The Gift: Thoughts on Ethnographic Exchange

In 1991, Steven Feld released a recording based on his fieldwork in the Bosavi Rainforest. Called Voices of the Rainforest, the recording is a “soundscape of a day in the life of the Kaluli people of Bosavi, Papua New Guinea.” The recording was originally released on the Rykodisc label and produced by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, making it one of the most curious ethnomusicological recordings of all time: Continue reading “The Gift: Thoughts on Ethnographic Exchange”

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The Blurred Lines of Musicological Expertise

In the past 24 hours, there’s been a flurry of people declaring the recording industry dead, and a whole lot of articles (and, dare I say, blog posts) that purport to explain what really is the upshot of the “Blurred Lines” jury verdict. It’s all rather melodramatic, and I hesitate to add to it. But I think there are a few points worth making here.

Robin Thicke in performance. Used here under a Creative Commons license.
Robin Thicke in performance. Used here under a Creative Commons license.

For one thing, everyone needs to shut up about how this verdict will have a “chilling effect” (that’s always the phrase they use) on musical creativity. It’s not going to happen. The popular music industry will soldier on exactly as before, making sure that money remains in the hands of the gatekeepers who run the business. Why? Because the people who run record labels are quite skilled at finding ways to pass costs onto artists while keeping profits for themselves. This verdict poses no threat to business-as-usual for record labels and the avaricious people who run them.

But in following coverage of the trial, I’ve been taken aback by the role of “expertise” in the testimony. Reporting on this story has often framed the trial issues as “musicological” in nature, as Marvin Gaye’s heirs relied on the testimony of musical experts to elaborate the similarities between “Got to Give It Up” and “Blurred Lines.” The claim I found most troubling was Judith Finell’s description of the role of the musical expert: “The musicologist’s job is to understand the important and unimportant parts of a musical work. It’s my analytical description.”

Let’s ignore, for the moment, the hugely problematic nature of the exact “musicological” evidence given by Finell. Let’s even ignore that her credentials as a “musicologist” are, at best, extremely suspect. (OK, not totally ignore: she does not hold a Ph.D. in musicology, and her record of musicological publication is nonexistent.) That short description of the “musicologist’s job” is as distant from and irrelevant to the work of musicologists as possible. I know not a single musicologist who would describe her work as distinguishing what is and is not “important” in a musical work—primarily because there is absolutely no objective way to make such a determination. Elements of a musical work only have meaning to the extent that they are heard and understood by people with particular cultural positions and values. It is not only misleading to objectively assert that “Blurred Lines” copied the Gaye song because it allegedly shares three of the four notes in its hook. Doing so is downright irresponsible.

But I’m willing to give Finell a pass on this point, since she is not a professional musicologist, but rather, is a consultant working (in this instance) for the Gaye family. Much more troubling is the participation of the prominent Harvard ethnomusicologist Ingrid Monson. Monson’s testimony included the claim that the Thick and Gaye songs both included a “ii-V-i” chord progression, which sounds very damning for Thick—until one realizes that this is literally the most common chord progression in Western tonal music. You would be much more hard-pressed to find a song that didn’t include this chord progression. Monson also told the jury, in a remark that was rightly struck from the record, “[The similarities] suggest that while ‘Blurred Lines’ was being written, ‘Got To Give It Up’ was playing in the background.” Such a claim quite obviously has no basis in any available evidence.

Unlike Finell, we cannot simply dismiss Monson’s testimony based on her qualifications as an “expert.” As one of the leading scholars of African American music, her credentials are impeccable. Which only makes her participation in this trial all the more baffling and irresponsible. Why in the world would such an accomplished scholar stake her reputation to a claim that there are some similarities between these two songs?

I don’t have a concrete answer, of course; only Monson could tell us this. But it seems to me that she has impaired, rather than bolstered, any reputation or value that musicology might have had in the popular imagination. (I’m certainly not so naive as to believe that most people have spent any substantial time before this trial thinking about what musicology is, or that they will do so ever again.) Collectively, Monson and Finell’s testimony was presented by the Gayes’ attorney as objective data that, based on their expertise in music, proved a decisive similarity between “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up.” Musicology was positioned as a science—a clear misrepresentation of a discipline that straddles the boundary between the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

Of course, this was a savvy move by the Gayes’ attorney, because music is not commonly seen as an area where one can have “expertise” as a scholar. (I’ve lost count of how often, when I tell people that I’m a music professor, I am asked what instrument I play. The expertise that we develop as musicologists simply doesn’t register in the mainstream.) People can identify pieces of music; the subtle and hidden cultural meanings and social values of that music is typically invisible. So instead of engaging in the sort of argument that most musicologists would have about these two songs—concerning, perhaps, the racial history of musical appropriation, the cultural meaning of copyright law, or the long musical practice of pastiche—what we actually get is a quite shallow representation of music as a scientific, rather than a cultural, entity.

Finell has no responsibility to the musicological scholarly community, because (so far as I can tell) she’s not a member of it. But Monson has perpetrated a musicological farce, and her participation in this trial has reinforced the marginalization of musicology (and, I would argue, the Humanities in general).

So if you ask me what this trial was really about, my answer is that it was about education. The upshot of this trial, in my view, is that nothing changes in the recording industry, although a lot of people will wring their hands about it, and that the important role of musicology and the Humanities has been eroded through the egregious misrepresentation of what it is that we do as scholars.

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“Arguespeak” and the College Teacher

A couple days ago, I heard Gerald Graff deliver a talk about the necessity of argument in education. Professor Graff’s talk, in which he explained his idea of “arguespeak,” was a cogent attack on the foundations of education in America today. He described a situation where college students never really learn to construct an argument because they’re never given the opportunity: every teacher expects different things from students in their classes. Thus, as a student moves from one class to the next (and one teacher to the next), the requirements change, often dramatically. One professor may want a student to build an argument of her own based on the work of authors that they have read; another professor might want students to produce a neutral summary of a text.

According to Graff, the lack of coherence in “arguespeak” means that students learn to assess what each professor wants and to act accordingly—a necessary skill, to be sure, but a far cry from being able to construct an argument in its own right. Graff claims that arguespeak is the metadiscourse of intellectual life—the foundation that lays beneath and structures all forms of discourse, regardless of form. It’s a provocative idea, and one that he didn’t soft-pedal in addressing a room of college professors and students. The audience at his talk understood quite clearly that Graff was questioning the educational system that we are all a part of: in addition to the general confusion across classes and professors, Graff suggested, too, that things get even more difficult for students when professors suggest that argument is itself an inherently sexist or racist form, and (for example) that visual literacy might better facilitate productive and equitable discourse. Obviously, anyone who is sensitive to the gender and race imbalances in certain parts of the academy will have perked up at Graff’s apparent dismissal of their structural critiques (and at least one professor did challenge Graff on this very idea during the Q-&-A).

But Graff was not questioning the critiques that have been so valuable to the ongoing transformation of the university as a place of equal opportunity and intellectual growth. Rather, he was pointing out that by working in relative isolation from each other, we as college professors have implicitly abdicated any sense of responsibility for the broad intellectual growth of our students beyond our classroom. We teach students what we think they ought to know for the few weeks in which they attend our class, and then they go on their way to learn a different set of standards from a different professor.

It might, then, be the case that a student leaves college having amassed a broad knowledge of a particular field—biology, psychology, music, literature—but without the skills to argue for any particular position or interpretation within that field—or, for that matter, without even an awareness that the student has the authority to have a position or an argument. This is a systemic problem, one that transcends the boundaries of any particular discipline. It suggests to students that to be successful they need not be particularly inquisitive or critical, that, in fact, doing so may impede one’s professional success. It caters to a mediatized world where what counts as “argument” is a shallow and often violent exchange of “yes” and “no” without any substance, support, or consideration—more of a playground fight than a serious argument.

Graff, unfortunately, had little to offer in the way of improvements for colleges. (His main practical suggestion was that argument could much more easily be made a thorough element of grade school education, thus preparing students for the intellectual work of college and adult life well before they get to college.) The model of “core” courses is one that has some serious limitations, and is hardly a model to be emulated. I served as a writing intern for several years in the University of Chicago’s Humanities core—the courses that all U of C undergrads take in their first year—and I was constantly frustrated by how little time I had to work with students on their writing (to say nothing of the conflicting demands and philosophies I encountered from the course instructors I worked with). I, like all my fellow interns, did my best with the little time I had, but personally, I never felt like my work with students’ writing assignment made much impact. Courses dedicated to writing technique (either on its own or “in the disciplines”) are somewhat better, but they still cannot overcome the fundamental obstacle of their time constraints.

Of course, the work students do in college depends on their being exposed to a range of pedagogical practices, intellectual philosophies, and academic fields. No one in their right mind would try to limit the variety of intellectual and social experiences available to college students. But Graff does have a point: students are always clever enough to see where their professors disagree. For me, I always try to make my discussions of argument a kind of meta-discussion, in the hope that students will be able to transfer some tools from my writing courses to other situations they encounter. I like when students write in the first person, for instance, and I suggest that there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing so in an academic setting—but nonetheless, they are likely to encounter people who view first person writing as non-serious. The question students should be asking is not whether I’m right or whether the other professor is right—this would get us right back to the quagmire Graff describes. Rather, students should realize that they have a wide range of tools at their disposal, and that they can pick and choose as the situation demands.

I worry that what this may boil down to is that we, as a profession, are simply to sure of our own merits as teachers and intellectuals. We want students to be enthusiastic about the things that we’re enthusiastic about; we want them to learn the things that we think are essential. This is as it should be, since we’ve dedicated our lives to propagating knowledge in a very slim and only occasionally relevant area of human existence; if we’re not enthusiastic about what we do, who is going to be? But far too often we mistake our expertise for authority. We’re not willing to point out where we might not know things, where there are equally valid alternatives to the ways that we do things. As a result, we close off the possibility of critical thought and discourse among students, when that should be the one thing that we value above all else.

I must admit that as much as I enjoyed Graff’s provocation, I was left somewhat depressed by the implications for our work as college teachers. Of course, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some remarkable students at every institution where I’ve taught. And I continue to meet educators who are stunningly dedicated to their work. But the difficulty noted by Graff is not about any particular individuals, but rather, about the way that the disjointed experience of college education may ultimately be its undoing. As we seem to be forced more and more to define our value to the education system, perhaps we ought to consider where “arguespeak” fits into our concept of our own relevance.

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