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  • Sound Studies: Missing the (Popular) Music for the Screens?
  • Norma Coates

As Cinema Journal and the Society for Cinema and Media Studies welcome sound studies into their midst, I cannot help but wonder what the fallout will be for the study of popular music and the recording industry. I fear that it may not bode well. Sound studies, as it coalesces as a field under the auspices of SCMS, runs the risk of becoming “Soundtrack Studies.” Historical radio is now frequently studied, but only as the precursor of television. What about radio after television? Or on the Internet? If a screen is necessary for SCMS inclusion, then popular music and its industry, along with post-TV and Internet radio—and new communicative forms that have yet to emerge—could remain forever marginal. Moreover, a definition of “sound” as “soundtrack” could limit the ability of media scholarship as sanctioned by SCMS and taught in graduate programs in media studies (by whatever name) to adapt to changes in media composition, delivery, programming, audiences, economics, and other factors. As for popular music in particular, relegating it to [End Page 123] the role of soundtrack forecloses its analysis as a medium in its own right. The media scholar whose research focuses on popular music or the recording industry is therefore in a bind. To explain what I mean, I tender a few subjective anecdotes.

Anecdote 1: I recently received a reader report for an edited volume about girl groups and girl singers in 1960s popular music. I had written an article for the anthology about singer Marianne Faithfull, her relationship to the Rolling Stones, and the subsequent use of their 1960s selves in the ongoing careers of both. The anonymous reader was quite charitable to me, saying very kind words about my essay, while noting that “it seemed to have nothing to do with music.”

Anecdote 2: I did my Ph.D. in the Media and Cultural Studies program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I am trained in media history and theory, cultural studies, cultural theory, and television studies. My intention to focus on popular music was clear from the outset, but I had to think creatively to make my coursework relevant to what I wanted to study. Having a dissertation adviser who wrestled with similar object-of-study problems in her graduate student days helped. On the advice of that sage adviser, I did not focus my dissertation solely on popular music, but added a big dose of television to it. Television, in fact, is in my dissertation’s title, and popular music on network television is the subject of the book that I am working on. I taught or was a teaching assistant for several media studies courses. At my first faculty job, I turned mass communication courses into media studies courses. I present my work at SCMS, ICA, and Consoleing Passions in addition to conferences more focused on popular music, and my publications apply media studies methodologies and theories to topics in popular music and the recording industry. But until I landed my current position at the University of Western Ontario, a joint appointment in the Faculties of Music and Media Studies, I was often told that I was “too music” in my orientation.

Anecdote 3: I recently finished reading almost sixty applications for a tenure-track position specializing in popular music in our Faculty of Information and Media Studies. Of these applications, roughly half were from ethnomusicologists or musicologists. About fifteen were from candidates who were trained in media studies or cognate fields, such as communication, and of these, less than half were from American universities. It was often difficult to identify whether media studies applicants truly had enough depth and breadth of knowledge in popular music to successfully teach four graduate and undergraduate courses per year.

I offer these anecdotes because I think that they capture the state of popular music and the popular music/recording industry scholar in the realm of media studies. Popular music scholars are usually relegated to popular music AND (name your visual medium) here.1 Studies of the recording industry on its own are usually not presented at media studies conferences, or at...


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