- Purchase/rental options available:
American Quarterly 57.4 (2005) 1189-1200
[Access article in PDF]
Do You Wanna Dance?:
Historical Narratives and American Popular Music
Should one take the temperature, so to speak, of the disciplinary environment that encompasses the full range of American culture, the amplification of academic interest in the serious examination of popular music will come as no surprise. This has occurred not only because classes in the subject easily fill up, if not accrue waiting lists, but also because the material itself explores one of the foundational influences on the very people who establish curricula in the halls of higher education. Courses in popular music, as well as panels at annual conventions of various disciplines, including American studies, proliferate. Academic publishers have not fallen asleep at the switch as these developments unfolded, as anyone who pays even the slightest attention to their annual announcements understands. At first a trickle and now a steady steam of titles on popular music from these publishers vie for the attention of time-constricted readers. A number of presses now promote series devoted to the emerging field, including the University of Illinois Press, the University of Massachusetts Press, the University of California Press, Temple University Press, Duke University Press, and Vanderbilt University Press.
The increased presence of what has come to be referred to as popular music studies gives rise to the question of not only what audience exists for this [End Page 1189] steadily accumulating body of commentary, but also how the writers determine an approach that might appeal across a range of seemingly dissociated readers: fanatical fans; fearsome, furrow-browed theorists; and fun-loving and intellectually challenged general readers. Anyone who has conversed with a thoughtful editor from one of the university presses engaged in this enterprise understands the daunting task of traversing the seemingly intractable barriers that exist between the various forms of expression that serve as the lingua franca of each of these potential audiences. Digesting both the immense body of primary evidence that makes up the canvas of American popular musical expression and the equally substantial array of theoretical tools available to make sense of it requires a distinctly ambidextrous breadth of talents. Few writers possess the balanced temperament needed to come across as neither sanctimoniously overwhelmed by abstractions or sentimentally in thrall to the primary documents.
The three aspirants to the task at hand appeal to disparate audiences and adopt divergent argumentative strategies in an effort to satisfy these seemingly overwhelming demands. Arthur Kempton combines a connoisseur's affection for old school rhythm and blues with a scold's categorical dismissal of the industrial imperative that impedes downtrodden artists from fully reaping the appropriate rewards for their efforts. Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. comes from the academic assembly that promotes the "new musicology" and extends the reach of its analytic tools to a range of African American popular musical forms, including jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, rap, and cinematic soundtracks. He wishes to draw attention to both the formal complexity and creative satisfactions of these various genres as well as focus on how each is grounded in the languages of race, gender, and community. Last, Daniel Wondrich possesses the exhilarating enthusiasm of a dedicated fan combined with a sophisticated grasp of language that allows him to offer the reader a guided map through a particularly obscure and often alienating body of material: the commercial recordings made between Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1876 and the authorial cut-off date of 1924. One could flippantly dismiss Wondrich's work as little more than an engaging amplification of discography, but that reduces a...