Academic Writing About Popular Music

Academics writing on subjects that are of interest to a non-academic audience–like popular music–often struggle with how to make complex ideas accessible to those who care most about the artists and music we write about.  We are incredibly privileged to have been a able to spend years of our lives studying musical sound, or cultural theory, or history (music history, or other relevant histories) or any number of other things that, hopefully, allow us to write about a subject from a place of considerable depth and understanding. In some cases, like my own, we have studied in all of these areas, as well as learning everything there is to know about the artist we’re writing about; in many cases, we’re also fans. Academic work is not the be all and end all, the last or even necessarily the best word on a subject; it is one perspective, but it is a perspective that comes out of years of study and very careful thought.  The idea is to move arguments and ideas about the artist and or the music ahead, to try to understand complex art in a new way.  If this work is published in an academic source, such as a journal or University Press, it has almost certainly gone through a peer review process, which means that other academics have read drafts of the work, anonymously, offered their criticism of it, and made suggestions about how it needs to be improved before it’s published.  If it doesn’t meet certain standards, then it doesn’t get published.  Some of these sources are either not widely accessible or they cost money to access because it costs money to produce those journals (this time consuming process costs money).  None of this money goes to the author. In fact, even when we write books, we receive very little in royalties, even if we’re writing about a very popular artist. This is not how academics make a living.  We are paid a salary by a university (if we’re lucky to have a full time job) and as part of that job, we are expected to publish in peer reviewed venues.  We think and write because that’s what we love to do, not because we want to make money from it. In many cases it takes years of careful thought before our work gets published. We do not hold the copyright to the works we publish so we can’t distribute them ourselves.  We publish in these venues because they have a reputation for publishing scholarly work of the highest quality.  This still needs to matter, even at a moment when we could just as easily write up a blog post or self publish a book. It’s not the same thing.  There’s cetainly room for all of these ways of writing, but we need to know how to distinguish among them.

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About Susan Fast

I'm a musicologist who writes about pop music and teaches at McMaster University. My book on Michael Jackson's *Dangerous* will be published as part of Bloomsbury Press' 33 1/3 Series in September 2014. I'm author of the book *In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music* (Oxford, 2001), a collection of essays that explores musical performance, gender and sexuality, cultural appropriation, and ritual/mythology in rock music. I've also written on Live Aid and cultural memory, authenticity in U2, performance and new technology, Tina Turner’s gendered and racialized identity in the 1960’s, feminism and rock criticism, gendered and racialized issues surrounding back-up singing, and on the mass-mediated benefit concerts that appeared after the attacks of 9/11. My current research project investigates issues related to gender, race and genre boundaries in rock music, and includes case studies on the vibrant scene of all-female tribute bands to hard rock and heavy metal. Photo Credit: Liss Platt
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4 Responses to Academic Writing About Popular Music

  1. Thanks so much, Susan, for this succinct and important post. I’ve found that many people have little knowledge of what academic writers actually do, what they often strive for, and the circumstances under which they work. I hope this will go some way toward clearing up some misunderstandings that have arisen, and I look forward to future posts from you!

  2. Pingback: Boy, is that Girl with You? | dancing with the elephant

  3. aj says:

    man in the music (joe vogel a) and your dangerous is probably the only books that are out there that gives any damn clue on mj
    but i am really glad that you are the one who wrote dangerous, because frankly, joe simply cant make remarks on michael . on reading dangerous its kind of important to stress on michael sexuality , so joe simply cant call michael sexy or anything, really enjoyed man in the music though, its a masterpiece on its own right.
    🙂

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