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Humanities Center fellow Q&A with music scholar Charles Kronengold

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Charles Kronengold, a professor of music at Stanford, is working on a new book called "Crediting Thinking in Soul and Dance Music."
Photo Credit: 
Steve Castillo

Charles Kronengold is an assistant professor of music at Stanford University and was an internal faculty fellow at the Center this year. He teaches musicology and film at Stanford and has published widely on music, film, and aesthetics. He is the author of two books: Live Genres in Late Modernity: American Music of the Long 1970s and The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism with Adrian Daub.

Kronengold’s latest monograph, Crediting Thinking in Soul and Dance Music, considers a strain of thinking and thoughtfulness in African American music since the 1950s. This book-in-progress seeks to broaden our conception of musical thinking, and of thinking more generally, by taking a path from verbal, to nonverbal, and even less-than-conscious thought.

Before finishing up his year at the center Kronengold answered some questions about his research. 

Q. How did you become interested in soul and dance music as a topic of research?

I’ve loved this music for a long time, and I started writing about it as a grad student once I began noticing how little popular-music scholarship had dealt with African American genres like soul, funk, and disco. It just started looking weird to me that there weren’t scholarly articles on Aretha Franklin or Earth, Wind and Fire. I felt like there was a lot more to say about how these musical genres work and what they’ve added to the fabric of the world.

Q. Your book attempts to recover the thinking in soul music from the 1960s and 1970s. Why has thoughtfulness failed to be associated with this music while performers like Bob Dylan or Neil Young from roughly the same time period have been given so much credit for thoughtfulness?

The postwar folk revival and its aftermath gave us a skewed picture of what a musical thinker should look like and sound like—you know, the thoughtful white-male singer/songwriter accompanying himself on the guitar, writing musically simple songs with deep lyrics. This picture does a disservice to people like Dylan, and it erases the many women in the folk revival, but it’s also disastrous for black music: if a cardboard-cutout Dylan is your model, you’re not going to be able to grasp the thinking that went into 60s Motown, say, because Motown records don’t hide their use of clichés, or their commercial aims; their creative labor is distributed across a host of people, credited and uncredited, and the musical innovations they embody can happen below listeners’ radars. When African American artists of the 60s and 70s do get taken seriously as thinkers—like Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield—it’s often because they can be assimilated to the Dylan model. This means they’re lionized because they sang about issues of the day, and they’re treated solely as singers and lyricists, and not as thinkers in musical sound. In general there’s been an unfortunate tendency to dismiss a lot of African American popular music as merely conventional, and to emphasize solo artists over groups, men over women, “art music” over commercial music, and, of course, stars over the rank-and-file singers, studio musicians, and people on the production side.

Q. How do you define “thinking” when it comes to the period of music you are researching?

I’m deliberately keeping it broad. I’m reminding myself that “thinking” is a large set of heterogeneous social practices that happen partly outside the head. Thinking needs bodies, it needs languages, images, sounds, and gestures, and it needs other people. But I’m also trying to keep things very specific: I’ve been really listening for the varied kinds of thinking that happened in and around this music. And I’ve been asking how this thinking was recognized and acknowledged (or wasn’t). The book takes a path from verbal to nonverbal thinking, and from rational thought to body/brain processes that happen below the level of consciousness; so it goes from things like musicians’ essays, interviews with journalists, and onstage monologues, to song lyrics and how they’re performed, to musical practices like vocal ad-libbing, instrumental improvising, songwriting, musical arranging, and playing grooves on the drums, to how people look on album-covers and posters, to the less-than-conscious body/brain activity that happens when musicians deal with unfamiliar interfaces or unusual performance spaces, respond to what dancers are doing, and interact with other musicians nonverbally. My hope is that by focusing in on the ways little musical ideas go viral—things like a particular short chord progession, a kind of rhythmic play between the bass and the guitar, a specific feature of a drum machine, the ways lyrics say “we are the people who…”—I’ll be able to show that black musical thinking can teach us something about thinking itself.

Q. Can you tell us about the range of musicians you cover and how they exemplify the range of thinking/thoughtfulness you are tackling in your book?

People like Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin are key because they give us the total picture. Mayfield was a singer, group member, songwriter, influential guitarist, producer, entrepreneur, and someone who was able to project an image of thoughtfulness that was recognized at the time. Aretha too was not only the defining voice of her generation but also a master piano player, a “brand,” and a musician who collaborated with many leading figures across a 20-year span when popular music was changing rapidly. Mayfield is crucial to the book because he performs thinking and thoughtfulness in real time: he writes and sings lyrics that show him asking questions, wondering, deliberating with himself. Aretha is the unpredictable improviser who makes us ask “WTF was she thinking”—and almost always seems to give us answers if we listen hard enough.

But there are also the producers, arrangers, backing singers, studio musicians, engineers and DJs who moved between the background and the foreground, sometimes working on studio dates for other people, maybe going out on a high-profile tour with a star, then producing something under their own names, then writing songs for somebody else’s project, then starting a record label. These people are the engine of the book, partly because they’ve left a paper trail—they gave some interviews at the time, published their memoirs, became professors, etc. And there are others who never got to tell their stories, and who are known to us basically because they’re credited on record jackets. These are people who might be in one recording studio on Tuesday playing a hypermodernist classical piece, and in another studio on Wednesday recording a disco song. I’m also paying close attention to the women who worked as songwriters, instrumentalists, arrangers and producers on the recording-studio scene; whether they counted themselves as feminists or not, they were dealing with sexism and patriarchy as well as racism, along with all the time-pressured musical demands they had to respond to.

Q. You have said there are ethical demands this music is making. What are those demands? 

The clearest way to put it is that the makers of this music want to be heard. They want their labor and their creativity to be acknowledged. But not everybody was credited, and musical labor can be hard to recognize: stylistic and technological changes can engender new kinds of labor—and new sorts of musical actors—that take a while to be acknowledged as such. Like what if you don’t know it’s not the drummer playing the tambourine, it’s a different person? Or that there’s someone who wrote out every note the guitar, bass and drums are playing? Or that the weird swooping sounds are coming from someone twiddling a knob on a Moog synthesizer? And when a specifically African American musical practice like playing a groove on the electric bass gets transferred to the synthesizer, and then programmed on a sequencer that plays it back automatically, and then digitally sampled and looped, what’s at stake in continuing to acknowledge that it (still) comes from and counts as African American aesthetic activity?

In political and ethical terms this is what might be called “simple recognition”—nothing more than acknowledging that there’s an other before you. But what does it mean that a sound can be raced as “black” before it’s acknowledged as being produced by a person? Or that you need to know how disco records are made in order to grasp something as fundamental and immediate as whether there’s a person addressing you?