Last week saw the University of Reading’s History department host the Second International Conference of the Interdisciplinary Network for the Study of Subcultures, Popular Music and Social Change. Titled ‘Writing the Noise’, the event centred on a key question: ‘how do we write about sound and the cultures that form around music?’. Being cross-disciplinary, and with the Network committed to dialogues beyond academia, the conference included contributions from music writers, musicians, and fanzine producers, as well as papers by academics in History, Sociology, Musicology, Cultural Studies, Politics and English Literature. The event was truly international, with delegates from Europe and beyond. Having formed in 2011, the Network – represented here by Prof. Lucy Robinson (Sussex), Prof. John Street (UEA), and Prof. Matthew Worley (Reading) – was able to once more expand its contacts in a genuinely collaborative and congenial atmosphere.
The two days were topped and tailed by key music journalists Simon Reynolds, Cathi Unsworth, and David Stubbs. Simon gave a keynote address on music writing ‘past, present and future’, before then joining Cathi and David in roundtable discussion about how their own experience of ‘writing the noise’ has changed through time. By so doing, they provided us with far more than a history of the music press; how it changed in staff, voice, and market. Instead, these speakers were able to frame the period and raise key themes, turning their journalistic analysis to their own lives and careers. Rather than being the object of study, they were co-investigators with academics.
Alongside the role of journalists in reflecting and shaping popular cultures, we also saw youth cultures through the eyes of interested ‘grown-ups’; through the strictures of the state and regulators; through the agency of practitioners. By far the majority of papers moved beyond delivering a narrative and avoided passing off personal taste for analysis, or bestowing meaning or value on particular elements of popular culture from an elevated/disconnected position – something that has been all-too-common in academic work on popular culture. By contrast, there was a strong sense that we could understand music-based youth culture on its own terms and purposes. Rather than popular culture needing high theory to validate it, the reverse might be true; youth culture ‘made the clever theories cool’.
Myths were analysed for their role and function rather than debunked. So, for example, Susan Lindolm’s work on belonging and feminism in hip-hop helped us think about how cultural identifications are also academic identities. The production and processes of music-based youth cultures were reimagined, as with Lucy Robinson’s inspirational keynote talk on fanzines as history. The need to speak to and with – not just on and about – was emphasised, as in Lez Henry’s paper on British reggae sound system culture.
We have long known that the atmosphere and affective networks of music-based scenes, styles, and spaces matter. Significantly, here, the atmosphere of the conference mattered also. Postgraduates and Early Career Researchers actively participated and set the agenda. And how we work together matters too. The exempla of this was in the paper by Tim Wall and Sarah Raine, whose inspirational work takes their participant experience in the Northern Soul scene and uses it to intervene in the structures of knowledge and power of Higher Education. Their ‘multigenerational approach’ filtered throughout the conference, which saw brilliant research students (Ray Kinsella) give their first papers and post-doctorates (Sarah Kenny) continue to make a significant impact on the discipline – in this case reminding us that ‘a good night out’ resonate more than the minutia of music styles.
Overall, it was a fine two days. It reaffirmed that youth and musical cultures provide both vibrant sites of creativity and a useful lens for scholars to view and understand wider processes of social, political, and economic change. No doubt, a third international will follow…
You can find a round-up of all tweets from or about the conference here.
Photos by Camilla Aisa, Amy Gower, Lucy Robinson and John Street