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.