Public/Private

Jonathan Bellman

Yesterday, on the national musicology list, an old friend at another institution posted a query about offering guidance to graduate students who are choosing their dissertation topics: is a popular music topic as good as a traditional topic as far as the job market is concerned? Are all specialties equal? I was one of the first in, and my perspective—as a prof at a state, non-Ivy League, problematically funded institution—was that one’s dissertation topic should be at least semi-mainstream, so as to send a variety of “I can help” messages (competence with traditional methodologies, language capability, period expertise, general usefulness for a variety of classes) to one’s potential employers. It would follow that popular music—including publications, research, etc.—makes a splendid secondary area: one can teach classes, reach students on a more immediate, elemental level, etc., but not so good, I suggested, as a primary area and dissertation topic.

While the results are beginning to even up a bit, the postings were initially running about a zillion to one against. (My first title for this post was “Taking a Beating.”) Musicology is musicology regardless of topic, study what you want, departments in Britain are really looking for people like this, I didn’t think anyone thought like this anymore, do what makes you happy. One would think that I’m a mouthpiece for the most traditional, reactionary, narrow, privileged, simplistic, steretoypical view of our discipline: only study Famous Classical Composers, only get a Ph.D. from a Famous Ivy-League Institution, and of course look down on popular music study as illegitimate. I, with my DMA (not Ph.D.), my own fringe interests in British Folk-Rock and Raga Rock, vernacular musics and their influence on art musics, my background in performance practices (an area which still inspires a certain amount of debate and snobbery), my various odd early professional episodes in which I was considered to be associated with the most progessive and speculative musicological fringe, my misery and outsider-ness when I was on the job market. (“He has the wrong degree!”) How, for pity’s sake, did I become The Man?

Here’s the irony, though: I’m getting lots of private support. Someone who can’t get a full-time gig and suspects the fringe disseration topic is at least in part responsible was very grateful, someone who has a research position in the classical music industry and knows what’s required thought I was right on, and scholars in Europe who observe the field there (and the differences between people who can be flexible in accepting teaching assignments and people who are overspecialized) see a lot of practicality in my position. The personal E-mails say: great contribution Jon, thanks, I was beginning to think I was crazy, and so on. The encouragement and empathy are nice, but why not post those opinions back to the list, publically? Would it hurt people’s future employment chances to advocate making themselves as valuable as possible to future employers? This reminds me of so many instances in my academic life where people mutter and complain but stay silent, and I stand up and say…the obvious, to an electrically charged silence, only to be patted on the back later. People like that I do it, they thank me, they laugh, and even years later they tell me about how wonderful it was. And they very rarely, or never, do the same.

I confess a bit of disappointment. Whether motivated by utopianism (all disciplines are or ought to be equal in the eyes of the Almighty, or the Almighty Discipline, or something) or PC reflexivity (obviously this is dissing popular musics; how dare you diss popular musics? Off with his head!), a philosophical stance loses credibility (to me at least) if everyone agrees with it, or is afraid to contradict it. Maybe I would feel better if I really were alone on this particular limb, but I’m not. It is that people’s unwillingness to go on the record (it’s only free speech if you use it, right?) about something this relatively benign is odd. To me at least, it is troubling.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to Public/Private

  1. I’ve been following this same discussion with a great deal of interest, and from the perspective of an outsider twice over since I’m a composer not a musicologist and I don’t have a faculty position anywhere. It seems clear to me that a dissertation in popular music absolutely _should_ not in any way diminish the appeal of a candidate, but I was surprised to hear so many people claiming that it _does_ not. I found your analysis of the likely thought process of the hiring committee quite plausible, and my big worry is that many of the respondants who claim that they would never hold a popular music dissertation against a candidate might behave differently when actually faced with a choice between two otherwise equally qualified candidates.
    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say things like “I don’t have anything against popular music — I think the Beatles have a couple of really good songs.” The fact is that a lot of people in classical music still consciously hold biases against popular music, and a significant number of people hold unconscious biases against it. And some of those biases, while perhaps quite mild or subtle would still have a dramatic impact on hiring outcomes given the size of the qualified applicant pool and the relative scarcity of jobs. If I had even the mildest of biases against popular music that bias might easily be enough to help me eliminate a candidate who was in all other respects neck-in-nect with the other applicants.
    One further clarification– one need not think that popular music is bad or is inferior to classical music to think that a musicologist who focuses on popular music is less “serious” than other musicologists. It’s an incorrect belief, but it’s probably easy to hold and quite common.
    We see a similar phenomenon in composition all the time — composers who don’t write in an approved modernist style have a much harder time getting into prestigious graduate programs and getting academic jobs afterwards. This persists even though most of the people making the hiring decisions would tell you that they don’t discriminate on the basis of style. And in fact they probably don’t — they discriminate on the basis of which composers are doing work that excites them the most, and since they themselves are writing modernist music they are more excited by the postserialist than by the postminimalist and thus admit or hire the postserialist.

  2. Matt Baumer says:

    I too agreed with the gist of Bellman’s AMS posting, but for a reason I haven’t seen raised. A great many musicology jobs in the US are in music departments where musicology is like a second cousin — nice to know, perhaps charming and useful around the house, but not really part of the family. Performance and performers lead the show, and the vast majority of them (students and faculty) are heavily invested in “classical” styles of music (I would include jazz in that category, as it’s taught at most institutions, as well as wind band or modern percussion ensemble music). Very few have first-hand experience in popular music, and many will see pop music (perhaps not consciously) as, at the least, outside of their sphere of interest. And they will make up the majority of many hiring committees. For those people, a pop music dissertation will require far more explanation than a classical one.

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