- “Get in Formation”: Recent Scholarship on Popular Music and American Identities
In the spring of 2016, the release of Beyoncé’s “Formation” commanded immediate and widespread attention in the American media. Pundits, scholars, and fans discussed the song and its accompanying video as an example of the artist’s paradigm-shifting popularity and as a crucial intervention into contemporary debates over #BlackLivesMatter, feminism, and the broader politics of representation. Beyond this, those who addressed “Formation” placed Beyoncé’s assertive call and multilayered text in a broader conversation about national identity. Some opponents claimed that her message and presentation exploited societal divisions to the point of being un-American, while supporters countered that the artist’s critique of systemic violence and celebration of community among black women reflected both a historical and [End Page 1033] contemporary challenge to the limits of citizenship in the United States. The ease with which Beyoncé became a subject of public debate—and the depth of the conversations she provoked—was only the most recent demonstration of popular music’s continuing historical primacy as a key site through which American experiences are expressed, understood, and contested.
Accordingly, popular music has remained a consistent and rich topic of consideration in scholarly discourse as well. Recent years have seen a renaissance of such studies, as historians, ethnomusicologists, and others have produced innovative work that sheds new light on ignored or underappreciated stories, revises or debunks traditional paradigms, and expands our understandings of music’s centrality to the cultural and economic marketplace. By connecting the artistic and commercial impulses that motivate the work of musical laborers to the social and economic processes attendant to listenership, popular-music scholars demonstrate the linked and multivalent roles that music plays within larger shifts in American political and social life. In the words of Shana L. Redmond, whose outstanding book is under review here, “music is a method . . . a complex system of mean(ing)s and ends that mediate our relationships to one another, to space, to our histories and historical moment” (1). Acknowledging and incorporating this methodology is crucial to students and scholars of American studies, a field that has long understood the value of using pop-cultural texts as a central mode.
As Redmond reminds us, popular music has been particularly useful for unpacking and understanding the complexities of identity formation in the United States. Scholars have addressed the development of racialized and gendered musical categories, noted the key impacts of class and region on musical phenomena, and traced the ways that musicians, songs, and genres have affirmed, challenged, or rejected concepts of Americanness as both historical and ideological phenomenon. As in other fields, the best work in popular-music studies presents an intersectional analysis of these formations, demonstrating how music—as both art and commodity—reflects and affects these larger structures. Several recent works offer important and innovative additions to this conversation.
The question of “Americanness” is at the forefront of Rachel Clare Donaldson’s I Hear America Singing, a meticulous intellectual history of the folk revival of the early to mid-twentieth century. From the 1930s forward, the folk revival promoted the spread of American musical traditions (from spirituals to cowboy songs) through recordings and songbooks, as well as the more general spread of communal music-making practices in the form...