Today, we bring you a discussion with American Studies affiliate faculty member Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller, who also holds appointments in the History and Music departments.
What have been your favorite projects to work on and why?
I’ve been working on two basic projects. My first book was my dissertation, and I got really into that. And, of course, I have to say that’s one of my favorites because that’s what I’ve spent the most time on. I really enjoyed that book partially because it’s the one that taught me how to write. It’s the one that taught me how to put long-ranging arguments together. I was getting pretty good at – well, okay at – writing the twenty-page seminar paper, but writing a 300-page book was kind of mysterious to me. It wasn’t until I got deep into re-writing after the dissertation and after I was working that I started getting into this kind of long arc of a narrative and long arc of an argument, and figuring out that as a form. As a learning experience, that was really exciting to me.
My second project that I’m working on right now I’m really thrilled about in a whole new way. I’m writing about the history of amateur musicians and their effect on popular music across the 20th century. I find this really exciting because I get to focus on a completely unexplored topic. My first topic was on blues and country music and there are bookshelves and bookshelves and books about blues and country music. Amateur musicians, there’s a real dearth of serious scholarship about them. They’ve kind of been dropped out as popular music studies has become really, in many cases, either about folkloric groups or synonymous with professionally-recorded commercial artists – Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones. In fact, popular music in the United States is diffuse, it’s millions of people playing it every day. I’m really excited to have this clear open scholarly space to explore a new topic and trying to figure out what that means, rather than trying to elbow my way into an existing one.
[On source material] That’s part of the thing. The source material for blues and country, although you can find a lot of new stuff if you’re really digging, a lot of it’s already out there. So you just have to follow in other people’s footsteps. For this project, I’m really having to try to be creative about where I find source material.
One of the biggest sources I’ve found is the industry press for musical instrument industry, because musical instruments are selling primarily to amateurs. Reading industry insider press from musical instrument retailers is a great way to gauge change over time and who’s buying what. You really get a sense of the shift from the accordion being the most popular instrument to the acoustic guitar being the most popular instrument of the post-war years. It explodes in the 1960s with the British invasion and the folk revival and millions of people wanting to be the next Beatles or the next garage band. I’m reading a lot of sociology, good ol’ Lynds’ Middletown sociological studies, which are remarkable in their problematic design and they give you a real sense of change over time and numbers.
I’ve even gone through New York Time and LA Times and other newspapers to find hundreds of articles about noise complaints about noisy neighbors playing music next door. It actually reveals a lot about what amateur musicians are playing, and how they’re denigrated and derided for playing different kinds of music rather than others. It gives you a sense of the way in which pop music functions in an urban landscape. One person’s dream is another person’s noise pollution. I love that kind of problem.
I’m looking at a lot of cultural studies, a lot of musical examples that talk about being alone, and talking about amateur musicians from the Beach Boys “In My Room” to Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting In A Room,” a piece of experimental electronic art music.
How do you see your work fitting into larger conversations in the academy and contemporary society?
I’ve focused on using popular music as a way to get into larger debates about American politics and American culture. Popular music in my first book is really interested in ideas about crossover, about genre, about relationships between race music and money. My book there tries to talk about the kinds of social construction of musical categories. We kind of assume that race is socially constructed, and that becomes a point of departure rather than a conclusion. In my book, I’m trying to back it up and look very specifically at precisely how it is constructed in different places and at different times. For me, one of the interventions I was trying to make into this was looking at concepts of racialized music, whether it be early blues or country music or African American music as a whole, as a really interesting sight of continued struggle and renegotiation rather than as what Amiri Baraka would call “the changing same.”
I don’t see a lot of the same. I see a lot more of the changing.
The reason that I think I see a lot of the changing is because I think a lot of our concepts about how music works and how culture works more generally are deeply indebted to anthropology and folklore of the late 19th and early 20th century. My real goal in that book, one of them, was to investigate the construction of anthropology and folkloristics in the early 20th century, which gives us this whole concept about music and race as being an important and long-standing tradition. That intervention was partially into very specific music literature, but I kind of tried to do it in a way that was expanding into these larger questions about how meaning is constructed in academic traditions.
My latest book also came out of trying to intervene and help us understand the destruction of the music industry as we know it in the 21st century with downloading and filesharing. I came up with George Lipsitz as a hero when I was in grad school, and George Lipsitz and Robin Kelley and Tricia Rose and this group of people that were writing in the1990s which were kind of invigorating American Studies and music studies at the time. For me, at least, they’re the ones that really got me going.
And then I do my dissertation on the early 20th century, and I poke my head up, and it seemed like a lot of the people who were writing really influential music books in the 21st century aren’t cultural studies people, they’re lawyers interested in parsing out intellectual property and using intellectual property and copyright as the primary mode of framing questions about the music industry and filesharing. While they’re very useful – love my Lawrence Lessig – I was always kind of pining for what would George Lipsitz or this other group of cultural historians say about these new debates about musical ownership. We can go ask them, but I was trying to write in that mold. So this book is about amateur musicians, it’s about people being creative in their everyday lives, but I kind of got to it as a way of addressing filesharing, downloading, and taking these debates about musical ownership beyond copyright into the realm of creative ownership, community ownership, and cultural ownership.
Are there other projects, people, and/or things that have inspired your work?
I get inspiration from absolutely everything. Of course. I’m standing on the shoulders of legions of great scholars. I’m inspired by every musician I’ve known, from the famous people I’ve had the opportunity to meet (very few), to the legions of unknown hacks who have ruined their backs carrying amplifiers into their hatchback every night after their club gigs. And that’s one of the things that inspired both of these projects, looking at music as an everyday job, rather than as a key to fame, or a way to speak politically, or a way to be an organic intellectual. Those are all good things, but for most people, music is an everyday occurrence. I’m really inspired by all the hacks that you don’t know, and you never will.
I’m inspired by people who’ve trained me and other people who I’ve read. I’m inspired by my father and my mother who are both intellectuals if not scholars; I enjoyed the vigorous intellectual debate around the kitchen table every night. That got me going and I never stopped.
What is your background as a scholar and how does this background inform and motivate your current teaching and research?
When I graduated from high school I wanted to be a rock ‘n roll star, or a jazz musician, so I went off to music school at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Boston opened my eyes to the amazing urban culture in the United States in a way that I’d never seen before, but Berklee – you get really good at playing your instrument, but you don’t have to read books. I felt it was making me dumb. And so I went to Macalester College in Minnesota, which was one of the only schools I had ever visited; it’s where my parents went. I majored in history and focused on music. That kind of led me to NYU to study music history in the history department, and then I came here while I was still writing my dissertation and became a lecturer at UT.
I’m really happy to be here. I showed up at my first graduate student class and we went around the room saying why we were in graduate school and everybody around the room had all these very thought-out reasons why they were there, and it got to me and I said, “This is my fallback for my music career.” And they all laughed at me. Because thinking of this very tough industry to try to make a living in as a fallback they saw that I was naïve at the time. And maybe I was.
But I kind of still think that this – it’s a lot more likely that one puts in ten years preparing for a job in academia and is able to pay their bills than it is for them to put in ten years preparing to be a musician and pay their bills. So that’s how it influences my teaching. My background as a musician makes me very happy to have a job.
What projects would you like to work on in the future? In what directions do you imagine taking your work?
I’m still really in the thick of this amateur music project. My next book is going to be about cultural politics of abortion , using my long-term work in abortion provision and connection to abortion providers to talk about the musical and film and literary representations of abortion as a way of trying to step beyond this highly politicized and bifurcated language about abortion in the public sphere today. I’m very excited about that as well. I’ve already done some work on that and presented it at a number of conferences.
So that’s the next thing. Down the line I’m not sure. I’m working with an organization called the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, which is a longstanding popular music organization, and we’re working on putting together a really great blog, which is taking up a lot of my time. Beyond that third book, I’m not quite sure where I’m going. It’s kind of wide open at this point. Hopefully it’s going to be good.
If you had to describe American Studies in one sentence, what would you say? (bonus question!)
At its best, American Studies is an escape hatch in order to get out of and beyond disciplines who are blinded by their own barriers they’ve constructed around themselves; American Studies typically has been a place where people can go to ask questions that other disciplines are unwilling to answer, or unwilling to ask.
Dr. Karl Hagstrom Miller has been at UT since 2001. His book is Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow (Duke University Press, 2010).