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.