The long-delayed and inevitably anticlimactic post-AMS breakdown

Phil Ford

I guess I still haven’t written anything about AMS. Sorry. I kind of haven’t wanted to. I enjoyed myself, enjoyed seeing old friends, loved the food, dug the view from my hotel room window, even saw a few good papers, but I find that little of the experience translates into compelling bloggy prose. Maybe I was just too content. If I were bitter and outraged I could probably fire off a good jeremiad about how Our Discipline Is In Crisis, but I actually think our discipline is doing pretty well. There were signs. For example: Charles Carson’s “‘Sounds Middle Class’: Smooth Jazz and the Black Middle Class.” Carson’s paper was an ingenious investigation of cultural poetics and class, looking at a normally despised genre (smooth jazz) and asking questions about the sensibility that animates it. What is “smoothness,” anyway? I love thinking about stuff like this. One especially sharp commenter, The Guy With The Purple Hair (I never caught his name, but he was at a bunch of the same sessions I was and always asked the best questions) picked up on this structure-of-feeling aspect of the paper, and Carson was himself a remarkable smooth interlocutor. When he publishes this material I’ll be the first in line to read it.

Before leaving the topic of smoothness, I feel that we should hear from the acknowledged master.

My favorite single moment of the entire meeting came during the comments period after Jessica Sternfeld’s paper on High School Musical. Sternfield’s presentation was well-done and amusing and informative, and what most interested me was the fact that HSM is at once very newfangled — not a film musical, not a stage musical, but some new hybrid multi-platform thing that started out on TV — and also oldfangled, a throwback to the old studio system. Disney is the closest thing we have to the old vertically-integrated MGM machine. I would have like to hear more discussion of this, although Carol Oja, who had given a fine paper on Bernstein’s Wonderful Town in the same session, commented that the songs seem to have been committee-written. Which (though no-one said this) is another way HSM seems to a throwback to older studio practices. The classic studio film musical is, as Salman Rushdie said about The Wizard of Oz, “as near as dammit to that will-o’-the-wisp of modern critical theory: the authorless text.” The Wizard of Oz, like other MGM products, is “authorless” in the sense that its final shape is the result of decisions made by unstable alliances of quarrelsome studio employees rather than any single Orson-Welles-like auteur. One good example: Yip Harburg wanted to cut “Over the Rainbow” because he thought it would kill the film’s momentum and he didn’t think Judy Garland was up to singing it. But he was overruled, and so it was only by mere contingency that the AFI’s “song of the century” made it into the final cut. Which implies, alarmingly, that “Hollywood makes its masterpieces by accident, because it simply does not know what it is doing.” (Rushdie, again.) Hollywood makes its junk by accident, too. You can decide for yourself whether HSM’s committee-built qualities result in a masterpiece or junk; my point is, though, that a thing isn’t junk just because it’s committee-built.

Anyway, one consequence of HSM’s committee-built structure is Disney’s usual careful attention to representational balance: as Sternfeld pointed out, each high-school clique was shown to have roughly equal numbers of girls and boys, whites and blacks, etc. The show is about a basketball player who secretly wants to sing in a school show but is worried that it would be kind of well, you know, gay. (Not that anyone actually says “gay” in HSM, but that’s the implication.) And after his secret gets out, there’s a number called “Stick to the Status Quo” that shows member of various high-school cliques admitting similarly unacceptable desires (the bookworm who loves hiphop dancing, the skater kid who loves playing the cello, etc.). It’s the usual tween-friendly stuff about being yourself, believing in yourself, and accepting others. All very nice and progressive in the modern Disney style. But the comments after the paper were the usual message bookkeeping: sure it’s progressive, but is it progressive enough? Is it really covertly heteronormative? What about that balanced racial representation, surely they left someone out? Like, Samoans or something?

And then J. Peter Burkholder stepped to the mic, and said that he wanted to talk about “Stick to the Status Quo” from his experience as a gay man.

And JPB said, this song reminds me of something that happened at a Quaker meeting some years back where he was asked, what good news do you bring? And his answer was something like this: being gay, you understand what coming out of the closet means, and you come to understand that everyone is “in the closet” in some way or other. The good news, I guess, is not only that you should come out, but that you can, it’s OK, everyone’s sort of in the same boat.

Those of you who read this blog and are not professional academics should know that this is not the sort of thing you hear very often in an academic meeting. But you could feel the unexpected comment shoot home, and be pondered. The vibe changed; people seemed to lift, to wake up and loosen up a little, get involved. The discussion lit up. Hearing what JPB said kind of gave everyone permission to calm down, to relax. Academia is a profession where the currency of success is peer evaluation, and so we are constantly worrying about how people see us and what they think about us, and fronting is always a very great temptation. You front, you come off as you think a person in your situation should, you bend the flight of your thought toward some accustomed destination, all the while quietly marinating in self-doubt and self-loathing. Academic meetings (not just AMS) freak a lot of people out because they can end up being front-a-thons: it’s horrifying to see so many people caught in a self-made emotional tornado, generated by the updraft of self-regard and the downdraft of self-doubt. A professor at Rate Your Students asks “Does anyone else ever feel like a fake or a fraud?” Yes, pretty much everybody.

Maybe this seems like a banal thought — “be yourself.” But it’s not, really, because saying “be yourself” isn’t quite the same as saying “don’t despise what is inside you.” “Be yourself” is abstract — it can mean almost anything. I have no idea what “being yourself” is supposed to feel like. (Which self? Everyone has a few, and they’re all “real.”) But everyone has a very specific sense of what it feels like to keep a blameless part of themselves a secret.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to The long-delayed and inevitably anticlimactic post-AMS breakdown

  1. Peter Alexander says:

    For me, the high point of AMS was meeting Phil Ford.
    No, really! I realized how much “Dail M” had become part of my normal life — not quite daily, but several times a week. I had met Jon, traded e-mails with him, and know him by sight — but not Phil, who was more of an abstract concept in my mind. So it was “cop show” (!!) to be able to turn that concept into a real person. It gives every word more depth.
    And as it happened, there were not many sessions in the specific areas that I work in (18th century, particularly symphonies and other instrumental music) so it was the social aspects that were more prominent in my experience of the meeting. That is of course a very big part of what happens: meeting new people (like Phil, in this case), seeing friends from graduate school, getting together with editors, collaborators, etc. for business purposes, going to the departmental parties, seeing The Guy With The Purple Hair in the hallways (I’m sure everyone saw him). It’s more than networking, it is trading in “the currency of succcess” as Phil put it so well.
    And Phil has also put into words some of the discomfort I have always felt in the air at AMS meetings — the fronting that makes almost everyone too conscious of the impression they are making. I think your perspective on this is quite valuable. Every young scholar should think about this: the stakes every one senses at the meetings, the fronting that is always going on, the fact that nearly everyone feels like a fraud at these meetings (some occasionally, others all the time). What to do about it? Maybe “Be yourself” is as good advice as anyone can give, as banal as it really is. I remember faculty telling me that — or rather, “Just be your usual charming self,” which was both reassuring and frightening. (“I’m charming? Since when? And if I try, do I stop being charming?” It’s amazing how fast you can tie yourself in knots after a remark like that.)
    This aspect of AMS reminds me of my high school class’ 30th anniversary reunion. This was the one when people began admitting all the ways they felt insecure in high school — the smooth class president who was terrified every time he had to speak in front of the class, the self-confident girl who was ashamed of her father’s job, the popular son of immigrants who never let anyone know where he lived becuase his parents didn’t speak good English. Starting to admit these things made everyone far more comfortable together than they ever had been before, and it was liberating. And I suppose at some point maybe old musicologists start to admit these thigns too (“You know, I never was as sure about the transimssion of that repertoire as I claimed . . .”). But just like high school, we perceieve the stakes (professional rather than social in this case) as being too high.
    And so the dance continues.

  2. Charles Carson says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Phil. I enjoyed your comments, and I am looking forward to talking about this “smooth aesthetic” in more detail with you.
    I also felt that it was a good conference. It was an unusually “tight” affair — papers were especially focused and “lean”, and the panels were extremely well-put together. I was especially excited about how well all the papers on my panel hung together – all of them complemented each other — no surprise, look at the people on the panel! I am just glad I didn’t look like an idiot (or did I?).
    I feel like I must mention the “Playing with Signs” panel specifically — really nice mix of papers that — to me, at least — were very inspiring: kudos to Greenberg, de Graaf, Solis, and McLeod!
    Ok, it WAS kind of “cop show” meeting Phil in person…

  3. Jonathan says:

    I didn’t hear Charles’s paper–got to read it, though, and agree that it was superb. I suspect the tightness of the meeting had to do with the locale and venue–I suspect this wasn’t one of the bigger meetings in recent years, and it seemed to me that there were fewer concurrent sessions at any one time. I heard some fine, fine stuff and read even more.
    The discomfort we’re all supposed to feel–OK, let’s acknowledge it, then get on with it, shall we? The game is more fun when everyone is in the circle, not pasting themselves to the walls in terror. I believe what we’re talking about–including the questioner on–is “the imposter syndrome,” and sure we’ve all felt it. Do your best, make a personal project out of filling in the cracks and inadequacies to the best of your ability, and then realize that while you’ll never really cover what you think you ought to, you have out-of-the-box, unlooked-for, eccentric strengths that make your contributions really unique.
    Finally–I loved reading the anecdote about Burkholder, one of the real sages of our discipline. The only thing I wondered was if he gestured dramatically to the right-field fence before knocking that one out of the park.

  4. Squashed says:

    – reverb effect all over like cheap suit. It’s hiding lack of craftmanship and simplistic composition for ‘wet’ effect.
    – tempo should be somewhere between toe tapping and head nodding. If it makes ones behind jiggle, it’s way to harsh, let alone screaming rampage. It can’t be too slow or minimalist either. We are not talking abstract experimental here, just gentrified density of ornamentation.
    – Form should be whatever was popular when the average age ruling class was in their late twenty’s.
    So probably the “smooth” tune for today would be… somewhere between mid “Beatles” and early “New Order”, in cheap piano lounge style. Don’t forget plenty of pedal.

  5. squashed says:

    almost forgot, there used to be a name for that type of music
    “exotica lounge”

  6. Bob Judd says:

    Re feelings of inadequacy or being a fake, there was a Chronicle article on this very phenomenon last week:
    (sorry, link only lasts a few days). This is definitely a common feeling, and one that’s very much worth getting over. (Easier said than done…)

  7. Jonas Westover says:

    Oh, Phil. Phil. Phil. You’re the only person I know who would even DARE to bring up Salmon Rushdie and film musicals in the same sentence. I think it’s actually musical theatre heresy, and, much like Dr. T, I find you Guilty! Honestly. And, I might add, using “integrated” when talking about the musical is almost as old fashioned as using the term “jazz” to talk about the Hi-Los. I’m glad you went to the paper, but man….
    BTW, I hope things are well. I was surprised to find this blog. Almost done with the diss. way out here in NYC!

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