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  • Music Studies, American Studies, and the Popular History of the Normal
  • Barry Shank (bio)
Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music. By Eric Weisbard. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 2014.
Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South. By Charles L. Hughes. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2015.
Sounding Race in Rap Songs. By Loren Kajikawa. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2015.

The maturation of a scholarly field is marked not only by the development of its own infrastructure—scholarly associations, tenure-track appointments, book series with major presses, journals, and the like—but perhaps even more so by the revision of its earlier findings, a rethinking of outdated assumptions and judgments. Once a field has demonstrated its capacity to reconsider its [End Page 7] inherited truths, it has then reached the stage where it can also make significant contributions to other fields. These three books each revisit long-held shibboleths in popular music studies, identifying new historical continuities as they overturn some of the founding positions in the field. In so doing, these books also contribute to ongoing conversations about American studies. In particular, the version of popular music studies presented in all three of these books suggests that scholars of American studies could profit from returning our gaze to a popular history of the mundane. Together, they draw on new archives and new analytical concepts that support a refocus on the common, that recognizes the complexity and contingency of the normal.

Loren Kajikawa’s insistence on the musicological value of the breakbeat as the core compositional unit of rap music reflects the means whereby rap producers create songs and, therefore, anchors the political analysis of rap’s musical beauty in the actual everyday practices of the musicians. Particular breakbeats at the core of key soundtexts signal the relationships among signifiers of race within shifting political and economic contexts. With our attention fully focused on those intricate interrelationships, we can then hear the changing same of rap music as a full participant in the nation’s turn to neoliberalism even while the form maintained a kernel of resistance. Charles Hughes invites us to consider the studio musicians, record producers, and label chiefs who recorded much of the great country and soul music of the late 1960s and 1970s as workers. Relationships in the workplace, where some musicians received producing or song-writing credit and royalties while others were paid for a day’s work and forgotten, reproduced the racialized hierarchies that integrated studio ensembles had been imagined to have overcome. The shared musicians and musical roots that created the core sounds of ideologically opposed genres of country and soul music did not work as equal partners so much as cagey interlocutors negotiating ongoing tensions. Eric Weisbard reexamines the work of such figures as the Isley Brothers, Dolly Parton, Elton John, and the Carpenters who, along with label executives and radio DJs, competed for listeners via the construction of multiple mainstreams. Conceptualizing these mainstreams as formats instead of genres, Weisbard helps us to hear a democracy of the everyday, a struggle over the reach of the normal. Overturning the long-standing emphasis within popular music studies on artists who pushed musical boundaries or overtly demanded political change, Weisbard focuses our attention on the muddled middle, where musicians and industry professionals created soundtracks for family barbecues, housework, and office politics. Weisbard calls these “formatted experiences” (57) and argues that by eschewing the assumptions that link genres and social identities, we can better understand how formats competing for audiences mapped the messiness of actually functioning democracy.

Sounding Race in Rap Songs provides a chronological, but more importantly musicological, mapping of the transformation of hip hop culture from street corner parties in the Bronx and Brooklyn to the very center of American culture. Individual chapters are organized around a key “soundtext,” which is then contextualized [End Page 8] both musically and socially. As Kajikawa puts it in the introduction, one purpose of the book is “to explain how each song produces particular ideas about race and genre.” His analyses “are about providing an understanding of the aesthetic grounds from which rap’s projections of race...


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pp. 7-16
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