In September 2018, Taylor & Francis had the privilege of speaking with Gary Burns and Thomas Kitts, Co-Editors of Popular Music and Society and Rock Music Studies. The interview below yielded practical, thought-provoking, and inspiring ideas about the nature and state of music research and scholarship. Read the discussion below, then explore the full Routledge Music portfolio.
What is your area of expertise, and what drew you to that field of study?
My “home” discipline is communication. My area of specialty within that field is media studies (which is sometimes considered a separate discipline). I’ve spent most of my career in popular culture studies, which is an interdisciplinary combination of media studies, literary studies, cultural studies, American studies, folklore, and several other things. I’ve been interested in popular music since childhood and have used my academic training to study it, although usually I’ve had to do a bit of stretching. “Media studies,” for example, usually means film, television, and nowadays “new media.” Popular music can be considered part of media studies, but it’s not a standard ingredient in the curriculum. You have to “opt in” to study popular music, which is what I’ve done.
My PhD is from New York University in English with a specialization in American literature, 1800-1865, with an emphasis on American drama. However, for the last twenty years or more, I have been studying pop music. My first book was on an American playwright, George Henry Boker. I wanted to write another book and was doing some preliminary research when I saw an advertisement announcing that my all-time favorite songwriter, Ray Davies of the Kinks, was appearing in New York City, where I live. As soon as I saw the ad, I had the subject for my book. I have been studying various dimensions of pop music ever since.
How did you first get involved with these two journals?
I came to Popular Music and Society via the Popular Culture Association about forty years ago. I began as a reader, subscriber, and contributor to the journal at the same time that I started organizing music panels for the PCA conference. When the founding editor of Popular Music and Society died in 1994, the publisher asked me if I would be interested in applying to be Editor. I did apply and got the job. Tom joined as Editor in 2008 (we both have the title now), and together we launched Rock Music Studies.
Gary asked me to be the book reviewer editor for Popular Music and Society in 2006, which I did for two years. Then Gary invited me to join him as editor in 2008, which was a real honor for me. I had guest edited an issue of PM&S in 2006 and maybe that’s what led him to ask me. In 2013, Taylor and Francis asked us to develop a “spinoff” from Popular Music and Society, and, in 2014, we published our first edition of Rock Music Studies.
What differentiates each journal from others in its respective field?
First, Popular Music and Society is the longest running journal of its kind, having debuted in 1971. Given our title with society in it, I think our journal tends to attract articles with a wider sweep than what might be found in most other pop music journals. Those writers submitting to us realize that they need to connect music with culture in some meaningful way. Rock Music Studies focuses exclusively on rock music, which is not always easy to define. Rock covers a broad canvas. Just look at the topics of our past and future issues. We have had or will have issues on Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, global psychedelia, Bob Marley, prog rock, and the Beach Boys.
The way I think of it, both journals are part of popular culture studies. That’s a different tradition from what you find in other journals. Popular Music and Society was the first popular music journal—there are at least a dozen others now. Some of them focus on specific subgenres or geographic regions. Some have more of a music-theory mission than we do. Our contributors and readers are interdisciplinary. They come from practically every area of the humanities and from many of the artistic, social scientific, and professional fields. That means our articles have to be written well and have to avoid disciplinary jargon as much as possible.
What do you look for when evaluating article submissions and special issue proposals?
First and foremost, the article has to be well written and readable. If an article is not well written, we will not forward it to reviewers. I then like to see that the article makes a clear claim and informs the reader of that claim or thesis very early in the paper. I don’t want to have to figure out where the paper is going. The author needs to lay out the argument in his/her introduction. I also need the author to explain the significance and uniqueness of the claim. As the paper progresses it should enter into a kind of a dialogue with other published articles that might agree or disagree with the author’s claim.
We expect deep knowledge of the specific subject of the research. That includes being familiar with previous writing on the topic—in the popular music journals, in books, in magazines and trade journals, and on websites. You also have to have some new knowledge or perspective to contribute. And generally we expect an emphasis on people or cultural texts, not on theory or method per se.
How do you see the format of research developing with new technology and multimedia?
With so much music and research material accessible online today, the scholar has much more to investigate—which is good though quite time consuming. It has become a lot easier to listen to songs or artists from the past or around the globe—artists and musics that might have been very difficult to access just a few years ago, and certainly when Popular Music and Society published its first issue. Of course, the means of dissemination of musics has itself become a line of scholarly inquiry as has listeners who manipulate songs through mashups, shreds, or spoofs.
Some new technologies are especially relevant to popular music, and some make music research easier and better. However, it’s double-edged, because you have to keep up with frequent changes. Generally I think the aim of our research remains constant and new technologies are good to the extent that they serve that aim. Websites like discogs and 45cat make fact-checking easy, but it’s therefore obligatory in a way that it wasn’t before. Technology should not be an end in itself. If we overemphasize technology, people who don’t have access to new tools may be unfairly disadvantaged. We also may become distracted by razzle-dazzle.
What is the most exciting thing happening in your field of music research right now?
One thing that is gratifying to me is that there are a lot of scholars doing excellent and ambitious work on music that was long stigmatized as being disreputable or esoteric. Popular music is very important to the people who create it, listen to it, and study it. Those people and that music deserve respect, and music journals are providing that respect and demonstrating why popular music research is important. We can publish things now that were unlikely even a few years ago. In Rock Music Studies we recently published an entire special issue on the Rolling Stones, filled with fine material. With the sprouting of new journals and the ubiquity of the Internet, the community of scholars in popular music studies is bigger and more vibrant than ever before. Today you can do meticulous academic work on even the most obscure popular music subject and have a good chance of getting it published in a major journal and read by exactly the people who share your interest.
So much is happening. More young scholars than ever before are getting doctorates in the study of popular music. The result is that the quality of pop music scholarship continues to improve as scholars compete to create revealing work. Just as importantly, more scholars are exploring musics and artists that were previously obscure. I recently wrote a book review on Swim Through the Darkness by Mike Stax, a study of the life and music of Maitreya Kali (or Craig Smith), an obscure musician from the 1960s and early 1970s. I had never heard of Kali before, but through the book and listening to his music on various sites, I discovered a “new” artist, at least for me. Recently, too, I have read articles on the South African genre of Kwaito and another on the music of carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. Scholars can write more freely on these relatively obscure musics and artists since readers now have access to the music and videos.
Do you have any advice for early career researchers in popular/rock music studies?
Your first task is to survive, so you should be mindful of the research practices and expectations in your own discipline. That said, specialized popular music conferences and journals provide rigorous, high-quality venues for your work. I recommend that you read the journals, support them, subscribe to them, submit your work, volunteer to be a reviewer. Attend conferences and join with like-minded people to advance the cause.
I have a bunch of recommendations for beginning researchers and authors:
a. Learn your craft; i.e., learn to write well.
b. Read. Especially read the journals that you want to submit to. Note what they publish. Study the writing, the format.
c. Write about and study the music you are passionate about. You will discover that you have something unique to share about that music.
d. While you are targeting journals for your work and while you are researching, inquire about writing a book review for one of those journals. It’s a good way to break in.
e. Don’t expect journals to accept your work unconditionally. Usually some rewriting and additional research will be required. Hope for something like this: “Your paper is accepted contingent upon revisions.” Then revise and rewrite according to the editor’s directions.
d. Don’t take rejections personally. Read the comments of the reviewers and editor as objectively as possible. Learn from them. We all have had papers rejected.
e. Present papers at conferences. Talk to other attendees. Work on becoming part of a community of scholars. Introduce yourself to editors. Most will be willing to talk to you and give advice.
f. Don’t be intimidated. You probably have more to say than you realize.