Probing the Politics of Popular Music, From K-Pop to Beverly Sills

A new interdisciplinary volume edited by associate professor Levi Gibbs examines how singers across genres engage listeners with social and political change.

When professor Levi Gibbs was working on a book about itinerant singers from China's countryside, he was awed by the number of performers from around the world fellow scholars wrote about who came to symbolize different geographic areas, time periods, political movements, and other elements of identity. 

"Wouldn't it be interesting," Gibbs recalls thinking, "to gather a group of these scholars and see what similarities and differences we could find in the singers we study?'" 

An associate professor in the Department of Asian Societies, Cultures, and Languages, Gibbs invited scholars to write chapters for a new book and take part in a virtual conference at Dartmouth in December 2020 that featured a keynote address by music historian Elijah Wald and a keynote response by professor William Cheng, chair of the Department of Music

The resulting volume, out last month from the University of Illinois Press, examines the political act of listening to music and how singers and their songs engage listeners with a broad range of social and political issues. Designed as a textbook for undergraduate students, Social Voices: The Cultural Politics of Singers Around the Globe features contributions from an interdisciplinary group of scholars, many of whom share their personal journeys as academics in addition to bringing to light issues of race, gender, ethnicity, and class in popular music. 

In a Q&A, Gibbs discusses his early interest in music as a political act, what he hopes students will take away from studying singers and their songs, and his next research project.

The book features several personal interludes that explain how the authors became interested in their particular area of expertise. How did you become interested in the idea of singing and listening as a political act?

I have been fascinated for a long time with how songs and singing can express many different emotions, ideas, and perspectives, and how you come back to a song—listening to it or singing it again and again—and explore it from different angles. Songs are like publicly displayed, emotionally charged conversations, and you can choose to listen to them in different ways—identifying with one side of the conversation or the other, or both, or neither, or one and then the other. Depending on how we choose to listen, songs can feel both intimate and social. You can "experience" what it feels like for someone's heart to be broken as well as what the person who broke that heart is like. You can empathize with the voice of an oppressed individual or group in a song, and then listen to the song again, thinking about the person or group that is oppressing them.
While I was doing fieldwork with singers in China, I was struck by the way that their performances mediated different types of social events—such as banquets, weddings, business openings, or political anniversaries—and symbolized different things to different audiences. I was also interested in the way that people I met would describe the same singers in vastly different ways—some extolling their virtues and others criticizing them as trash. It got me thinking about how their assessments of those singers were connected to their feelings about broader issues regarding representation.
The book brings together scholars from several academic disciplines. What is the benefit of exploring this topic from a multidisciplinary perspective?

Social Voices is aimed at students from different backgrounds and majors who might be interested in singers and want to learn more about the social work that they are doing. Some of these students might be studying different languages or regions; others might be interested in history or sociology. Through the personal interludes—in which certain scholars from different disciplines share their personal journeys from incipient interests in singers to academic pursuits—we hope to encourage students from different backgrounds to develop and pursue their own passions.

Another reason for the diversity of disciplines is because songs combine many elements—lyrics, melodies, performances, representations of individuals and groups—and that mixture can attract scholars from a wide variety of disciplines. I wanted to put some of these approaches together in one volume so that students can see a more three-dimensional view of the social themes and cultural politics with which singers become associated.

Methodologically, the different chapters allow students and other readers to see how a particular approaches "lens" produces a certain kind of image of a singer and how different scholars conduct their research by examining different types of source material, such as newspaper articles, music videos, live performances, social media posts, and so on.

Social Voices showcases popular artists from around the world as "case studies" representing the idea of listening as a political act. How does this global perspective enrich readers' understanding of the topic?

I wanted Social Voices to include a range of singers, from those that might be more familiar to readers in the U.S. and elsewhere to others that might be less familiar. So far, the different readers I have spoken with seem to have a favorite chapter based on their own experience and taste in singers, and that can serve as an entry point into the book as a whole and the different themes it addresses.

Many of the chapters about singers based outside of the U.S. are compelling in that the careers of those singers are interwoven with ongoing discussions about diasporic, gendered, ethnic, and political identities. For students, these chapters not only provide a window into contemporary social issues in different geographic regions, but also inspire students to think about the ways those same issues play out in the careers of singers closer to home—wherever that is.

How do you hope reading Social Voices will transform readers' experiences as listeners?

I hope that readers will come away with a willingness to question why they do or do not like certain singers or songs—what is it that those singers and songs seem to represent? After reading Social Voices, I hope they will listen critically to the perspectives and social values that underlie news stories, scandals, praise, and criticisms of different singers. 

In the book's introduction, I talk about how each of us views a singer from our unique position in the moment, and others may view the same singer in a slightly or completely different way. The differences between those visions reflect disparate ideas about what it means to belong to or relate to a particular place, group, ethnicity, class, gender identity, or political persuasion. We often like to think that singers "give voice" to individuals and groups, but when it comes down to it, we each hear them say different things.

What are you working on now?

I am writing a book called Inner Other: Morality and Modernity in Tales of China's Yellow Earth, which looks at stories set in a cultural border region in northern China. 

I am also doing research for another book, Culture Workers, which examines the lives and careers of scholars and other individuals who are involved behind the scenes in how different song traditions are presented to the public. I love to interview people about their lives and the questions that fuel their professional careers, and I am excited to do this kind of research.