A talk on how how I managed to bring my passion for rock music into my career as a librarian presented for the Library Association of CUNY's Grace-Ellen McCrann Memorial Lectures on Dec. 11, 2014.
My presentation details over 25 years of activities in my professional history from cataloging a radio station t-shirt to graduate school papers to my various encyclopedia articles to more recent work on rock scholarship.
My talk is about my life as a rock and roll librarian.
No, I’m not actively gigging with a band, although
I do play electric bass. Rather, this talk is about
how I managed to bring my passion for rock music
into my career as a librarian.
My first effort to bring rock into my library world
was in my descriptive cataloging course in library
school back 25 years ago. We were encouraged to
catalog realia which is cataloger-speak for objects
and material from everyday life. I cataloged a
rather funky WFMU tshirt [note this is not the
actual tshirt or catalog record] .
Other projects in library school included the
creation of a thesaurus for popular music that did
find its way to the Music Library Association
(thanks Dan C.!) and a couple of libraries
including the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame and the
Lastly, for my music cataloging course, I
researched literary warrant in popular music
recordings. I compared the actual text on a series
of LPs from the Hammerstein archives at NYPL
against how they were cataloged. My conclusion
was LC subject headings were quite inadequate.
On to CUNY and the second masters in American
Studies at the Graduate Center in the Liberal
Studies Dept. Whenever possible, I wrote papers
and/or did presentations on rock. My first course
was a core course on Ethnicity and I had lots of fun
doing my paper and a presentation on Parliament-
Funkadelic and explored the dynamic between the
more rock-oriented Funkadelic and its disco
Other performers that became subjects of papers
included Dusty Springfield, the New York Dolls,
and Iggy Pop.
My thesis was on the monographic scholarly
literature on rock.
So after this is all over, I’m an assistant professor.
Yeah, now I have to publish. Encyclopedia articles
on rock performers seemed like a good way to
incorporate my expertise into scholarship.
Often I was motivated because I wanted to
highlight the importance of a certain performer in
There was a call for articles for Africa and the
Americas. I was fascinated by the circularity of
Fela Kuti’s influence. Fela’s Afropop music was
heavily influenced by James Brown as well as the
American Black Power movement but Fela in turn
influenced many Western performers including …
My article on the MC5 and John Sinclair, another
suggestion that was accepted, was for an
encyclopedia on the American Counterculture.
Although they were to some extent poseurs, the
MC5 were debatably of all bands the most involved
in radical politics—their battle cry performance at
the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago goes
down in history as guerilla street
theater/performance at its best.
An article for Oxford on James Brown was
challenging: I had to focus on Brown’s role in
African American history and write less about his
musical innovations and influence.
[Trout Mask Replica cover]
Lastly, this summer I wrote a very long
encyclopedia article for the forthcoming 100 Best
Bands on Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. I
wanted to write on the Ramones, but that entry got
snapped up and I thought it would be cool to write
on Beefheart, a performer I knew more by
reputation than by actual musical output. So try
explaining an incredibly influential but difficult
avant-garde, eccentric band like Beefheart … to
lower-level undergraduates ... Challenging!
One other rock-related publication was an
annotated bibliography of academic writing on
women in rock. It included journal literature. And
I managed to get a literature review out of my
thesis that was presented at the Popular Culture
Association and eventually published in Collection
Building. That brings me to my never ending book
project. My master thesis has turned into a
behemoth of close to 500 annotations of academic
monographs on rock.
The three most popular performers for academics
to write about are Elvis, Bob Dylan, and Bruce
Springsteen. Not surprisingly, these scholars often
are based either in American Studies or employ
more traditional literary methods. Genre is
another key area in rock scholarship. There are
rich bodies of work on both punk and metal.
Earlier writing on metal often focused on deviance
but now Metal Studies has come into own. It’s a
hot area of study. I didn’t look at rock around the
world when I did my master’s thesis, so it was
great expanding my focus for my book project. The
two takeaways: scholars either look at rock outside
of the U.S. and England in terms of globalization
and national identity or … as a form of resistance.
Here’s an annotation on a book about Tehran’s
“unofficial” rock scene. The author is based in
Wrapping up, what have I learned from this
project? I organized my thesis by discipline like
another librarian scholar who published a book
length bibliography on rock scholarship. But this
structure just wouldn’t be that interesting to any
potential readers, so I went with a thematic and
topical organization that also allowed for books
that were heavily focused on use of particular
methodology that had no prevailing topical focus.
So, as I mentioned earlier, scholarship on rock is
all over the humanities and social-sciences map.
The lion’s share of work comes from
Sociology and ethnography-related academic
work including ethnomusicology
But you name it, almost every humanities or social
sciences discipline or methodology is somewhere
in the literature.
Here’s what’s interesting! The main thing that
has changed over the years that I’ve been working
on this project is that academic writing on rock has
become much more interdisciplinary, especially
for the musicologists. A couple of early outliers in
the musicology community published important
books but it wasn’t until much more recently, say
the last ten years or less, that the vast major of
musicologists writing on rock have embraced
moving beyond the kind of formal analysis which
they are trained in. That doesn’t mean that some
don’t gravitate towards fairly analytic studies of
complex performers such as Frank Zappa or
Genesis, but most musicologists now bring in the
social aspect of rock: the audiences, the reception
of the music, the idea of subcultures. In turn, non-musicologists
sometimes take the plunge and
formally analyze songs, recordings, and
performances as well. There is definitely a more
cohesive discourse on rock where the scholars are
influenced by scholars outside of their specific
discipline. The main conceptual tension revolves
around the concept of authenticity in rock. Is rock
truly counter-hegemonic or is it faux subversive?
How do gender and class tie into this tension?
Lastly, is this dialectic even valid?Most fans and
musicians are much more aware than we think.
I’ll leave you to ponder these questions.