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“Can Analysis be Worthwhile?”: Joining Paul Simon’s “Dangling Conversation”

November 8, 2015 @ 10:00 am - 5:00 pm

Sunday, November 8th at 1:00pm

Speaker Prof. Rachel Rubin, University of Massachusetts

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There are many ways to talk about the history of American popular music—as an interlocking set of businesses, as a major engine of technological innovation, as a central element of artistic life in the United States and as a crucial, if disorganized source of news and opinion. Given all the ways popular music has functioned in American life, it is no surprise that for hundreds of years now it has served as a major site for some of the most consequential conversations everyday Americans have held about a stunning range of topics—from racial identity, to war, to labor issues, to immigration, to shifting gender roles, police brutality, and various financial crises.


These conversations are not an accidental byproduct or collateral effect of the making of popular music in the United States: a central function of the production of popular music in the United States is to provide opportunities, locations, and vocabularies for speaking about the pressing matters of the moment. While it seems unlikely that in 1984 many people would head down to their local bar and announce that they were concerned about the state of American masculinity in wake of the devastation wrought by the Vietnam War, it is almost certain that plenty of people talked about Bruce Springteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” to do just that work.



This talk outlines a few important case studies when popular songs have been used to process American identity:


  • Aretha Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” as a meditation on women’s empowerment in the midst of the African American Civil Rights movement
  • Paul Simon’s work with Ladysmith Black Mambazo (and other South African musicians) on Graceland as an opportunity to talk about global politics, cultural appropriation and celebrity privilege
  • John Anderson’s “Shutting Detroit Down” as an incisive critique of the recent banking crisis and the fallout surrounding deindustrialization.


The discourse surrounding popular music is almost always unruly and unpredictable. The complexities of audience response to songs guarantees that American popular music will continue to serve as a venue for significant acts of personal, community, and national identification.
Rachel Rubin is Director of the Center of Humanities, Culture and Society at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where she has taught for nearly two decades in the American Studies Department and is the recipient of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Scholarship Award. Rubin has published widely in a cultural history, with books on immigration and  American popular culture, the history of the Renaissance Faire, Jewish gangsters, Southern radicalism, and American popular music.  She is currently completing a book to be called 60 Revolutions Per Minute, a collection of critical interviews with artist/activists, and is also writing a book on the American country music artist Merle Haggard.  Rubin has also appeared regularly as a popular culture commentator on Boston’s NPR station.


November 8, 2015
10:00 am - 5:00 pm