Saturday, January 9, 2010

Good book/boring book

I was having a fine time with my work until I finished reading a very fine ethnography and started on a second that has begun to bore me seriously.  I don't quite know what the problem is.  I find the topic interesting, the writing style readable, and the methodology...oh, that's it.  The methodology bores me shitless.  (Oh, snap!)  I appreciate ethnographies about music in which the writers participate in production as tag-along musicians, really I do, but enough!  There's more to musical flows than producing!  In the last book, the author did the same, but he struck a much smarter balance, in my opinion, between talking to musicians and talking to music fans.  (In fairness, I believe that he had access to his field site(s) for way longer than most ethnographers could ever manage; he had the cleverness to do his research half an hour's drive away from his university.)  This new one...sigh.  If only he weren't such an undercover groupie.

This impatience of mine might even turn into something for me to mention in my introductory chapter.  The fact of the matter is that it's easier to write about production than reception.  A lot of musicians in almost any genre anywhere are eager for publicity that might somehow increase their visibility, especially if that visibility is in the bottomless gold mine of the United States music-buying public.  This means that, once you have arranged proper contacts and introductions, musicians like to talk to ethnographers.  They like to have them come along to shows.  If the ethnographer is at least semi-competent in a local musical practice (knows how to sing in Tagalog, can play the rabab, whatever), then there's a good chance that he or she can even perform on stage with the musicians.  For the musicians, all of this represents a chance not only for greater potential market sales and concert revenues, but for enhanced prestige that may lead them to play more lucrative shows for richer folk, as well as an increase in social dignity that, in many societies, musicians chronically lack.  For the lucky ethnographer, it represents a trove of data that translates easily into good stories to tell and expansive chapters that demonstrate expertise in the technical details of musical performance.  It's also lots of fun, even if you're not a starfucking type.  (And frankly, anyone who takes music seriously is going to have a streak of that in them.)

Now compare that to reception.  Sometimes you meet music fans who can't shut up about how and why they love XYZ; other people get freaked out that you're questioning them about any aspect of their private lives, start to wonder if you're an intelligence agent for one agency or another, and won't come within ten feet of you.  Unless they take pleasure in talking about their ideas and opinions to people they don't necessarily know well, or have some other compelling reason to care about your research, they have no reason to talk to you at all.  You have to get them to warm up to you the old-fashioned ethnographic way: by hanging out and getting to know them.

Of course, part of the complexity of this is that neither I nor anyone else in my field cares only about the music in and of itself.  Culture is political; we want to know what else goes into cultural consumption besides the potentially idiosyncratic matter of "I like this sound; I dislike that sound."  And if one is careless, then one can end up simply discussing one's own tastes and perceptions; a few particularly solipsistic writers actually pass off this sort of thing as thoughtful ethnography, which nauseates me.  YOU are not THEM, I wish I could yell at these people.  In my experience, the cultural politics that the ethnographer subscribes to rarely maps well onto the cultural politics of the people he's talking to.  And, just as importantly, the masses don't always see musicians the way musicians see themselves; you can go badly wrong by hanging out with the band for a few months, then imposing your analysis on what they say and do.  Part of good ethnographic practice is learning to recognize and delineate where all these fields overlap, and where they diverge.  And that, in my experience, takes a lot of time, patience, and willingness to fail for a while before succeeding.

But it's much more facile, I know, to glom onto the band and treat production as the whole of the matter.  (Oh damn, did he just say that?  Yeah, I think he said that.)

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