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Diane Pecknold

Diane Pecknold is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Louisville. She is author of The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry and editor of Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music. She also co-edited, with Kristine M. McCusker, A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music and its forthcoming companion volume, Country Boys and Redneck Women: New Essays on Gender and Country Music. Her current research focuses on tween girls and popular music.

“Roundtable: Who Speaks for Country Music?”
Though clearly it appeals to listeners beyond the white, working-class provincial audience with which it is associated, country remains a music that articulates working-class values and concerns symbolically and concretely. Those who analyze and interpret country music in public discourse, however, tend to be academic and media professionals who might be thought of as members of the “narrating class.” They tell the stories about the music—and the social and cultural dimensions of its working-class affiliations—despite the fact that they may know little about working-class life and, as members of the professional middle class, are positioned antagonistically to the core country audience in the class structure. The popular narratives around country music, then, are powerfully and often problematically shaped by significant differences, often unspoken and elided, in class perspectives, values, biases, and incentives. Put another way, you might not be a redneck if you interpret country music from a position of journalistic or academic discursive authority today. 

This roundtable will begin with a brief sketch of the class coordinates of country music with respect to audience demographics, lyrical themes, and popular discourse about the genre in order to account for its actual appeal to both working-class and middle-class audiences as well as its continuing status as a form of working-class culture. It will then examine the processes of translation and ventriloquism that arise when middle-class voices dominate the public conversation about country music and its audience. Reflecting both journalistic and academic perspectives, the discussion will explore the diverse institutional and discursive constraints that shape the ways members of the narrating class are able to talk about mainstream commercial country (and allied genres that carry very different class connotations, such as bluegrass and Americana) and will highlight the ability to speak against prevailing discourse as a matter of structure rather than individual will or intent. 

Jewly Hight and Barry Mazor will discuss their positions as freelancers for a wide variety of publications including Crawdaddy, No Depression, The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal, Billboard, NPR/NPR Music, Vulture, and The Oxford American. In such publications, journalists are expected to deliver, through their talk about country and its audience, a readership that may or may not identify with that audience. Nadine Hubbs and Diane Pecknold will consider the somewhat different constraints placed on academics. Often understood to be participating in a form of identity politics in their arguments and choices of topic, they are presumed to ventriloquize, or to speak for the core country audience as much as about them. And yet, despite such differences, both journalists and academics must negotiate roles as translators, mediating between different class constituencies as they lead discussions of country music and seek approval for their work from other members of the narrating class.

Through this conversation we hope to interrogate how structural power determines which voices can be heard in country discourse, along what socioeconomic lines, and with what consequences.

“Roundtable: Voicing Girlhood in Popular Music” 
Popular music discourse surrounding the voices of girls and girlishness is profoundly contradictory. While girls’ voices are more prominent than ever in popular music culture, the specific sonic character of the young female voice is routinely denied authority. Decades-old clichés of girls as frivolous, silly, and deserving of contempt prevail in mainstream popular image and sound. The speech patterns and vocal timbre that constructed the narcissistic, immature femininity of “Valley Girl” in 1982 are still audibly relevant in the 2014 Chainsmokers song “#Selfie.” Popular criticism of girlish singers from Britney Spears to Ke$ha depicts their voices as annoying or grating, a particularly unwelcome intrusion into the sonic (and social) landscape. At the same time, popular music is widely understood as a particularly important vehicle for allowing girls and women to “speak out” or “make their voices heard.” All-woman bands from Pussy Riot to Beyoncé’s Sugar Mamas use the imagery of the girl group to enact political solidarity and model a feminist sensibility, while the pedagogical discourses of the girls’ rock camp movement, rooted in riot grrrl ideology, encourage girls to use music as a medium for publicly articulating an authentic personal identity.

This 120-minute roundtable will explore the relationship between girlhood and voice—in both its material and metaphorical senses—in popular music. Drawing on their contributions to a new anthology of essays titled Voicing Girlhood in Popular Music: Music, Performance, and Activism, the participants will address a series of themes and organizing questions that unite their work across contexts as diverse as golden-age Hollywood musicals, early 21st century tween pop, and contemporary hip-hop twerking videos. Among the organizing themes, we will interrogate the role of girlishness as a performative resource for adult women, asking what women accomplish through ventriloquizing the girl voice, how aging artists who begin as youthful ingénues modify their singing voices to claim adult authority, and what women’s performances of girlishness might mean for girl audiences. We will also explore the relationship between voice and silence as it pertains to musical girlhoods. How do ideologies such as the notion of rock authenticity and institutional structures such as the monetization of YouTube videos affect marginalized girls’ ability to be heard or to choose to remain silent? Finally, we will examine the co-construction of the literal and the metaphorical voice in popular music, asking how the dominant ways of understanding or producing the sound of the girl shape the social and political identities she can inhabit and make available to her listeners.

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