The joint conference of the Canadian branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and the Canadian Society for Traditional Music took place from June 3rd to 6th at the University of Regina. Entitled “Spaces of Violence, Sites of Resistance: Music, Media & Performance,” the conference showcased the work of both established scholars in the diverse fields that study popular music and a vibrant group of graduate students. There were a couple of papers of exceptional quality presented by young scholars who had just completed undergraduate degrees, which were refreshing for those of us who teach undergraduate classes. While the stated theme of the conference was violence and resistance, an unstated theme which arose out of the papers presented was that of tension, a kind of resistance, in which there occurs an impeding or slowing force exerted on one material thing by another, and vice-versa.
The conference began with a critical exploration of authenticity in popular music, and Michael Ethen’s paper on the Grateful Dead touched upon the tensions between the profit and marketing “machine,” that is, the music industry and its interests, and the making of music, the “authenticity” that is often so precious for fans of popular music.
I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to chair a panel on global conflict, violence and genocide. Paul Aitken’s paper, which won a student paper prize for this year’s conference, discussed the music of System of a Down and its sonic strategy as protest of the Armenian genocide. Drawing from Deleuze, Aitken presented the argument that riffs, which normally serve as stabilizing structures in music, instead serve to distrupt. His presentation also highlighted more tensions, this time between disruption as reflection of historical revisionism (as per Foucault) and disruption as expected musical form for this style of music.
In a panel on “Microphones and Mash-Ups,” Michael Audette-Longo presented a compelling twist on Roland Barthes’ “grain of the voice.” Where, according to Barthes, the listener experiences a dispersion of the self, Audette-Longo suggested that the “grain” can work in reverse, fundamentally dispersing the identity of the voice in the recording. There is much potential for further work in this area.
Many reported that the workshops on Thursday afternoon were a highlight of the conference. The quartet of workshops, which focused on Hip Hop culture, were based in the Interactive Media and Performance Labs, an initiative under Dr. Charity Marsh, Canada Research Chair at the University of Regina. Dr. Marsh and her team were gracious and generous hosts, to those who participated in breakdancing and those who refused to do so.
The papers presented on Michael Jackson were particularly well done. The lack of sustained critical work on Jackson’s music was stressed during this presentation, though it is probable that Jackson’s death facilitated such work. It is questionable whether the excellent work presented by the panel presenters would have come to being if Jackson were still living. Susan Fast’s presentation pointed out Jackson’s queering of white musical genres, and observed the singer’s fascination with white female rock guitarists.
Meredith Evans’ paper on Lady Gaga was wonderfully refreshing, discussing Gaga’s tensions between the mainstream, reinforced by her meteoric rise to popularity, and her transgression of it. Ellen Waterman’s presentation on the inclusive power of improvisatory music for students with very little mobility was particularly insightful. While many of the papers dealt with violence, transgression, disruption and so forth, this paper dealt with bodies that were being included in a context where they normally had no ability for participation. Her paper illustrated the power of resistance for emancipation. This contrasted nicely with Marlie Centawer’s paper on Billy Corgan’s presentation of the vampire in the video for “Ava Adore,” where Corgan is the outsider, working within the constraints of a single shot and as a type of Murnau’s Nosferatu character.
Lauren Acton’s paper on violence in Canadian musicals was met with (appreciative) laughter. Her excellent paper highlighted the tensions that arise when cultural artefacts jump media; many attendees will follow up on the musical version of “Evil Dead,” thanks to Acton’s wonderful presentation.
Susan Fast and Kip Pegley presented their work towards a theoretical framework for the study of music, violence and geopolitics. Fast and Pegley addressed current philosophical approaches to violence and culture, in the form of books by Žižek, Butler and Spivak. One of their compelling arguments was that none of these works give ample thought to the role of (popular) music in society. However, if music scholars demand that Butler touch upon not only photography in terms of affect but music as well, can a scholar in photographic arts demand that music scholars’ work focus on their interests as well?
Craig Jennex’s paper on boy band masculinity was delightful in its revelation of the sexual tensions inherent in the music, lyrics and visual presentations of these singing groups. Jennifer Higgs’ paper on Gordon Lightfoot presented the tensions inherent in an artefact of a certain time (Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”) and Lightfoot’s own concerns over its interpretations.
Eric Hardiman presented on Melissa Cross, a vocal coach working to “reconstruct metal masculinity,” an extremely interesting case. His presentation brought to light examples in the milieu of “hard” music, where bleeding from the throat, a site of violence, is something wanted, required by the music. Cross evokes the same aesthetic while suggesting a more healthful style of singing.
Jocelyn Guilbault’s keynote presentation continued the stated theme of violence and the unstated theme of tension, by bringing to life the subjective and objective violence (to use Žižek’s terms as presented by Fast and Pegley) inherent in Soca—or party—music from Trinidad.
Richard Sutherland’s presentation on municipal policy in Calgary was surprisingly refreshing, even if it was presented early in the day on Sunday morning, especially after the events of the previous evening (during which municipal policy was enacted, or so I’m told).
Mickey Vallee presented on Radiohead’s music as the last of the “hip commodity,” illustrating, yet again, the tension between emancipation from current industry constraints (of distribution, for example) and requirements for certain forms of capital (the need of an Internet connection to purchase Radiohead’s In Rainbows, for instance). His analyses were approached from the side of aesthetics (drawing from Merleau-Ponty) rather than from Structuralism, which is so often prevalent in popular music studies (and interdisciplinary studies as a whole).
In all, this conference continued to reinforce the wonderful and important work that is being undertaken by members of IASPM and CSTM. Of course, a conference is much more than presenting and listening to papers; the social times were also (all so) wonderful. Here’s to the 2011 IASPM Canada conference next summer!