Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 2001 Issue »

    Book Review of Sound Identities: Popular Music and the Cultural Politics of Education

    Nadine Dolby
    Sound Identities: Popular Music and the Cultural Politics of Education
    Edited by Cameron McCarthy, Glenn Hudak, Shawn Miklaucic, and Paula Saukko
    New York: Peter Lang, 1999. 504 pages. $32.95 (paper)

    Take a quick look around your house — how many TVs, radios, VCRs, computers, and other media products clutter the rooms? According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation (Rideout, Foehr, Roberst, & Brodie, 1999), the average child in the United States grows up in a home with an astonishing assortment of technological toys: “three TVs, three tape players, three radios, two VCRs, two CD players, one video-game player, and one computer” (p. 10). Furthermore, this hardware is not gathering dust in the attic; the survey also reports that the average child in the United States spends more than five hours a day using media. A similar study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (Woodward & Gridina, 2000) finds even higher usage.

    None of these statistics should surprise anyone; they only confirm that children’s lives are saturated with media. Absorption in media is clearly a meaningful part of the daily life of many children and youth, and what they experience in those several hours each day may have as much impact on their lives and futures as what they learn in school, one of the other significant pedagogical sites in children’s lives. Henry Giroux (1994a, 1994b) and others (Dimitriadis, 2001; Dolby, 2001; Dyson, 1997; Schwoch, White, & Reilly, 1992; Steinberg & Kincheloe, 1997; Willis, 1990) argue that children “learn” from the media and popular culture, and simultaneously use popular culture as a site of personal and cultural identity formation. As educators struggle to cope with media’s intensifying hold on children, much of the attention has focused on television, digital technology, and other visual media (see, e.g., Mazzarella & Pecora, 1999; Sefton-Green, 1998; Steinberg & Kincheloe, 1997; Walkerdine, 1997). Some of this focus is understandable, as studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Annenberg Public Policy Center show that television dominates children’s media interactions. Less remarked upon, though perhaps of equal importance, is the role that music plays in teaching children and youth and in forming their identities. Despite findings that children and youth spend less time listening to music than watching television, it is often difficult to separate these media. After all, what they are “watching” on television may be MTV videos, television shows or movies with soundtracks, or talk/entertainment shows about musicians and the world of popular music. Beyond this, music itself, outside of its contextual and intertextual use in other mediums, is a powerful force in shaping how youth position themselves in the world. In his essay in this volume, Chris Richards remarks that youth often use music to organize their social life and friendship networks: “Friends might, for example, register ‘friendship’ through a common liking for rap and not pop” (p. 256).

    In short, music deserves as much scrutiny and discussion by educational scholars as television, movies, or other media. Sound Identities: Popular Music and the Cultural Politics of Education is an attempt to fill this gap in educational scholarship by bringing together an eclectic group of scholars (including one ninth grader) to reflect on the role that music plays in youths’ lives and on the contradictory feelings of “anxiety” and “celebration” that structure society’s response to this music. In four thematically linked sections, the collection examines three questions about the relationships among music, youth, and pedagogy: What do youth do with music? What is the political, social, and cultural significance of particular musical practices or genres? What can educators learn from music — what does music teach us?

    In their introduction to the collection, editors Cameron McCarthy, Glenn Hudak, Shawn Miklaucic, and Paula Saukko sketch the theoretical bounds and objectives of the book. Locating themselves within cultural studies, the editors emphasize that they are concerned with the processes of textual production and reception within a commodified culture and the ways these processes feed back into the unequal relations of industrial societies. Perhaps most centrally, they forcefully reject positions that romanticize popular culture or invest it with some magical, transformative, political potential. Popular culture can be transformative and reproductive; it sits outside of and within market forces and the “hegemonic thrust of the culture industry” (p. 7), and its effects, like anything else, are never guaranteed.

    The four sections of the collection are Music in the Nation: Rap, Hip Hop, and the Flow of Values; Music in the Postcolony and Diaspora; Music in the Contested Metropolis: Rock and the Contradictory Politics of Youth; and The Pedagogy of Musical Affect. The first three sections investigate how music functions within different geographic locations: the nation, the postcolony, the disapora, and the metropolis. Of course, the “borders” between these spaces often blur and merge. Two of these sections, Music in the Nation and Music in the Contested Metropolis, further narrow the focus to genre-specific investigations of rap, hip hop, and rock. The final section, The Pedagogy of Musical Affect, moves into new spaces — the films of Isaac Julien, the classroom, and the home — as it metaphorically and practically draws out the ramifications of music for making sound identities in industrialized, commodified cultures.

    The first and third sections of the book are concerned with particular genres of popular music. In the first section, Music in the Nation, four essays examine rap as a societal force and a genre that brings pleasure. The book’s themes of anxiety and celebration seem particularly appropriate for a discussion of rap, which is both condemned for its threats to the core values of the nation and celebrated for its oppositional (even revolutionary) potential. Peter McLaren’s opening essay, “Gangsta Pedagogy and Ghettocentricity: The Hip-Hop Nation as Counterpublic Sphere,” is a lengthy “excursion” into the world of gangsta rap. Through a dense review of contemporary scholarship (both academic and popular) on rap music, McLaren situates gangsta rap as an oppositional practice, but one that is not without complications. McLaren sees gangsta rap as the only contemporary musical genre providing “hard-edge political critique” (p. 51) and argues that its emphasis on parody is largely lost to White audiences and critics. Despite this, McLaren also holds that gangsta rap fails to move into the more difficult and rocky terrain of political change and often reinscribes homophobia and misogyny. Julia Eklund Koza’s essay “Rap Music: The Cultural Politics of Official Representation” examines the representation of rap music in three mainstream U.S. news magazines, Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report. Through a content analysis of articles on rap from 1983 to 1992, Koza investigates how these influential magazines instruct White Americans to respond to rap’s emergence on the musical scene. She concludes that these magazines’ representations of rap, rappers, and rap fans contribute to the “construction and commodification of otherness” (p. 66) — in this case, the Black male. Koza’s argument is based not solely on her analysis of textual and pictorial content, but on what John Fiske (1987, cited on p. 66) calls “generic characteristics” or “conventions” of the genre.

    Rinaldo Wolcott then explores rap as a site for the performance of Black postmodernity in his essay “Performing the (Black) Postmodern: Rap as Incitement for Cultural Criticism.” Wolcott’s use of the term Black postmodernity focuses attention on the performative nature of rap, and how rap questions the notion of the “originary” in music, for example, through the practice of sampling. Furthermore, Wolcott engages postmodernism’s focus on rupture, collage, and hybridity, and applies these theoretical frames to rap music. Moving the analysis of rap beyond the United States, Wolcott reads rap within a diasporic sensibility. He concludes that Black musical practices in the diaspora (for example, in Canada) must not be regarded as solely celebratory moments of pastiche and cultural blending. Instead, the realities of Black subjects who are denied their place in the nation, whether in Canada or elsewhere, need to be recognized and confronted.

    Finally, George Kamberelis and Greg Dimitriadis, in their essay “Talkin’ Tupac: Speech Genres and the Mediation of Cultural Knowledge,” move the discussion into a focused investigation of how youth actually use rap in their lives. Reflecting on an empirical study that looked at how African American youth reacted to the murder of Tupac Shakur in 1994, Kamberelis and Dimitriadis argue that the youth in their study relied on the popularized talk show genre to structure their reactions to Shakur’s death. Skillfully weaving together an analysis of two popular genres, rap music and talk shows, Kamberelis and Dimitriadis demonstrate how talk shows focused youths’ reactions on the psychological dimensions of Shakur’s death while avoiding the more explosive political questions. Rap, in this example, is hardly the oppositional practice that we see more clearly (though not without complications) in McLaren’s essay — instead it is domesticated through its intersection with another genre, the talk show.

    The third section focuses on the genre of rock music. Music in the Contested Metropolis: Rock and the Contradictory Politics of Youth meshes sustained, incisive, and important critiques of the social and cultural functions of rock music with an examination of rock in everyday life. This section, taken as a whole, brilliantly combines two of the structuring themes of the collection: what do youth do with music and what does it mean? Chris Richards’s “Live Through This: Music, Adolescents, and Autobiography” turns a popular BBC radio program, Desert Island Discs, into a scholarly examination of the way the songs of our lives (those that we would presumably take to a desert island) are formative of our identities. Engaging Pierre Bourdieu’s theoretical discussion of taste, Richards reflects on the meanings embedded in the musical autobiographies of twelfth-grade students in London. Drawing on the British radio program, Desert Island Discs, Richards asked twenty-two students in a selective high school to choose six songs to compose a musical autobiography. In this article, Richards details the autobiographies of eight youth (five boys and three girls). Separating himself from a class-deterministic accounting of taste, Richards emphasizes the agency of youth exposed to multiple and overlapping cultural practices. He also notes that there are gender differences in how the youth in his study related to popular music, but that his study was limited in terms of class composition.

    Moving back across the ocean to the United States, Jonathan Sterne, in “Going Public: Rock Aesthetics in the American Political Field,” examines the role of rock in mainstream U.S. political culture, focusing on two relatively recent political events in the history of rock: Tipper Gore and the Parents’ Music Resource Center’s attempts to “regulate” rock, and the 1992 Clinton campaign’s use of rock culture. In both cases, Sterne argues that rock is not so much censored and policed, but deployed and repackaged in ways that make it more acceptable to middle-class lives and values. Anxiety abates as rock becomes a part of mainstream politics. In the only historical essay in the collection, “The ‘Chicano’ Dance Hall: Remapping Public Space in Post–World War II Greater Los Angeles,” Matt Garcia takes us into the Chicano dance hall culture of the 1950s and 1960s. Debunking the myth that the past was always a time of greater racial segregation, Garcia demonstrates that these dance halls served as meeting places for youth of diverse races and classes and that the music itself created spaces of cultural fusion.

    In the final essay of this section, “The Organization of Affect: Popular Music, Youth, and Intellectual and Political Life,” Carrie Wilson-Brown and Cameron McCarthy interview Larry Grossberg, perhaps the most important U.S. scholar working in the field of cultural studies today, about the status of rock in contemporary life. Grossberg’s interview nicely pulls together the four essays in this section, as his comments on rock and youth reinforce the complexities of the relationship between music, politics, and identity. While rock, and music more generally, is central to youth’s identity work (as demonstrated in Richards’s essay), it can be deployed as a mainstream force (as in Sterne’s essay), as a catalyst for forging positive racial relations (as in Garcia’s essay), or, as Larry Grossberg argues, within the framework of an increasingly conservative politics that mobilizes people through, as the title of the essay describes, the “organization of affect” (p. 343). Here we see that rock (or rap, or any other musical genre) is not an essentially revolutionary or counterhegemonic force, but instead is open to constant redefinition and redeployment within changing social circumstances. This affirms the editors’ main point — that we should study music that transcends the false dichotomy of anxiety/celebration and embrace the complexity of music within the arenas of our lives.

    Section Two, Music in the Postcolony and in the Diaspora, sits somewhat uncomfortably in the book, as it is weakly linked to the other sections. The individual essays provide a glimpse of “musical identities” in places around the world. Cameron McCarthy’s analysis of Barbadian public school songs in “Narrating Imperialism: The British Influence in Barbadian Public School Songs” reminds us that empire survives in sometimes hidden corners, and that the songs of our childhood are not innocent. The songs he analyzes work two ways: to reinscribe empire in the postcolonial present, and to demarcate class and gender within the local context of Barbados. In the context of the United States, it would be interesting to use McCarthy’s framework to explore how our school songs may potentially work in similar ways: to create an American empire for export purposes, while reinscribing internal racial, gender, and class identities. In “From The Bluest Eye to Jazz: A Retrospective of Toni Morrison’s Literary Sounds,” Robin Small-McCarthy returns to the United States and to the postcolonial moment captured in the writings of Toni Morrison. Analyzing the music of Morrison’s writing, Small-McCarthy argues that music is central to the lives and identities of African Americans and that the nonlinear and rhythmic characteristics of Morrison’s narrative allow for a unique and broadened exploration of this world.

    Twentieth-century popular music forms the basis of Nina Asher’s “Apache Indian’s Syncretic Music and the Re-presentation of South Asian Identities: A Case Study of a Minority Artist” and Lise Waxer’s “Consuming Memories: The Record-Centered Salsa Scene in Cali,” which explore two global music phenomenons: British bhangra and salsa. Asher, through an analysis of one British bhangra musician, highlights the central theme of the book — that music can both contribute to domination and resist it. Apache, a British South Asian musician, is a producer of British music — a creator of empire. But he also fundamentally changes the nature of that empire (what it is to be British), thereby creating new possibilities and “sites of resistance” for British minority youth. Like Barbadian school songs, Apache’s music has both a global and local effect. It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict the identities that will emerge from these musical encounters. Waxer’s rich and engaging ethnographic portrait of life and music in Cali, Colombia, looks at the role that recorded music plays in the construction of local identities. Recorded, not live, salsa music dominates the working-class night clubs of Cali and creates a local urban identity, as well as a local cultural memory. Drawing on her ethnographic study of Cali and historical research, Waxer’s essay elegantly captures how music becomes the tie for a community, echoing back to Garcia’s discussion of music’s role in multiracial youth alliances in post–World War II United States.

    Finally, Zena Moore’s essay, “Postcolonial Influences in Spanish Diaspora: Christian Doctrine and the Depiction of Women in Tejano Border Songs and Calypso,” presents one of the few glimpses of gender critique in the book, providing a feminist analysis of Caribbean calypso and Mexican American corrido. Moore links these musical genres, as both are part of a “postcolonial Spanish diaspora,” which was and is heavily influenced by the Catholic church. Thus, Moore concludes that these genres inevitably reflect traditional Catholic teachings about the inferiority of women.

    Section Four rounds off the collection by returning to two central and related questions for educators: How do we make sense of the “pedagogical force” of popular music? What can we learn from musical metaphors and practices to further our understanding of youths’ identities? Warren Crichlow’s essay, “No Guarantees: Pedagogical Implications of Music in the Films of Isaac Julien,” analyzes the work of the prominent Black British filmmaker Isaac Julien, whose films include Looking for Langston (1989), the Cannes Film Festival prizewinner Young Soul Rebels (1991), and The Darker Side of Black (1994). Drawing on examples from Young Soul Rebels and The Darker Side of Black, Crichlow demonstrates how Julien’s films insist that we embrace the contradictions of culture — for example, engaging in difficult discussions of how Black culture (the focus of Crichlow’s essay) can be both resistant and conservative. Crichlow underscores the editors’ message that there are “no guarantees” in either music or our pedagogical practices. In other words, Crichlow uses Julien’s films to illustrate that no one, neither musician nor teacher, can guarantee the effects of her or his practices, and that these practices are always rife with internal contradictions. Though it is beyond the scope of Crichlow’s essay to examine the full range of possibilities that flow from Julien’s pedagogy, the reader can easily make connections to a number of topical issues in educational theory and practice. For example, as Elizabeth Ellsworth (1989) has argued in relation to critical pedagogy, an educational philosophy grounded in the principles of freedom may in fact be oppressive in some circumstances. Likewise, Julien’s films interrogate the contradictory impulses in Black popular culture: it can be liberating in some senses, claiming space for Black voices, and simultaneously oppressive, reinforcing homophobia.

    In her essay, Ruth Vinz dives into the realities of classroom practice as she describes her attempt to use the blues as part of a multivocal, layered, and dynamic pedagogy to engage her graduate class in a discussion of the complexities of race in U.S. society. Using this approach, Vinz was able to break down the stereotypes about race that students brought with them and to split open a discussion that was stalled around narrow conceptions of identity, which Vinz terms “working against monologue” (p. 394). The monologue that Vinz identifies in her class is two-fold. First, she notes that students tended to claim particular stances, or monologic (essential) identities; second, these identities were then played out in discussion, leading to divisive and often unproductive discussion. So, for example, one student takes on the (monologic) role of feminist, and assumes this singular stance for the duration of the class. Using the blues as a cultural text, Vinz was able to complicate students’ essentialist interpretations of identity. For example, one group of students explored the history of the blues, and thus confronted what James Clifford (1997) terms its multiple routes. In other words, this group’s investigation led to the realization that the blues did not emerge, fully formed, from the essential experiences of one racial or ethnic group, but instead is a multilayered, multivocal practice that is constantly rearticulated within changing social, cultural, and historical circumstances.

    Though late in the book, we finally hear a youth’s voice in Angharad Valdivia and Rhiannon Bettivia’s essay, “Gender, Generation, Space, and Popular Music.” Drawing on their personal experience, Valdivia and Bettivia (Valdivia’s teenage daughter) discuss how parents and children negotiate music in the spaces of daily life. They argue that girls are not simply dupes for the culture industry, but have voice and agency. This theme of agency carries through to Glenn Hudak’s closing essay, “The ‘Sound’ Identity: Music-Making and Schooling,” which uses the human drive to “make music with others” (p. 447) as a way to think about music as a potential unifying space in a conflicted, battered world. In concert with the other essays in this section, Hudak’s essay underscores that we can forge small but important and persistent spaces of unity, even in the face of enormous difficulties, and that music can assist this process.

    Sound Identities
    is a particularly significant collection, coming at a time when educators are increasingly concerned with creating positive alliances and relationships among youth of diverse races, ethnicities, and classes. As we move from a focus on the elimination of the negative (education against sexism, racism, etc.) to an emphasis on the active and engaged creation of new multivocal worlds, the strategies suggested by Sound Identities are quite insightful and timely. The questions “what works?” and “how can we create the world we want?” seem to be emergent in the educational research and policy community, from articles by Lois Weis and Michelle Fine (2000; Fine, Weis, & Powell, 1997), to the Annenberg Institute for School Reform’s project, School Communities that Work, to former President Clinton’s initiative on race.

    In fact, the title of the collection suggests that schools have generally neglected one of the most significant sites in which youth experiment with “sound” (healthy, strong) identities. Music is a major affective site for youth identity, and, as this collection highlights, may hold within it the possibilities for working with youth to create what Fine, Weis, and Powell (1997) term “free spaces” in which youth “can imagine a world that could be but hasn’t yet been” (p. 253, authors’ emphasis; see also Boyte & Evans, 1992; Heath, 1995; Weis & Fine, 2000). There are, of course, no guarantees, as Crichlow aptly demonstrated in his analysis of Isaac Julien’s films. Rap and rock, to give just two examples, can move us in multiple directions, not all of them positive. Nor is it guaranteed that Glenn Hudak’s optimistic assessment of the power of music in youths’ lives will necessarily work to create the “free spaces” envisaged by Fine, Weis, Powell, and others. “Sound” also does not imply that youths’ identities can ever be complete and without rupture — totality is not the objective. Instead, the authors ask us to embrace the contradictions of identity, and to bracket the quest for simple answers, for simple “soundness.”

    For all its strengths, Sound Identities is still relatively narrow in scope. While there is no contesting that rap and rock are important genres in U.S. (and world) music, other genres, such as techno, R & B, house, and rave (to name just a few) are conspicuously absent in this work, as is any discussion of Top 40 and “teenybopper” music (e.g., the Spice Girls and Ricky Martin). Perhaps the editors felt that they could not adequately cover the wide range of youth music and thus focused their analysis on specific genres. My critique here may speak more to the paucity of educational research in this area — it is unfortunate that Sound Identities is virtually the only contemporary book of its kind, as one book cannot hope to cover the entire field. The scope of the collection would also have been broadened by including essays on religious youth music (e.g., Christian rock) or the youth-oriented revival of klezmer music, which is centered on secular aspects of Jewish culture, as these genres also point to important social trends. Furthermore, no essays speak to music’s appearance in multiple media texts — the music of MTV, movies, commercials, and television shows — and none looks directly at the corporate structures/interests that are part of virtually every type of music. Again, these are potential areas for future explorations.

    The structure of the book wavers at points. Section Two, Music in the Postcolony and in the Diaspora, seems particularly out of place. While the individual essays are generally strong, as a whole the section seems to lack both internal connections and links to the other sections. Overall, the spatial and geographic organization of the sections is somewhat underdeveloped — essays are grouped in this manner, but they often seem to be linked by genre (particularly in the case of rap and rock) instead of through the narratives of “nation,” “postcolony and diaspora,” and “contested metropolis” that ostensibly unite them. A further development of these themes may have strengthened the collection.

    Despite these minor limitations, this collection delivers what it promises: to delve into the world that music makes, and the worlds that we can make with our music. It is engaging, accessible, and thoughtful, and can help us as educators, individuals, parents, children, and citizens to make sense of the paraphernalia cluttering our homes and the sound identities of our youth.

    Nadine Dolby
    Northern Illinois University, DeKalb
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    Winter 2001 Issue


    HER Classic Reprint: Empowering Minority Students
    A Framework for Intervention
    Jim Cummins
    Resisting and Reversing Language Shift
    Heritage-Language Resilience among U.S. Native Biliterates
    Lucy Tse
    Rethinking the Digital Divide
    Jennifer S. Light
    Further Comment: Pragmatizing the Imaginary
    A Response to a Fictionalized Case Study of Teaching
    Tom Barone
    Book Review of Sound Identities: Popular Music and the Cultural Politics of Education
    Nadine Dolby

    Book Notes

    The Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy
    Edited by John Comings, Barbara Garner, and Cristine Smith

    Crossing the Water
    By Daniel Robb

    Restructuring High Schools for Equity and Excellence
    By Valerie E. Lee and Julia B. Smith

    It Takes a City
    By Paul T. Hill, Christine Campbell, and James Harvey

    All Together Now
    By Richard D. Kahlenberg

    The Teaching Gap
    By James W. Stigler and James Hiebert

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.