Recently the Journal of Popular Music Studies posed the question whether or not there should be some overarching cannon formation for the field (Waksman). As a doctoral student and new member of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music – US branch (IASPM-US) I do not have an answer but I do have a suggestion. We should all wear nametags. I think Elaine had the right idea when she suggested it to the Mayor’s office in a classic Seinfeld episode. My nametag might say My Name and Human Development Doctoral Student. Though I’m More Akin To A Social Psychologist Who Is Interested In Popular Music Studies But I Do Not Attend A Formal Academic Program In Popular Music Studies. I’m Not a Musicologist, Anthropological Scholar, nor a Cultural Historian. I am Interested In Gender Studies in Popular Music and I Have Self Published A Book Titled Good Music is Better Than Sex: My Search for The Old Blue Chair But I Do Not Think I Would Call Myself a Music Journalist. Lastly I Am Not a Musician But I’m Quite the Singer When in My Car. I doubt all of that would fit on a nametag so perhaps we ought to have some type of laminated 8” x 10” signage hanging on our backs.
Often I am not sure if I am in the proper place for scholarly mingling and interaction so I ask this next question with the ignorant bliss and naiveté of a doctoral student. The IASPM – US bylaws state that our purpose among others is “to encourage recognition of the popular music as an area for scholarly research and establishing connections between the scholarly community, those in the music profession, and those who write about popular music”. Is there a forum, think tank, central research center, or something similar that provides physical space for popular music researchers and musicians/artists to come together?
McGill University’s Laboratory for Music Perception and Expertise is an example of where those who are interested in cognitive psychological music studies come together. Dr. Levitin is a leading scholar in that area of the psychology of music. Prior to his academic career he was a musician, producer, engineer, musical consultant and has worked with artists such as Santana and The Grateful Dead. His scholarly work also includes advances in methods and tools to study music perception, cognition, and musical expertise. Additionally Levitin and the staff at the McGill Lab study special populations with neurogenetic impairments such as Autism, Williams Syndrome, and Down Syndrome (Levitin).
Is there such a place similar to this where those who are interested in the research aspects of popular music studies can come together and work as a scholarly research team? Using the wise words of John Lennon (Come Together ), I stress the importance of the theme “Come Together” because in order to further the purpose of the IASPM I believe as scholars we must work in conjunction with popular artists and musicians.
Our field of popular music studies is unique in many ways. There are scholars from many different backgrounds, hence my humorous suggestion for introductory signage. I align closely with the social psychology research arm but I know that the academic background diversity of our field brings endless opportunities for new knowledge creation. An example is how Popular Music Studies section of the Society for Ethnomusicology (PMSSEM) communicates with the IASPM – US branch by cross posting calls for papers, job notices, and other items of mutual interest.
Another unique factor is that popular music pedagogy is often hidden under other academic departments. The MTSU’s Department of Recording Industry, CCNY’s Popular Music Studies specialization, and media psychology programs such as the doctoral program at Fielding Graduate University are examples of the variety of educational program available. However when looking for universities with an active research center similar to Dr. Levitin’s I found very few and they were on different continents. There were some that used qualitative methods, but those that focused on quantitative were sparse.
The need for such a research center is clear and has been evident for some time. Several advocacy groups issued statements regarding the importance of research on popular music, yet part of the problem was the lack of a valid research method. For instance the AAP report (Pediatrics 1219) noted, “Although evidence is incomplete, based on our knowledge of child and adolescent development, the AAP believes that parents should be aware of pediatricians’ concerns about the possible negative impact of music lyrics”. According to the Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls there is a need to “examine the presence or absence of the sexualization of girls and women in all media but especially in movies, music videos, music lyrics, video games, books, blogs, and Internet sites” (4).
In a recent dissertation from the Fielding Media Psychology program (Osuna 2) the author states that while there is solid theoretical basis for such studies there are many pitfalls and obstacles to overcome while adhering to experimental validity. Her literature review shows many quantitative studies are troubled with validity issues. She cites several key problems. First, many studies compare popular songs to one another. That means not only are different lyrics being compared but different music is also being used. This is not being controlled or accounted as a variable. Also problematic is that many studies use college students as participants. While students are easily accessible they are likely to be familiar with the songs and already have existing opinions, thoughts, or attitudes towards the lyrics and/or music. Lastly, content differences within lyrics are “often vaguely defined without scientific basis” (3).
As mentioned previously our research field is a vast playing field with many players of different academic backgrounds. This feature adds more complexity to an already complex research subject. According to Osuna in order to study music with lyrics one must have an understanding of linguistics. It is necessary because “scientific study of music lyrics requires the study of both the structure and the function of language”. She notes that the most relevant linguistic subtopics as syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and discourse analysis (Osuna 6). Additionally, one cannot study the music without the lyrics nor the lyrics without prosody. Osuna (6) states that prosody is of utmost importance because this is what combines all the elements of music together and creates another level of communication.
Also problematic is the majority of studies tend to classify music with lyrics into broad genres of style categories such as rock, country, rap, pop, and classical. While labeling by genre might appear practical it does not address the multiple layers of subgenres. On the internet radio station Pandora there is a main label which defines the appropriate station’s genre. However when one clicks on the main label the subgenres of Today’s Country, Classic Country, Outlaw Country, Traditional Country, Traditional Country Hymns, Bluegrass, Alternative Country, and Western Swing will appear (Pandora Media Group).
Osuna notes that comparing “categorized styles of music is a method lacking in internal validity because of the effects of the many components of a given song in a given style even if closely matched to another song” (28). Recently a study was conducted to determine if there were similar musical preferences across three independent studies (Rentfrow). The conclusion was that the three studies did converge and what resulted was a five factor musical preference model that could be used versus the pre-existing genre classification models. The researchers (Rentfrow) interpreted and labeled the five factors as follows: a) a Mellow factor which is comprised of relaxing and soothing musical styles; b) an Unpretentious factor that is authentic, sincere, and rootsy such as the story telling style of country and singer-songwriter genres; c) a Sophisticated factor that includes classical, world, jazz, and opera; d) an Intense factor which is defined by loud, forceful, energetic music such as heavy rock and punk; and e) a Contemporary factor that is described as rhythmic and percussive music such as rap, funk, Latin, Europop and acid jazz. This MUSIC model of music preferences is presented as a more reliable foundation and framework for which new research can be built upon rather than using the problematic genre classification models (Rentfrow 1155).
While the understanding of linguistics is important for analyzing lyrical content, it cannot be the only method. As discussed earlier the combination of the lyrics and the music creates the prosody and adds meaning. Osuna (49) points out that prosodic elements add meaning, such as emphasis on certain words or raising the pitch at a specific point. Her suggestion of having musicians and lyricists compose two or more versions of a lyric set to the same music in order for it to be analyzed caught my attention. This would hold many variables in a controlled setting. There are specific steps to follow for researchers to replicate the factor scoring method, as well as guide lines to improve ecological validity such as studying music and lyrics in a naturalistic setting. It is a more expensive method, however if not controlled then the ecological validity is threatened.
So I pose the question to the IASPM-US community; is there some physical space where scholars and artists/musicians can come together and further research in popular music studies? Is there already a center for popular music research that brings scholars from different backgrounds together with practitioners in the industry to research the important questions that have already been asked but never answered in a manner that is scientifically valid?
One could imagine how extremely helpful it would be if researchers could work with recording artists and songwriters to understand the personal intent and meaning behind the lyrics. To have first-hand contextual information from the artist and/or songwriter perspective would allow scholarly research into the psychology of music to rise to new groundbreaking levels. It would increase the validity of lyrical meaning and perception studies greatly. As Osuna recommended by having the researcher work with artists and musicians and create exact replicas of music with lyrics changed would end the problems with variable control.
In my mind’s eye I can imagine a bustling research center where researchers can discuss current methods and issues. The scholars could bring their own unique academic background and perspectives and together, we would build a consortium of knowledge. Even though I am only a doctoral student, I would bring my insights to the table. For instance in the Fischer and Greitemeyer study on the impact of song lyrics on aggression related thoughts the researchers used songs classified as “misogynous”, “man-hating”, and “neutral” (1165). However the classification of lyrics as “man-hating” raises the issue of gender bias. The researchers used the songs “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morrisette, “Can’t Hold Us Down” by Christina Aguilera, “Ich find dich scheibe” which translates into “I Think You Are Shit” by Tic Tac Toe, and “Neue Manner braucht das Land” which translates into “The Country Needs New Men”, by Ina Detar. There is not any information regarding how the process to determine how lyrics were deemed man hating.
While many aggression theories are used as theoretical basis to study the impact of lyrics, there is a lack of female aggression theories in the existing research. Dana Jack (1999), a leading researcher in the study of women and aggression, states that “As our society defines it, aggression designates male; the term derives its meaning in relation to female ‘absence’ of aggression. In all measures of masculinity, ‘aggressive’ forms the core of masculine qualities. A man’s aggressive behavior enhances his masculinity. A woman’s destructive or dominating, aggressive behavior detracts from her femininity… Aggression by women connotes destructiveness and a challenge to male authority. One of the surest ways to neutralize the force of an intelligent, sexually assertive, independent woman is to depict it as destroying others, particularly children or men” (Jack).
By researching the psychology of music with a gender based perspective I believe we may find a distinct difference in how males and females perceive lyrics. In a recent discussion with a music contributor for USA Today, we each brought very distinct and very different perspectives on lyrics to Kelly Clarkson’s new album release Stronger. Whereas Brian Mansfield, a male, perceived lyrics to be aggressive and man-hating, I perceived the same lyrics to be confident and self – assertive.
Another opportunity that could occur at this research center is that the scholars could bring music journalists into the scientific dialogue. Those who write about music send their own messages and interpretations out into the world. My dissertation is going to examine the themes of these messages. I believe that the message senders unknowingly send statements that it is not okay for women to express anger.
It is important to mention that while there are many aspects of the experimental research side that need to be improved, it is still important to continue with qualitative methods. As Boon found in his study on textual analysis of lyrics, the meaning of a song lies within each reader/listener. How one perceives a song and develops special meaning to a song is an important aspect that deserves more study. This type of deeply personal relationship that binds one’s memories and emotions to a song really can only be studied with qualitative methods like ethnography and phenomenology. I envision the staff and faculty at this ideal research center being diverse in knowledge areas. The uniqueness and differences can come together and work in unison to make substantial gains in our field.
Academically diverse scholars, professional artists/musicians, and non-academics who write about popular music all come together and work to make our field a valid and respected area of study. Together we can learn from each other, we can make strides in the research methodology that is used, and we can provide empirically valid data that perhaps will allow for a resurrection of music based education programs in our schools and communities. While there are many small programs that strive to bring music arts programs back to our schools, there is an opportunity to bring popular music into the classroom. Popular music can be used to teach reading comprehension, popular artists can be used as case studies for business, civics, economics, and mathematics all while providing