Popular Music and the Margins

How are historical narratives of American popular music constructed? Who and what is included (and excluded) and why?

What styles, genres, and performers have dominated the charts and how does this reflect on the social, cultural, and political moment?

Did you know that rock and roll was despised and considered a “communicable disease, “dirty,” and “low class” because of its roots in African American culture and connections to economically disadvantaged people in the south? Or that the Beatles would not have gotten the opportunity to record their iconic Sgt. Pepper album had they not amassed fame from thousands of adolescent girls who were dismissed as mentally unstable for their praise of the group in the early 1960s? Or that today’s EDM music owes much of its existence to the necessity of mix tapes developed for underground clubs in the 1970s where musicians refused to play for fear of persecution and arrest? Indeed, many of the most successful songs and genres in American popular music have been created and consumed by those living at the margins of society—people disadvantaged by age, race, gender, sexuality, region, background, and economic hardship.

Inside the Classroom

This course investigates popular music history from the perspective of those who have lived at the margins of U.S. society. It considers how they have created, consumed, and formed communities around popular music from the commercial success of rock and roll to today. Students in this class will explore music that have represented the perspectives of those who identify with various marginalized groups, including youth, girls, LGBTQ, adolescent males, economically disadvantaged, and immigrants/refugees. They will use primary and secondary sources to consider the multiple ways that marginal subjectivity has been communicated to mass audiences over the past sixty years, including the ways veiled musical tropes and coded language have been used to speak to insider audiences. The class will also examine the genres we study within the larger framework of the music industry to study how musical trends have been influenced by the success and failures of styles created by vulnerable communities. By examining popular music through various social and cultural lenses, students will be able to extend historical perspective to today’s social movements and hot button issues including, racial discrimination, immigration, gender equality, same-sex marriage, access to services and education, unemployment, and the de-industrialization and gentrification of major metropolitan areas.

This class aims to provide students with the time, space, and support to translate academic knowledge into useful public scholarship. In studying social movements through a variety of musical styles, the course also offers valuable perspective for considering the implications of today’s pressing social and political issues. In their consideration of the many ways that art can shape and reflect personal experiences, students will be able to apply new skills and perspectives to the music that matters to them today and to recognize its significance as part of a larger historical narrative.

More specifically, students in this course will learn historical and critical analysis, explore various avenues of musical scholarship, and hone their research and writing skills through the disciplines of musicology, ethnomusicology, cultural studies, the music industry, etc.. They will also engage with interdisciplinary critical theories about race, age, gender, sexuality, class, and region as they relate to the musical styles we discuss. Students will apply the critical methodologies learned from course materials to their assignments, discussions, and final project. They will learn rudimentary musical and visual analytical skills as well as the skills necessary for conducting research on a musical topic.

Outside the Classroom

Travel to performances and museums both within and outside of Richmond will be included in the course. The purpose of these trips will be to investigate how and why musical narratives are created and how those histories are constructed (or deconstructed) in public performances and/or museums we visit. Over Fall Break, the community will travel to New York City to performance venues, museums and meet with scholars in the field. The community will also see a performance of Hamilton the Musical.

Research and Capstone Project

Students will engage in what is referred to as “public musicology” by researching, creating, and producing a four-part podcast or radio show about a particular set of musical genres, styles, or groups. Students will be expected to integrate concepts from the readings, discussions, trips, and class activities from the first semester into a show that aligns with course’s topics and objectives. The series will be broadcast on WDCE towards the end of the spring semester.

Sample Course Readings