Blog fail

Phil Ford

It’s almost Christmas — the traditional time for anxiety and recriminations, so let’s start here, on this blog. I want to look back over the last semester — hell, the last two-plus years — and talk about failure. Namely mine, and to some extent yours.

On the plus side: I’ve written some things I’m proud of, and I know that people read them. At AMS this year I lost count of how many times people told me they read Dial M every week (sometimes every day) and how much they appreciate what Jonathan and I write. It made me feel good, and I returned to Bloomington with a renewed feeling of commitment and enthusiasm for blogging . . . which then quickly dissipated. Don’t get me wrong, it matters that you read. A number of people told me that my dispatches-from-academic-life posts, like the one about waiting for schools to call you back for an interview or not getting any work done before the election, gave them some comfort, made them feel as if they weren’t alone in what they were going through. And I write those things for pretty much the same reason: I want to write down something I’m feeling to see if anyone else is feeling it too. (This is one reason why blogs have comments sections.) And as I say, I’ve written things I’m proud of. I’m glad I had a chance to write about my Dad. I’m proud of a memorial post for a guy I didn’t know and didn’t agree with but whose horrifying and lonely death deserved some kind of meditation. I think that the cross-blogger debates we’ve had here on touchy subjects like torture and religion have been some of Dial M’s finest moments. I’ve gone all meta and blogged about blogging. (I guess now I’m taking another step on the endless spiral staircase of blogging self-reflexivity and am blogging about blogging about blogging.) I’ve even occasionally written about my actual research.

 

But there’s an awful lot of stuff in my head that never gets written because whatever anyone says, blogging isn’t about keepin’ it real — it’s about the meticulous preparation and presentation of an artful rhetoric of keepin’ it real. At one point in Nashville I ran in Jim Hepokoski, who expressed surprise that I would confide so much about myself to a bunch of perfect strangers. I replied that I wasn’t confiding anything; whatever I write about myself is exactly what suits me for people to know about me. I don’t lie or mislead; nothing I say about myself is false. But whatever I disclose is selective and calculated. This isn’t the “real me” here, it’s a version of the real me packaged for blog consumption. Come to think of it, is there a real me anywhere? Probably not. We all do the same thing, making strategic self-disclosures to manage the perceptions that our friends, family, colleagues, and students have of us. As Rameau’s nephew pointed out, even the King poses for God and his mistress. And it’s one of my Professor’s Ten Commandments (with an assist from Biggie) to self-own in what you write:

 

Number two: Never let ‘em know your next move/Don’t you know bad boys move in silence or violence. Or, as MF Doom says, never let your so-called mans know your plans. This applies especially to bloggers. Seriously, bloggers, always assume that everyone you know, and everyone you might want to know, will read your blog. It’s easy to get suckered into the illusion that you’re confiding your innermost thoughts with an anonymous Them you’ll never actually meet. Nope, and when you confide stuff about yourself that you wouldn’t announce from the lectern of a plenary session of the American Musicological Society, you could end up like Youngblood Priest from Superfly, who accidentally kills his best friend when he drops the name of his connection in a nightclub.
As Curtis Mayfield comments in the title song: “But a weakness was shown, ‘cause his hustle was wrong/His mind was his own, but the man lived alone.”
Or, to put it in less poetically, if you want your mind to be you own, or if you want to be master of your own destiny, you need to live alone, metaphorically speaking; don’t confide, or a weakness will be shown, and your hustle will be wrong. 

 

What would it look like if I were really keeping it real? It would look like this:

 

Just like Vernon I have deep-buried rage which, if I started letting it out, would probably land me in a job at a gas station too. Which is one of the reasons why my contributions to this blog have been getting shorter, lamer, and less frequent. It’s not that the only things I want to write about are the things that piss me off; it’s that I’m constantly aware of all those things that piss me off and which I won’t let myself write about. It makes what I *do* write about feel like trivial, self-serving happy talk, an unwitting confirmation of the image of academics in general (and musicologists in particular) as a pack of timid bores. Frank Zappa’s jeer at academic composers always plays in my mind when I sit down to write something at Dial M these days:

 

Hey, buddy, when was the last time you thwarted a norm? Can’t risk it, eh? Too much at stake over at the old Alma Mater? Nowhere else to go? Unqualified for ‘janitorial deployment’? Look out! Here they come again! It’s that bunch of guys who live in the old joke: it’s YOU and two billion of your closest friends standing in shit to your chins, chanting, ‘DON’T MAKE A WAVE!’*

 

When a blog post becomes just another occasion to contemplate one’s failure, at a certain point it just becomes easier to say “screw it” and not write anything at all. Which brings me to the part I promised in the first sentence of this post, where I said I’d talk about your failures as well. And by “you” I mean the discipline of musicology, or more generally music scholarship. (There’s enough fail to go around: music theory and ethnomusicology can each take a forkful.) I started this blog thinking that the strange absence of music-scholarly blogs was a temporary condition, and that musicologists, once they had learned about academic blogging by example and could see what could be done in the medium, would start writing their own blogs and a hundred musicoloblogospheric flowers would bloom. Well, that didn’t happen. Look at the academic blog wiki list of music-scholarly blogs. Now look at the one for history. Or linguistics and philosophy. Or even Classics and Ancient Languages, for Chrissake. We’re getting our asses kicked by Latin.

 

I can’t help but think that this is a cultural thing. Just as different parts of the orchestra each have their own micro-cultures, different disciplines within the humanities do too, and the culture of musicology is marked by its almost insane degree of caution and self-limitation. Sorry to be so blunt, but there it is: the other humanities, when they think of us at all (which isn’t very often) tend to think of musicologists as something like stamp collectors, fanatically collecting and sorting and classifying stamps without caring about what they’re attached to. We wouldn’t want to start opening those letters! Just throw the letter away and keep the stamp. It’s got pretty colors. This one from Zambia has a bird on it! Hey, it looks like this other one with a bird on it. Do I put it in the “birds” part of the album or the “Zambia” part? Hm . . .

 

I usually dismiss this characterization, because it doesn’t describe the musicologists whose work I admire. But I don’t know. The point and challenge of blogging is to make connections with other parts of the intellectual world, and inasmuch as that challenge has hardly been taken up in the two-and-a-half years since I started this blog, I have to ask if we as a discipline are not actually just happier staying in our corner, playing with our stamps.

 

*Frank Zappa and Peter Occiogrosso, The Real Frank Zappa Book, 193.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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8 Responses to Blog fail

  1. Phil, I understand your concerns. Heck, I’m not even tenured (first year of tenure-track gig), and I’m sometimes reticent to put things on my blog. Of course, my blog tends to the political, so even if someone found my views on NAFTA or missile defense odious they still wouldn’t know where I stand on the cadential 6/4 debate*,
    And thanks for the FZ quote. There really isn’t a better summation than that.
    *I remain convinced how I taught cadential 6/4 during an interview – even though I mentioned you’ll see it analyzed a couple different ways – kept me from getting a gig once. People are funny.
    WF

  2. Wrongshore says:

    Every now and then I wonder if I should have gone to grad school. Reading the comments on The Ten Commandments (you must follow the link — the piece is terrific, but the comments are sublime) will keep me from wondering again for another ten years.

  3. db says:

    Phil – thanks for all the great posts, and especially this one; all the reasons I remain a former blogger, and probably why most of the blogs I love post every few months or so… thank god for RSS.

  4. Peter (the Other) says:

    Phil, as a hell of a long-time student, I truly enjoy and intellectually profit from your teaching, as I am exposed to it, here on the blog. I found the the translation of the ten commandments gave me a greater understanding of a genre I have kept at a distance (I’m a pure, old-school, jazz, soul and R&B kind of guy).
    I have been very happily surprised by the diversity of disciplines (amateurs then) that enthusiastically contribute to the pop music conferences I have been to. It is also an odd lot who have done great work in film music (look at a Claudia Gorbman). I am very critical towards musicology as an institution, but as a practice, and maybe as a newly evolved discipline (as you represent), I am excited and hopeful.

  5. MJ says:

    I’m not a musicologist, just a lowly former music major now getting a library degree. I love reading “Dial M,” and the above two posts, along with many other ones, are why I read this blog. I had a blog once as a class project, and kept it up for awhile, but yes, finding my “voice” there (i.e., how much was I going to reveal — I posted anon.) was always a problem, so much so that I quit. I’ve thought about starting again, making it a “professional page” too, but most of the good things I would write would tend toward the rant side, which, as a newcomer to the discipline and middle-aged to boot, wouldn’t be good for my job prospects. There are few people who can rant professionally, and there is only room for so many Camille Paglias in the world.
    Personally, I think the lack of musicology blogs stems from the fact that musicologists are actually doing something and not just sitting around debating in comments boxes.
    MJ

  6. Michael says:

    I wonder if it isn’t also a question of pro- v. reactive writing. When Alfred Brendel first raised the question in NYRB of following Schubert’s repeat signs in 1989, profs. Frisch and Zaslaw returned volley. When the folks at the Washington Post had their fun in 2007 with elite busking, prof. Taruskin responded memorably.
    Aside from these–and perhaps the one about Beethoven’s locks–what have been the public debates initiated by prof. Ford’s “discipline of musicology, or more generally music scholarship” recently?

  7. Lavinie says:

    Look at the academic blog wiki list of music-scholarly blogs. Now look at the one for history. Or linguistics and philosophy. Or even Classics and Ancient Languages, for Chrissake. We’re getting our asses kicked by Latin.
    Look at my university: in my year, major history: ~600-700 students; major musicology: 2 (including myself). Since nobody really knows what musicology is, there only are a few studying this. Many friends think my studies consist by listening all day long to different records and say if it was good or not. Therefore, everybody think he can do that, you do not need specialized persons.
    I think we need – in Switzerland at least – some lecture that would show new students, what they can do with musicology, what is the role of a musicologist, etc.
    I’m thankful to you, in that you put this great problem of musicology here. I sincerly hope it will reflate the reflexion and debate about the role of musicology in the human sciences.
    Thank you, Phil.
    ~a ‘musicology apprentice’ from Switzerland, who regularly read and enjoyed your posts

  8. Thanks Phil – this is a really important observation. The Amusicology folks took the issue up on their blog, where I found it. I think some of the issue about the lack of music scholarship blogs is, as they say, a matter of there not being much of a compilation of what is out there. I’ve taken your list and their list and added a few I know of (some from outside the US), and there’s actually a fair amount, which I posted on my blog. But the question still stands (and this goes to your stamp-collecting thing) – who’s reading them?

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