On Wednesday, 24 October, I’m helping launch the University of Alberta’s 2012 Festival of Ideas at Edmonton City Hall. It’s free and open to the public, and runs from Noon-1:00PM:
Here’s what my talk is about:
When it comes to research, my interest lies in the relationship between music and society. The best way to do this is to study music communities. So, in this presentation, I’m talking about 3 different scenes from Seattle history, and each can tell us something about the past. Seattle was far removed for the traditional music centres in the United States – cities like New York, or Los Angeles. But that didn’t stop the kids living there. Youths making music can spark big change in culture – and kids participating in music communities allows them opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Take a kid named James for example. He grew up in the Seattle ghetto in the 1950s. At this time, Seattle was still inherently racist – blacks couldn’t live outside the Central District, a section of town only a few square miles wide. They couldn’t work outside of it either, or go to school. It was an amazing music community though. Folks might not have had good jobs, but that didn’t stop them from playing jazz, the blues, or R’n’B. And despite the intolerance, it was still part of a network that spanned the entire continent. Locals were exposed to some of the greatest musicians in the world.
Now James, at first he couldn’t afford a guitar – so he played a broomstick. When he finally saved enough money to buy one, he was taught by the other players in the community – the ones who had nothing to lose by passing along their knowledge. This kid James? He’s better known as Jimi Hendrix!
Have you heard of the Baby-Boomers? They’ve probably made sure you have! If not, chat with your grandparents. They’re the HUGE generation that came of age in the 1960s. When it came to music in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, these youths went out and did it themselves. They created a successful teen dance network throughout the region, where everyone participated by attending the shows. They had FUN. Friendly rivalries between bands meant that if a band’s members went to the same school as you, you had to get out there and show your support. As the Baby-Boomers grew up, they moved out of the community halls and went on to dominate mainstream culture.
When the next generation was coming of age, the Baby-Boomers didn’t pass control of mainstream culture over to their descendants. Instead, they held on to it. This meant the next generation, Generation X, had to create an alternative to the mainstream. They were a small generation, and didn’t have the same opportunities of their predecessors. So, they worked on a shift underground. The foundation of this was personal expression. In music communities across North America, participants developed their own cultural institutions, and throughout the 1980s built a stronger and stronger network. This all culminated with the Seattle music scene, and the band Nirvana – whose song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” finally brought the cultural spotlight onto a generation. If you don’t know Nirvana you might recognize the name Dave Grohl, who went on to form the Foo-Fighters. Also, you might be hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” a lot in the near future, since it’s the name of a sitcom being created by the writer of Big Bang Theory.
The 3 examples from Seattle show that youth create change by participating in music communities. And each shift meant this was no longer their parent’s music. For Jimi Hendrix, it was helping him overcome a life of poverty. For the Baby-Boomers, it asserting cultural dominance, and having fun doing it. For Generation X, it was speaking out against the status-quo and doing something different.
It might just be for themselves, or it might spark ideas that impact the whole world. If you have different ideas, your local music community can do the same for you. For example, in Edmonton, there’s record labels, music venues, and magazines. The only thing a local scene doesn’t have is an excuse NOT to participate. So go get your ideas out there!