I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. I highlight some of the best stuff I hear, read, and watch every week; publish news about the industry; and interview writers, scholars, and editors about their work. My goal is to share knowledge, celebrate great work, and expand the idea of what music journalism is—and where it happens. Questions, comments, concerns? You can reach me anytime at email@example.com. And if you’re not already subscribed to the newsletter, you can do so at musicjournalisminsider.com.
Today in the newsletter: Interviews with music scholar Alyxandra Vesey; dancehall expert Marvin Sparks; and Estonian academic Madis Järvekülg. Plus! A review of Desi on the Dancefloor and much more! But first…
Alyxandra Vesey is Assistant Professor of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama, and the book reviews editor for the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She’s been published recently in a wide variety of places, including Flow, New Review of Film and Television Studies, and Journal of Cinema and Media Studies. In this excerpt from our chat, she explains the focus of her research.
Broadly speaking, my research focuses on female-identified musicians’ creative labor, including how they collaborate with other industries in order to maintain a living. My current book project examines the ubiquity of brand partnerships in contemporary consumer culture through the lens of feminized labor and posits that contemporary female artists use them as an imperfect resource for artistic expression. Despite the hypervisibility of a constellation of female pop stars, the music business is structured around gender inequality. I posit that female-identified recording artists seize on self-branding opportunities in fashion, cosmetics, food, and technology in order to extend their careers as designers, moguls, and authors and earn recognition and compensation for their musical labor.
By drawing upon textual and discourse analysis of artists’ songs, music videos, interviews, social media usage, promotional campaigns, marketing strategies, and business decisions, I demonstrate how female-identified musicians’ brand partnerships have been used as a tactic for career longevity in response to cultural and industrial shifts around digital distribution, social media, and feminism. I present M.I.A., Rihanna, Patti LaBelle, and St. Vincent as case studies to demonstrate how female-identified artists co-create branded feminine-coded products like clothes, makeup, and cookbooks and masculine-coded products like music equipment as resources to work through their own ideas about gender and femininity in an industry that often uses sexism and ageism to diminish women’s creative authority. I classify such promotional work as collaborative merchandise and examine its proliferation in the early 21st century.
Each market sector creates opportunities for female artists to articulate forms of popular feminism through these products’ implied gender address. I focus on individual female-identified musicians who have articulated themselves as distinct brands and represent larger feminist debates around mass production and self-commodification.
From Jamie Wilde:
The cause I’d like to highlight is based in my hometown of Dundee. The project is called Art Angel and for more than two decades they have been supporting people with mental health issues through active participation in the arts. A local electronic collective based in Dundee named Hilltown Disco have also run an Art Angel fundraiser series over the last few years with an online-only run of EPs where all proceeds are dedicated to the charity. You can find more on this via the Hilltown Disco Bandcamp page.
Marvin Sparks is a self-described “student, story sharer and contributing archivist.” He’s also the author of the crucial new book Run the Riddim: The Untold Story of ’90s Dancehall to the World. It’s the first book to document this era of Jamaican music in depth, and Marvin has done an incredible job of bringing it to life. In this excerpt from our interview, Marvin offers a few tips for those looking to write a book.
There will never be enough music books, so don’t let that put you off. Use your personal experiences and intrigue to guide you in finding your angle and let your passion be the battery that keeps you going when you have doubts. Ask yourself what you hated about the books or media you’ve read about your chosen field or genre, but also acknowledge what you appreciated. It may sound negative, but finding my enemy helped confirm what I represented. Use the frustration of not being able to write the stories you’re passionate about for publications as fire too.
And I don’t know if it will benefit everyone, but for me, I imagined talking to two specific types of people. I wanted to write a book that I could discuss with the two friends I grew up debating dancehall with from the ’90s to now, but in a way that people who know Sean Paul and Vybz Kartel songs but don’t know Super Cat and Bounty Killer would gain cultural context without feeling alienated, overwhelmed or confused. Having had conversations with people from those two sides of the club, I feel I know what both of them don’t know and that there’s a demand even if editors don’t think so.
Ultimately, put your purpose over everything!
Who was the first non-musician to appear on a SPIN cover? (Hint: They weren’t human.)
In Desi on the Dancefloor, directed by Mia Zur-Szpiro and shot in 2018, the presumptions and judgments that shadow and undermine the efforts of women in India’s music industries—“Would your husband be okay with you doing this for a living?”—are front and center. The compact but far-ranging doc highlights barriers both patriarchal and political as these women find community and identity through music, with the lens zooming out further to encompass mental health and #MeToo in India.
The film’s short portraits are self-contained but intersect. Aneesha Kotwani is a promoter with a passion for electronic music, organizing tours in India through her company WAVLNGTH. Kotwani, who showed up to her first rave in a grotty Birmingham warehouse wearing high heels, takes that awakening back with her to India as she attempts to undercut the bottles-and-models approach that dominates Indian nightlife. She books a tour for Anu, and it ends up being an awakening for the DJ as she faces feelings of displacement and cultural isolation head-on. “I never wanted to be brown,” Anu says with emotion at one point. Yet, over the course of the tour, the British South Asian DJ reaffirms her identity playing music to—and dancing alongside—people who look more like her.
Anu’s personal journey isn’t the only focus. The striking patterned title cards by Varshini Ramakrishnan include subtle mini-illustrations of each interviewee, including the likes of Dolly Rateshwar, whose Dharavi Project offers classes for people aged six to 21 on the four pillars of hip-hop. But Rateshwar still wishes the program had more young women: There’s only one, a star beatboxer whose parents hit her with the same clucking judgment a promoter like Kotwani experiences from her own.
Moving between fragrant street scenes and shanties to soundsystems, there’s also Delhi Sultanate and Begum, who travel to Assam with their Bass Foundation Roots Sound System, which Sultanate claims is “one of only two sound systems in all of India, maybe South Asia.” Even if the ears they reach know nothing of Jamaican dub, you sense the public service of a crash-course in Babylon shared by the sound system, in rejection of what Sultanate describes as India’s current “fusion of capitalism and Hindu majoritarian fascism.” And a final musical assignment for the rest of us comes during Desi on the Dancefloor‘s credits: The soundtrack is entirely female Indian producers, so get listening.
Madis Järvekülg is a junior research fellow at the Centre of Excellence in Media Innovation and Digital Culture and a PhD candidate at the Baltic Film, Media and Arts School at Tallinn University in Estonia. His dissertation is about examining “Facebook as a ‘digital music platform’ by focusing on the forms of music-related verbal sense-making, promotional practices and community work among the local music critics/journalists, experts, industry professionals and taste cultures. In this excerpt from our interview, Madis explains why he finds this area of research so interesting.
Much of what I grew up valuing in music culture is changing and transforming. I want to understand what we win and what we lose in the process, without falling prey to overly deterministic approaches and by highlighting cultural dynamics.
What’s one tip that you’d give a student considering a life in music scholarship starting out right now?
Looking at the list of academic jobs available in the field of digital culture, make sure you engage with computational/digital methods. Choose a topic that holds a promise to be still relevant in five years’ time. Everything is changing so quickly. There is less and less space for purely analytical/philosophical/theoretical reasoning based on solely qualitative research.
Thanks for reading! In case you’ve missed them, I’ve published a number of special features in the newsletter, including articles about music journalism history, what music journalism will be like in 2221, and much more. You can check out all of that here.
I also do a recurring column in the newsletter called Notes On Process. The premise is simple: I share a Google Doc with a music journalist where we go into depth on one of their pieces. It hopefully provides an insight into how music writers do their work. You can check out all editions of Notes On Process, including the latest one with Danyel Smith, here.
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The first non-musician to appear on the cover of SPIN was Binky, a comic character created by Matt Groening of Simpsons fame.
Thanks for reading! Full disclosure: My day job is at uDiscover Music, a branded content online magazine owned by Universal Music. This newsletter is not affiliated or sponsored in any way by Universal, and any links that relate to the work of my department will be clearly marked. Feel free to reach out to me via email at email@example.com. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…