Interview in Music Journalism Insider

I first worked with Todd Burns back in 2013 when he commissioned me to write a “loop history” of one of my fave loops of all time: dembow. Of course, RBMA is no more, nor are various other outlets for music writers. In the light of this changing and precarious landscape, Todd has been devoting a lot of attention and space to the craft — and the plight — of music writing today via his newsletter, Music Journalism Insider. He has also been trying to incorporate more academic voices, including those of us who walk the line between music studies and music journalism. In that context, Todd reached out to interview me about my recent article on Fortnite dances, race and gender, and appropriation.

The interview is now only available to subscribers, but Todd gave me permission to post it here after its initial public run. Here it is–

Wayne Marshall Interview
Todd L. Burns

I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. If you’re not familiar with the newsletter already, click here to find out more.

On Wayne Marshall’s website, it says “Wayne Marshall is an ethnomusicologist by training, a technomusicologist by calling, and an erstwhile blogger/DJ.” That seems to do as quick a job as any in describing the many hats that Wayne has worn over the years. For this interview, I wanted to talk to the academic Wayne, specifically the one that penned an article last year entitled “Social Dance in the Age of (Anti-)Social Media: Fortnite, Online Video, and the Jook at a Virtual Crossroads.”

Can you please briefly describe yourself and what you do?

These days I often just say I teach music history. At times, I might reach for musicologist, but I’m also proud of my training as an ethnomusicologist and my work as a self-proclaimed “technomusicologist” who shares research in the form of musical media like mashups or mixes. For the last five years, I’ve hung my hat at Berklee College of Music, where I teach courses on the histories of American music and dance.

What about this area of study is so interesting to you?

I’m mostly interested in what we might call American popular musics, interpreting all of those terms pretty broadly. Popular music contains so many rich, revealing stories about our cultural and social histories, and listening “historically” can help us understand how we produce, interpret, and use music in our contemporary lives. From questions of social and economic organization to the ways that aesthetics implicate social priorities and cultural values, it’s all quite fascinating. Whether we’re talking reggae or ragtime, there is a ton of edifying scholarship—and good journalism—to grapple with, not to mention primary sources like recordings. Given the interdisciplinary character of such a subject as American popular music, I find it intellectually inexhaustible.

Can you briefly summarize your article?

The article attempts to place our present social media “dance craze” into historical perspective, comparing it to previous historical moments when vast numbers of Americans found themselves caught up in a kind of collective choreography. There are strong parallels between the spread of moves like the Milly Rock (or the Swipe, in Fortnite’s rebranding) to the rise of such dances as the Twist in the 1960s via shows like American Bandstand, or the ragtime-era animal dances that scandalized society balls in the 1910s (until tamed into the likes of the Foxtrot). But while these previous crazes have often been represented as transgressing established codes around race, gender, and class, I argue that the TikTok / Fortnite-era craze seems less easily celebrated: not only is there intense corporate enclosure and exploitation, including classic questions of racial injustice, the dances themselves, despite being drawn from vibrant social dance scenes, seem often to be put to anti-social uses on the internet and even IRL.

How did you first find out about the subject / realize it was something you wanted to pursue?

As someone who has long written and taught about DJ cultures, I decided that I needed to focus more on the role of dance in these scenes—a totally critical, central dimension and yet one that doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as, say, what DJs are doing. The ways people dance—and the ways that other people try to police such dancing—reveal longstanding and ongoing struggles around race, class, gender, age, and social order. I’ve been teaching a class at Berklee on “DJ Cultures and American Social Dance,” which has helped me gain a perspective on such things as “dance crazes” and their relationship to new media. Even though a lot of dance craze scholarship focuses on the 1910s or the 1960s, in the class we found ourselves frequently making connections to dance in the age of YouTube, Vine, TikTok, and Fortnite.

What was the most surprising thing that you found in your research?

Having initially thought of the Fortnite phenomenon as a mostly positive one, in which all kinds of people found themselves willing to shake a tailfeather in public, the most surprising thing I learned in my research—and I credit Brian Friedberg at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center with alerting me to this dimension and helping me think through it—is that at the same time these dances were being put to more innocent uses, they were also being deployed, especially online, as tools of cyberbullying and cringey shitposting in the service of reactionary, chauvinist, and supremacist political ideologies. This was rather stunning to me at first, and it seemed to connect with what may be a special affordance of the online mediation of this current “craze”: i.e., one can “participate” without being in the real-space presence of peers (and the forms of social sanction that may come with them).

Where would you like to see more research done around this topic?

I think it’s happening, both in journalism and in scholarship, especially with regard to TikTok and discussion of what Lauren Michelle Jackson has called “digital blackface.” There remains a lot of work to do on this question as it becomes a more and more pervasive part of online culture. I spoke recently about the phenomenon with a journalist Tatiana Walk-Morris, who also consulted my colleague Kyra Gaunt (who is doing some necessary, critical work in this sphere).

In the wake of the Renegade dance and attempts to acknowledge and reward its creator, 14-year-old Jalaiah Harmon, for her “viral” creativity, it’s been fascinating to watch how something as seemingly “unimportant” as an internet-mediated dance craze could become a lightning rod for the contemporary conversation about race, ownership, appropriation, and exploitation.

In that regard, I only scratch the surface of the copyright question in my article, and there’s much more to be said along those lines too: who gets to own/exploit a “social” dance that is, by definition, more of a collective product than an individual’s invention? By creating a commodity with their “emotes,” Fortnite has capitalized on such moves in a way that no single creator or choreographer ever could; likewise, white TikTok “influencers” enjoy far more power to exploit such forms than their black peers.

Can you point us to any further research on the topic that you think is relevant?

The phenomenon is so new that there’s still relatively little written about it, especially by scholars. Check my bibliography from the article, of course, for some leads. But I would certainly recommend Kyra Gaunt’s 2015 essay, “YouTube, Twerking, and You: Context Collapse and the Handheld Co-Presence of Black Girls and Miley Cyrus” in the Journal of Popular Music Studies (vol. 27, no. 3: 244-73). If you look at my list of works cited, you’ll also see that I lean heavily on a volume called Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader, edited by Julie Malnig (Univ of Illinois Press, 2009). It doesn’t quite get into the 21st century, but it offers invaluable perspective on other moments in social dance history. I’ve been using it as a textbook in my class.

What sort of music should we check out to get a better sense of the topic?

The funny thing is, the music is not the most important dimension of the phenomenon in this case. People do these moves to a wide variety of genres, though of course many of the moves are associated with Atlanta style rap music—and even particular songs—and many dancers (especially influential inventors of new moves) make use of that style’s architecture to hit a trademark gesture on the 4th beat of each measure. Of course, as these moves are popularized and decontextualized, they lose a lot of connection to that specific dance culture. There have been a couple great journalistic pieces written about this aesthetic, one by Rembert Browne for Grantland and one by David Turner for MTV.