Next week (Thursday, Oct 11, from 12:00pm – 1:45pm to be exact) I’ll be presenting at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, being held this year in Philadelphia (at the Marriott, natch, which is offering a lovely “conference rate” of $200/night).
I’m not so excited about the hotel deal, but I’m excited about the conference. I’ve never attended ASA before, and I’m looking forward to seeing what sorts of people and conversations it brings out. I’m also enthused to be on a panel with several of my favorite fellow ethnomusicologists, all of us making a case for music’s centrality in the production and circulation of American racial ideologies and all of us grappling with what has in recent years been known as “whiteness” studies, a field — at least musically speaking — that has been strongly shaped by the work of Love and Theft author Eric Lott, who we’re thrilled to have as a respondent.
Here’s our panel abstract –
Whiteness in American Music
Our panel offers new directions for inquiry into whiteness in American music. Recently, a growing body of scholarship on music of the United States has addressed the ways in which music both reflects and creates notions of what it means to be white. Many of these studies reveal that whiteness encompasses both desire for and discomfort with stereotyped conceptions of non-white identity, a dynamic that Eric Lott terms “love and theft” in his foundational study of blackface minstrelsy. The papers in this panel seek to advance whiteness studies by examining the complex intersections among racial formations, musicâ€™s performance and reception, and other significant issues, from gender to modernity to regionalism and nationalism to transnational exchange. The panel comprises four papers, followed by a comment by Professor Lott. Patrick Burke examines white masculinity and interracial mimicry among teenage New Orleans jazz revivalists in the 1940s. Theo Cateforis explains the uneasy manner of 1970s new wave performers as part of a broader modern obsession with “white American nervousness.” Wayne Marshall discusses the simultaneous “whitening,” or blanqueamiento, of contemporary reggaeton alongside the genre’s ability to animate intense debates about race, nation, and class in the emerging Latin American digital public sphere. Kiri Miller traces the racial ideologies associated with Sacred Harp singing from the 1930s to the present, demonstrating a long tradition of tensions over cultural and racial diversity in a genre often regarded as “white spirituals.” As scholars of music, we want to argue for musicâ€™s centrality in Americaâ€™s racial history. By spanning seventy years and four disparate musical genres, we do not intend to propose a unified theoretical model; rather, in revealing some of the diverse articulations of whiteness in American music, we hope to show that this complex subject continues to be fertile ground for discussion and debate and offers many points of entry for scholars of American culture.
As you can see, my own paper is attempting the somewhat tricky feat of examining racial ideologies across national, cultural, and linguistic borders, and permeable as these borders may be, there are distinct racial formations and racial projects across the Americas and I want to be careful not to elide important historical and geographical differences. In part, my paper emerges from my own interest over the last few years in the way that reggaeton combines various racial ideologies and then carries this complex with it, around the world (and especially the hemisphere), where people bring their own ideas about race and nation to bear on it.
Along these lines, I found the conference call for a “transhemispheric” approach to American studies both appropriate and inspiring.
Here’s my own abstract —
iReggaeton?: Transhemispheric Racial Formations, New Media, and Blanqueamiento
Widely heralded as an expression of the USâ€™s increasingly Spanish-speaking character, reggaeton has animated intense discussions around race, ethnicity, and nation across the Americas. Enjoying a perhaps unparalleled presence in the (Anglo-American) mainstream for a Spanish-language popular genre — mambo crazes and “Latin booms” of the past notwithstanding — reggaeton has assumed and embraced a pan-Latino character even as it continues to be marked, for particular audiences and practitioners, as Puerto Rican or even, as it was sometimes called in the 1990s, as “musica negra.” In this way, the multinational flag-waving and roll-calling of the genreâ€™s most popular songs and videos dovetail with the calculated positioning of similar ventures in commercial media, such as Univisionâ€™s “La Kalle” radio franchises, to target an urban, Spanish-speaking audience that transcends particular national, ethnic, or racial affiliations. As reggaeton’s audible links to hip-hop and reggae recede in favor of gestures to bachata and techno (two genres that, despite their basis in black communities, have themselves been “whitened” in public discourse), reggaetonâ€™s rise to cultural prominence and commercial viability poses a series of vexing questions for understanding the intersecting, overlapping, and sometimes incompatible racial ideologies of the US, the (Anglo and Latin) Caribbean, and Central and South America.
Significantly, reggaetonâ€™s basis in digital tools of production and circulation has facilitated the genreâ€™s rapid popularization. The music now enjoys a certain ubiquity in the urban spaces of the Americas, both as audible, palpable presence — resounding across city soundscapes — and as virtual presence, propelling peer-to-peer interactions in the “new media” spaces of the internet (from MySpace to YouTube, MiGente to imeem). In the sharing of, commenting on, and creative engagement with various recordings and videos (from remixes to self-recorded karaoke/dance performances), reggaetonâ€™s suggestive embodiment of various racialized/de-racialized, gendered, and nationalized subject positions offers a charged cultural resource for the performance and parody of various social identities. International and intranational debates on message-boards and comment-threads frequently demonstrate that — contrary to the mainstream mediaâ€™s celebration of reggaeton as the sound of pan-Latinidad — the genreâ€™s contested racial and national character supports fracture and disarticulation as well as articulations of cultural and political solidarity. The digital realm — with its enduring, racialized, class-based “divides” — adds another layer of complexity to the story. Despite a growing level of access across socio-economic divisions, the class-structured contours of emerging, “new media” public spheres produce a somewhat skewed conversation. Performances of race, gender, and nation (often gendering nation and racializing gender) tend to reaffirm racist stereotypes and shore up the privilege and power of whiteness even as the very engagement with reggaeton suggests a desire to embrace music still (if ambivalently and decreasingly) cast as urban, black, Caribbean, “tropical,” and the like. Following an account of the more general phenomenon of reggaetonâ€™s fading blackness — its blanqueamiento, if you will — this paper examines recent activity in the Latin American YouTubosphere as staging public performances and transhemispheric negotiations of race, nation, and gender.
If any readers of this humble blog will be attending ASA or are based in Philly and would like to say what’s up, holla back (and let me know if anything’s popping at night, knamean).