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Rockin' with Gun and Guitar

American pop music has left its mark all around the globe – what is there about its sound and image that makes it so special?

Freiburg, Aug 15, 2018

Rockin' with Gun and Guitar

Photo: John Pratt/Unsplash

A network of researchers is studying a recent musical genre. "Americana" melds diverse styles such as rock, gospel, and blues. Counted among its creators are not just established greats such as Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. The network of scholars is also investigating more recent types of music, such as "hick hop," which is a fusion between country and rap.

American hard rock: The band KISS set a new tone in the 1970s with made-up faces, leather gear, and spectacular stage shows. Photo: John Pratt/Unsplash

One researcher is delving into "southernness" and "swamp rock," while another is spotlighting "American opera." A further researcher is exploring Jewishness in jazz. There is a music educator as well, plus someone from the heavy metal front, and last but not least, a recognized expert on the works of Bob Dylan. What is clear is that the project "Americana: Aesthetics, Authenticity, and Performance in US Popular Music" covers a diverse field that features rugged terrain rather than uniformity. The researchers have been taking an in-depth approach to the subject.

Fifteen primarily young academics from universities between Oldenburg and Graz, Austria, and Dortmund and Bayreuth are taking part in the network – a three-year project, which is being funded by the German Research Foundation, the DFG. The scholars want to find out what it is about the sound of and image of American pop music that sets it apart. Twice a year, the program will feature public workshops and conferences in addition to the usual research work.

Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan

The University of Freiburg musicologist, Dr. Knut Holtsträter, who has been directing the program since autumn 2017, reports that when the project kicked-off in Munich, the main question was: "What is Americana?" He explains, "During our research clear cultural differences between Europe and the United States emerged. Especially, that the discourse about racism is far more prevalent in the US than we suspected." At the network's second meeting in Freiburg, a professor of music from Berlin, Peter Wicke, gave a presentation. A staff member of the University of Freiburg's Center for Popular Culture and Music (ZPKM) says, "He's the 'Pope of Pop.' A walking encyclopedia. He pugnaciously got straight to the point about what popular music actually is."

Walkin in Memphis: The city is known as the cradle of soul, blues, and rock and roll. It's a mythic place for all musicians who want to present an authentic image. Photo: PJ Szabo/Unsplash

Since 2010, the concept "Americana" has been used to describe a genre. The year marks the first time that the most important awards in US pop music, "the Grammys," presented a prize in exactly this category. Says Holtsträter, "The idea would've been inconceivable without the myth of the 'Last Frontier' that surrounds America's founding and formative years. It's reminiscent of the brash pioneering spirit of that period of US history. Americana gathers together many elements and styles of earlier genres. Musicians such as Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan are key figures." The musicologist continues, "Country, blues, and jazz are original, American types of music. And we also discovered at our first meeting that anyone who is looking at Americana must consider the group ‘U2' as well. Indeed, they are Irish, but have nevertheless shaped US culture. Beyond that are aspects such as the presentation of the artist as an outlaw, a loner with a gun – armed and dangerous, if you will. The genre gives extreme individualism a place to call home," summarizes Holtsträter.

Music's mythical places

Acoustic aspects like the use of a slide guitar or reverberation to give listeners the impression of countryside stretching far and wide play a role as well, as does the invoking of mythical places in pop culture. Says Holtsträter, "Think of Nashville or Memphis. Even in small, German releases of records from the 1960s and 1970s, you'll find the label, 'recorded in Nashville.' It allowed people to adopt the nimbus of the place in their own productions as a guarantee of authenticity, " explains Holtsträter. Staged Americana so-to-speak. Yet the researchers are dedicating attention to more than established greats of past decades. "They are investigating more recent phenomena such as, for example, 'hick hop,' a fusion of country and rap that is mainly misogynist and racist," says Holtsträter, "its hip-hop for Trump voters."

The researchers of the Americana Network will present their findings in a final, public conference. Even though this won't actually take place until the spring of 2020, it promises to be exciting. Even in spite of Holtsträter's limitation, "It's about the process rather than the result."

Alexander Ochs

For more information on the research project