Music of the United States

Davidson College, Fall 2015

Category: Uncategorized

The Intersection of Gay Disco and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

As Alice Echols argues in her book “Hot Stuff”, the rise of American disco was intertwined with the rise of the masculine queer subculture that was arising in New York and San Francisco.  Echols also claims that the popular disco group Village People served as ambassadors of gay macho to the rest of the world.  However, because of society’s misconceptions about what a gay man stereotypically looks like, many heterosexual men failed to realize that the disco culture was actually promoting a queer subculture, believing instead that these disco groups were a new representation of masculinity in America.

This misperception of the disco movement led to an interesting intersection between the disco movement and the United States military.  In 1978, Village People released a song entitled “Y.M.C.A.” that became extremely popular in the United States, and served as an excellent advertising tool for the YMCA.  Once the United States Navy realized that disco music could potentially be an extremely powerful recruiting tool, they decided to reach out to Village People to see if they would be willing to create and perform a song that the Navy could use to recruit more potential troops.

The different perceptions of disco between the gay and straight cultures are extremely important in this particular case, because at this point in time, openly gay individuals were not allowed to serve in the United States military.  While this particular military policy did not actually receive the name “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” until 1993, the military had effectively operated under this policy for almost two hundred years prior to Village People performing the song “In the Navy”.  Because of this, the song could possibly have two different interpretations depending on the background of the person listening.  Members of the United States Navy who sponsored this production would likely view it as promoting the Navy as being hyper masculine group, simultaneously stroking their own egos, and hopefully incentivizing other young men to join their ranks.  However, queer men who saw this advertisement during this time period may have viewed it as a work of satire, mocking the fact that the armed forces are unknowingly utilizing the rising hyper-masculine gay subculture as a recruiting tool, while the target audience for this type of performance would not have been allowed to join.

While in this particular scenario, the music itself was not censored, it highlights one of the many ways in which queer voices have been silenced over the course of American history, particularly in regard to them participating in the armed forces.  However, the disco movement certainly seemed to take the appropriate steps to challenge society’s views on homosexuality, which began the process of allowing homosexuals to be fully integrated into all facets of American life without having to hide their true personalities.

 

Echols, Alice. “Homo Superiors.” Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American       Culture. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. N. pag. Print.

Democratic Authenticity

Our discussion in class on Friday about the ‘authenticity’ of Iggy Azalea inspired me to think more bout the role of entertainment and the formation of authenticity.  Performs are judged by the public based upon a myriad of factors- moral behavior, treatment of fans, and authenticity.  Being in the spotlight requires a certain ‘image’ to be presented, and this image must be deemed ‘authentic’ by the public in order to be accepted.  However, as in the case of Iggy Azalea, what the public believes is or is not ‘authentic’ may not coincide with the the true ‘authenticity.’  Therefore, the concept of ‘authenticity’ is socially constructed, especially within the entertainment industry, and what is deemed ‘authentic’ is a story or image presented to the public and accepted by relevant others.

This is not a new idea; the relationship between authenticity and public acceptance has been around for centuries.  In The Prince, a dejected and ostracized Machiavelli states, “a prince will not actually need to have all of the qualities previously mentioned, but he must surely seem to have them..I would go so far as to say that having them all and always conforming to them would be harmful” (69).  For Machiavelli, ‘authenticity’ is a dangerous thing and it is more advantageous to emulate the image the image you desire, rather than reveal your true nature.  The same philosophy is adopted by many popular music artists.  They give the audience what they expect to see, and they are declared ‘authentic.’ We saw this with Black Minstrels, popular Hip-hop music, and Hillbilly music.  All of these genres had specific images associated with their performance, and in order for the performers to be accepted by the public, they lived up to the audience’s expectations by wearing blackface, describing violent communities filled with crime, or wearing overalls, respectively.

How is something socially declared ‘authentic’?  In music, the public has a general image or expectation based upon a basic working knowledge of each genre or group.  But what factors play into this basic level of knowledge?  Richard A. Peterson argues that ‘authenticity’ is based in ethic/cultural identity, the elasticity of group membership, status identity, the authentic experience, and the constructed self.  I would argue that each of these factors is very influential in determine is a performance is authentic, but I would not argue that each of them is equally important for all groups.  For today’s entertainers place heavy emphasis on the “constructed self,” where they remain true to a fabricated self that is deemed ‘authentic’ by the public but is not an ‘authentic’ representation of them as an individual.  This creation of a public identity is an adherence to the same principles described by Machiavelli in 1532, where perception of the public is the most important thing to consider when in a position of social or political power.  The individual must play the role of a ‘performer’ for the public rather than be a true representation of themselves.  They are only an ‘authentic’ representation of the image the public has placed upon them.

The implications of the publics influence over ‘authenticity’ has several implications.  One of the most apparent and worrisome is the changing nature of authenticity.  ‘Authentic’ music is defined by the public and it can be changed by the public.  This is clearly seen in our study of Elvis’s covers of R&B songs originally performed by black artists.  The public believed that R&B was exclusively a black style of music, but when American youth responded positively to Elvis’s performance of R&B, the image of R&B and later Rock ’n Roll was changed forever.  The publics change of perception influenced and defined genres of music who still influence the music industry today.  Recognizing this influence makes me wonder about other examples of where public has lead to the success and failure of musical artists.  It also makes me question the integrity and ‘authenticity’ of music as a representation of the artist/perform themselves.  Is success an indicator of a loss of self, forfeited at the price of fame obtained by being molded and shaped by the public?

The Presence of Art within Popular Music

Comparing popular music to music belonging in category of “art” is as much a practice in arbitration as it is a rift between esoteric and common. Definitions for popular music and for art music vary from individual to individual and absolutely have different components now than they did 150 years ago. For the purpose of this post, popular music will signify music that is accessible, both physically and psychologically. Fortunately, such a definition seems historically accurate and therefore probably appears in some form in most interpretations of the term. Music considered to be art, on the other hand, usually earns its label by having enriching or enlightening qualities that do more than satisfy our innate, physiological yearning for the mere audible sounds of music. These definitions make reconciliation between the foundational notions of popular and art music possible. For instance, in accordance with the aforementioned definitions, accessible yet enriching music serves as a popular-artistic musical hybrid that defies the notion that popular and artistic music cannot co-exist. Certain composers managed to produce music that qualify as such a hybrid. Beethoven, for instance, wrote music that Henry Higginson accurately depicts as capable of “teaching the uneducated” while remaining “the pinnacle of music.”1 Beethoven’s work resonated so much with the average audience that it could enlighten the most casual listener’s understanding whilst simultaneously fulfilling the definition of art music for even the stuffiest critic. Even if it had not met the art music critic’s criteria, Beethoven’s music, by simply enriching the everyday listener’s appreciation for music, would have merited being labeled as art.

Bob Dylan also serves as an example of an artist whose music soared in popularity amidst the artistic accreditation it received. Few doubts exist about the popularity of Dylan’s music. His work was accessible both in the theme of its lyrics and the vastness of its projection; vivid and relatable topics, such as dissatisfaction with hypocrisy and superficiality in “Bringing it all Back Home, 1965” often pervaded his songs, which reached just about anyone via widespread attention on radio stations. At the same time, the music Dylan produced was unique in its raw yet profound identity, earning praise for its staunch criticism of various 1960s phenomena.  Therefore, while undoubtedly being popular and even common, Bob Dylan’s music exhibited qualities not only enriching to the typical listener but so impressionable to the weathered musician that new styles and genres emulating aspects of Dylan’s pieces sprang up shortly after his career’s conclusion.

All in all, popular music can mesh with artistic music. Simply appealing to popular taste does not disqualify music from belonging in the artistic category in which music stimulates the listener to the extent that he/she is compelled to contemplate the music played on a profound level. Nothing fundamentally prevents popular music from possessing artistic qualities.

 

The Presence of Art in Popular Music

Comparing popular music to music belonging in category of “art” is as much a practice in arbitration as it is a rift between esoteric and common. Definitions for popular music and for art music vary from individual to individual and absolutely have different components now than they did 150 years ago. For the purpose of this post, popular music will signify music that is accessible, both physically and psychologically. Fortunately, such a definition seems historically accurate and therefore probably appears in some form in most interpretations of the term. Music considered to be art, on the other hand, usually earns its label by having enriching or enlightening qualities that do more than satisfy our innate, physiological yearning for the mere audible sounds of music. These definitions make reconciliation between the foundational notions of popular and art music possible. For instance, in accordance with the aforementioned definitions, accessible yet enriching music serves as a popular-artistic musical hybrid that defies the notion that popular and artistic music cannot co-exist. Certain composers managed to produce music that qualify as such a hybrid. Beethoven, for instance, wrote music that Henry Higginson accurately depicts as capable of “teaching the uneducated” while remaining “the pinnacle of music.”1 Beethoven’s work resonated so much with the average audience that it could enlighten the most casual listener’s understanding whilst simultaneously fulfilling the definition of art music for even the stuffiest critic. Even if it had not met the art music critic’s criteria, Beethoven’s music, by simply enriching the everyday listener’s appreciation for music, would have merited being labeled as art.

Bob Dylan also serves as an example of an artist whose music soared in popularity amidst the artistic accreditation it received. Few doubts exist about the popularity of Dylan’s music. His work was accessible both in the theme of its lyrics and the vastness of its projection; vivid and relatable topics, such as dissatisfaction with hypocrisy and superficiality in “Bringing it all Back Home, 1965” often pervaded his songs, which reached just about anyone via widespread attention on radio stations. At the same time, the music Dylan produced was unique in its raw yet profound identity, earning praise for its staunch criticism of various 1960s phenomena.  Therefore, while undoubtedly being popular and even common, Bob Dylan’s music exhibited qualities not only enriching to the typical listener but so impressionable to the weathered musician that new styles and genres emulating aspects of Dylan’s pieces sprang up shortly after his career’s conclusion.

All in all, popular music can mesh with artistic music. Simply appealing to popular taste does not disqualify music from belonging in the artistic category in which music stimulates the listener to the extent that he/she is compelled to contemplate the music played on a profound level. Nothing fundamentally prevents popular music from possessing artistic qualities.

 

 

Reconciling Popular with Artistic Music

Comparing popular music to music belonging in category of “art” is as much a practice in arbitration as it is a rift between esoteric and common. Definitions for popular music and for art music vary from individual to individual and absolutely have different components now than they did 150 years ago. For the purpose of this post, popular music will signify music that is accessible, both physically and psychologically. Fortunately, such a definition seems historically accurate and therefore probably appears in some form in most interpretations of the term. Music considered to be art, on the other hand, usually earns its label by having enriching or enlightening qualities that do more than satisfy our innate, physiological yearning for the mere audible sounds of music. These definitions make reconciliation between the foundational notions of popular and art music possible. For instance, in accordance with the aforementioned definitions, accessible yet enriching music serves as a popular-artistic musical hybrid that defies the notion that popular and artistic music cannot co-exist. Certain composers managed to produce music that qualify as such a hybrid. Beethoven, for instance, wrote music that Henry Higginson accurately depicts as capable of “teaching the uneducated” while remaining “the pinnacle of music.”1 Beethoven’s work resonated so much with the average audience that it could enlighten the most casual listener’s understanding whilst simultaneously fulfilling the definition of art music for even the stuffiest critic. Even if it had not met the art music critic’s criteria, Beethoven’s music, by simply enriching the everyday listener’s appreciation for music, would have merited being labeled as art.

Bob Dylan also serves as an example of an artist whose music soared in popularity amidst the artistic accreditation it received. Few doubts exist about the popularity of Dylan’s music. His work was accessible both in the theme of its lyrics and the vastness of its projection; vivid and relatable topics, such as dissatisfaction with hypocrisy and superficiality in “Bringing it all Back Home, 1965” often pervaded his songs, which reached just about anyone via widespread attention on radio stations. At the same time, the music Dylan produced was unique in its raw yet profound identity, earning praise for its staunch criticism of various 1960s phenomena.  Therefore, while undoubtedly being popular and even common, Bob Dylan’s music exhibited qualities that enriched not only the typical listener but also the weathered musician whose subsequent style would  emulating aspects of Dylan’s pieces as so many artists’s did  up shortly after the conclusion of Dylan’s career. 

Bibliography

Tick, Judith. Music in the USA a Documentary Companion. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Erewine, Stephen. “Bob Dylan.” Allmusic.com. All Media Network LLC., 2015. Web. 17 Sept. 2015. <http://www.allmusic.com/artist/bob-dylan-mn0000066915/biography>.

Nirvana’s Rise to Fame- Good or Bad?

Who hasn’t heard of Nirvana? The dynamic riffs, hard to understand lyrics, and the sense of connection we all feel to the band, more importantly, Kurt Cobain. But why do we connect him? None of us play in a popular grunge rock band nor do we get covered by the media daily, but then why do we seem to have an otherworldly, magnetic pull towards the now deceased musician? Many have noted that his lyrics and the experience they convey are universal and therefore we all have a least one song that we enjoy, likely Smells Like Teen Spirit. With that popularity, we can credit Nirvana with bringing grunge rock to the mainstream but does that make the once considered “art/counterculture music” become “popular music”?

Grunge rock evolved from punk rock of the 70’s and 80’s, focusing on more aggressive lyrics and playing styles, and on the Do It Yourself attitude. Based out of the Northwestern United States, it slowly grew from the 80’s and eventually into the 90’s. Many grunge bands such as The Melvins, Soundgarden, and of course Nirvana, once started out as a way for friends to get together and make music they was “cool”. Musicians of the early grunge scene stated that it was a revolt to the mainstream. Many people saw them as outsiders and treated them as such. The music was characterized as heavy, energetic, and driving and many early grunge bands took that as the norm. Many bands toured exclusively to the Washington- Northwestern U.S. area and were only known in that part of the country. As soon as bands such as Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Nirvana signed to the Sub-Pop label, the grunge rock genre began to spread like wildfire. Sub-Pop is credited for helping kick start the grunge scene outside of Washington. With many bands beginning to leave the small label for larger, more accredited labels, the growing popularity for grunge rock was being capitalized on by large corporations.

Shortly after the signing with Geffen Records, Nirvana released the album Nevermind in September of 1991. The album quickly reached the top of music charts in the United States. It quickly became one of the best selling albums of all time, eventually reaching Diamond Status. Nirvana toured heavily on this record, spreading the genre of grunge even more than before. With the success of the album came “Nirvana-mania”, coined by Kurt Cobain. Soon, everyone began listening to grunge rock, or was it alternative? Yes the still had the grunge sound, but did they have the grunge attitude?

In later interviews, Kurt labeled Nevermind as more pop than grunge. He notes that the rhythms and lyrics are influenced by popular music standards, and is a big change from the previous record Bleach. Two songs to compare are Floyd, The Barber off of Bleach and Drain You off of Nevermind. Both are grunge, but Floyd, The Barber takes grunge to a deeper level while Drain You can be interpreted as a heavier, alternative rock. The increasing popularity of this grunge rock grew even more after Nevermind but many think that due to Nevermind’s success, grunge rock became popular and contradicted the main idea to itself, to be the counterculture to the mainstream. The grunge scene became acceptable, the complete opposite of what many grunge musicians wanted. Along those lines, the once known art music became the now popular music.

Krist Novoselic notes that “Nirvana did not go to the mainstream, the mainstream came to Nirvana”. This statement symbolizes all that went wrong with the genre. It stood for the outsiders and the loners but once it hit the mainstream, the outsiders and loners were no longer by themselves. The culture of grunge had become so saturated that it got too big to hold itself. Soon the older “grunge” bands that had not sold out began to resent the grunge culture as it had become what they had always  resented. In April of 1994, Kurt Cobain took his life, noting he had become what he hated, and that playing music was not enjoyable anymore. Many believe this is what marked the end of grunge.

Grunge music was once known to be the revolt against popular media and the mainstream. But as soon as Nirvana, and many other bands, became the mainstream, the purpose of grunge was undermined and it began to fall apart. Grunge used to be artistic in value, but it was seen as a cash cow and was quickly turned into popular music. This didn’t make the meaning behind grunge any different, it only changed the way grunge was perceived to the mass media. This transition from art to popular shows how though the foundations of art and popular music are the same, all pop music began as art music, it just takes consciousness to popularize it to become popular.

Information mainly from VH1

Art music in today’s popular music

One example in which we see that art music and popular music are interrelated is through the presence of classical instruments such as the piano, violins, double basses, trumpets, and trombones in many of today’s popular hits. While these instruments are prevalent in a plethora of songs and albums, the three I am focusing on are from three different genres, specifically Coldplay’s album Viva la Vida, Fort Minor’s song “Remember the Name,” and Jason Derulo’s song “Trumpets.”

Despite many people’s preconceived notions about popular music, classical instruments such as violins, violas, and double basses can be key to the unique sounds of certain albums. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Coldplay’s album Viva la Vida, released in 2008, is the pervading and prominent sound of a string quartet. The string quartet’s presence is felt strongly in the chart topping song “Viva la Vida,” the album’s namesake. The album exploded, as it was the top selling album of 2008 in both the UK and US, showing that this classical influence is not only prominent but popular.

To the surprise of some, this prevalence of classical instruments is also quite visible in the rap community, as is displayed by Fort Minor’s “Remember the Name.” This song was featured in the remake of  Karate Kid, and reached 66th on the US Billboard Hot 100. The violin and cello rifts are repeated prominently and powerfully throughout the song, giving it an intense and dramatic sound.

Another example of classical instruments in popular music is Jason Derulo’s hit song “Trumpets.” This hip-hop/R&B hit, which was on the top 40 in the Netherlands, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and the United States, also reached a peak of No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100. What differentiates this song from some of today’s popular hits is the constant piano in the background, as well as the sharp, rhythmic trumpet melody during the chorus. This unique mixture of contemporary beats with classical instruments is likely the cause of the song’s success in so many different countries and cultures.

The reason for this prominent use of classical instruments in popular music is simple, it sounded good 200 years ago, and it still sounds good today. Despite the different methods of implementing these classical instruments and influences, they are still a prevalent part of popular music culture.

Welcome to Music of the United States

Music of the United States (MUS122) is a course that explores a wide range of musical styles, and the various cultural contexts in which music has been created and consumed throughout American history, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The course uses the following text:

9780195139884_p0_v1_s260x420Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion, edited by Judith Tick

The purpose of this website is to create a centralized resource where students can refer for information covered in the course. There is a timeline, which presents important events in chronological order; a wiki, where important works, people, and events are listed and described; and a blog, which contains reflections on the history of music in the United States, as well as the contemporary state of music in America.

Visitors to this site are invited to explore these resources. We hope you find them useful!

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