I will be participating in a panel with Emily Baker, Ian Biddle and Freya Jarman at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. Our panel is on Sunday 17 April and my paper is entitled ‘A Blank Space Where You Write Your Name: Taylor Swift’s Early Late Voice’. Abstract below.
Taylor Swift’s songs invite listeners to connect art and life in the tradition, if not always the style, of the ‘confessional’ singer-songwriter. From an early age, Swift has written and sung about ‘big topics’ like time and experience with a remarkable sense of self awareness. Her songs hymn youthful experience to great effect through references to specific ages or via more general depictions of girlishness, school, first loves, summer vacations and family. Through her lyrical preoccupations, Swift exemplifies many aspects of what I call ‘late voice’, a way of thinking about the writing and singing of time, age and experience. My conceptualisation of lateness considers artists and listeners not only in terms of conventional ‘late’ periods (i.e. old age), but as subjects who reflect on such issues throughout our lives. In the first part of this paper, I make the case for Swift as an exponent of ‘early late voice’.
While a number of commentators have picked up on the maturity of Swift’s writing voice, comparatively little attention has been paid to her singing. I address this gap by looking at the conflation of writing/singing in the singer-songwriter’s voice. I examine tensions that have been noted between Swift’s art and her star persona. To what extent, I ask, is the denigration of Swift’s musical style (her singing as much as her move towards chart pop) a gendered attack on young women’s voices? At the same time, what strategies have been used to authenticate Swift as an artist by other critics? I conclude with a discussion of Ryan Adams’s cover of Swift’s 1989 album and the critical discourse surrounding it, arguing that the ‘blank space’ of Swift’s voice becomes legitimated and appropriated by a critical discourse focussed on roots, genre and masculinity.
I will be presenting a paper at the IASPM Australia New Zealand Branch Conference at the Australian National University, Canberra, on 5 December. My paper is entitled ‘”All You See Is Glory”: The Burden of Stardom and the Tragedy of Nina Simone’ and the abstract is below.
Although most often remembered as an icon of the civil rights era, Nina Simone enjoyed (and occasionally endured) a long career during which the bulk of the songs she performed dealt with the politics, pains and precariousness of the self. Her work—always suffused with longing, sensuality and the passion of being—took on, in her later career, what might be termed a ‘defiant melancholy’ as she used her songs and live performances to navigate the burden of her past. As much as she had been a movement intellectual in the 1960s, Simone had been a star and the sense of loss of both political possibility (signalled by the ‘failure’ of the civil rights movement in the USA) and stardom (signalled by the decline in her popularity) flavoured much of the material she produced from the mid-1970s onwards.
In this paper, I explore Simone’s extraordinary performance at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, and in particular her rendition of Janis Ian’s song ‘Stars’. I begin by reflecting on Ian’s own experience of celebrity and the way she articulated it in ‘Stars’, then I move on to compare Simone’s version, analysing it in the context of the festival appearance in which it appeared and in the longer text of Simone’s life as an artist and celebrity. Drawing on scholarship connected to celebrity, authorship and liveness, I read the song as exemplifying and challenging narratives of fame and artistic biography. I also reflect on cover versions as modes of authorship, authentication and experience and as live performance as an interface for stars and their audiences.
I will be presenting a paper at the 18th biennial IASPM conference in Campinas, Brazil, on 30 June. My paper is entitled ‘Excavating “Coimbra”: Genealogy, Nostalgia, and the Material Life of a Portuguese popular song’ and the abstract is below.
This paper uses the story of a particular song, the Portuguese fado ‘Coimbra’, as a way of exploring the relationship between representational distance, ‘prescribed’ or ‘instant’ nostalgia and history. ‘Coimbra’ began its life as a musical representation of a city but later became, as ‘April in Portugal’, an international representation of a country and of a more general sense of nostalgic longing. Telling this story chronologically will encourage a focus on the twists, turns and mutations that occur during the life of a much-performed song, tracing in particular the way in which this song’s inherent representational distance grows into ever more distanced , displaced and distorted configurations. This journey will travel from Portugal to Brazil, from France to the USA, as well as many points in between. The second part of the paper reverses this historical chronology by focusing on the chronology of the research process, on the unearthing, excavation and genealogic processes involved in historical song studies. What can be understood from having all of these ‘Coimbras’ available to us, not least on digital platforms such as Spotify, YouTube and iTunes? Here, notions of the archive, of media archaeology and of the material life of music become paramount and impact on the questions of nostalgia and temporal displacement with which this panel is engaged.
I will be presenting a paper at the upcoming conference One Century of Record Labels (Newcastle University, 6-7 November 2014). My paper is entitled ‘The Lure of Ephemera: ‘Record Labels as Visual and Textual Icons’ and the abstract is below.
While there is a growing body of work focussed on record labels, much of it tends to equate ‘label’ with ‘company’ and to focus on the history of particular companies, the musicians, producers and ‘house styles’ associated with them, or the relationship between different companies. Other work has highlighted the design aesthetics associated with particular companies by presenting often lavish illustrated books that dwell on design classics (Blue Note album covers, for example). Work aimed at the record collecting market has, meanwhile, provided detailed accounts of changes in sleeve and label design to aid identification of original pressings, regional versions, reissues, and so on. My interest in this paper is to tap into all of these areas of work but in particular to explore the role of the record label as visual icon in a way that goes beyond specific label history, house style or collector authentication by emphasising the aura of labels and logos as a more general aspect of the representation of past musics.
My focus is on the visual iconicity of record labels and the lure of label ephemera. I equate the fascination with the sight of late musicians to an equal fascination with the haunting of musical objects such as the label. My case studies include reissue companies such as Yazoo, Dust-to-Digital and Mississippi, as well as histories of vernacular music such as the Blues Paperbacks series of the 1970s. I highlight the explicit use of actual labels as ways of presenting the past, using label iconography as a way of narrating the story of ‘old’ musics, where the portraiture of the record (the label shot) becomes as ubiquitous as that of the musician (the portrait). Like the photographic portrait, the label shot gives us more than facts; it has aura and hints at untold or half-known stories. Recordings themselves are sonic snapshots of a time, but the objects that accompany them become visual snapshots, invitations to a mysterious past. They also invite simulation, another aspect that I will reflect on in my paper.
I have been invited to deliver a keynote lecture at the thirteenth conference of SIBE (Sociedad de Etnomusicología), which is taking place in Cuenca, Spain from the 23rd to the 25th October. The title of my talk is ‘Familiar Futures, Strange Pasts: Popular Music and the Art of Storytelling’.
This lecture engages with aspects of aesthetics, tradition, education and technology as encountered in the field of popular music studies. In making connections between these aspects I reflect on the art of storytelling, with its resonant associations with oral culture, education, narrative and aesthetics. There are four main kinds of stories I am particularly interested in exploring: the life stories of musicians and fans, as evidenced in biographical projects, life writing and audience ethnographies; stories about the past, present and future of popular music, especially those which connect popular music to tradition and folklore; stories passed on to others via education, with particular regard to the relationship between repertory, concepts and theories; and the various stories available to us via digital media, where we find interesting relationships between archives and narratives.
In order to explore these kinds of stories and storytelling, I will use examples from my work as a researcher and educator working primarily within popular music studies but also engaged in the intersection of this field with ethnomusicology. I will explore life writing and memoir through reference to my current research on the representation of time, age and experience in popular music. The relationship between past, present and future will be discussed by considering popular music as an ongoing event. Music pedagogy will be addressed by a reconsideration of what constitutes the musical field. Finally, the importance of digital media to all these endeavours will be highlighted by a consideration of online music archives and digital streaming services and musical materiality. The flattening of history that may be experienced with such archives can give the impression of encountering familiar futures and strange pasts. We need to consider the implications this has for our understanding of where musical discourse is in the present, where it has been and where it may be going.