The 2021 Pop Convergence: A Virtual Pop Conference, April 22-25th
Artwork by Alex Nero; Design by The Art Dictator
Friday, April 23 • 10:00am - 11:15am
Revolutions or Spinning Wheels? JPMS at 33.3 (Room A: Sky Church)

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Revolutions or Spinning Wheels? JPMS at 33.3 (Room A: Sky Church)
In September, Journal of Popular Music Studies will publish an issue whose number is of particular significance to music people: Vol. 33.3. It would be a shame to let the RPM speed for LPs, so rich in connotations, go unremarked upon, so we will be publishing a range of short pieces this fall that think about 33 1/3 in relationship to different keywords and subthemes. Some of these will debut in this roundtable.
It’s easy to see how spinning LPs intersect with themes of change and flux. The encapsulation of sound on record, especially vernacular sound, was a central element of 20th century cultural upheaval, connected vividly to identity movements and collective struggles. Where Michael Denning’s Noise Revolution, on the 1920s implementation of electric recording, captures an earlier phase in this process, the late 1940s to early 1980s era of the LP was a further shift: Charles Keil’s “People’s Music Comparatively” noted this amplified sequel a generation ago, Albin Zak’s I Don’t Sound Like Nobody detailed 1950s record-making, and our own associate editor, Roshanak Kheshti, has explored the “aural imaginary” in Modernity’s Ear, with Alexander Weheliye’s work, such as Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity, another important touchstone.
To what extent did the LP’s impact mark a sonic and cultural shift? If few listen to vernacular culture now with the revolutionary expectations of an Amiri Baraka, should we see 33.3 as a force for change, containment, or something else?

The five presenters on the panel will begin with short digital lectures that take up their own vantage points. After each of these, we’ll discuss the topic collectively, then open matters up for Q&A from those watching. Here are the opening topics:

Leal: “El Cometa,” by Los Cometas de Villa Juarez, recorded in sun-soaked McAllen, TX, at the U.S.-Mexico border, 1969. “El Cometa”: an LP from the personal collection of my now late-grandfather, Octaviano Gonzalez. “"El Cometa": a record for dancing, a spur to movement. I sit here, thousands of miles from home and family, and I imagine my grandfather singing along to this record. Memory atop memory, time atop time. What listening is this? I aim to think through what it means to listen to a lost loved one’s LPs—to try and listen through their ears, to measure the space between your life and theirs. As I listen to the record, I interweave my lyrical reflections as a child of the borderlands, my own perspective as a music-focused humanities scholar and practicing musical artist, and short excerpts from a music-centered oral history interview I conducted with my grandfather in early 2020.

Sterne : "Scattered Speculations on Synchronization" Pitch: The 33 1/3 RPM standard emerged from synchronized film sound in the 1920s and was only later adopted for the LP, whose playback speed immediately became an issue for projectionists, artists, musicians, dancers, and other users who sought to use the record's time with something else. In this short piece, I will suggest that synchronization is connected to chrononormativity, to borrow a term from Elizabeth Freeman, and further, that the measure of synchronization--rotations per minute--is itself political, since it papers over differences that exist even within the physical format itself. Through regulating time, rate, and recursivity, synchronization via RPM installs and enforces norms (and a "normal time") which then regulates the movements and interfaces among bodies, technologies and institutions. This piece will consider what lining up so that we are all in sync with 33 1/3 "rotations per minute" means in an age of technological media, for the people and for the institutions that use this measure.

Tongson: I’ll be exploring “BPM” through Wham’s lyric “my beats per minute never been the same” (from “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go). Instead of focusing on Make it Big, their aptly titled breakout album in the U.S., the piece will stage a return of the repressed—to their first album “Fantastic” (released under their original name, Wham UK). Fantastic’s BPM is high-octane gay leather disco, with samples of early white rap, Tropicalia, and the kind of raunchy loving and thieving George Michael modeled more explicitly later in his career.

Weisbard: Keyword: Spin--I want to track how the tone present in records early as Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair" in 1930, fat and sated but self-aware, inhabited whole LPs by the time Ray Davies sang "sit right down in your old rocking chair, you need not worry you need not care," in "Shangri-La," off the Kinks album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). The rocking chair, going nowhere, as the record spinning, then the LP making that spin into an expanse: that's what I'd like to trace as an aspect of how song impacts format, how certain kinds of expression need a McMansion, and how the LP expressed affluence in its vinyl frontier but decline in its endless grooves almost from the start.

Messelink: “Cheesecake Album Covers.” The “girlie” cover was a significant part of the early 1950s LP market. While the disembodied legs on Jackie Gleason’sTawny in 1953 were thought to be pushing the bounds of propriety, by 1958 nudity had become commonplace. During the years (1949-1954) of upheaval and growth following the release of the LP, record companies devised the concept of “mood music” as a way of marketing and selling popular long play albums. By 1957 the consensus was that mood music had become nude music. Drawing from period industry publications and magazines, I will briefly examine how sexual representations, in particular those featuring female models, were a significant—and much debated— aspect of the early LP market.

avatar for Eric Weisbard

Eric Weisbard

American Studies; co-editor of Journal of Popular Music Studies, University of Alabama
Eric Weisbard co-founded the Pop Conference in 2002 for what was then Experience Music Project. He went on to organize 16 different program years of the gathering and edit three collections of conference writing. He’s Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama, former... Read More →

avatar for Jonathan Leal

Jonathan Leal

Jonathan Leal is an experimentalist, composer, author, and multi-instrumentalist based in Los Angeles. Originally from the Rio Grande Valley, a South Texas region located at the border of the United States and Mexico, Jonathan works as an artist-scholar to create collaborative arts... Read More →

Jonathan Sterne

Jonathan Sterne teaches at McGill University. He is author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke, 2003), MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke 2012), the forthcoming Diminished Faculties: A Political Phenomenology of Impairment (Duke, 2021), and many essa... Read More →
avatar for Karen Tongson

Karen Tongson

Chair, Gender & Sexuality Studies; Professor, English and American Studies & Ethnicity, USC
Karen Tongson is the author of Normporn: Queer Viewers and the TV That Soothes Us (November 2023), Why Karen Carpenter Matters (one of Pitchfork’s best music books of 2019), and Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (2011). In 2019, she was awarded Lambda Literary’s Jeanne Córdova... Read More →
avatar for Jennifer Messelink

Jennifer Messelink

PhD Candidate, Musicology, McGill University
Jennifer Messelink is a PhD Candidate in Musicology at McGill University. Her research focuses on generic formations in postwar popular music. In particular, she examines the stylistic differences and historical significance of mood music and exotica; distinct types of instrumental... Read More →

Friday April 23, 2021 10:00am - 11:15am PDT
Room A: Sky Church