Volume 34, Number 3, September 2022
As we write this Editors’ Note, global multimedia streaming service Netflix has just laid off approximately 150 employees, including a significant number of people working for the company’s social media and editorial platforms geared toward diversity—specifically, the channels Most, which centers LGBTQþ stories; Golden, which promotes content related to the “pan-Asian diaspora;” the Latinx community-focused Con Todo; and the Black-audience-oriented Strong Black Lead. These firings also come on the heels of Netflix’s letting go of several women of color writers at its fandom subsidiary, Tudum. All of this is, of course, occurring as Netflix continues to produce transphobic content while still publicly declaring a commitment to “diversity.” For us (and for many), these events tap into a much broader set of sociopolitical concerns facing our contemporary world, namely the racialized/gendered/sexualized dynamics of labor and tech, the politics of representation, and the neoliberal logics of diversity and inclusion. We, thus, open this Editors’ Note with this discussion of Netflix because, while the essays in this issue were written before the layoffs, they nonetheless speak to the aforementioned themes that such firings engender and/or the minoritarian communities that are affected by and sit at the heart of these firings.
Indeed, our Field Notes section centers on tech and labor in media and popular music. In particular, these featured essays are transcriptions from the “Sounds of Accompaniment: Music, Technology, and Labor amidst Capitalist Aesthetics” panel at this year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. Alexandra Hui starts off the panel with a central question: “what were the sounds of labor?” Exploring Muzak and RCA Victor Plant Broadcasting System’s respective programming in industrial factories during the 1940s, Hui illustrates the role of music and sound in shaping management-labor relations. Hui argues that RCA and Muzak not only curated music for workers to listen collectively on the job, but also used worker surveys, broadcast trivia games, and employee-centered newsletters to give employees the impression that management was listening to and paying attention to the workers. This double act of listening (listening to music while working, and feeling as though one is being listened to) is indicative of what Hui persuasively calls the “pan-aural listening” culture of factories at this time, and the ways in which Muzak and RCA advanced such a project to factories under the promise of boosting morale and optimizing production and profit.
Andy Stuhl picks up where Hui left off, asking “how exactly did industrial Muzak[that Hui’s essay tackled] gain a presence in entertainment media?” To answer this question, Stuhl examines the Muzak subsidiary, Programatic Broadcasting Service, and the ways in which it became the standard in and for radio automation in the 1950s. Programatic positioned itself as a cost-cutting measure for radio stations looking to save money during the overnight hours timeslot when “not enough ads could be sold to justify hiring a DJ and keeping the transmitter on.” And so, as an automated music program- ming system that played the nostalgia-branded/anti-youth (non-jazz, non-rock) “adult music,” Programatic/Muzak became an easy economic and exploitative labor solution— Programatic did not need union labor—and one that set the standard for other stations and companies to adopt. It’s here that Stuhl suggests that this historical labor dynamic of Muzak and radio/sonic automation has become a specter that haunts contemporary cultural anxieties around automation and labor in music streaming services, such as Spotify. Alexander Russo’s presentation extends Stuhl’s study on radio automation, and provides a nuanced take on its adoption during the 1950s and 1960s. For Russo, these recording technologies were not universally beloved, welcomed, and accepted advances for radio. Radio stations grew frustrated with automated machines breaking down with no human oversight to immediately fix the issue. Chiefly, stations were concerned about the loss of liveness due to automation’s pre-recorded DJ performances. Nevertheless, Russo’s focus is less on differing opinions on automation, and more on how the adoption of radio automation fell on format/genre lines, especially middle of the road (MOR) and Top 40 formats. Russo expertly shows how MOR’s embrace of automation (read: elimination of a DJ) worked in tandem with its “somnolent” and easygoing sound; while DJs on Top 40 radio found a way to blend pre-recorded and live performances that were consistent with the raucous Top 40 sound. In the end, then, Russo pushes us to consider technology, labor, and genre.
It’s with this latter point that Amy Skjerseth closes out this panel by looking at auto-tune and the audiovisuality of Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe.” Taking seriously the longstand- ing critiques of “Believe” as a “gimmick” recording, Skjerseth seeks to highlight two things: 1) How “gimmick” is, following the work of Sianne Ngai, racialized and gendered, and works to devalue minoritarian subjects and their labor; and 2) How Cher disiden- tifies, in Jos´e Esteban Mun˜oz’s framing of the concept, with the gimmick category on “Believe” in order to expose and explode the gender and age norms governing pop music. Skjerseth contends that the machine-like vocals of “Believe,” due to the use of auto-tune in ways that it was not originally intended, along with the transtemporal and body- swapping robotic visuals of the “Believe” music video, defy expectations of the polished pop personae. They go against the kinds of performances that one might readily assume an older pop star might undertake; and instead, they proffer new ways of being human in the racialized, gendered, and sexual systems organizing such a category.
Our peer-reviewed section kicks things off with two articles that continue the con- versation around systems of power and domination in popular music. Erin E. Bauer thinks through the sidelining of Tejano musics and acts at the Texas-based music and media festival South by Southwest (SXSW). Bauer notes that although SXSW was initially billed as “a way to bring the rest of the world’s music to Texas and to expose Texas music to the rest of the world,” Tejano musicians are largely absent performers at the festival. And this absence has only worsened in the past several years amid SXSW’s growing popularity and adoption of a more global and less local brand image. Bauer draws on ethnographic and statistical data to explicate Tejano musicians’ lack of access to SXSW, and to illustrate how Tejano community-centered spaces, such as the Rancho Alegre Conjunto Music Festival, might serve as models to increase access. In the end, Bauer considers the ways that structural barriers of SXSW, and responses to such barriers like Rancho Alegre, are part of a much larger history and legacy of ethnoracial discrim- ination against Tejanos in Texas.
Owen Coggins and Molly Geidel’s article is also interested in popular music responses to systemic oppression but with a particular focus on feminism in contemporary elec- tronic pop music. Coggins and Geidel take a multipronged analysis—lyrics, song structure, audience reception, album artwork, and music video—of the 2016 hit song “Rockabye” by Clean Bandit, Sean Paul, and Anne-Marie, and contend that it is emblematic of what Coggins and Geidel call “feminist realism.” Coggins and Geidel define feminist realism as a “modest harm reduction approach, wishing for a world in which men behave more respectfully toward women, who continue to perform under- or un- compensated sexual and reproductive labor,” but still expecting that “sexual and reproductive labor will neither disappear nor be more equally shared anytime soon.” “Rockabye” narrates the story of a single mother and sex worker struggling with the everyday and institutional effects of gendered economic precarity. Importantly, Coggins and Geidel find Sean Paul’s feature notable for the ways in which he challenges the racist pathologization of Black music as misogynistic, offers support and solidarity with women, and critiques men’s support of heteropatriarchal systems. For Coggins and Geidel, feminist realism provides another framework for thinking about our contemporary moment in ways that borrow and break from the post-feminist ethos of resilience (shoutout to former JPMS co-editor, Robin James).
The next two peer-reviewed articles tackle issues of genre and identity. Herb L.Fondevilla examines the place and popularity of J-pop, specifically J-pop covers, in the Philippines. Fondevilla notes that these covers initially took hold at a time when Filipino musicians were interested in expressing a “new musical identity” that broke away from the racist and imperialist tropes that deemed Filipino pop music (and Filipinos more broadly) as “imitators” of U.S. culture (this imitation charge is one that is also resonant in Japanese popular music history). It’s perhaps then ironic that Filipino artists would turn to covers for this new identity, but as Fondevilla compellingly illustrates, such covers were not received or marketed as covers but rather localized Filipino recordings—they are performed by Filipino singers, or the original Japanese lyrics are translated into Filipino and then performed by a Japanese singer. Nevertheless, these J-pop covers in the Philippines exemplify a pan-Asian cultural exchange that are shaped by histories of war, occupation, and colonialism in Asia.
Shifting genre and geography, Robyn Shooter thinks through representations of gender and Appalachian identity in the work of country music legends Dolly Parton and June Carter Cash. Expertly analyzing lyrics, instrumentation, vocal timbre, and album artwork in Parton’s My Tennessee Mountain Home and Carter Cash’s Appalachian Pride,
Shooter illustrates the ways in which both women and their respective albums work with, through, and against dominant narratives and images of Appalachia and rural life, espe- cially as they concern rural/Appalachian women. Shooter explicates how Carter Cash and Parton play with sentimentality and nostalgia to dually conform and confound gendered categories, such as empowerment and modesty as well as public and private, rejecting one dimensional reductive readings and instead providing a more complex depiction of women in country music. Importantly, Shooter’s analysis is intersectional, and consis- tently reminds us how white privilege shapes the narratives on these albums, leaving room to consider erasure of women of color and rurality.
Patrick Valiquet’s article closes the peer-reviewed section in this issue, and brings back the thematics of tech, music, and sound discussed in Field Notes. Valiquet begins with an assessment of electropop artist Grimes, contextualizing her artistic origins in Montreal’s neoliberal cultural policy initiatives. For Valiquet, such neoliberal cultural policies align(ed) with neoliberal economic policies that deepen(ed) spatial—via gentrification—racial, and classed inequities. It is against this backdrop that Valiquet examines the dangerous neoliberal politics of Grimes’ career, from her endorsement of NFTs, to most explicitly (for Valiquet’s purposes) her 2018 song “We Appreciate Power.” In it, Grimes builds on a popular programming and gaming meme that explicates how “believers in a technocratic future are willing to entertain the ‘benefits’ of authoritarian- ism as an outcome of total digitalization,” and consequently advances eugenicist and anti- democratic ideals. Valiquet ends by using Grimes and “We Appreciate Power” as an opportunity to critique critical organology’s general embrace of the idea that “technology .. . necessarily provides humanity with the power to advance in musicality,” and instead offers a framework of “reparative organology” that has the ability to tack- le issues of imperialism, racism, capitalism, and patriarchy and be a tool for social justice as well.
We conclude this issue with a set of fascinating book reviews that are organized aroundmarginalization and erasure. Sophie Abramowitz’s review essay looks at Adam Gussow’s Whose Blues?: Facing Up to Race and the Future of the Music and George Henderson’s Blind Joe Death's America: John Fahey, the Blues, and Writing White Discontent. Abramowitz praises both works as deeply meticulous and highly creative. For Gussow, this appears in the book’s interdisciplinary approach to blues music and culture, especially in its literary analysis, which provides productive means to “draw new connections with literary texts for blues fans who have not been exposed to the literary history of the genre.” In the case of Henderson, Abramowitz appreciates the archival dig, as Henderson explores Fahey’s “essays, liner notes, a master’s thesis on Charley Patton and even a high school newspaper article” in order to situate readers in the life, mind, and politics of the famed roots guitarist. And yet, despite the detailed approaches in both books, Abramowitz reads an uneven engagement with critical Black and critical feminist (and critical Black feminist) studies in these works, and wonders how a more sustained and robust dialog with these fields would enrich Whose Blues? and Blind Joe Death's America.
Kate Grover reviews Tanya Pearson’s Why Marianne Faithfull Matters about the frustratingly overlooked and unsung rock artist. Grover lauds Pearson’s memoir approach—“Why Marianne Faithfull Matters is as much about Faithfull as it is about how Faithfull has impacted Pearson”—as a meaningful model to address the racist and sexist gatekeeping and erasures in rock. For Grover, Pearson’s personal narrative provides another venue for exploring an artist’s legacy, and is thus an important mode of popular music scholarly writing.
In our final review, we come full circle to music and tech, as Maren Hancock reviews Helen Reddington’s book on women music engineers and producers, She’s at the Controls: Sound Engineering, Production and Gender Ventriloquism in the 21st Century. As Hancock explains, “control” in the book’s title works on multiple fronts: as a way to highlight women who are at the “controls” of the boards in recording studios; as a way to mark the patriarchal “control” that sidelines and objectifies women engineers and producers; and, given the extensive use of interviews in the book, as a way to have women “control” their own narrative. In the end for Hancock, Reddington helps readers imagine a musical world in which women have been, are in, and will be in control. ■
K. E. Goldschmitt and Elliott Powell, co-editors