesis advanced by Richard Florida and others indicates that global musical production is heavily concentrated in a select few urban centers, despite the possibilities for geographic dispersal created by technological advances in music recording, marketing, and exchange. Yet at the same time, much of the economic activity in these great cities that once supported musical creativity, performance and production (record stores, performance venues, equipment repairs, etc.) has been transformed by corporatization, digitization and hollowing out; as the independent “brick and mortal” retailers and specialists have gone, increasingly so do the corporate entertainment super-stores and the A&R men prowling the scene for new acts to sign. Furthermore, the cost of living in these cities eventually exceeds levels that are supportive to an artistic career and life. This contradiction of economic agglomeration is a familiar syndrome for industrial geographers and researchers of new urban economies, who might anticipate that the investments and costs and associated with creativity and production will be externalized onto the creative milieu itself: the city and its residents, institutions and social relations.
Recent debates about young “neo-bohemians” and “hipsters” (see the writings of Richard Lloyd and Mark Greif) suggest some urban expressions of these spatial contradictions. Musicians and other creatives accept lower incomes and greater employment risk in exchange for recognition of their status superiority, for instance; and entrepreneurial activity extends to the cutting edges of subcultural lifestyle (fashion, food, crafts, etc.) and ethos (environmental sustainability, political advocacy, blogging). Whether these hypotheses persuade or not, they raise broader questions that I consider in this project. What physical and cultural dimensions of the city constitute “forces of production” in the creative economy? How do creative labor, its places of residence and communion, other urban institutions and “support staff” accommodate the creative economy’s social reproduction burdens, as manifested through personal lifestyle and life-stage, ancillary economies, built environment, urban amenities and texture? How do cultural forms and practices—musical works and genres of course, but also cultural trends, leisurely pastimes, entertainment activities, lexicon, humor and cultural practice—symbolize these urban forces and signify them to creative constituencies both near and far?
AN OUTLINE OF PARADIGM AND METHODS
As this discussion suggests, the study of urban music and related urban cultures sometimes gets drawn into policy debates and other practical discussions about the wisdom of certain urban economic development strategies or the viability of the music industry. I’m reluctant to incorporate the premises and terms of these discourses into the musical urbanism paradigm, if only because they too often seek to contain and instrumentalize cultural practices that actually encode and give expression to social conflict and alienation.
With the musical urbanism paradigm I walk a different fine line. On the one hand, in keeping with my research on quality of life, I inherit the mission of critical theory by questioning the dominant terms with which music is generally presented: the solipsistic romance of disaffected youth, for instance, or the consultants’ advocacy of economic value for corporations and urban branders. On the other hand, I find it helpful (and frankly more pleasurable!) to adopt the perspective of the music fan. By embracing the aesthetic pleasures of music and celebrity myths, and by diving into the sometimes raucous debates over the significance of this or that album, group, or event, cultural analysts can acknowledge and even begin to incorporate the collective affect and emotional “surplus” (to cite literary theorist Rey Chow) that is music’s special feature.
Pop music is a global phenomenon, and as my research develops I’m eager to investigate non-Western cases. Paradigmatically, I’m inclined not to adopt the ethnomusicologist’s cultural relativism, however, because the modernist in me sees pop music as something of a singular historical achievement. Sociologist Chris Rojek reminds us that pop music (as opposed to folk/”popular” musics) is essentially a modern development, reflecting an “urban-industrial backbeat” comprised of technologies of musical amplification, economies of mass production, and broadcast media that constituted mass audiences in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the new millenium’s global-network society, it’s important not to lose sight of the ubiquity of urban-industrial social relations and—this is especially crucial—the centrality of global capitalism, including its global music industry, that lie behind pop music and the urban today, even as we readily concede that global capitalism is always contested and can never fully homogenize musical form, never completely dictate cultural reception.
Methodologically, musical urbanism combines the structural analysis from political economy with a historical-comparative approach informed by the humanities and the hermeneutic fields of sociology. At the initial stages of this project, I’ve used existing scholarship to access popular music history, the biographies of particular groups or events, and the history/analysis of music industry and technology; for the recent developments, a critical reading of industry trade media has proven effective. I’ve also gotten my feet wet into ethnographic fieldwork conducted in musical events, although not yet as part of a longer-term, systematic project. Soon I hope to conduct interviews with relevant musicians, industry representatives, journalists, cultural historians, and other well-placed observers.
Cultural products are also obvious sources of data in this project. This includes the music itself, although I heed the caution that music’s meaning is never quite as immediate as it might seem; its exposition and analysis requires intertextual engagement with history, music criticism, and audience response. Regarding the last, fan sensibilities and discourses constitute their own cultural entity, ubiquitous and uncontainable within global pop culture, that can be observed in the media about music. Such media include music journalism, fan blogs, popular nonfiction books, documentary films, and even entertainment/celebrity-gossip TV programming.
My musical urbanism project is in its very earliest stages of research. I’ve taught an undergraduate seminar under the same name at Vassar College’s Urban Studies Program three times since 2007, having the very good fortune of co-teaching with two remarkably astute literature professors, Heesok Chang and Hua Hsu. However, only since the beginning of 2011 has my research and writing in this field begun in earnest.
Through a blog Musical Urbanism, I’ve begun analyzing case studies, proposing additional research topics, reflecting on methodology, and reviewing scholarly and popular books about music and cities. The blog format works well at this early stages, I think. The small to medium-size essays I post allow me to write quickly in order to establish this project’s breadth of topics and approaches, and to reach different kinds of readers (academics, urbanists, music fans) whose responses help me clarify and revise my thinking on this project. The various writings featured on the blog may or may not be incorporated into a future academic book on musical urbanism, which will be written and organized more systematically to elaborate the project’s paradigm and methodology, examine several case studies in greater depth, and engage the scholarly literature more extensively than the blog does.
The reviewers are welcome to browse the Musical Urbanism blog, but I’m officially submitting for review the following ten essays. Again, these are early statements that shouldn’t be mistaken for paper-length scholarly works, but I think they usefully illustrate the analytic scope of my project.
These essays illustrate how I view the connections between urban geography and subcultural expression, creative ethos, and industry machinations. My scholarly debt to Adam Krims’ Music and Urban Geography is made clear in the third essay, which demonstrates how closely the urban analyst might analyze a single song.
Like most of today’s great cultural cities, New York has long been a geographical center for cultural production, attracting artists and would-be artists in artforms including but not limited to underground rock music. Yet between the 1970s heyday of punk rock and indie-rock in the present, the underground’s musical class has changed significantly in terms of cultural capital and class reproduction. This pair of essays attempts to understand these changes, with the first essay demonstrating the kinds of original data I would gather for this project.
Probably the most influential idea in arts-based urban revitalization today emphasizes attracting the geographically mobile, amenity-sensitive “creative class” to cities. The first essay here addresses how the creative class views cities through a distinctly non-local gaze, in this case involving popular culture. The second essay, which I presented at a “Media and the Community” event in Poughkeepsie this spring, critiques the “creative class” strategy via a contrarian manifesto for arts-based urban revitalization.
This summer, Deirdre Oakley’s urban sociology blog Social Shutter featured my visual ethnography, reprinted in the first essay, of a heavy metal music festival in downtown Baltimore. In the second essay, I encourage the reviewer to click through to the slideshow of my original photostream and to read the captions, which impressionistically address objects and practices of everyday life that I observed at this admittedly extraordinary event.
Many listeners’ appreciation of the abstract musical textures in post-punk, electronic, and other self-consciously modernist forms of pop music draws on the aesthetic sensibility that “hears” the urban-industrial landscape within the music. This essay examines that aesthetic sensibility as it’s been associated with a seminal post-punk group, analyzing it as the historic achievement of particular actors operating within specific social and geographic contexts.